Sour Sweet

views updated

Sour Sweet

by Timothy Mo


A novel set in London in the early 1960s; published in 1982


Having emigrated from Hong Kong, the Chen family struggles to adapt to life in London, where Mr. Chen unwittingly becomes a target of the Chinese international crime syndicate known as the Triad Society.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Timothy Mo was born in Hong Kong in 1950 to a Chinese father and an English mother who divorced soon after his birth. When Mo was ten, he moved to England to live with his mother, where he later received a B.A. degree in history from Oxford University and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia. While Mo, who speaks and writes little Chinese, considers his novels to address matters of universal significance, those larger issues are framed by issues that reflect his dual Chinese and European background. His first novel, The Monkey King (1978), is set in Hong Kong in the 1950s and features a half-Chinese, half-Portuguese main character who slowly comes to value the mixed heritage that he at first despises. Most of Mo’s later books—An Insular Possession (1986), The Redundancy of Courage (1991), and Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (1995)—are also set in Asia. Of his novels to date only the second, Sour Sweet, is set in Britain. Like the others, it has an Asian focus, taking place entirely within London’s Chinese immigrant community.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Hong Kong

Britain’s Chinese immigrant community has been profoundly shaped by the British Empire’s colonial presence in Eastern Asia, and that presence is exemplified above all by the former British trading colony of Hong Kong. Hong Kong has been and remains central to the experience and identity of Chinese immigrants in Britain.

Britain and Hong Kong have an intertwined history that goes back to the city’s foundation by British merchants in the 1820s, before which the infertile and mountainous Hong Kong Island was occupied by a few small fishing settlements. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain fought two wars with China in order to impose the Hong Kong-based and British-controlled importation of opium into China. The settlements of these wars confirmed British possession of Hong Kong by treaty: in the First Opium War (1839-42) China ceded Hong Kong Island to the British; in the Second Opium War (1856-60) China ceded the area called Kowloon on the mainland opposite the island. Thus, the British secured both the eastern and western approaches to the island’s magnificent natural anchorage, Victoria Harbour. On July 1, 1898, Britain signed a 99-year lease with China for a large inland area north of Kowloon known as the New Territories, along with over 200 nearby islands. By that time, both commercial development and population had expanded rapidly, so that over 300,000 people, mostly Chinese, lived in urban Hong Kong. By contrast, in the larger and less developed New Territories, small villages continued to exist and would endure through the time the novel takes place. In Sour Sweet Mr. Chen, the head of the immigrant family whose story the novel tells, comes from a village in the New Territories.

Hong Kong was one of many so-called “treaty ports” around which the European colonial powers had carved out spheres of influence in China by the end of the nineteenth century. While Hong Kong and nearby Macao (ceded to Portugal) were the only actual territorial concessions, each European power had a number of Chinese commercial centers in which it controlled trade. All major Chinese ports and many inland cities were “opened” in this way to British, French, Portuguese, or other European traders, as the tottering and unpopular Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) used European support to maintain its grip on power. These centers all attracted Chinese traders, merchants, and settlers.

From its early years, Hong Kong has exerted an especially strong attraction for Chinese seeking economic prosperity or political refuge. Immigration into Hong Kong was unrestricted, and the flow of Chinese immigrants increased in times of trouble. Thousands of Chinese refugees, for example, arrived after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. Hong Kong itself fell to the Japanese in 1941, and the flow of refugees reversed during World War II, with the population falling from 1.6 million to about 650,000 as many fled back to mainland China. With the resumption of British rule after the end of the war in 1945, hundreds of thousands of Chinese began returning to Hong Kong, largely Cantonese-speakers from the neighboring provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong. The city’s growing population was further swollen in 1949 by refugees from China’s civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. Communist victory that same year created the People’s Republic of China, with the defeated Nationalists occupying the offshore island of Taiwan, which like Hong Kong would remain a literal island of capitalism close to the Communist mainland. In the novel, Mr. Chen’s wife, Lily, is the daughter of a martial arts expert from Guangxi who was killed fighting for the Nationalists when she was 11. Lily and her sister Mui, four years older, joined the flood of immigrant refugees into Hong Kong, where she worked in a shoe factory until marrying Mr. Chen.

