Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

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by Lillian Li

Pushkin Press


Lillian Li’s debut Number One Chinese Restaurant follows the intertwined stories of people whose lives revolve around the Beijing Duck House, a family-owned restaurant in Rockville, Maryland. Li offers a compelling perspective on the Chinese American community, constructing each of her many characters with sensitivity, humour, and a deep appreciation of their dreams and struggles. At the centre of everyone’s life, the Duck House becomes almost a world in itself, its walls bursting with sounds and smells and witnessing decades of family drama. Packed with action and populated by an array of varied, complex characters, Number One Chinese Restaurant is an entertaining and insightful read.

The central conflict of the story is built around the plan of the restaurant owner, Jimmy, to leave the titular business established by his late father and open his own place in a higher-end neighbourhood. This idea, alongside the constant presence of the mysterious Uncle Pang pulling strings in the background, is what finally leads to tragedy and disrupts the lives of everyone involved. While this plot in itself could be enough to create an entertaining read, Number One Chinese Restaurantis a character-driven novel: and, despite having to construct multiple characters over only around 300 pages, Li does an impressive job of avoiding shortcuts and giving each person a distinctive background. The chapters shift in focus, zooming into the individual characters and giving a taste of their memories, anxieties and emotions, but never leaving the plot – rather, expanding and pushing it forward as the readers get more insight into everyone’s motivations.

However, what seems to drive the story especially is the multitude of turbulent relationships. Dissolving marriages, secret love affairs, family conflicts, semi-involuntary friendships resulting from people being forced to coexist as co-workers for decades – Number One Chinese Restaurant has it all. At some point, when deciding to hire the previous employees at his new venture, Jimmy realises: “Days earlier, he had sickened looking upon their faces, listening to their mincing English. But he’d never really imagined a world where Nan and Ah-Jack were not steadfastly, irritatingly present” (126). For better or worse, the Beijing Duck House binds everyone’s lives together and it’s difficult to escape its clutch.

Li also excels in capturing the realities of restaurant work. Whether she details the smell of rice toasted in sesame oil, the brash jokes shouted by the kitchen staff, or Ah-Jack’s damaged feet after decades of table serving, her narrative makes the setting and the characters come alive. Just a few lines are enough to convey the delicious smell and taste of a freshly prepared meal:

The smell of mirin, sake, and sesame oil, the holy trinity of fragrance, hit Jimmy’s nose. . . the eel was buttery and sweet in his mouth, flaking against his tongue like snow, and the toasted rice cut through the softness with a nutty crunch.
— Lillian Li (Number One Chinese Restaurant, p.98-99)

That said, the lives of the restaurant workers are never romanticised, and Li emphasises the mental and physical strain endured by the staff: the cuts, the burns, the bone-deep exhaustion that can’t be fixed by a single day off. This results in a realistic and compelling portrayal.

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li is published by Pushkin Press on 7 February 2019.

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PhD Researcher at the University of Stirling, examining the past five decades of Scottish publishing in collaboration with HarperCollins and Publishing Scotland. Graduated with an MSc in Publishing from Edinburgh Napier University and a BA in English from Queen’s University (Canada). Loves Inside Llewyn Davis, Peter Gabriel, and flat design.



Alice Piotrowska