Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

In Sour Sweet, the cross-cultural theme is developed through the tensions between characters and in their conflicts among themselves and with their environment. In the novel’s record of a first-generation immigrant experience is a wry commentary on the ways in which a collision of cultures invariably proves that all human beings are the same in many respects, regardless of ethnic origins. The Chens, trying to make a good life for themselves in an alien society, are forced either to withdraw into the safety of the family circle or to adjust, often reluctantly. Timothy Mo provides a striking metaphor for the Chen family’s imperviousness to English customs:

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  . . . that household (that amoeba) presented with change and challenge, shuddered like jelly on impact with the obstacle but jelly-like suffered no damage, poured itself around the problem, dissolved what it was able and absorbed what it could not. And went on its amoeba way.

Confronted with the English bureaucracy and school system, business competition from other immigrants, strange holidays, and even stranger cuisine, the Chens and Mui react and adjust (or accept as Mui often does) and then resume living as they would have in Hong Kong. Forced by circumstances to leave London’s Chinese neighborhoods, the Chen family re-creates its own alternative culture in South London, celebrating the lunar New Year, growing Chinese vegetables, adding Chinese ideograms to the name of their restaurant, and generally ignoring their East and West Indian neighbors.

Not surprisingly, the three adults in the Chen household do not display quite the same resistance to the new culture. Chen passively denies change; he is content with his life and his phlegmatic nature balks at any disruption, however minor, in his daily routine. Lily, on the other hand, is aggressively opposed to most things English, insisting on brewing Chinese folk medicines, reading only Chinese newspapers, judging her neighbors by Chinese standards, and—most significant—learning only enough English to get her errands accomplished. Ironically, it is Mui, initially so daunted by her new surroundings that she refused to leave the flat for months and spent her days sadly watching television, whose natural curiosity later leads her to overcome the family’s isolation and become the bridge between the Chens and their neighbors and particularly their customers in the new business.

As the focus of the parallel subplot, the Triad society provides an ironic contrast to the Chen family. Also calling itself a family (in the same way that a Sicilian underworld group might do), the Hung Family is a self-contained unit within the Chinese community, interacting with the larger English society only when necessary for its basic needs and livelihood. Like the Chens, the Hung officers have no friends outside their tight circle, nor do they desire any; similarly, both groups accede only grudgingly to the demands of English life. Like Lily, many of the Hung officers are fiercely protective of Chinese customs and practices; like her, many of them have been trained in temple boxing, and, in fact, many know her father by reputation, although they fail to make the connection between the renowned fighter and Chen’s wife until after Chen has been killed and it is too late.

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Characters