In 1982, the year the novel was published, Britain and China opened negotiations to hand Hong Kong back to China, as the July 1997 expiration of the New Territories treaty approached. China’s position had long been that both the lease and the original treaties had been imposed by force and were therefore invalid, and the British agreed to return the entire colony to Chinese control. More and more residents emigrated in the late 1970s because of uncertainty about Hong Kong’s future, but emigration would not increase sharply until the late 1980s.

Chinese immigrants in Britain

Small Chinese immigrant communities have been recorded in Britain as early as the late eighteenth century, but only in the period after World War II did the numbers of Chinese-born British residents surpass a few thousand. Postwar immigration from China increased sharply in the late 1940s, as a result of various factors. The 1948 British Nationality Act officially gave citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies and of the Independent Commonwealth Countries (former British colonies, such as Canada and India) the right to enter the United Kingdom and find employment there without restriction. Other factors also combined to spur immigration. There was an increased demand for labor in Britain as its economy recovered from the war. At the same time, cheap rice imports into Hong Kong from Thailand began to undercut local rice growers from the New Territories villages, creating an incentive for emigration. Sour Sweet speaks of cheap Thai rice imports putting financial pressure on Mr. Chen’s father, a carpenter in a village where few can afford to build; during the course of the novel Mr. Chen joins his son’s family in Britain.

The following figures from the British census show the increasingly important role that Hong Kong played in Chinese immigration:

Chinese Population in Postwar Britain by Place of Birth
YearChinaHong KongSingaporeMalaysiaTotal

(adapted from Parker, p. 63)

While the numbers of Hong Kong-born Chinese rose faster than any other segment of the Chinese British population, Hong Kong’s influence was even greater than these numbers may suggest at first glance. First, like the novel’s Lily Chen, many or even most of the China-born immigrants settled in or passed through Hong Kong before arriving in Britain. Many of the others had kinship ties with Hong Kong. Second, immigrants from Singapore and Malaysia (both British colonies whose populations were largely ethnic Chinese) tended to be wealthier and better educated than those born in Hong Kong or China. Many were students or professional trainees, such as doctors and nurses, who intended to return home on completing a course of study or training; Hong Kong-born and China-born immigrants tended to stay longer or to settle permanently in Britain. Finally, in contrast with the closed nature of the mainland Communist system, Hong Kong’s vital popular culture, in the form of print and other media, remained accessible to the immigrant community and offered all Chinese in Britain a way to keep in touch with their Chinese roots. Cantonese, Hong Kong’s dominant Chinese language, thus also became the main language of Chinese immigrants in Britain.

Restaurants, takeaways, and racism

After the war, new tastes and more disposable income among the British created an economic niche in the food service business that Chinese immigrants were quick to fill. There were various reasons for this alacrity, including discrimination. As shown in later decades, Asians who applied for jobs often suffered “racial disadvantage,” which narrowed the options (Ramdin, p. 326).

Chinese immigrants often opted to begin their own enterprises. Starting in the 1950s, a rapidly growing number of Chinese restaurants appeared in Britain’s cities. Restaurant work suited the needs of many immigrants, since it was labor-intensive employment that did not require special skills or much knowledge of the English language. At the beginning of the novel, Mr. Chen works in London’s Chinatown (located in the city’s Soho district). Such restaurants were at first staffed almost entirely by men. Between 1945 and 1970, the number of Chinese food service establishments in Britain rose tenfold, from about 100 to about 1000.

