Leading Questions, Reading Questions, on Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet

Members of English 27, Brown University, 1997

1. In Mo's Sour Sweet setting seems to play a small role. Notice how Mo introduces the mob, Red Cudgel, White Paper Fan etc. The story-teller is not concerned with the immediate surroundings. The one place which is perhaps best described to us early in the story is the Ho Ho. Why do you think this is the case? Note in many of the novels we have read in the class thus far setting is very important. Is there a motiff which, in Sour Sweet, functions analogously to setting in works like Waterland or Oscar and Lucinda.[Brandon Brown]

2. Narrative style in chapters such as 2, 6, and 8, which feature the head members of the mob contrast the narrative sytle used in chapters which feature the Chen's family. The "back and fourth" that results may give a type of cinematic feel to the story. Mo also creates suspense through his story-telling style. Mo tends to use descrpition in chapters about the family or Mrs. Law (see pgs 39-52), while in the chapters concerning the mob - save chapter two - he uses more dialouge (see pgs 34-38). What are Mo's reason for interspersing the story with varying types of narration. [Brandon Brown]

Certainly Timothy Mo is not the only British immigrant whom we have read thus far. For example, Rushdie and Emecheta are British citizens as well. In what ways does the geography of Sour Sweet provide the narrative with a different aspect of postcoloniality than other novels we have previously read? Discuss the politics of immigration, this different kind of so-called border crossing for the Chen family. [Kate Cook]

How does the narrative structure of Sour Sweet relate to the motif indicated by the title of the novel itself, that of opposite, yet necessarily coexisting, elements (the yin-yang principle)? How does the introduction and abrupt disappearance of various characters represent relations between characters in the novel, and between the novel and the reader? Within the novel, what kind of characterstics do cross-cultural exchanges exhibit? (See specifically, Chen and Mr. Constantinide's conversation, p. 104) How do Chinese characters represent other apparently (to the Westerner) Chinese people, and what effect do these characterizations have within the novel and upon the reader? (pp. 102, 98, 70-1, 28, etc.) [Erica Dillon]

The continual references to responsibility to family indicate that this strong sense of personal responcibility is important to Chinese culture. This value glues the Chen family together in a foreign country that feels alien and impersonal and distinguishes its members from natives of the UK. Lily's sense of responcibility extends to others in the Chinese community, Chen's co-worker Lo and the wealthy, widowed Mrs. Law. This mutual support seems a positive force in the lives of these characters.

Resolved to go along with the majority despite her personal misgivings (better for them all to be caught red-handed together as a mutual responsibility group). (154)

As if they were responsible for anyone but their little group. (147)

And as for their [the British] attitude to their old people it was nothing less than shameful neglect, a national disgrace. (86)

What is said by the harsh contrast with the violence and brutality of the Hung Society? How does the Hung Society distort this traditional commitment and responcibility to enslave its members? Does the manipulation of the traditional value of responsibility reflect colonial and imperial relations? [Lucia Duncan]

"Contrary to the conventional, self-interested wisdom of teachers of any kind, you either knew how to do things or you didn't" (233). Accepting our narrator's position, what "things" does each member of the extended Chen family know that make it such a successful unit, or, what do individual family members contribute to the unit to make it a success? How is it that the Chens adapt so easily in the face of major change? [Jeremy Finer]

Man Kee and his father,Chen, enjoy spending their free time gardening. The act of gardening continually comes up throughout the narrative. How is gardening related to the family's replanting themselves in London? Why does gardening become the act that brings this father and son together? How does gardening instill a sense of heritage into Man Kee? [Laura Pilar Gelfman]

Why can't "Husband" tell his wife that he doesn't want so much seasoning in his soup? It seems that there is a distance between the characters in Mo's Sour Sweet which isolates them from each other and often creates misunderstandings. Is this supposed to be a characteristic of Chinese families in general, or is it particular to the Chen family? [Phoebe_Koch]

Mo seems to indulge many of the common stereotypes about Chinese families living abroad: Lily is the overbearing sister/wife/mother, Chen is the sidelined husband, and Mui is the sensitive sister. How effective is he in establishing a credible set of protagonists around which a narrative can evolve? Is Mo attempting to portray a representative immigrant experience here, or is he telling the story of a single Cantonese family in London? [Jennifer Gin Lee]

Lily's childood initiation into the rigours of siu lum exercising had unlooked-for results in later life . . . she had a supple pelvis and flexible limbs; a clear complexion, slept well, and gave birth to Man Kee without much pain.

