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Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

You might have noticed that we at Zurich Chinatown indulge very much in the pleasures of Chinese food. And even though we know in our heart of hearts that homemade Chinese food is the way to go, sometimes we are lazy and enjoy a night out at one of the many Chinese restaurants in town.

After having spent some time in China, you will notice that most Chinese restaurants here cater to customers who expect no more than sweet and sour duck or a good portion of fried rice. The flavours are adapted to our white, Western palates and the selection of dishes is usually within the narrow borders of what we can easily recognize as “Chinese dishes.”

And while we can enjoy the illusion of authenticity in the “Chinese food” served, it might be even more interesting to scratch the surface of the usually well-oiled business. The microcosmos of a Chinese restaurant might be just as interesting, as Lillian Li’s novel Number One Chinese Restaurant shows.

Her book is a multi-generational story of the Han family who has been running their popular “Duck House” for decades. When one of the owners, Jimmy Han, wants to open a new, shiny restaurant, things quickly derail. Instead of liberating himself from family obligations and his not-so-legal ties with Uncle Pang, he starts a spiral of events which shakes the whole Han family and also the people working at the Duck House.

With its quick succession of events, drama, love, and humour, Number One Chinese Restaurant is a real page-turner. The choice of a multiple perspective narration adds to the richness of the novel and paints a vivid portrait of the characters and their milieu. We promise, next time you step into a Chinese restaurant, you will see it with other eyes!

Li, Lillian. (2018). Number one Chinese restaurant: A novel (First ed.). New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Buy the book at Paranoia City Buch & Wein.

You might also be interested in this interview with the author on the podcast Racist Sandwich.