By the early 1960s, women were joining this immigrant labor force. As immigrant men increasingly arranged for their families to join them in Britain (or, like the novel’s Mr. Chen, returned to Hong Kong to find a wife to bring back to Britain), those who had formerly worked as waiters in Chinese restaurants began establishing their own smaller, family-run businesses. The Chen family starts such a business, moving away from London’s Chinatown and opening a takeaway shop, a small restaurant without tables where customers can purchase quickly prepared food to eat away from the premises. In the late 1960s the small family-owned takeaway would start to play a central role in the Chinese immigrant community, largely though not completely displacing the larger partner-owned restaurants that had predominated earlier. By the 1970s Chinese takeaway shops had become a familiar sight in many British cities and towns. Subsequently many Chinese opened takeaway fish-and-chips shops that specialized in this traditional English favorite (as Chen’s sister-in-law Mui does at the end of the novel). Other ethnic-based fast foods likewise became popular in Britain: the Chens, for example, compete with a Pakistani takeaway nearby.

Meanwhile, the immigration picture changed, which affected the number of Chinese British in food service occupations. In 1962 the British Commonwealth Immigrants’ Act abolished the automatic right of British citizenship for Commonwealth citizens. Now unskilled Commonwealth applicants could win approval for immigration only if they could obtain a voucher from an employer showing that they already had a job waiting in Britain. But the 1962 Act also distinguished between British colonies in the Commonwealth and independent Commonwealth nations, allowing the dependents of immigrants from British colonies (such as Hong Kong) continued access. In the novel Mr. Chen’s father is allowed entry as a dependent, although, as Lily’s sister Mui observes, “English people don’t want many foreign persons here. . . . Authorities are much stricter than when I came,” that is before the 1962 Act (Mo, Sour Sweet, p. 208).

Over time, the changes brought about by the 1962 Act had the effect of funneling Chinese immigrants even more sharply into food service, by


Immigration was a major political issue in Britain in the 1960s, as popular reaction set in to unprecedented levels of immigration after 1948. Some have associated racist motivations with attempts to limit immigration, since many of the immigrants were dark-skinned (such as those from the former colonies in India, Pakistan, and the West Indies). Sour Sweet does not depict overí racism against its protagonists, but racism is constantly in the novel’s background. For example, Chen and Lily both feel camaraderie with Pakistani and black West Indian bus conductors, and Lily warns her son not to get on the buy it’ the conductor is white. Chinese immigrants did in fact commonly encounter racist behavior in mid-twentieth-century Britain, behavior that ranged from hostile looks and comments to physical violence. Young Chinese women working in takeaways were particularly vulnerable to such behavior, often being exposed late at night to hostile, drunken groups of young male customers coming in for food after the eleven o’clock pub closing hour.

giving employers greater control over prospective immigrants. These changes also encouraged the opening of family-run takeaways, giving increased importance to family and village connections as a way of landing a job before immigration, or of finding a place as a dependent who could help with the business (as the elder Mr. Chen does in the novel). By 1985, a few years after the novel was published, a British government survey indicated that 90 percent of Chinese in Britain worked in the food service industry (Parker, p. 72).

The Triads

Parallel to the story of the Chen family, Sour Sweet also depicts a dramatic feud involving a very different kind of familial organization, the Chinese crime syndicate known to its members as the Hung family, but to the English-speaking world as the Triad Society. This secret brotherhood originated in the seventeenth century, when loyalists of the overthrown Ming Dynasty banded together to overthrow the usurping Manchu Qing Dynasty and restore Ming rule. In Triad legend the society’s founders were warrior monks of the Shao Lin Monastery, whose martial arts skills incurred the wrath of the Manchu emperor, provoking him ultimately to destroy the monastery. After the last Qing emperor abdicated in 1911, the society—as one of the many factions that had helped bring about the dynasty’s downfall—enjoyed enhanced power and prestige. With its original purpose of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty accomplished, however, the society now increasingly moved into criminal activity, its once strong central authority giving way to largely independent branches.

