Helen Tse’s personal memoir breathes a grace and style that can only be written by someone secure in her own life, while also proud of the three courageous generations of strong women in her family of whom she writes of so eloquently.
Sweet Mandarin starts with the story of Helen’s grandmother, Lily Kwok, who was born to Tai Po and Leung in 1918 in Guangzhou. Like many normal Chinese fathers, hers wanted sons; unlike many normal Chinese fathers, when he did have six daughters instead, he did not consider them inferior.
In those days, having a daughter was almost a curse. During the earliest days of the industrial revolution in China, the silk factories employed children - young children, as young as five years old. Lily was one of those children, and while her father was trying to build a business making and selling soy sauce, young Lily worked in the factories. No child labor laws or consideration of these young children is better epitomized than when Lily faints at one point and a foreman makes an example of her for “not working” by sticking her hand in a boiling pot of water. Fortunately, as Lily’s father’s soy business grew, they left China to go to Hong Kong in 1925. Helen Tse tells this story not with bitterness but rather pride in the way her family came out of poverty and rose above such hardships. She also weaves into the story the love of food and how family recipes were handed down and treasured.
Hong Kong was not the dream come true they thought it would be. They found people jealous of Lily’s father’s success with the soy sauce. Even before he could settle his family securely in Hong Kong, a local gang who envied him murdered Leung. In those days, tradition had it that women didn’t inherit anything from the men, so the family was left to be cared for by other family members as they were forced from their home. Lily took on a job as a maid and nanny to a wealthy British family, and that is what finally brought her to England in the early 1950s. An abusive marriage to a cheating, gambling husband did not stop Lily from fighting to bring her children to England when they were nine and eleven years old. By the time the children arrived, her husband had become addicted to opium and was involved with the Chinese criminal gangs known as the Triads.
His lifestyle, including living with a prostitute, left Lily bankrupt, but that didn’t stop her. With the help of her mentor, Mrs. Woodmen, with whom she had come to England, Lily was able to start her own business. Mrs. Woodmen left her money when she died, and Lily was able to open a Chinese takeout restaurant. Lily’s daughter, Mabel, was raised working in the business and learning the secret recipes of her mother. While all these hardships and tragedies surrounded Lily’s life, the one shining point continued to be the family’s love of cooking and their tasty dishes. This was the gift she passed on to her daughter and, in turn, granddaughters.
Mabel’s daughters, Helen included, were raised in “the business,” and although they all went off to be successful professionals, their love of their family, culture and its food always kept this family united. So it was that a family dream came true when Lisa and Janet joined their sister Helen and opened the Sweet Mandarin Restaurant in England in 2004.
The love, determination, and courage of these three generations of Chinese women covers 100 years and shows that people can achieve what they put their minds to, no matter what obstacles are in their way.