NUMBER ONE CHINESE RESTAURANT
By Lillian Li
290 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $27.
THE EMPEROR OF SHOES
By Spencer Wise
328 pp. Hanover Square Press. $26.99.
Culture and commerce have long been easy bedfellows in the complicated relationship between the United States and China, so it’s unsurprising that two first novels by young American authors, “Number One Chinese Restaurant,” by Lillian Li, and “The Emperor of Shoes,” by Spencer Wise, should feature a Chinese-American restaurant and an American-owned Chinese shoe factory, respectively, as the hubs in which lives, loves, languages and histories intersect.
Li’s novel revolves around the tangled inner workings of the family-owned Beijing Duck House, in Rockville, Md., and the multigenerational enmities and aspirations of its owners and workers. The middle-aged Jimmy Han, who inherited the restaurant (along with its tired menu and timeworn décor) from his late father, hopes to open his own pan-Asian fusion restaurant in modish Georgetown. However, in order to realize his plan, he must rely on the financial clout of Uncle Pang, a shady, nine-fingered fixer, and obtain the consent of the family matriarch, Feng Fei.
For the elder, Chinese-born family members and workers, the Beijing Duck House has displaced Beijing itself as “the heart-center of the universe.” But among their largely directionless American-born offspring — including Annie, Johnny’s daughter, and Pat, the son of a manager named Nan — the attachment is more casual. Nan is in a bicoastal marriage (her husband owns a restaurant in California), which doesn’t stop her from developing a relationship with a fellow restaurant employee named Ah-Jack, a man a generation older and still married to his terminally ill wife. Goaded by Uncle Pang, Pat, along with an unwitting Annie, starts a fire that eventually guts the restaurant, forcing these long-simmering relationships and rivalries into sharp relief as priorities and allegiances are tested and reassessed.
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