Always strongest in southern China, these criminal Triad Societies were already well established in Hong Kong when the Communists took power in mainland China in 1949. (Hong Kong police officer and author W. P. Morgan, in his 1960 book Triaá Societies of Hong Kong, employs the plural to distinguish the new, criminal organizations from the old society.) As supporters of the Nationalists, they were targeted on the mainland by the Communists, so that after 1949 Hong Kong became a major stronghold. At the same time, struggles for power over the limited but lucrative Hong Kong turf erupted between rival branches. Morgan describes a series of confrontations between the newer so-called 14K branches and the older Wo and other societies in the 1940s and 1950s. As Morgan points out, the Triads’ powerful grip extended wherever Chinese settled: in the novel Mo dramatizes a bloody (and fictional) power struggle between the 14K and the Wo societies in London’s Soho Chinatown.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Most of the narrative follows the Chen family: Mr. Chen, Lily, their 2V2-year-old son Man Kee, and Mui, Lily’s elder sister, who immigrated after Man Kee’s birth to help look after the boy. However, the action periodically shifts to related events unfolding as the Wo society prepares to fend off challenges to its Chinatown turf by the 14K branch. At the onset of the novel, the Chens have been living in London’s Chinatown for more than three years, and Mr. Chen works at a Chinese restaurant called Excellence. The couple has been married for four years, Mr. Chen having returned to Hong Kong to find a wife. He and Lily met at a dance in the New Territories village where he grew up, a gathering arranged so that visiting emigrants could meet single women. They married soon after. Each month Chen sends a remittance to his parents, a money order upon which the elderly couple relies heavily, like many other couple relies heavily, like manyother couples in the village

Lily and Mui have no surviving relatives. Since their parents had no male children, their father, a martial arts expert and renowned fighter, trained Lily in Chinese martial arts techniques before he was killed fighting the Communists. Thus, Mui, though four years older than Lily, is more compliant and submissive (more ladylike in traditional Chinese terms). The athletic and strong-willed Lily actually worries that since arriving in Britain after Man Kee’s birth, Mui has rarely left the apartment and watches TV constantly.

At Lily’s urging, Chen quits his restaurant job and the family moves out of Chinatown into a small flat in a south London neighborhood. On the bottom floor of the flat, they open a small takeaway, finding ready customers among the truck drivers who frequent the garage nearby. Lily, however, does not know that the real reason Chen has agreed to this step is that he has secretly accepted money from the Wo society, in a deal brokered by a fellow waiter who is a runner, or heroin dealer, for the society. The money, which the society ostensibly offers as a gift, is for medical attention needed by Chen’s father in Hong Kong. Knowing that he is now under an obligation that can bring him only deeper and more dangerous involvement with the society, Chen’s agreement to move and start a business is really a desperate attempt to hide.

The business prospers, however, and a potential dispute with the garage owner, Mr. Constantinides—who complains that some of the truck drivers who patronize the Chens’ takeaway are blocking his entrance—is averted when he and Chen strike a mutually advantageous arrangement whereby the drivers will park in the garage, from where Constantinides will phone in their orders. Mui, whose TV watching has resulted in her English improving more than Chen’s or Lily’s, collects good tips delivering the drivers’ orders. In a reversal of her earlier timidity, she now becomes the family’s informal rep resentative to the British world. Chen cooks and Lily handles the counter, impassively and silently as possible helping the English customers, who sit on homemade benches in the small front room as they wait for the food.

Gradually the immigrants’ world broadens: they purchase a battered old van, visit the seashore for a picnic, and survive baffling encounters with British bureaucracy in the forms of a lady who wishes to put them on the local voting rolls and, more alarmingly, the tax man. Lily’s reaction to both is guarded and skeptical—she suspects the kind of “licensed brigandry” that similar officials in China might engage in—but Mui acts as interpreter and buffer (Sour Sweet, p. 163).


In the 1960s whole villages in the rural New Territories began relying on remittances from young men working abroad, as villages had in many parts of China since the previous century. Remittances not only provided material support for the worker’s family, but lent the whole family social distinction as well. As Chen reflects in the novel, if he stopped sending money home his family would be subject to humiliating gossip. Some of the young male workers were sojourners, temporary immigrants who planned to work for a few years before returning home. Others planned to stay. In Hong Kong, Britain was the preferred destination for both sojourners and permanent immigrants.