In lieu of the ever present question of the legitimacy of the representative claim of postcolonial narratives, to what extent do Mo's views and conceptions that appear in Sour Sweet lessen the ethos of the novel, if at all? [Uzoma "Onye Igbo" Ukomadu]

The texts we examined throughout the year relate to one other with respect to many themes and subjects. One which I find interesting involves the different perceptions of family. We studied these conceptions for the Nigerian texts, the South Asian texts, and post-imperial novels. But what does Mo say about family life? Very early in the text, the reader finds comments that begin to present Mo's ideas on family.

In [Lily's] experience there was no stand-still in life. Families rose and fell. There was deadly rivalry between them. Their members were united against a hostile conspiring world. If one generation didn't climb, then the next declined, or the one after that. (7)

What other parts of the novel deal with family relationships? Does Mo feel that a traditional family cannot sustain itself out of a specific, traditional nation's boundries? [Neel Parekh]

Is Chen another truly pathetic character like Omar and Deven? How does he change in the course of the novel? What causes changes in him?

Sour Sweet focuses on the interactions between, roughly, two groups: the English and the Chinese immigrants. How do individuals perceive groups and what role(s) are assigned to individuals within each group? What other hierarchies and groups exist in the novel? What role do names play in group dynamics?

"Son, providentially, had not displayed any further disturbing tendency to speak English as well as Cantonese." (page 167, chapter 22) "There was something new happening; something which Lily realized was beyond her experience and from which she was forever excluded; something she could give no name to; something which separated her from Son." (page 171, chapter 23) Can Man Kee serve as a possible bridge between the two cultures? If so, how? How does his life illustrate the immigrant experience? How does he differ from his parents? How does he deal with his parents, their rules, principles and expectations? (consider the uprooting of the mango sapling episode, the final paragraph of the book)

Mui and Lily each interact differently with the British -- think of how each deals with the lorry drivers. How are these two characters foils to each other and how do they represent opposite things in other ways?

Before actually encountering Chen's father, it is easy to assume that he would be a conservative stickler for tradition. Yet he proves to be more open to Western culture and people at times than younger people like Lily or Chen. Explore Grandpa's character and comment upon cultural misunderstandings ("the amazing perversity of the foreign viewpoint" [235, chapter 32], "How terrible not to be able to see things for the rest of one's life; more terrible to be blinded from childhood" [257, chapter 34]. using Grandpa's comical party as a starting point. [Elissa Popoff]

2. In Sweet and Sour, Timothy Mo presents several different relationsto power. He uses different boxing techniques as a metaphor for different means of taking power. A certain method of boxing is used as a metaphor for the way in which Lily exerts herself within her family. Lily's method is compared to China's strength as a nation. "If Lily led it was by default, and even so, with such a delicacy that Chen thought himself he dominator rather than the dominated. Chen felt.. proud of her in the way that a barbarian conqueror of a highly civilized people might draw an avuncular glow from the collective attainments of an apparently subjugated race, unaware all the time that the one who was being absorbed, subverted, changed, was himself. The pattern, in fact, of Chinese history repeated in microcosm" (15). How do these methods of taking control relate to the ways in which the mobsters consolidate power? How does this relate to food, and the way in which Chinese take-out represents economic and cultural power, and Lily's medicine, created just as haphazardly as Chen's "Chinese' take out, gives her leverage in her relations with her husband. [Elora Lee-Raymond]

Discuss the construction of Lily's womanhood in Mo's Sour Sweet. Consider her multiple roles in the novel: mother, daughter, wife, fighter, business woman, car driver and disciplinarian. Would you characterize her as "feminine" or "masculine"? How do cultural differences complicate our notion of Lily as a female character? To what extent does she transgress socially prescribed gender roles and to what extent does she "fit" these roles? Where do these gender roles come from?

How does Lily perceive herself as a woman? How do others perceive Lily? [Barnali Tahbildar]

Mo's Sour Sweet United Kingdom Overview