Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1186
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 in a derelict section of South London, is merely a take-out counter, it enjoys a rush of customers from the beginning. Afraid to offend their new household god, purchased from Chinese Street just prior to the move, the family celebrates the restaurant’s success in small ways: a simple New Year feast, an ancient Ford van, a day trip to the beach, new shoes for Man Kee and the women, and a backyard garden with which Chen and Man Kee immediately become obsessed. Life once again takes on a predictably orderly rhythm. Once more, Chen’s and Lily’s insularity manifests itself. Lily not only refuses to see their customers as individuals (in a marvelous reversal of cliches, she swears that they all look alike) but also is convinced that she knows more than any English native could possibly know about life in London. Meanwhile, Mui has metamorphosed into a cosmopolitan young woman. Having nearly developed fluency in English from her constant association with the restaurant’s customers, Mui has also allowed herself to adjust tot he English ways, to overcome completely her initial culture shock and accept change.
Finally, the outside world breaks into the Chen’s routine. First, the district tax official arrives to audit the restaurant’s books, discovers that the Chens have no records, and orders the reluctant Lily to save receipts and invoices. Then, money beings to disappear. Lily hopes that the shortfall means only that Chen is supporting a mistress (a possibility which does not seem to disturb her), but she soon learns that he is secretly meeting with a strange Chinese man at the garage and giving him money. More unnerving, Lily finds out that Mui is pregnant but will not reveal by whom, and she pack her off to Mrs. Law’s flat, where she stays until she bears a daughter. Shortly after Mui returns to the Dah Ling, Chen’s mother dies in Hong Kong and his father descends upon the Chens, further crowding the scanty living quarters. Worse, however, is yet to come. A few days after a family argument sparked by Lily, who reacts angrily to Chen’s support of Man Kee’s ambition to be a gardener when he grows up, Chen disappears.
Ironically paralleling and occasionally intersecting with the Chen family’s odyssey is the grim saga of the Hung Family, one of the secret Triad societies that flourished in London’s Chinese underworld in the 1960’s. Although the society identifies itself primarily as a business organization (drugs, prostitution, gambling), it is so conscious of its origins in Chinese traditions and so committed to the preservation of those traditions (for therein lies their power) that its officers spend large sums of money in “public relations”—coming to the aid of Chinese immigrants in difficulty. The society’s motives are not entirely altruistic; beneficiaries of its largesse are expected to return the favors they have received by carrying out various assignments, generally illegal, for the Hung Family. Thus it is that Chen, having once secretly turned to the society for help in discharging his father’s debts (Lily is unaware that the old man has lost a frivolous lawsuit and has incurred enormous medical bills from a fall), finds himself being recruited as a drug runner. The Chen family’s move to South London puts Chen temporarily out of Hung reach, but not for long. When the society is betrayed by an unidentified lower officer, Chen, despite his innocence of any involvement, is murdered. To cover up the crime, the society institutes a monthly stipend, mailed anonymously from Amsterdam to Lily.
The novel ends on a sour-sweet note. After Chen’s disappearance, Mui marries Lo, and the new couple moves a few blocks away to open a restaurant of their own. Man Kee, still smarting from his mother’s fury at his ambition, begins spending much time with his aunt’s new family. Lily is left alone, but because the monthly allowance has convinced her that Chen has gone to Holland for higher wages with which to supplement their income, she adjusts to her new life without him.