The family gains more exposure to British ways when Man Kee starts school, which to Lily’s chagrin he enjoys.

Lily is even more dismayed when it transpires that Mui—normally plump but now seeming to get “fatter by the day”—is in fact six months pregnant (Sour Sweet, p. 184). Refusing to tell Lily who the father is, and wanting to keep her pregnancy secret, Mui acquiesces to Lily’s plan that she move into the Chinatown house of their friend Mrs. Law, the wealthy older widow of a Hong Kong shipping magnate. Lily tells Chen vaguely that Mui will be back “soon” and enlists Man Kee, now old enough to take the bus to school by himself (in fact he instructs Lily on bus procedure), to help at the counter (Sour Sweet, p. 201). However, after Mui has the baby, a gir, she does not wish to bring her daughter back to the Chens’ small flat as Lily had planned. Instead, Mrs. Law has offered to support the newborn, and has extended her a permanent room in the house. Mui agrees; she will move back in with Lily and Chen and visit her daughter as often as possible.

Just as they begin this new arrangement, news arrives that Chen’s mother has died, leaving Chen’s elderly and infirm father with no place to go:

He had spent his son’s remittance money on feasting and gambling, quite legitimately of course as was his right, instead of building the kind of two-storey concrete and corrugated iron pill-box that other sons and other remittances had constructed on the settlement’s outskirts.

(Sour Sweet, p. 207)


“The food they sold, certainly wholesome, nutritious, colourful, even tasty in its way, had been researched by Chen. It bore no resemblance at all to Chinese cuisine. They served from a stereotyped menu, similar to those outside countless other establishments” (Sour Sweet, p. 105). Like the fictional Chens, Chinese for decades have carefully tailored the food they serve the British public to fit the public’s taste, while continuing to enjoy more authentic dishes themselves. “We didn’t actually touch the stuff,” said one young Chinese woman who worked in her father’s takeaway in the 1990s: “Dad stuffed the other food full of M.S.G. (Monosodium Glutamate) for the customers, we had the authentic food for ourselves” (Parker, p. 99). Customer favorites featured in Sour Sweet include “lurid orange sweet and sour pork with pineapple chunks;” authentic dishes consumed by the Chens include “white, bloody chicken and yellow duck’s feet” (Sour Sweet, p. 61).

None of Chen’s brothers have room to take their father in their tiny houses, so they have decided that he must join Chen’s family in Britain. Lily is happy to have this chance to honor her father-in-law, and Mui arranges permission for the old man to immigrate.

The normally stolid Chen, however, is panic-stricken: all these highly visible arrangements will undoubtedly reveal his whereabouts to the Wo society. His fears have more basis than he knows, for (as the reader has learned) the runner who arranged his earlier gift from the society has falsely blamed him for the loss of money that the runner himself embezzled. One of the Wo members, White Paper Fan, plots to topple Red Cudgel, a leader of a unit of the society (the Soho lodge), by using Red Cudgel’s plan to assassinate Chen as a lever. Though White Paper Fan knows that Chen is innocent, he aims to take advantage of Red Cudgel’s mistaken assassination of an innocent man to discredit Red Cudgel. The plan works, and the reader learns that Chen was taken and killed with “neither fear nor pain” (Sour Sweet, p. 263).

As far as Lily knows, however, Chen simply walks off one day and disappears. To conceal their mistake (assassinating an innocent man would cause the society to lose face if the Chinese community at large found out) the Wo society sends Lily a monthly stipend. This allows Lily to imagine that Chen has merely taken a temporary job abroad and will one day return to his family. Even as she holds out hope for his return, however, she begins to adjust to life without him, and even to relish her own newfound freedom. Although she loved Chen—loves him still, she tells herself—she feels “as if a stone had been taken off her and she had sprung to what her height should have been” (Sour Sweet, p. 278). Using the Chinese mode of referring to family members, she thinks to herself that “she might have lost Husband for a while, but she still had Son. Who could take him away from her?” (Sour Sweet, p. 278).

