The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

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.

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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 from those return addresses, summons him to its London office, and murders him.

While clearly subordinate to Lily in the novel, Chen and Mui are no less vivid as individuals. Chen—stocky, with a pale, bunlike face and chubby torso atop short legs—gives the impression of “wrong focus, as of looking at him through a fuzzy range-finder,” and his unprepossessing appearance combined with his stolid nature make him the perfect foil to the volatile Lily. He has his own ambitions, but they are modest ones, epitomized by his contentment with a small restaurant in a run-down suburb and by his obsession with creating the perfect vegetable garden. Mui is more fully realized and in fact turns out to be the least predictable character. Described by Chen as a “little saffron marshmallow,” Mui has been brought up a traditional Chinese woman: compliant, dutiful, submissive. Gradually, however, the irrepressible inner Mui begins to manifest herself in a wide-ranging curiosity about her new country. She is addicted to television, chats at length with their customers, and silently absorbs all she can about her surroundings. Mui, in fact, becomes so un-Chinese (at least from Lily’s point of view) as to bear a child out of wedlock and later to open not another take-out counter but a fish-and-chips restaurant. Mui alone of the Chen family can distinguish one English person from another, can recognize that Man Kee has developed a taste for “mince, jam tart, and custard” at school, and can interpret for Lily the tax collector’s injunctions.

Timothy Mo’s minor characters are in many ways as fully realized as are the principal ones, and through the same techniques: They are identified by their most dominant traits or obsessions. Thus, Mrs. Law is frequently mentioned in connection with food. She entertains Lily and Mui at lavish teas and at carefully arranged restaurant banquets; she frequents the establishment where Lo is employed and earns the respect of the proprietor for her appetite (“What a little lady but what a lot she ate”). The Hung Family officers and the other Triad officers mentioned—Red Cudgel, White Paper Fan, Grass Sandal, and Night Brother—barely escape being caricatures of the Chinese underworld; Mo’s skillful pen, however, turns them into memorable if barely revealed personalities. Red Cudgel’s expensive clothes, his rasping voice and extreme lack of height, his fondness for Chinese peasant cuisine differentiate him from his deputy, the elegant and scholarly White Paper Fan. Grass Sandal, the only woman, is distinguished by her prudence (she hoards bars of soap) and her single-minded pursuit of power and money. Finally, there is Night Brother, whose amiable manner is useful in his handling of the society’s social affairs.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

Chen

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

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 never finds out what happened to Chen and never discovers that she sent her husband to his death.

Mui

Mui, Lily’s older sister, initially very much the dutiful, submissive, and compliant traditional Chinese woman. Paralyzed by culture shock when she is brought to England to help Lily and Chen, Mui learns English quickly and adjusts rapidly to English ways. Eventually, Mui bears a daughter out of wedlock (she refuses to identify the father), and later she marries Lo, a friend of the family.

Man Kee

Man Kee, the young son of Chen and Lily, educated in both English and Chinese schools. His ambition to be a gardener when he grows up infuriates Lily, who dreams of more impressive careers for her son.

Mrs. Law

Mrs. Law, a rich widow who takes an interest in Lily and Mui, whom she entertains frequently at lavish teas and dinners in restaurants. An old-fashioned Chinese woman, she views home hospitality as inferior to restaurant meals.

Lo

Lo, a barbecue chef who is Chen’s only friend. The quiet and withdrawn Lo (whose wife ran off with another man) becomes a regular guest at the Chen home; eventually, he marries Mui.

Red Cudgel

Red Cudgel, the leader of a Triad gang that functions in London, a short, ugly, harsh-voiced man whose face is pockmarked, whose knuckles are calloused, and who is missing some fingers. He prefers expensive clothes and a chauffeured car. He believes in Chinese tradition (he insists on eating peasant food) and in the use of force.

White Paper Fan

White Paper Fan, Red Cudgel’s deputy leader. A mild, scholarly man, White Paper Fan speaks French, English, and four Chinese dialects—all of which he learned in his travels around the world.

Grass Sandal

Grass Sandal, a former jet-setting model, now a Triad officer. Born to wealthy parents as Miranda Lai, she speaks a heavily accented English learned in convent and finishing schools. She is highly ambitious and single-minded; her only real interests are money, power, and sex.

Night Brother

Night Brother, once a foundling and street urchin, now the Triad officer in charge of public relations. He is amiable and cheerful, and he possesses abundant self-confidence.

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