(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Sour Sweet’s primary narrative thread follows the fortunes of the Chen family as they create a life for themselves in an alien culture. Determined to succeed, Chen and Lily emigrate from Hong Kong to London, where Chen finds a comfortable if unexciting job as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. Lily works at being a perfect wife and an even more exemplary mother to their son, Man Kee, whom she spoils relentlessly. While Chen seems content with their life, Lily has vague yearnings for something better, and she manages to save almost half of her housekeeping money for the future, when the Chens might start their own business—a grocery store or a restaurant.

The Chens lead an uneventful and circumscribed life, punctuated occasionally by events which threaten but do not seriously disrupt their featureless existence. The first of these events is Man Kee’s birth. Shortly thereafter, Mui, Lily’s older sister, arrives from Hong Kong to help her younger sister and brother-in-law. Early in the novel, the reason for the Chens’ dull stability becomes apparent: They are extremely insular. Snug in the warm cocoon of their family circle, the Chens have two acquaintances outside their immediate family—only the wealthy widow, Mrs. Law, and Chen’s colleague at the restaurant, Mr. Lo—both of them Chinese. The English neighbors, the Polish physician to whom Lily went during her pregnancy, the Indian shopkeepers on their block are all simply functional, nameless people.

Chen and Lily show no interest in developing relationships with the people around them. Their self-sufficiency is complete, their life together defined by their London flat from which they both emerge daily—Chen to go to work, Lily to do the day’s shopping. It eventually becomes clear that their lack of curiosity in their surroundings has its roots in their individual natures. All Chen wants out of life is a modest income, sufficient to support his family with enough left over to send home to his elderly parents. To him, London is simply a prosperous city that gives him the opportunity to work and earn the wages he needs. Lily’s lack of interest is born out of her feelings of superiority: to the English (who are so odd), to the other Chinese (her father was a wealthy man and a famous boxer), to her husband (she is stronger, taller, healthier, and more ambitious), and to her sister. Lily has a cozy flat, a son whom she adores, a sister to help with the housework, and an undemanding husband who makes enough money to keep them all comfortable. She has no need for other people; she wants a business of her own.

Tangible proof of the force of Lily’s ambition and determination against Chen’s uninspired resistance, the Dah Ling Restaurant is also a symbol of the family’s progress. Although the restaurant, opened with Lily’s savings in the living room of their new quarters beside a noisy garage...

(The entire section is 1186 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Sour Sweet vividly re-creates life in London’s Chinese immigrant community. The narrative follows a Hong Kong couple, Chen and Lily, who at the novel’s beginning have lived in England for four years, “long enough to have lost their place in the society from which they had emigrated but not long enough to feel comfortable in the new.” After the birth of their son, Man Kee, they send to Hong Kong for Lily’s sister, Mui, to assist them. Encouraged by Lily, the family opens a Chinese food take-out stand at a suburban truck stop.

Just when their lives are going well, Chen disappears. Although the family never knows the circumstances, the reader learns that Chen has been murdered by the Triad. A secret society devoted to organized crime and based in Hong Kong, the Triad flourishes in London. The leaders wrongly think that Chen has stolen drugs and have him killed before they discover their mistake.

Sour Sweet is a highly readable novel, enriched by the revelation of the Triad’s criminal operations and ritual, the realistic settings, and the farcical scenes based on cultural misunderstanding. These elements serve to highlight the well-developed characters and their skirmishes in an alien environment as they struggle to reinvent their identity. The major characters each tackle the immigrant dilemma differently, and thus exemplify their different modes of behavior.

Chen, whose attitude Timothy Mo does not...

(The entire section is 461 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Listener. Review. CVII (June 3, 1982), p. 22.

London Review of Books. Review. IV (May 6, 1982), p. 18.

May, Hal, ed. Contemporary Authors, Vol. 117, 1986.

New Statesman. Review. CIII (April 23, 1982), p. 27.

The Observer. Review. April 25, 1982, p. 30.

Ramraj, Victor. “The Interstices and Overlaps of Cultures.” In International Literature in English. New York: Garland, 1991.

Rothfork, John. “Confucianism in Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 24, no. 1 (1989): 49-64.

The Times Literary Supplement. Review. May 7, 1982, p. 502.