Family, duty, and acculturation

While strikingly different in tone and content, the intertwined narratives in Sour Sweet—that of the Chen family and that of the Triads—both dramatize Chinese concepts of family and duty. Indeed, for both groups family and duty seem closely related, even synonymous. For the Triad gangsters, however, both have become abstract: the notion of family has become an empty metaphor, and self-interest has displaced the ancient ideas of duty that once dominated the secret society. For the Chens, by contrast, and especially for Lily, the link between duty and family remains real and immediate.

At various points each of the three adults in the Chen household is described as dutiful, each in a subtly different way that suits his or her character, but always in the context of family. Lily’s sense of duty is rigid and deeply internalized, though it has more traditional and less traditional elements. In the novel’s opening pages, for instance, we are told that Lily always prepares a snack of soup for Chen after his shift as a waiter is over. Though he doesn’t get home till 1:00 a.m., she feels that she would be “failing in her wifely duties” otherwise (Sour Sweet, p. 2). Lily is also the one who personally sends the remittance on the same date each month, always enclosing a brief personal note to Chen’s parents, and her very Chinese sense of filial loyalty is outraged by the way the British ignore their old people. Yet Lily shocks Mui by boldly taking it upon herself to learn how to drive the van, which Mui had assumed Chen, as the man of the family, would do (in a highly comic scene, he proves completely incapable of learning).

Chen’s sense of duty is described in ways that make it seem more conventional, almost a matter of politeness, and less the result of any deep inner conviction. For instance, he drinks the soup “dutifully,” even though it is salty and leaves him suffering from thirst all night (Sour Sweet, p. 2). And while he sent the remittances regularly when he was single, Lily’s sterner sense of duty acts as an insurance policy in case Chen’s should slip: “He was a dutiful son. She would have made sure he was anyway” (Sour Sweet, p. 60). Whereas Lily analyzes situations constantly, the stolid Chen responds to the demands of duty without much analysis, and it gets him killed.

In contrast to Lily, who has shouldered her duties by conviction and choice, and Chen, who rotely goes through the motions, Mui has had her sense of duty forcibly imposed on her. Their strict father brought her up to be a traditional Chinese woman: “uncomplaining, compliant, dutiful, considerate, unselfish . . . utterly submissive to the slightest wishes of her superiors, which included women older than herself and the entire male sex, including any brothers she might acquire in the future” (Sour Sweet, pp. 10-11). This artificially imposed sense of duty collapses like a thin veneer when Mui immigrates. She shakes off her traditional Chinese sense of duty, becomes pregnant out of wedlock (shocking Lily), and begins making choices for herself. By the end of the novel, she is planning to marry, and partly by virtue of her acculturation has replaced her sister as the dominant one in the family.

While Lily makes certain accommodations, her more strongly internalized sense of duty remains essentially intact, withstanding the assaults of Western culture to the end. One of her strongest duties, she feels, is to raise her son as Chinese. Near the end of the novel, she is determined that Man Kee will attend Chinese school in Chinatown on weekends, and her greatest fear is that he will “grow into a foreign devil boy” (Sour Sweet, p. 236). Despite Lily’s final and optimistic reflection that no one can take her son from her, however, the novel has made it clear that Britain is already claiming Man Kee; as with other second-generation immigrants, he would soon find himself acculturated in ways that his parents could never share.

Sources and literary context

For Sour Sweet’s passages describing Hong Kong and its people,


Like the Chen family, the Triad societies that came from Hong Kong to London with the Chinese immigrants were forced to adapt to new ways of doing business. In Sour Sweet the societies are undergoing two conflicts between old and new: one pits the more traditional Wo society against the upstart 14K society; the other opposes the old-fashioned criminal techniques—street fighting, violence, brute strength—against) inst the newer, streamlined methods that rely as much on bookkeeping as on leg-breaking. In the novel, Red Cudgel, leader of the Wo society, epitomises the old, built warriors of the past, while his lieutenant, White Paper Fan, represents the new business-oriented style. The novel refers to the Triad members by their positions in the organization. “Red Cudgel,” for example, is the position of enforcer, and each unit or lodge of the Triad would have a Red Cudgel as its chief strongarm man. Leadership did not rest with any specific position; instead the leader was chosen from a pool of high-ranking members. White Paper Fan was responsible for bookkeeping and administration, and in the novel it is the holder of this Position who displaces the Wo lodge’s Red Cudgel as leader. While not based closely on actual events, the fictional conflict in the novel does generally reflect a turf war between the real-life Wo and 14K societies that occurred in both Hong Kong and London in late 1950s and early 1960s

