Lily Kwok is the first Chinese woman to open a Chinese restaurant in Great Britain. Her granddaughter, Helen Tse is the third generation of women restaurateurs and the book Sweet Mandarin is named after her award winning restaurant. This family has been rocked by both international, social and political upheaval and a rollercoaster of personal challenges. Spanning a hundred years of history, this book talks about a murder, adoption, Triad associations, gambling addictions, alcoholism, bankruptcy and the isolation of being an immigrant family. The book’s cover says “A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.” This family has indeed encountered a rocky journey but their latest step is the stuff of dreams. The book is currently being adapted into a major BBC serialization and is being used by UK and Asia schools for Chinese cultural studies as part of the China Now Government initiative. Battling against circumstances and often a traditional, male-dominated society, it fell to the strong women of each generation to overcome the odds and rescue the family. Extraordinary and moving, Sweet Mandarin is the story of their battle for survival and of the one thread that was their lifeline - food. "I was taught a great deal of what it is to be a Chinese woman in the kitchen at my mother and my grandmother's side. Cooking is at the heart of the Chinese family and for a Chinese woman it is at the very core of her identity." Born into brutal poverty in rural China in 1918, it was her father's successful soy sauce business that enabled Lily Kwok (the author's grandmother) to emigrate to a better life in Hong Kong. However his success soon attracted jealousy, leading to his murder by a competitor. Determined not to let her family return to destitution with the loss of their patriarch, Lily trained as an amah to a wealthy English family. Indispensable, especially for her delicious cooking, she accompanied them on their return to England (escaping her gambling, Triad-member husband, although heartbreakingly having to leave her beloved children behind in Hong Kong). Desperately seasick on the voyage she found comfort for her upset stomach working in the ship's kitchen. There she perfected her famous chicken curry recipe and met friends with whom she would go on to set up the first Chinese restaurant in Manchester. Overcoming the prejudice of locals, Lily founded the first restaurant in the north of England, a popular restaurant and earned enough money to bring her daughter, Mabel, over from Hong Kong. Mabel continued in the family business yet just as she had given birth to her twin daughters, Helen and Lisa, her husband and mother's gambling addiction lead to bankruptcy. Undaunted, she and her husband turned once again to the saviour of food, opening a successful fish and chip shop and then Chinese takeaway. In 2004, Helen and Lisa, along with their sister Janet, completed the cycle. Despite achieving high flying professional careers, they returned to their culinary roots to open the award winning Sweet Mandarin restaurant in Manchester, where they still serve Lily Kwok's Chicken Curry. Poignant and touching, Sweet Mandarin tells the story of the remarkable journey of this family of courageous women. The first ever memoir from a British-born Chinese woman, it also addresses the questions of Chinese heritage, immigration and working in the restaurant trade like no other book before it. Just like the Chinese cooking that has bound their family together across generations, it blends the sweet and the sour to create a moving account of triumph against all the odds.
Helen gives an overview of the book:
‘To the ruler, the people are Heaven; to the people, food is Heaven’
My grandmother Lily Kwok was born in a small village in Southern China in 1918, confounding the midwife who’d predicted that she must be a boy because she had kicked so hard in the womb. That independence, strength and energy stayed with her all her life. Lily is 88 now, and still a fit, intelligent and – I’m afraid to say – stubborn woman despite all that she has been through. She and I are very alike. Lily and my mother, Mabel, inspired and shaped much of what I have done with my life: my success at school and in business; my return to the catering trade; my journey back to China to rediscover my roots, and in doing so, discovering her roots too. Her story is my story, and it’s the story of Sweet Mandarin.
My sisters and I were immersed from birth in the Chinese catering business – the fourth generation of our family to make a living from food. We grew up in a family firm that was built on decades of graft and hard-earned experience, and we were expected to give up our evenings and weekends to help out behind the counter or in the kitchen. Not surprisingly, by the time we were teenagers we just wanted a way out. I became a lawyer, Lisa, my twin, a financier and Janet an engineer, but for all our efforts to escape we found ourselves choosing to follow in Mabel and Lily’s footsteps in the end. We opened our own restaurant together in 2004, and called it Sweet Mandarin.
None of our friends in the Manchester Chinese community understood why we were doing it. The restaurant business is a very demanding one – the hours are long, the work hard and the economics precarious. One moment you’re in the black, the next something unexpected has plunged you into the red. It’s a tough, male-dominated world too, so why would three twenty-something professional ladies with good degrees and white-collar careers want to risk it all for something they’d seen their parents slave over all their lives?
Our friends in Manchester had done everything they could to avoid taking on any responsibility for their own parents’ restaurants and takeaways, even moving hundreds of miles away so it was impossible for their family to call them up and expect them to rush home to help out. Living any nearer would involve a burden of guilt and obligation from which they were desperate to be free. I could count on one hand the number of my Chinese peers who were going back into catering.
They thought we were taking a step backwards, and even at the huge street party we held for the restaurant’s launch, with firecrackers and performers and champagne, I could see them quietly shaking their heads over the choice we’d made. The generation above them understood though. I remember old Chinese – the bosses of the established Chinatown restaurants and supermarkets – smiling on us with respect. It was an acknowledgement that we were carrying the flickering, dimming torch for a new generation, and they wished their own sons and daughters would do the same, keeping the community alive and handing down traditional recipes and family business know-how to their own children.
Opening my own restaurant gave me all those things; it was much, much more than a chance to test my entrepreneurial streak. It brought me closer to my sisters, for a start, and though I’m the voice for all of us in this book, they share this heritage with me as well as the work of setting up Sweet Mandarin. It also introduced me to my grandmother and mother all over again and opened up a bridge between us that crossed East and West, uniting the present and the past. I came to understand what their lives had been, and what my generation represented to them.
Lisa, Janet and I had problems getting our business off the ground, but all our slog and late nights were nothing compared to Mabel and Lily’s struggle. They arrived in Britain from Hong Kong with nothing, strangers in a foreign country. Everything they had they built from sheer perseverance and toil, and everything we had came from them.
Every Saturday morning, my mother, grandmother and I shop at the Chinese supermarket. We buy stock for the kitchens at Sweet Mandarin and food for our own home cooking. In the past I’d only known the barest facts about my grandmother’s long life, but when we began these weekly trips she started to reveal the real story, bit by bit. I’d known some things already – just the anecdotes and the funny characters that make up family folklore – but now the detail and the scale of what my grandmother had gone through began to emerge. It was as though each bottle or package that she picked out for our basket was tied to a different chapter of her life, and now she wanted to share it with us. When your entire family works in restaurants, food becomes a family album – an heirloom that triggers memories.
Very little has been written about the experiences of mainland Chinese immigrants to Hong Kong and to Britain, but I knew that as I discovered more about the journey my grandmother had made, and the extraordinary things that had happened to her, this was a story that had to be told. It’s shared by many of the Chinese who settled in this country, who also carved out a place in their new homeland through the catering trade.
Helen Tse (the author) and her identical twin Lisa were born in 1977 and grew up in Manchester UK. Helen's passion for writing began whilst studying law at Cambridge University. She worked as a finance and tax lawyer for Clifford Chance in London and Hong Kong. Since then,...