Number One Chinese Restaurant

Sometimes classifying a book can become difficult as is the case with Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant – at least beyond the ethnicity! 

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Humor shows up immediately in the first few lines, “The waiters were singing “Happy Birthday” in Chinese. All fifteen of them had crowded around the party table, clapping their hands. Not a single one could find the tune.” The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland may not have a singer, but it is a tradition in the community.

Family dynamics come into play as younger son Jimmy aspires to open the Beijing Glory, a fancier restaurant than the down-to-earth restaurant built by his father where the staff has become like family over the years, but he must maneuver around his older brother Johnny who controls the family finances. Employees and the Han family have fought, worked, and grown old together. The widowed mother Feng Fei seems powerless, likely to have her house sold out from under her while the brothers put her in a home, or is she? Then there is Nan, the duck slicer, with her own problems trying to keep her son Pat out of trouble. 

Mystery comes into play with Uncle Pang, who is not a relative, with the big money. How much do control does he have and how honest is he? And who is really responsible for the arson that burns down the Duck House? 

Maybe the book doesn’t need a category except the obvious one of a Chinese family making a start with what they know best in a new world with human nature stirring the pot. After all, as Jimmy thought in the midst of problems of opening the new restaurant, “The trouble with life was that life needed trouble.” 

Lillian Li captures a Chinese time and place in her book and human quirks that transcend culture.