The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Strong-willed and contradictory, Lily is a fascinating character. On the one hand, she is, by training and inclination, thoroughly steeped in Chinese tradition, albeit not exactly those customs generally prescribed for her gender. Trained by her father in the ancient art of temple boxing (he had tried to turn her into the son he never had) and in the secrets of Chinese herbalists, Lily clings tenaciously to her native culture, assuming that the English ways, because she is unfamiliar with them, are inferior. Over Chen’s objections, she insists on sending Man Kee to Chinese school, hoping that the experience will neutralize what he is learning at the English school. On the other hand, Lily possesses several traits that traditional Chinese consider unbecomingly Western, particularly in a woman. She is taller than average, with large hands and feet. Further, although she outwardly respects her husband, inwardly she discounts him. Wearing flat shoes to give Chen the illusion that he is taller than she is, she nevertheless views him as simply another child to care for. When Chen proves unequal to the task of learning to drive, Lily not only learns the skill but also shows off her ability by insisting on driving the family to a seaside resort.

Perhaps because she is so capable, Lily is often arrogant. Refusing to believe that Mui could have learned anything about English schools, Lily ignores her objections and instructs Man Kee to kick and bite the bullies who have stolen his bus fare—with the result that Man Kee comes home weeping because his teacher has reprimanded him for “fighting dirty.” Later, believing that she knows better, Lily disobeys Chen’s request that she omit their address when she mails the monthly check to his parents. She is never to learn the outcome of her obstinacy: The Hung Family, with its office in Hong Kong, manages to trace Chen’s whereabouts...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Chen, a Chinese émigré to England, a stocky, pale, unprepossessing man with a round, bunlike face and a chubby torso atop short legs. He is only modestly ambitious and works his way up from menial jobs to the ownership of a tiny restaurant in a rundown suburb, where he settles down to create the perfect vegetable garden and to hide from a Triad family. Earlier, Chen had turned to the Triad society of the Chinese underworld for help in paying off his father’s debts; in return, he has “helped” the society as a drug runner. His whereabouts are revealed to the society as a result of his wife’s stubbornness, and Chen is murdered.


Lily, Chen’s strong-willed and ambitious wife. Taller than the average Chinese woman (and possessing large hands and feet), Lily was trained by her father as a temple boxer and a traditional herbalist. Very much a traditionalist, she clings to her Chinese ways, arrogantly assuming that anything unfamiliar to her is inferior. She insulates herself from English culture with both ridiculous and disastrous results. When her son obeys her instructions to kick and bite the bullies at school, he is reprimanded for fighting dirty; worse, her refusal to learn about English law gets her into trouble with the district tax office. Her arrogance is Chen’s death sentence: Refusing to obey his request that she omit their address on her monthly check to his father, she inadvertently informs the Triad society of Chen’s location. She...

(The entire section is 619 words.)