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.
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.