Already a hit in America, Lillian Li’s brilliant debut, Number One Chinese Restaurant, is now published in paperback in the UK. Lauded in O, The Oprah Magazine, as a ‘deliciously comic debut’, it’s a tragicomic tale of family, feuds, and food. Jimmy Han has plans to move on from his family’s homely restaurant and open his own high-end fusion place. His family, friends and colleagues all conspire, both wittingly and unwittingly, to make that as difficult as possible for him. Read an extract from this witty and heartfelt book below.
Jimmy turned to see Ah-Jack arriving. The waiter held a large serving plate of Szechuan lamb chops, elegantly piled under a hearty mound of onions and red peppers. The meat glistened with black pepper sauce, flecks of spice filling the air with a rich, roasted smell. Uncle Pang greeted him with a clap of his hands, the sound ringing with false delight. Jimmy was suddenly overwhelmed by the noise of everything happening around him. His body was too heavy to move. Something had gotten on top of him, was smothering him with its weight. He’d been having these attacks recently, but always in bed, in the middle of the night. Never in public. He dug the tip of his tongue into the canker sore on his bottom gum. The sharp, acid sting made the panic lift, just enough for him to wriggle out from underneath.
He was probing the sore again when a jangling sound jerked his head up. The gold chains around Ah-Jack’s wrists were trembling against the china platter. The plate dipped up and down. The old waiter could barely hold on to the heavy lamb chops with both hands. Who the hell let him leave the kitchen like this?
Jimmy was starting to stand when a resigned, almost amused look passed over Ah-Jack’s face. Like he was tired of waiting for disaster to strike. Before Jimmy could stop him, Ah-Jack took one of his hands away from the plate to grab the two serving spoons. His left wrist did not even make an attempt to hold the weight of the plate on its own. Jimmy’s outstretched hand caught air.
Heavy with sauce, the lamb chops plopped onto their table. Some landed on the tablecloth, while others bounced o and onto Uncle Pang’s lap. The platter hit the side of the table with a mu ed sound before ricocheting under the booth. Sauce splattered everywhere, leaving greasy inkblots on their clothes. Someone in the next booth gasped. For a few calm moments, the three of them looked on curiously at the tremendous mess. Then, Uncle Pang was up and roaring. Ah-Jack was left to tremble, cradling his left hand like an injured bird. He looked around wildly, for an exit, or, perhaps, for Nan. Jimmy dove under the table without knowing why. He started picking up the fallen chops, his hands leaving tacky prints on the dirty carpet. Above his head, Uncle Pang was threatening to tear down the restaurant. With a thunk, the scotch bottle fell off and rolled under the table, hitting Jimmy in the knee. The smell of cigarette smoke drifted down, as well as Nan’s timid voice, asking Uncle Pang to put out his light.
“I’m not going to burn this place down with one fucking cigarette!” Uncle Pang shouted. He stalked away from the booth, toward the front door. Nan’s thick ankles quickly followed, with Ah-Jack’s jerky shuffle bringing up the rear.
From his temporary sanctuary, Jimmy twisted the cap o the scotch bottle and, for the first time in a year, took a deep, searing drink. The sore in his mouth sang out, then quieted into a buzz.
Lillian Li received her BA from Princeton and her MFA from the University of Michigan. She has received the Hopwood Award in Short Fiction, and her work has been featured in Guernica, Granta and Jezebel. She currently teaches English Composition and Creative Writing at the University of Michigan and works as a bookseller at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor.