Chen in Sour Sweet

Sinan AKILLI, M.A., Hacettepe University, Turkey.

[Part 3 of "Culture of Balance and Balance of Cultures: A Gendered Approach to Cross-Cultural Adaptation Process in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet. Note: In-text citations refer to the bibliography, which opens in a separate window.]

The first character introduced in Sour Sweet is Chen, the head of the nuclear Chinese family. Like many other young Chinese men, he has come to Britain, the "land of promise" (1), in the early 1960s to make a living in the restaurant business, save enough money to start a new comfortable life in his own country, and eventually return to Hong Kong. In reality, young Chinese immigrants soon realized that things would not be as easy as they expected. To earn money they came -- and earn money they did, yet the responsibilities of a Chinese son towards his parents required more. He had to support his parents back in Hong Kong, which meant the necessity to earn more money and implied a longer stay. As Hugh D.R. Baker (294) explains, the decline in rice production in Hong Kong influenced the lives of Chinese farmers, who by the early 1960s were deprived of their only source of income. Althogh Chen's father was a villager in Hong Kong, he was not a farmer but a carpenter, but his business was directly affected by the economic difficulties of his townsfolk. Thus, the novel explains that "the carpentry business had taken a down-turn in the early 1960s as rice production had shrivelled under competition from Thailand and, like other families in the village, Mother and Father Chen were now heavily dependent on their son's money from overseas" (5).

Realising that his return would not be as soon as he had planned and that he was "then twenty-seven, an advanced age to have reached without acquiring a wife, not to say children" (5), Chen paid a visit to his village, where he went to a dance party to find for himself a Chinese wife. The party "had taken place in his home village of Tung San. It had been thrown for emigrant bachelors like himself in search of wives to take back to Europe" (4). Chen also married Lily in Hong Kong during the so-called "beat the ban rush," which came as a result of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act.

The novel begins in their fourth year in London when the couple has a baby son, Man Kee. Typically, after his marriage, Chen had to leave what Baker (300) named "above the shop" accommodation to move into a council flat. Considering the duration of their stay in England up till the outset of the novel, one can argue that the Chen family is going through what is defined as "the crises phase" in Michael Winkelman's (123) categorisation of the cross-cultural adaptation process. In other words, the time Chen family had already spent in Britain "...was long enough to have lost their place in the society from which they had emigrated but not long enough to feel comfortable in the new" (1). Winkelman describes the characteristics and symptoms of the crisis phase as follows:

The crises phase may emerge immediately upon arrival or be delayed...It may start with a full-blown crisis or as a series of escalating problems, negative experiences, and reactions. Cultural shock may start immediately for some individuals...Although individual reactions vary, there are typical features of cultural crises. Things start to go wrong, minor issues become major problems, and cultural differences become irritating...One experiences increasing disappointments, frustrations, impatience and tension. Life does not make any sense and one may feel helpless, confused, disliked by others, or treated like a child. A sense of lack of control of one's life may lead to depression, isolation, anger, or hostility. (123)

Chen had many of these symptoms but especially the uneasiness, tension, and isolation created by a feeling of being disliked by others.

Chen was still an interloper. He regarded himself as such...That English people had competed for the flat which he now occupied made Chen feel more rather than less of a foreigner; it made him feel like a gatecrasher who had stayed too long and had been identified. He had no tangible reason to feel like this. No one had yet assaulted, insulted, so much as looked twice at him. But Chen knew, felt in his bones, could sense it between his shoulder-blades as he walked past emptying public houses on his day off. . . There was a reassuring anonymity about his foreign-ness. (1, 9)

The possible outlets for the immigrant experiencing the frustrations of the crises phase include being critical of the new culture, postponing the plans of learning the language of the new society, and a constant tendency to return "home" (Winkelman 123). Alternatively, the individual may be strong enough to stay until the financial goal is fulfilled, but at the same time he or she develops "maintenance and reparative behaviors designed to help reestablish one's familiar habitual cultural patterns of behavior to provide insulation from the foreign culture" (qtd. in Winkelman 123; for a comprehensive definition of "maintenance and reparative behaviours" see Wengle). Mo describes many of these characteristic immigrant responses. Like many of his Chinese fellows Chen is a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in the Soho area, where he works for long hours, and his only contact with English people is through his occupation. Like his colleagues, he tends to criticise the culture through the English customers of the restaurant.

The waiters often held impromptu discussions, when the boss was on another floor, about the idiosyncrasies of their hosts and patrons, the English. Among these eccentricities was the strange and widespread habit of not paying bills, a practice so prevalent as to arouse suspicions it was a national sport and which involved even the most respectable-looking of the customers. Loud and rowdy behaviour was more comprehensible, including fencing with chopsticks and wearing inverted rice-bowls on the head like brittle skull-caps, writing odd things on the lavatory walls, and mixing the food on their plates in a disgusting way before putting soya sauce on everything. (29)

Baker also mentions the difficulties created by the linguistic barrier between the Chinese waiters and their English customers (295, 301). However, it may be argued that these people did little or nothing to improve their English, which remained limited to a few words commonly used while taking and delivering orders. Likewise, Chen did not see any reason why he should not keep his English within the limits of the restaurant business English, so that when necessary he "could be prevailed on to make suggestions in his halting English" (29).

