Number One Chinese Restaurant
It’s been over forty years since Marlon Brando uttered the words, “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse” but Number One Chinese Restaurant proves that not everyone took that warning to heart.
When our story begins, Uncle Pang is eating at The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland with its owner Jimmy Han. Uncle Pang has long been a fixture in both the Duck House and Jimmy’s life; he was instrumental in getting the Han family to America and helped Bobby Han, Jimmy’s father (the original owner of the restaurant) get his start. The Duck House, profitable enough at one time, has recently fallen into decline. Jimmy dreams of a new, more fashionable eatery that will help him become a legend but he both needs and is reluctant to accept Uncle Pang’s help to get his new place open. This afternoon, the reluctant portion of him is in full ascendance and he and Uncle Pang part on acrimonious terms.
Johnny Han plays the part of yo-yo in his family, always wanting to get away and do his own thing but feeling filial obligation to keep the Duck House going. He’s been managing the front side of the restaurant – the customers, advertising, bookkeeping and schmoozing of high end clients – for years, but has recently taken a few months off to teach a course in China. Of course, disaster strikes just as he is finishing the job, preventing him from kicking around Beijing as he would like and forcing him on the next plane home.
The tragedy that strikes puts Jimmy further in the grasp of Uncle Pang. Additionally, it pulses through the lives of many others, pushing them to confront what the familiar comfort of the Duck House kept hidden.
Annie and her father were once close, but as the restaurant began to suck up more and more of her father’s time, the two drifted apart. Now she’s an angry, disillusioned young woman prone to some bad decisions, such as shop lifting, and dating bad-boy Pat.
Pat’s mom Nan is convinced he’s a good kid underneath it all, but Pat has a lot of anger over how Nan has managed their lives. His rage has led to some bad decisions, such as the school fire he set, and the mess he is making of his job at the Duck House. His latest choice, however, may very well be the worst one he has ever made.
Nan had asked for a promotion at the restaurant to protect her friend/crush Ah-Jack, an aging server who shouldn’t really spend all day and night on his feet waiting tables anymore. Her favoritism toward him has turned the other staff against her and it seems like her problems keep growing. Her son Pat has been expelled from school, forcing him to work as a dishwasher at the restaurant, which unfortunately brings him to the attention of Uncle Pang.
It would be natural to think that with all these characters as part of the story, there would be a lot happening in the plot but there really isn’t; it’s a tale of minimal forward momentum. With the exception of Jimmy, Feng Fei (the Han matriarch) and Uncle Pang, everyone in the book is just living their worst life. Nan has allowed her crush on Ah-Jack to tie her to a job she doesn’t like, and it isn’t till Pat starts to really act out that she realizes she may need to make decisions that put herself and her family first, rather than this man who has always been part of her existence but not really part of her life. Pat has made bad choices to get his mother’s attention and now that he has it, it’s for all the wrong reasons. He wants a clean start, but Ah-Jack ties his mom to the past and she can’t seem to shake that shackle. Johnny is just starting to realize that he belongs somewhere besides the Duck House but that wobbles the image he has of himself as the older son who holds the family together and cleans up their problems.
Of the three pivotal characters, only Jimmy receives much page time and that’s not a good thing; if there was a poster boy for screw-ups, Jimmy would probably be it. Given any chance to succeed or even just subsist, he fails. He failed his first restaurant job, he failed at dealing coke, he failed at the Duck House, he failed at his marriage and he adds to the list throughout the book. While the tragedy that serves as an impetus in the other character’s lives moves them small steps forward, Jimmy just changes location. That he is not in the least likable means that his ultimate failure was his inability to capture reader sympathy.
The author compensates for this with strong prose, a deep understanding of the human condition, and character clarity. We may not always like Ah-Jack, Nan, Pat or Jimmy but we do understand them. Their decisions may seem odd or foolish, but they are in perfect accord with how the author has described them. She captures the essence of who these people are and how they move through their lives very, very well.
Which is why I was disappointed that she didn’t give more page space to two people who could have really enlivened the narrative. Uncle Pang and Feng Fei move quietly in the background of the text, the unseen wind that causes the tsunamis in other’s lives; they pluck the chords that keep the others dancing to their tune. I would have been interested in getting more of their back story because what little we see of them shows them to be ruthless, but also intriguing.
The author also captures restaurant life with amazing accuracy. Anyone who has ever experienced the joy of working in food service will recognize the drama, exhaustion, poverty and joy that make up the lives of the characters who people this story.
Ultimately, Number One Chinese Restaurant is a literary novel that pulls back the curtain on the lives of a handful of people working at a failing eatery. It could have been many things – a look at the immigrant experience, a love story between two people kept apart by outside obligations for thirty years, a treatise on family squabbles – but in trying to be all of them it becomes simply a snapshot of some mildly interesting people. It’s a good bedside read for those who enjoy angsty stories and since it’s the author’s first novel, perhaps a promise of better things to come.