Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Simultaneously heart-warming and humorous, Li’s novel explores the lives of restaurant staff in great depth and breadth” 

The popular Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland has been serving devoted regulars for decades as its owner, Jimmy, endeavours to make his father’s legacy a success. But behind the staff’s professional masks simmer tensions, heartaches and grudges from decades of gruelling service work. Exuberant and wise, Number One Chinese Restaurant traverses across generations and explores the complicated lives and loves of people working in a local Chinese restaurant. 

One of the aspects of this novel that I really liked was the interactions between the staff of the Duck House restaurant. Li wonderfully captures the hectic nature of restaurant life for both waiting staff and owner, and peels back its tensions and pressures to reveal relationships that are deeper and more complicated than expected. There were several plot strands that concern different characters’ relationships with each other and all mingle together; each chapter dips you in and out of different characters’ perspectives and problems which makes for very refreshing reading. The novel is very human in its tackling of relationships, both friendly and romantic ones, which is one of the reasons why I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. 

The character of Uncle Pang is a rather foreboding one. Early on in the book, you get a sense that he is a dangerous man whose smile does not reach his eyes, the kind where you can see that he is not really smiling at all or does so with threatening undertones. You get the impression that he is not a man to be crossed, and that whilst he may do someone a favour as a “best friend”, this favour will come at a cost and will have to be repaid at some point in the future. Li does an excellent job of intimidating her reader through Uncle Pang unnerving other characters. 

I was most sympathetic towards Ah-Jack, with his body that makes it difficult for him to work and his marriage with Michelle. He is a good person who wants to help those he cares about. His relationship with Ah-Nan is particularly heart-warming as their deep bond of friendship shines through in some of the toughest circumstances a family can face. Equally, Ah-Nan is a likeable character as she is strong and powerful, but in very clever and subtle ways. All she wants is for her son to succeed and stay out of trouble and my heart ached for her when this aspiration was put to the test. 

The relationship between the brothers Jimmy and Johnny is complex but very enjoyable to read and explore. There were times that I felt that Li was really playing with my emotions and sympathies as a reader regarding these two men; sometimes I would dislike Jimmy for his selfish and rude attitude towards his restaurant staff and family, and I would prefer Johnny because he seemed to be more caring and considerate. However, a short while later, I found these feelings were reversed, and subsequently kept chopping and changing as I was reading. One of the tense plot strands is whether these brothers are willing to set aside their differences and put the past behind them for the good of both the family and the restaurant. 

Overall, Number One Chinese Restaurant is simultaneously heart-warming and humorous in its deep exploration of the lives of restaurant staff and families. Li has created such a variety of characters which beautifully captures the diverse nature of humanity itself. 

Rating: 5/5 

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