To follow the order of presentation of Winkelman's possible strategies, one should deal with the issue of "return," the long-term solution for those Wengle describes as determined to stay until they achieve their goals. The fact that Chen has always in his mind the possibility of "return" after earning enough money to start a better life in Hong Kong appears when the Chen family goes to the seaside during a weekend holiday. At the sea side Chen takes his son into his arms to show him a ship on the horizon and says

Do you see the ship, Son?...It is a special little ship for people like us, Son. It is very little and very old but that is only what strangers see. We know better, don't we, Son, because it is the ship that will take us all back home when we are finished here. It will take you to your homeland, Son, which you have never seen. (155)

Chen'slonging to return home places him in the category suggested by Wengle. It follows that, one would expect Chen to stick to his own "familiar habitual cultural patterns of behavior" (qtd. in Winkelman 123) to isolate himself from the host society and its culture.

Throughout the novel, we see that Chen never gives up his Chinese ways. Such clinging to the ways of his traditional culture is not by chance. According to psychological studies cited by Tang and Dion, "men scored higher in traditionalism than women when describing themselves" (Tang and Dion 20). Thus the food Chen eats, the cinemas he goes to, the company he keeps, the newspapers he reads -- "outdated Hong Kong newspapers" (45) -- , his leisure activities (such as his gardening), and his xenophobic attitude towards English people, whom he and his wife call "foreign devils," are all defined by his native Chinese identity and his culture, which he considers superior, are parts of his "Chineseness." For example, when the family is celebrating the Chinese New Year and Chen is served a dish which is not Chinese, he rejects it, just as he rejects other change or cultural novelty. He says "Stick to what has been tried and don't adopt new ways just for the sake of them" (123).

The only friend Chen has is Mr. Lo, the barbecue chef at the same restaurant. Although Lo is several years older than Chen, they have a lot in common and get along well. Thus, their friendship is not limited to the restaurant, and they sometimes spend their spare time together. "While others liked to gamble in their off-duty periods, Lo and Chen amused themselves with an hour and a half at the cinema club...This particular club showed mostly modern Cantonese dramas..." (31). Chen's habit of going to Hong Kong movies is not merely a leisure activity but a link to Hong Kong popular culture, which according to David Parker has a significant influence on the identity formation of the Hong Kong Chinese in Britain (149-151). Likewise, Chen's limiting his printed media to outdated Hong Kong newspapers shows that such dependence on "ethnic media" may hinder an immigrant's adaptation by preventing the development of necessary communication skills and of a more positive view of his or her future in the host country (Walker 158, 193).

Later in the novel, Chen finds for himself other pastime activities like carpentry, a parental heritage, and gardening, "an expression of his peasant roots" according to Lim (97). After they have been able to start their own Chinese take-away in a remote area of London, Chen uses his rural skills to manufacture wooden benches and tables for their small restaurant. He spends most of his time in the kitchen preparing the orders, and when he is off duty he goes to the small garden of their house-restaurant to busy himself with soil. "Chen's skills as a farmer were not lost. He planned carrots and beans for summer. At home in the New Territories vegetable growing was an ignominious mode of agriculture, practised by refugees and immigrants. It was fitting he should grow them here in alien soil" (168). All these forms of behaviour function as tools that constitute the ties between Chen's life in London and his native Hong Kong, thereby forming a supposedly impenetrable wall around his Chinese identity.

However, Chineseness is not Chen's only identity. He is also a son, a husband, a father, and a brother-in-law, this last relationship created by the arrival of Lily's elder sister Mui to Britain after the death of their father. One may argue that Chen is "seemingly" successful in terms of preserving and fulfilling in an orthodox manner at least the superficial requirements of his Chinese cultural identity. Yet, a different picture appears when it comes to his de facto efficiency in playing his roles as a Chinese son, as a Chinese father, and especially as a Chinese husband.

