Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A Book Review

Book Reviews, Fiction

Where I live, there’s never a shortage of Chinese restaurants to choose from. As a Filipino, if I’m not craving for Filipino food, my version of comfort food is Chinese. I’ve got Rice ‘N Roll up the street from my house, Little Szechuan which delivers the best lunch plates to work and Wing Lee, my go-to for dimsum in the morning.

But beyond my fill of salt and pepper fish fillet or the crispy hunan beef, I admit I’ve never thought so much about the stories behind my food. And of course just like any group of people around the world doing something together, there’s always a story, and/or a back story.

The book, the food.

This is the premise of Lillian Li’s novel Number One Chinese Restaurant (Shop your local indie bookstore), a Chinese restaurant called the Beijing Duck House that specializes in carved peking duck and hotpot in Maryland. Jimmy Han struggles to run the restaurant under the shadow of his deceased father who opened the restaurant, and his older, more pragmatic brother Johnny currently overseas. As the youngest of the family, Jimmy has had his share of fuck-ups and have always sought to prove himself–to the Duck House staff, to his parents, to his brother, even to himself. But beyond Jimmy are even bigger players in Li’s novel–the two oldest servers of the establishment, Ah-Jack and Nan, who have carved and waited and served countless customers throughout the years.

Together, these three create the tapestry of the novel along with other characters, as Li weaves in and out of their lives centered on the Duck House. From the restaurant owners, staff down to the crew working in the kitchen, immigration also plays a central theme. But at the core is love–the kind between reluctant lovers, a mother and his son, and all of its other messy manifestations.

The voices of Nan and Ah-Jack are the most memorable to me, two wait staff who have spent decades of their lives in the restaurant. Each with a family of their own, their lives become intertwined when the older Ah-Jack takes a young Nan in under his wing at another restaurant they used to work at. They both live their respective married lives at home but at work, the two dance on the edges of unrequited love as they get older, wait more tables. Day after day, duck after duck.   

Nesting on Fire, with Celeste Ng (A Book Review of ‘Little Fires Everywhere’)

Book Reviews, Fiction

Sometimes all the hype turns out to be the real thing.

You know a book’s about to be B-I-G when all the book sites are talking about it, when emails pop up in your inbox with that one book over and over again.

Before I even knew what it was about, Celeste Ng‘s Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon | Indiebound) was that book. I had to get it.

Turns out, the hype wasn’t just noise. It was actually substance. A lot of it.

Little Fires is Ng’s second novel, following her first book Everything I Never Told You which became an instant bookseller, bagging numerous awards.

In this book, Ng portrayed what the nuclear American family should look like, in a pretty progressive place too nonetheless, that she was able to effectively support America’s delusion into thinking that it is, for the most part, doing the right thing.

She begins by detailing the life in Shaker Heights in Ohio, close to Cleveland, a haven of manicured lawns and matching houses where most folks are upper middle class. A small town where most people come back to live from college and nest quite comfortably.

At the center is Elena Richardson, a white woman, a mother of four who lives in relative stability in Shaker Heights. She is married to a lawyer and is a successful journalist. Except for when she went away for college, she’s spent her entire life in the community. When she takes in the recluse artist Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl as tenants at one of her smaller homes (she sees it as charity, a gesture of goodwill), she didn’t realize the ripple of change that move would set.

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5 Books to Celebrate Filipino-American History Month

Fil/Lit, Sunday Spotlight

“America is also the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job and the black body dangling on a tree. America is the illiterate immigrant who is ashamed that the world of books and intellectual opportunities are closed to him. We are all that nameless foreigner, that homeless refugee, that hungry boy, that illiterate immigrant and that lynched black body. All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native-born or alien, educated or illiterate – we are America!”
–Carlos Bulosan

October is Filipino American Historical Month (also #FAHM2016), a commemoration of when Filipinos first landed on American soil at Morro Bay, California. That was back in October 18, 1587, about 300 years before I was born! 

