According to Lillian Li, University of Michigan MFA and author of “Number One Chinese Restaurant” (2018), the success of Chinese restaurants in America is the best-kept secret in the business. Following the Gold Rush and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese immigrants were blacklisted from most industries by white workers who feared they would drive wages down and were confined to the “women’s work” of laundry and cooking. Many of the original owners of Chinese restaurants had no culinary training and could only estimate the flavors of their homeland, making them sweeter, saltier and tangier when they realized that American palates preferred bold flavors. In an interview with The Daily, Li pointed out that “Now there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonalds. It’s actually one of the most inspiring stories of entrepreneurial underdog-ship, and it’s crazy that most people don’t know it. America loves the underdog, but they don’t like the underdog when it has a foreign face.”
“Number One Chinese Restaurant” is a dark family epic in the tradition of two other University MFAs, Celeste Ng (“Little Fires Everywhere” and “Everything I Never Told You”) and Jesmyn Ward (“Sing, Unburied, Sing” and “Salvage the Bones”). The novel follows three generations of the highly-dysfunctional Han family and their employees at the Beijing Duck House, a thriving Chinese restaurant in the D.C. metro area, as they attempt to reconcile their competing visions of business success with their tangled personal relationships. When a mysterious fire razes the Duck House, this ensemble cast of characters is forced to confront the tensions that have simmered beneath the surface for years, and to choose where their first loyalties lie: to family, to ambition, to integrity or to survival.
The novel is loosely based on Li’s own experience working in a Chinese restaurant, a job so strenuous that she left after only four weeks. Li said, “It gave me a look into the emotional difficulties of a service job, particularly a service job where you’re working in a Chinese restaurant and have a Chinese face. There’s an extra level of alienation and dehumanization that happens with the customers to the servers. It made me wonder what it would have been like if I had been in that space for longer than four weeks, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to leave.” This notion of being trapped — by a toxic work environment, by family obligation and by the characters’ own insurmountable flaws — resonates throughout the novel in a way that steadfastly resists sentimentality or idealization. Li’s worldview flirts with pessimism but never steps fully over that line, landing instead on a sometimes grim, often funny and always sharply observed realism. She said, “I think it’s a worldview that is interested in the darker side of human connection and intimacy, but also understands that you have to have some moments of joy and grace, even within that darkness.”
In Li’s novel, these “moments of grace” tend to be rooted in love, vulnerability and self-sacrifice, while darkness manifests in the desire for wealth, prestige and power, embodied most clearly in the nefarious, Godfather-esque figure of Uncle Pang. In a twist on the Faust legend, Jimmy Han, owner of the Duck House, must decide between selling his soul to Pang in exchange for fulfilled ambition and freeing his family at last from the mobster’s clutches. For Li, this kind of moral arithmetic is typical of the way business and ambition require people to rearrange their value systems. She is suspicious of highly profitable businesses in general, and her novel functions as a twist on the American Dream narrative, a national myth that positions economic success as the key to true belonging and respect. Li said, “I think the American Dream is an incomplete narrative. It’s all about grand success for your life, that you can end with much more than you started with. And I think that that can only happen if there is some kind of original sin. If you trace any success story far enough back you will see a real crime. Success basically means that you have more resources than your neighbor, so how did you get those resources? And how did you get so many more resources than your neighbor did? But those little crimes are very normalized in our society.”
Li’s work also speaks eloquently to the ways these calculations of success change across generations. For the first generation of Duck House owners, success can be measured in purely economic terms, while their sons realize that no amount of money can buy them the respect and prestige that they truly desire. Li said, “I was trying to speak to this idea that for most groups of people, no matter how much money you have, you still can’t buy your way into influence. Because money has entered the bloodstream of our society so much, it seems to be the only way to get the universal things that people want: to be desired, to be attractive, to be respected, to have dignity. What this book says is that money can’t buy everything, but there is a reason why we think it can.”
Li’s distrust of profit as the primary measure of success expands into her own experience with the publishing industry, as an author and as a bookseller at the cult-favorite bookstore Literati. Li has no desire to make writing her main source of income, and her respect for the publishing industry comes precisely from the things that decrease its profitability. Li said, “What I love about the publishing industry is that they are uniquely bad at business. Bookstores can return any books they don’t sell. There’s no formula. Nobody can predict what book is going to sell well. It kind of defies a lot of attempts to make it a really profitable, smoothly-running business machine. You can be bad at business and still be successful, and that’s really heartening!”