Chen as a Chinese son is fairly, but not completely, successful in terms of accomplishing his duties to his parents. He is obliged to respect and support his parents since, as Ai-Li S. Chin states, there is "the traditional requirement that the son undergo a lifelong subordination -- a critical feature of the Confucian family system" (93). It is true that even after his marriage,

Chen was still as conscientious about sending money to his father as when he had been single. He was a dutiful son...The remittances gave the old couple a comfortable enough existence...Chen was the most affluent of their five sons, who were all good boys. They never acknowledged his remittances. This didn't mean they were ungrateful (non-remitting sons were a favourite source of gossip amongst the crones at the water-pump). Correspondence would have trivialised what the old people felt. This was not to say Chen didn't acquire merit for what he did. (60)

Yet, in reality Chen does not completely fit into this idealistic portrayal of the dutiful son. He remitted money to his parents as a material obligation without any emotional involvement. After all, it was his wife Lily who made sure that the remittances sent regularly every month. Lily "had no living parent herself. This made her more determined to respect filial ties. She personally mailed the remittances. . . . With each draft she enclosed a note.... She always signed them with Husband's name; although this fiction was quite transparent since Chen had never bothered with personal enclosures" (60). Chen's lack of emotional involvement with his parents is rendered more obvious later in the novel when his father leaves Hong Kong for Britain to live with his son's family after the death of his wife. It was to the surprise of his wife that Chen refused for business reasons to go to the airport to meet his father. Although he was pushed one more time by Mui who reminded him that he had to honour his parent and also offered to manage the restaurant for the few hours Chen would be away, Chen's answer did not change. Adding to these the fact that all through the novel there is not any instance of real communication between Chen and his father, and that their relationship remains at a material and superficial level even after the old man's settlement in London, that Chen should not be seen as a successful son who "really" behaves according to the codes of the Chinese culture.

Chen's performance as a father is not any better than his performance as a son. Of course, this does not mean that he was indifferent to his son Man Kee, but it is also true that for some reason he is not able to be the "exemplary" father Man Kee needs. The little boy needs someone who would serve as an example of a succesful life in his socio-cultural environment, but Chen's preoccupation with appearances and his materialistic point of view leads to his constant teasing Man Kee about the size of his head. "Chen was rather matter of fact about his son's progress, further annoying Lily by repeating his usual comments about the disproportionate size of Man Kee's head compared to his body" (17). If this matter were mentioned by Chen only within the family circle, then it could be seen as a normal domestic habit of referring to the attributes of family members for the sake of mere fun. However, this is not the case. Chen's references to the rather abnormal size of his son's head seem to increase in number and magnitude when in public, evoking the idea that he is actually ashamed of the physical appearance of Man Kee. Chin explains that there are many instances in modern Chinese fiction of fathers being ashamed of their sons for various reasons, and also states that this "shame arises from the father's traditional concern with 'face'" in society (93). So, Chen's preoccupation with Man Kee's head may well be seen as an indication of the fact that Chen is ashamed of Man Kee and that he makes him a subject of humour not to lose face. It would not be very realistic to expect a healthy father-son relationship between Chen and Man Kee.

Lastly, it may be argued that Chen projects on Man Kee his own weakness of clinging blindly to traditional ways, and that this is the most important reason why he cannot become the father who acknowledges the circumstances of his son and with foresight guides him through his adaptation and transplantation into a new cultural soil. Chen never realises that Man Kee's experiences as a second generation Chinese in their new "home" will not be the same as his own experiences, and that Man Kee would be in need of a bicultural identity in order to adapt successfully. If Chen were to be a good father, he would acknowledge the necessity of real "change" or "adjustment." On the contrary, "Chen resolved to bring Son up his way. He would...grow up to own many restaurants, gaining experience in all aspects of the trade on the way" (155). One cannot argue here that Chen's intentions are evil, but he makes the mistake of fantasising about the "success" of Man Kee, another source of having "face" in public, where he should be investing for the "happiness" of his son.

Perhaps the most emphasised identity of Chen in the novel is his being a "Husband," the importance of which is reinforced by a constant capitalisation of the letter "h." The significance of this capitalisation arises from the fact that in the patriarchal Chinese family system the father, and especially the old ancestor, is seen almost like a deity. This is an extension of what Maurice Freedman specifies as the ancient Chinese ritualistic tradition of "ancestor worship" (164). Thus, the husband and father figure, in this case Chen, is idealised by his "wife," always with a small "w," as being the ultimate "Husband." Another reason for the capitalisation of the letter "h," which has the effect of stereotyping and not allowing for individualisation, has its roots in the traditional Chinese kin terms of reference and address. In his comprehensive semiotic analysis of Chinese terms of reference and address, John McCoy explains that these terms are descriptive rather than analytic in terms of referring to an individual (209). At the core of McCoy's analysis is the idea that the formation and usage of these terms of reference and address depend mainly on the social role of the individual rather than his/her personal attributes and individual features. McCoy argues that

If the Chinese reference system can be considered a classification device, then the address system might well be thought of as a behavioral guide that demands not so much an understanding of the kin structure as a grasp of the interpersonal commitments existing between ego and his more important kin types. The address system assures ego of at least the basic proprieties in his dealings with kinsmen, providing for him protection from overfamiliarity and a built-in deference. (225)

In the light of this, the capitalisation of the letter "h" in the context of Chen's being addressed by his wife as "Husband" can be considered also as a reminder of the prerequisites of the social relationship between husband and wife. It follows that from the beginning of the novel to its end Chen is not addressed by Lily as "Chen," except only when they are in the still-reserved context of domestic familiarity.