So what’s up with Filipino-American history, and how far do we go back? Filipino-American relations have always been contentious, since the U.S. paid $20M to buy the islands from Spain. And then World War II happened, where we first got our “third-world country” designation (along with being slaughtered by the Japanese, and then ‘saved’ by the Americans). Since then, we’ve had our share of being a colony — with military bases and talk of freedom and economic hit men (World Bank, IMF) coupled with presidencies super tight with Washington.

On the first day of the month, Pres. Obama had a special message (a first!) wherein he recognized the contributions of Fil-Am soldiers during World War II. It only took 74 years for the government to finally launch the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program “which enables certain Filipino-American veterans to request that their family members join them in the United States as they wait for their green cards.”

I’m not sure if this message was to fortify the Philippines’s relationship with the U.S., after Pres. Duterte’s remarks of pursuing a foreign policy independent of the latter back in September.

“I am no American puppet. I am the president of a sovereign country and I am not answerable to anyone except the Filipino people.” 
–Pres. Rodrigo Duterte

This month, I’ve been really thinking long and hard about #FAHM2016 from personal and political perspectives. I could talk about being Filipino in the Bay, about being part of the Asian-American fabric, about being a queer brown immigrant but along with these identities are socioeconomic and political landscapes that I’ve always been a part of.

And as always, I turn to literature for perspectives that continue to enrich the culture of Fil-Ams and at the same time challenge what we know: 
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America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

First published in 1943, this classic memoir by well-known Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan describes his boyhood in the Philippines, his voyage to America, and his years of hardship and despair as an itinerant laborer following the harvest trail in the rural West.

(It’s a shame that I haven’t read this book yet but it comes as a highly recommended title which speaks of the Filipino migrant’s experience.)

516ljlycykl-_sx324_bo1204203200_The Gangster of Love by Jessica Hagedorn

Rocky Rivera arrives in the U.S. from the Philippines the day that Jimi Hendrix dies. So begins a blazing coming-of-age story suffused with the tensions of immigration which finds Rocky moving from the counter-culture in 1960s San Francisco to the extravagant music scene in Manhattan of the 1980s. The Gangster of Love tells the story of the Rivera family as they make their new life in the States all the while haunted by the memory of the father and the homeland they left behind. 

(I read this book in 2014 as I was on my way back to the Philippines for a brief trip and thought — this is everything that I love and detest in a Fil-Am novel!)

51wzfy7vg4l-_sx294_bo1204203200_Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement by Lilia Villanueva

Filipino farmworkers sat down in the grape fields of Delano, California, in 1965 and began the strike that brought about a dramatic turn in the long history of farm labor struggles in California. Their efforts led to the creation of the United Farm Workers union under Cesar Chavez, with Philip Vera Cruz as its vice-president and highest-ranking Filipino officer.

(This is another book I’ve yet to read, but definitely on my next-to-read list.)

41-ie7cypcl Doveglion by José Garcia Villa

Known as the “Pope of Greenwich Village,” José Garcia Villa had a special status as the only Asian poet among a group of modern literary giants in 1940s New York that included W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, and a young Gore Vidal. But beyond his exotic ethnicity, Villa was a global poet who was admired for “the reverence, the raptness, the depth of concentration in [his] bravely deep poems” (Marianne Moore). Doveglion (Villa’s pen name for dove, eagle, and lion) contains Villa’s collected poetry, including rare and previously unpublished material.

(On my way to Hawai’i, I was finally introduced to José Garcia Villa’s poetry with this book and boy was it an out-of-this-world experience. Villa’s poems not only transcended form and format but also political and social boundaries.)

41xmvcxul7l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Leche by R. Zamora Linmark

After thirteen years of living in the U.S., Vince returns to his birthplace, the Philippines. As he ventures into the heat and chaos of the city, he encounters a motley cast of characters, including a renegade nun, a political film director, arrogant hustlers, and the country’s spotlight-driven First Daughter. Haunted by his childhood memories and a troubled family history, Vince unravels the turmoil, beauty, and despair of a life caught between a fractured past and a precarious future.

(Yet another one I’ve missed out on, but of which promises to be the kind of book I’ll find pieces of myself in.)

For a full and glorious list of Fil-Am reads, check out this list on Goodreads.

“You… see us… and you think you know us,
but our outward guise is more deceptive than our history.”
–Carlos Bulosan