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Sweet Mandarin    by Helen Tse order for
Sweet Mandarin
by Helen Tse
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2008 (2007)
Hardcover, Softcover
* *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

Sweet Mandarin is subtitled: 'The Courageous Story of Three Generations of Chinese Women and Their Journey from East to West.' And it is just that: the life story of the author, Helen Tse, her mother Mabel, and her grandmother Lily Kwok. Life in rural China wasn't too bad for them after Lily's husband opened a manufacturing plant to produce soy sauce. Through working hard with long, long hours, the family was able to live above the poverty level. Then Mabel's father was brutally murdered and Lily was left with six daughters to raise.

Mabel hired herself out as an amah a baby watcher, working for English families. She was lucky in that she was hired by compassionate people who recognized her as a person in her own right and not just a silent, invisible servant. When Mabel married, she had four children. Her husband ran out on her and she ended up working again for an English family, eventually accompanying them to England. Wrenched from her children for years, Mabel worked to reunite the family, including her mother Lily.

Through unbelievably hard work, Lily was able to open a restaurant. Because of bad choices and a developing gambling addiction, the restaurant was lost. All of this sounds like life all over the world. But here each setback meant the family slid back into unbelievable poverty. How all of this was dealt with is a story of true grit. Indomitable wills and the desire to rise above their station kept the women working long hours. Lily Kwok became the first Chinese woman to open a Chinese restaurant in Great Britain. Living in a male dominated society made their goals that much harder to achieve.

Sweet Mandarin is a tale told without asking for sympathy. Helen Tse simply lays out what it was like back in the 1930s in rural China and the work and sacrifice it took to carve out a piece of life for the family. Her book is currently being adapted into a major BBC serialization and being used by UK and Asia schools for Chinese cultural studies. A book worth reading, it recounts the stories of women worth admiring.

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