Mo could draw from his own extensive personal experience as someone born there. Similarly, as an immigrant from Hong Kong to Britain, he had his own experience to guide him in the emotions and perceptions that accompany acculturation. His presentation of this material has been compared to that of great nineteenth-century novelists such as Dickens and Flaubert, but the choice of material itself is highly original, for Mo is the first novelist working in English to write seriously of the Chinese immigrant experience in Britain (and also one of the first to write about Hong Kong). Mo’s most important literary source for the Triads was Morgan’s Triad Societies of Hong Kong, which he cites in a brief bibliographical note at the end of Sour Sweet. In addition, Mo also used The Triad Society (1900), by William Stanton, who like Morgan was an English Hong Kong police officer, and Dutch scholar Gustave Schlegel’s 1866 translation of collected Triad Society documents, Thian Thi Hui, the Hung League.


Sour Sweet has met with the warmest reception, both from critics and from the reading public, of Mo’s works to date. Short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1982, it won the Hawthorndon Prize from the Society of Authors the following year. Writing in the New Statesman, Michael Poole called Sour Sweet “a brilliantly observed study in the first-generation immigrant experience” (Poole, p. 27). On the other hand, John Sutherland and Peter Lewis found Mo’s handling of the Triads to be less satisfactory than the rest of the book, faulting his characterizations of the Triad members as comparatively shallow and unoriginal depictions of stereotyped gangsters. At the same time, both reviewers found much to praise in Mo’s portrayal of the Chen family. The two critics disagreed, however, on the author’s tone. Writing in the London Review of Books, Sutherland highlighted Mo’s comédie touch and original perspective, praising the “fresh and consistently comic . . . way in which familiar British situations are reflected off an alien ethnic surface” (Sutherland, p. 18). Using similar language, Peter Lewis praised the same reflection but seemed to find it mildly disturbing:he wrote in the Times Literary Supplement of a “new frisson” that the novel created with its “apparent discrepancy between location and action, between modern England and a largely self-contained and alien society functioning within it” (Lewis, p. 502). Despite the novel’s many comic moments, Lewis continued in a similar vein, “the final effect is far from comic” (Lewis, p. 502).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Ho, Elaine Yee Lin. Timothy Mo. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Lewis, Peter. “Hong Kong London.” Review of Sour Sweet, by Timothy Mo. Times Literary Supplement, 7 May 1982, 502.

Mo, Timothy. Sour Sweet. London: Abacus, 1982.

Morgan, W. P. Triad Societies in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Government Press, 1960.

Pan, Lyn. The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas. Richmond, England: Curzon, 1998.

Parker, David. Through Different Eyes: The Cultural identifies of Young Chinese People in Britain. Alder-shot, England: Averbury, 1995.

Poole, Michael. Review of Sour Sweet, by Timothy Mo. New Statesman 103 (April 23, 1982): 27.

Ramdin, Ron. Reimaging Britain: 500 Years of Black and Asian History. London: Pluto, 1999.

Solomos, John. Race and Racism in Britain. London: MacMillan, 1993.

Sutherland, John. “Nationalities.” Review of Sour Sweet, by Timothy Mo. London Review of Books, 6 May 1982, 18.

Wah, Yung Yung, Burjor Avari, and Simon Buckley. British Soil, Chinese Roots. Liverpool: Countryvise, 1996.

Ward, J. S. M., and W. G. Stirling. The Hung Society. 3 vols. London: Baskerville Press, 1925.