Jimmy Han runs the Bejing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland. The restaurant’s been in his family for thirty years, but Jimmy’s had enough of his brother Johnny’s interference and has bought his own place, the Bejing Glory. Things aren’t going to be that simple though; Jimmy’s short of the investment he needs and he’s hoping his dad’s old friend, Uncle Pang, knows people who can help him out. Uncle Pang’s happy to be involved, although in a slightly different way to the one Jimmy anticipated.
While a tangled web of family secrets and lies is revealed, the novel also focuses on two of the restaurant’s longest serving employees: Nan and Ah-Jack. Nan is the restaurant manager. Ah-Jack has recently returned from retirement to continue working as a waiter, a decision taken by Johnny who values Ah-Jack’s loyalty. Nan spends a significant amount of her day covering for Ah-Jack who spends his time gambling, drinking and, inevitably, making mistakes at work. The rest of Nan’s time is mostly spent on her wayward son, Pat, who’s working in the restaurant’s kitchen and has his eye on Jimmy’s daughter, Annie.
Li crafts an engaging tale of family (dis)loyalties and the stories we tell ourselves about the lives we lead. Number One Chinese Restaurant is an absorbing novel.
I’m delighted to welcome Lillian Li to the blog to talk more about the novel.
The novel’s intergenerational, why did you decide to focus on a range of characters interconnected through family or working relations?
I’ve always been drawn toward stories about communities more than stories with only one main character because I think the way characters bounce off each other is incredibly illuminating, both about who they are as a person, and all the different roles they play within the community. So for example, while Nan, the manager of the Beijing Duck House, is certainly fascinating to me alone, I learn more about her when I see her take such gentle care of her longtime co-worker and friend Ah-Jack and then, that same night, fail to demonstrate the same easy warmth to her troubled son Pat. And I learn even more about why Nan seems to have a deeper relationship with her co-worker than her son within the context of her job at this Chinese restaurant. Hopefully the reader feels the same depth even if each character technically gets fewer pages dedicated to his or her journey.
Initially I was frustrated with the focus on the male characters but the novel slowly reveals these smart, fascinating, sometimes manipulative women. Were you considering gender stereotypes as you were writing?
That’s an interesting question. I think I tend to write my characters by first finding a person I know who can provide a foundation for my imagination. My characters aren’t based on real people because what I layer on top of that foundation is all invented. For example, the matriarch of the Han family, Feng Fei, gets her foundation from my grandmother. Specifically, the curlers they both wear to sleep, the way they complain about how their children treat them, and how they’re both surprisingly ferocious despite their age. But my grandmother never worked in a restaurant, let alone owned one, and so Feng Fei very quickly became her own person, shaped by those specific circumstances. At the same time, I think that character’s foundation in a real, complicated person is what guides me against stereotype and keeps me from straying into the one-dimensional.
The thing I really loved about the book was the way you show how we use stories to build myths about ourselves and our lives. What interests you about this?
I love that that resonated with you! I really believe that people experience the world, and themselves, almost entirely through stories, that it’s our way of understanding, but also controlling our lives. At the same time, I’m frightened by how easily stories take the place of facts, and how we’re almost naturally pulled toward believing “better stories” even if they’re patently untrue, about ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies. As long as we dismiss the power of the stories we’re telling ourselves and each other, we dismiss the potential for delusion and manipulation, but also the potential for connection and change.
The novel’s set in a Chinese restaurant and there are a number of criminal elements to the plot; what sort of research did you do and do you enjoy this element of writing?
There’s a fire that happens in the book and I talked to a fire investigator, Kathleen Summersgill, as part of my research. How I found her in the first place was that strangely enough, my first year in Michigan (where I attended grad school and wrote this novel), a pizza restaurant a few blocks away caught on fire in the middle of a sub-zero January night. A year or so later, at the point in my research when I needed to know how exactly someone starts a fire, and also how that fire might reveal itself to be suspicious to law enforcement, I remembered that potential pizza arson and looked up articles to see if I could find someone to talk to. Kathleen was the investigator on that case. I really enjoyed talking to Kathleen, not only because she helped me write a scene that wasn’t riddled with mistakes, but also because in talking to her, and asking her just generally about her job, I got so much extra knowledge about, essentially, the nature of fire and fire-starters. I was able to totally transform the scene into something that felt real to me. She gave me the necessary confidence to own that scene.
I definitely enjoy talking to people who’ve actually experienced the worlds I write about, criminal or otherwise. I like getting that foundation in reality, though I’m also a bit shy and a bit lazy. I try to remind myself of Kathleen every time I want to wimp out and just Google around for an answer.
My blog focus on female writers; who are you favourite female writers?
I was introduced to so many amazing female writers who happened to have debut books the same year as me and felt buoyed and energized by their work. Lucy Tan (WHAT WE WERE PROMISED), Crystal Hana Kim (IF YOU LEAVE ME), R.O. Kwon (THE INCENDIARIES), Vanessa Hua (A RIVER OF STARS), Lydia Kiesling (THE GOLDEN STATE), Ingrid Rojas Contreras (FRUIT OF THE DRUNKEN TREE), Akil Kumarasamy (HALF GODS), Elaine Castillo (AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART), Nafissa Thompson-Spires (HEADS OF THE COLORED PEOPLE), Rachel Heng (SUICIDE CLUB), Aja Gabel (THE ENSEMBLE), Fatima Farheen Mirza (A PLACE FOR US), Inez Tan (THIS IS WHRE I WON’T BE ALONE), and Nicole Chung (ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW) are just a few of my favorites.
Other favorite writers who’ve already had a number of books under their talented belts include Susan Choi (whose new book TRUST EXERCISE blew my mind), Ruth Ozeki, Karen Joy Fowler, Yiyun Li, Elizabeth McCracken, Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Lily King.
And of course, there are the powerhouses and legends. Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, and Maxine Hong Kingston.
There are so many more, but those are the handful that jump to mind.
Thanks to Lillian Li for the interview and to Pushkin Press for the review copy of the novel.