Sour Sweet is the saga of a Chinese family's arrival and establishment in England. The novel, written by Timothy Mo, was published and short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1982. It deals with some of those archetypical Chinese cliches: Chinese restaurants, politeness, and the Triads. The story is an interesting mix of humour and horror - we mainly follow Chen and his family as they strive to build up a take-away restaurant in a godforsaken part of London, but are also introduced to the higher ranks of the Hung family, a criminal society with all sorts of schemes to become masters of the British underworld.
We are told how the Chen family came to England, one by one. First Chen himself, who worked there as a waiter. He then found a wife, Lily, and brought her there from Hong Kong. Later on they imported Lily's sister Mui, who totally culture shocked refused to go outside, preferring instead to sit for hours in front of the television. Ironically, she is the one who eventually becomes best acquainted with the workings of British society.
The youngest member of the family is Man Kee, Chen and Lily's son, who symbolises all their hopes for the future. The oldest is Chen's father, a hilarious old man who charms the members of his geriatric hospital group by offering to make them all coffins.
The Chen family is endearing, often comical, in its attempts to find its bearings in English society. They usually get it right, but not quite right. One scene shows how they deal with English officialdom:
In order to convince the taxman that they are poor and shouldn't pay tax, Chen's wife Lily dresses their son up in purpose-made rags and makes his face dirty. This, in turn, leads to a visit from a concerned social worker. By now the child is, of course, clean and clothed again.
The description of the Hung family is chilling, and gives the mixture most of its sour taste. There are some nasty attacks against a rivalling gang; an elaborate description of an initiation of new recruits to the society; and endless internal plotting. Unfortunately for Chen, he becomes involved with the society. Even peripherally, that's not a safe place to be.
Sour Sweet is an interesting book, to be sure. It describes the immigrant experience from a Chinese perspective. It shares the complex inner workings of a Chinese family. The evil empire of the Hungs is its weak point: They are obviously there to provide bad guys, not characters. However, without them, the novel would have been unbalanced, incomplete.