Sweet sour is an amusing, touching, yet slightly disturbing view on life in London for a selection of Chinese immigrants. It was written in 1982 and was nominated for the Booker prize. Often tongue-in-cheek, the story follows the fortunes of a small Chinese family unit as they try to come to terms with their life amongst the “foreign devils”, doggedly holding on to their culture, language, and traditions, while attempting to invest in the future, making sure to “honour their family” and keep/gain “face” with those around them. The book is written on a variety of complex levels and has a two-track structure. By this I mean that the chapters alternate between describing the day-to-day, almost mundane life of this little family unit and between providing a fascinating, if slightly scary, glimpse into the workings and history of the “Hung” family (better known as the Triads to you or I). You are shown their underworld reign of violence, their recruitment traditions, organisational hierarchies and initiation ceremonies. These two at first seemingly unconnected storylines, do, of course, have some tenuous links, although at times it is quite difficult to work these out, although at the end of the story, most of the threads are drawn together. The husband, Chen, who at first works in a large Chinese restaurant in “Little China” while his wife and wife’s sister, Lily and Mui, stay at home looking after his small son, Man Kee (a toddler with an abnormally large head) spends a large part of the novel endeavouring (not entirely successfully) to avoid being caught up in this very powerful and dangerous international organisation, all the while avoiding letting his wife know anything at all. One of the interesting aspects of this novel is the insight into this small family’s life – how they work as an organic unit – what they say to each other, what they are really thin
king, how they deal with change and also how others perceive their actions. It is a fascinating look into the different layers of society from an immigrant’s perspective. You are able to laugh at Lily’s naivety as she struggles to comprehend the entirely alien environment into which she has been thrust, her reluctance to learn English (and mortification that her sister and son seem to be learning it), her forthrightness and strong will (yet apparent amenity to the will of “Husband”) and her obstinacy to adapting to life in a different country. Other amusing aspects are the descriptions of the odd assortments of clothes that she and her sister wear and how they (Lily in particular) seem to get themselves into scrapes due to their slightly off-centre understanding of their environment. The author handles all the characters with a compassion and understanding that makes them all seem entirely real – they are all human and all have their own strengths, weaknesses, and secrets. What the story also gives a Western reader, is a view on Britain through the eyes of a foreigner; the mysteries of the English educational system, the baffling tax and benefits system (which, according to Lily, will have nothing to do with them, seeing as they are not native English). It provides an alternative view on relationships – love and romance is never mentioned, everything is very practical. Lily sees her family in terms of “Husband”, “Son”, and “Sister” and her life in terms of a practical plan for the future (which encompasses her ambitions for “Son” and his future station in life). The story is full of surprises concerning both plot lines and characters. It is unpredictable, something I particularly enjoy in any book and I would recommend it to anyone with a black sense of humour interested in taking a look at Britain through fresh eyes.
From the author of RENEGADE OR HALO2 and THE MONKEY KING, a novel about the immigrant experience in general and about expatriate Chinese in particular.