Sweet Mandarin: Book summary and reviews of Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse

Sweet Mandarin

The Courageous True Story of Three Generations of Chinese Women and Their Journey from East to West

By Helen Tse

Sweet Mandarin
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  • Published in USA  Jul 2008,
    288 pages.

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About this book

Book Summary

Spanning almost a hundred years, this rich and evocative memoir recounts the lives of three generations of remarkable Chinese women.

Their extraordinary journey takes us from the brutal poverty of village life in mainland China, to newly prosperous 1930s Hong Kong and finally to the UK. Their lives were as dramatic as the times they lived through.

A love of food and a talent for cooking pulled each generation through the most devastating of upheavals. Helen Tse's grandmother, Lily Kwok, was forced to work as an amah after the violent murder of her father. Crossing the ocean from Hong Kong in the 1950s, Lily honed her famous chicken curry recipe. Eventually she opened one of Manchester's earliest Chinese restaurants where her daughter, Mabel, worked from the tender age of nine. But gambling and the Triads were pervasive in the Chinese immigrant community, and tragically they lost the restaurant. It was up to author Helen and her sisters, the third generation of these exceptional women, to re-establish their grandmother's dream. The legacy lived on when the sisters opened their award-winning restaurant Sweet Mandarin in 2004.

Sweet Mandarin shows how the most important inheritance is wisdom, and how recipes--passed down the female line--can be the most valuable heirloom.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Sweet Mandarin is a banquet of family stories that take us from a small Chinese village to cosmopolitan Hong Kong and urban Manchester. Along the way, the ingredients of special dishes and a rich life are added: a homemade stock of hard life, a pound of tragedy, a spoonful of daring, a dash of curses, and dollop after dollop of sheer will. This is a family memoir of survival and victories, luck and determination, and perpetual mounds of dirty dishes waiting to be washed." - Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club.

"Read this book…the story of an amazing family – 3 generations of Chinese women and their sweet and sour, hot and bitter lives." - Xinran, author of The Good Women of China.

"A heartrending and tender story of three generations of Chinese women who transform their lives" - Wall Street Journal.

"[A] delightful, well-written and at times painful memoir." - Publishers Weekly.

"An easy-flowing tale that subsumes historical changes in personal histories,especially the plight of the author's grandmother." - Kirkus Reviews.

"Tse captures the drama, colour and particularly the flavours of Lily's life." – Scotland on Sunday.

"An amazing story." - Manchester Evening News.

"Wrapped in the cultural and ancestral mystery of food, this memoir will be appreciated by general readers and students of Asian and women's studies. Recommended for public and academic libraries." - Library Journal.

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Louise J
Beautiful Memoir
This family suffered tragedy after tragedy but managed to pick themselves up and keep moving forward in spite of the most horrible conditions and abject poverty. The strength of these Chinese women is astounding and a tribute to the culture they were born in to.

This story was so enjoyable and so interesting that I read it one sitting. Helen Tse’s writing flowed well and made for a very pleasant experience. I look forward to reading more of this author’s work. Sweet Mandarin is her debut novel.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Dorothy
Sweeet Mandarin
The writing is excellent. I have read a great deal about China.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Monica
Loved it! Loved it! Loved it!
How much did I love this memoir? A celebration of mothers and daughters and food, glorious food! I read slowly, savoring the words, not wanting to run out, knowing what would happen then. "And then what happened?" I wanted more. I wanted to visit Sweet Mandarin, and barring that, I wanted those recipes! I adored this memoir, these remarkable women and their journey of strength and wisdom. Certain passages, especially at the end, are so special, they give me goosebumps. When at last I'd reached The End, I closed the book feeling so proud of these women I'd come to know and love. And so inspired.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Vicki
An engaging family history
Helen Tse's "Sweet Mandarin" succeeds most when she is telling the story of her maternal great-grandfather, an enterprising soy sauce producer and entrepreneur in rural China, and his daughter, Lily, Tse's grandmother, who overcame poverty and worked her way up from a servant and nanny in early Hong Kong to a respected restaurateur in Middleton, England. Tse also includes the story of her parents, who also owned and ran several Chinese restaurants, and a little about how she and her two sisters opened their own Chinese restaurant, called Sweet Mandarin. Mostly, though, this is the engaging story of and tribute to Lily Kwok--a strong and confident woman who made a living and supported her children despite rough times, an unreliable husband, and some hard choices.

This book would appeal to both young-adult and adult readers, and would make for interesting book club discussions. Readers learn what life was like in rural China and early Hong Kong, and also a bit about the Chinese immigrant experience in England in the 1950's. A recommended read.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Nancy (Nashville TN)
A
Knowing that the people, places and events portrayed in this book are real helped to make reading it even more enjoyable. Helen Tse brings the reader into her life and the lives of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother through the places, events and Chinese traditions and culture that influenced them. Each woman experienced hardships and made sacrifices because of them. These things only seemed to make them stronger. The heritage that Helen and her sisters received from each of these women is brought out in their own ambitions and perseverance; and they, in turn, will pass it on to their children.

The husbands and fathers of each of these women were also important. A male child is honored in Chinese families because they are the link to carrying on the family name and become the support for the older members of the family. As fathers, these men valued their daughters and gave worth to their lives.

I think that it would be a real treat to travel to England and eat in the Sweet Mandarin restaurant and taste the dishes made from the recipes that have survived through generations. I would highly recommend reading this book for history, culture and pure enjoyment.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Trish
Sweet Mandarin
I enjoyed reading Sweet Mandarin but would not add it to my list of favorite books to recommend. The story was somewhat predictable. Lily was an interesting character and I admired the strength that she and her family showed against great obstacles.

...13 more reader reviews

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More Information

More Information

Helen Tse (pronounced See) grew up in Manchester, UK. She studied law at Cambridge University and went on to work as a finance lawyer in London, Hong Kong, and Manchester. She opened the restaurant Sweet Mandarin with her two sisters, Lisa and Janet, in 2004, following the culinary footsteps of her mother and grandmother.

Watch Helen Tse discussing her book.
Visit the website of Sweet Mandarin - both the restaurant and book.

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