“Number One Chinese Restaurant” by Lillian Li

Lillian Li (photo: Margarita Corporan) Lillian Li (photo: Margarita Corporan)

There’s a moment, late in Lillian Li’s debut novel, where one of the main characters shouts in frustration at her current  situation and, in particular, at the owner-manager of the restaurant where she works:


But he tosses me a small scrap, and I’m supposed to be thankful? I gave that family thirty years of my life. What’s even keeping me here?


Just a few pages earlier, Nan’s manager, Jimmy, the owner of the Beijing Duck House, bemoans his own situation to his mother:


We have enough money… That doesn’t change the fact that we work in a shitty Chinese restaurant.


 Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lillian Li (Henry Holt, July 2018)
Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lillian Li (Henry Holt, June 2018)

Management and staff each navigate their own problems in Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant. Each character’s story weaves across three generations and navigates issues of class and immigration, but also of love and family.

Maryland’s Beijing Duck House is at the center of the story: Jimmy and his brother Johnny took over their family’s duck house after their father passed away and they argue over the restaurant’s direction and whether it should stay as their father would have liked (Johnny) or if the Duck House should be modernized and made into something fresh (Jimmy). As the long-running argument simmers, they also deal with the daily running of the restaurant along with the staff they inherited, many of whom have been with the restaurant for decades, including Nan and Ah-Jack. Friends for 30 years, Nan and Ah-Jack’s relationship deepens as they find themselves romantically involved—and needing to deal with the fallout from their respective families. It wouldn’t be a family restaurant without a third generation involved: Johnny’s daughter, Annie, and Nan’s son, Pat, also have jobs at the restaurant—with Annie at the hostess stand and 17-year old Pat, recently expelled from high school, as a trainee waiter. Looming large is Uncle Pang, the nine-fingered Han family fixer, but Johnny and Jimmy’s mother also takes a turn at playing master puppeteer, pulling strings behind (and, let’s face it, in front) of the scenes.

Li has crafted complex and nuanced characters that experience love and longing, sadness, guilt and all-too-fleeting moments of joy.

Told from the points of view of a number of different main characters, Li begins the novel in the restaurant during dinner service. Desperate to rid himself of the Duck House for something that he can call his own, Jimmy has asked Uncle Pang for help. Li writes:


Uncle Pan put his drink down mid-sip. “I never said anything about investors.”
   Jimmy pinched the cartilage piercing in his left ear and took a short sip of his seltzer. “You did,” he said. “You said you would take the Duck House off my hands.”
   “I am going to take the Duck House off your hands.”
   The meaning of those words bubbled up so quickly inside Jimmy that he felt flooded. How could he have been so stupid? … There was only one recourse that required such vague, precious phrasing.


But there’s no going back and Uncle Pang’s way of taking the Duck House off Jimmy’s hands—and the people he involves to do it—changes the lives of the Duck House’s owners and staff forever.

Li has crafted complex and nuanced characters that experience love and longing, sadness, guilt and all-too-fleeting moments of joy.

The press notes state that Li, who only lasted a few weeks in her own Peking duck restaurant experience, was struck by the loneliness and the isolation that many of the serving staff experienced. That feeling of having people look straight past her remained long after she left the restaurant. Li is successful in bringing depth and shape to the lives of those often found behind the scenes and she finds ways of showing how the servers’ jobs impact their everyday lives—the mid-afternoon break in between lunch and dinner service; the stench of Peking duck; the oil burns; the debilitating physicality of the work. Li uses this sense of invisibility to her advantage. In one scene, Pat, irritated with the way Ah-Jack has barged into his life, uses the hot kitchen and chaotic back of house to inflict pain against Ah-Jack, who forces himself to remain stoic and professional throughout. The customers do not see the sharp elbows to the ribs, the food that’s burned his hands.

This being a novel about a restaurant, food features aplenty: from a waiter’s “poached-egg face” to Pat being caught pants-down “giving it to the boss’s daughter in the storage closet… right over the hoisin barrels”.  Food has the ability to bring people together, but as Li shows, sometimes it can also tear people apart. While the Beijing Duck House serves as a center of gravity for many of its staff, it’s only when the characters are forced to turn elsewhere that they begin to find a way home.

Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.