Lily started to experiment with as series of different addresses to the father of her child. Husband, her habitual usage, a simple descriptive term after all, implied respect as well as a salutary recognition of the status quo and all that it traditionally implied. Lily used the term as recipient of obligations which were bilateral. There was also 'Ah Chen', more familiar, used as a summons to ordinary household occasions, notably those through which Lily would be fulfilling a one-sided part of the marital contract.... To refer to her spouse by this alias was also suddenly to look upon him as an individual, whereas his importance really consisted in his role, his rank -- if you like -- of husband.

Thus: 'Ah Chen! Ready to eat now.'

But: 'Husband, the door is struck!' when Chen would be expected to shift it from its stiff hinges. (40-41)

The first impression from this picture of Chen as a perfect Chinese husband, the acknowledged absolute authority, turns out to be an illusion. His weaknesses as a husband and his wife's rather extraordinarily dominant role in the family undermines Chen's role as a husband figure. Superficially he is the ruler in the family, but in reality this role of governing is assumed by Lily.

Chen, poor male, never suspected any of this. If Lily led it was by default and, even so, with such delicacy that Chen thought himself the dominator rather than the dominated. Towards Lily, later, Chen felt grateful, guilty, a little superior despite her odd accomplishments; proud of her in the way that a barbarian conqueror of a highly civilised 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.... And, as there, the conqueror never knew it was he who was truly conquered. (15)

Referring to the analogy above between the "successive barbarian rulers of China" and Chen's position, Hall suggests that "the patriarch of the Chen family "[has] power so long as [his] family acknowledge[s] it; without the collaboration of [his] subjects in [his] own domination, [he is] merely [a] figurehead" (96). Accordingly, as the novel unfolds to reveal Chen's move towards further passivity and isolation, the dominance of his wife, who now cooperates with her sister Mui, increases constantly. As a natural consequence of this shift of power from husband to wife,

Now she [Lily] was using Chen. There was a subtle change. Her services had not changed nor deteriorated. But their point had altered. Unknown to Chen whole new outlooks were developing behind his back, potentially disruptive of family harmony and his hitherto unchallenged position as a leader of that unit. (40)

Chen generally remains reactionless or submissive, only rarely asserting his role as the head of the family for the sake of doing it and without really expecting any restoration of his own authority. When he loses his job as a waiter and decides to accept Lily's suggestion of starting their own business, for instance, there was an "alteration in Chen's outlook: he was giving his women the status of colleagues in the new enterprise" (105). Chen's transferring his manly duties like driving the car -- he does not have the necessary psychomotor abilities after all -- and, say, honouring his father by meeting him at the airport to his wife Lily are other instances of his submissive attitude. At very rare instances like the discussion between husband and wife of the issue of sending or not sending remittances to Chen's parents in Hong Kong, he asserts his position. He thinks it would be better to suspend remittances for a short while, but Lily disagrees. Chen's reaction is to ask questions: "Who is head in our family? You think wife tells Husband what to do?" (107). His questions are merely rhetorical and do not require any answer from the addressee. After all, the inevitable answer would reveal the irony in these questions: Lily is the head in the family.

From the view point of cross-cultural psychology, here is a man who obviously has not been able to make his way through the "crises phase" of the cross-cultural adaptation or transplantation process. Worse than that, he is not efficient in making use of the "maintenance and reparative behaviors" (qtd. in Winkelman 123) as a defence mechanism by really keeping alive his Chinese cultural identity. Although he superficially fulfils the requirements of his cultural background, when observed closely, he is not successful in accomplishing this either. As a Chinese son, a Chinese father and a Chinese husband, he cannot actualise his identity in practice.

From the perspective of Hall's idea of biculturality (1995) one sees that Chen has not achieved a successful "cross-cultural and hybridised" identity. One can argue that Chen aligns himself with the first part of the "binary of primordial notions of ethnicity and 'cultural authenticity' on the one hand and the modern and thus assimilated and alienated native on the other" (Hall 92). He thinks he at least preserves his cultural authenticity. Yet, as has been argued, he cannot achieve even that. Thus, his case is a state of alignment without really being able to do it. Chen's end is worse than "pitiable" (91) since he can does not succeed in achieving cultural authenticity, a state of assimilation, or successful adaptation. Then, Chen's mysterious death, in other words, his disappearance, at the end of Sour Sweet may also be read, with regard to Hall's argument, as a reference to his metaphorical non-existence and peculiar state as well.

Other parts of this study

United Kingdom Overview Mo's Sour Sweet

Last modified 15 May 2003