The author: Lillian Li ’13 is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, and is the recipient of a Hopwood Award in Short Fiction, as well as Glimmer Train’s New Writer Award.
Opening Lines: The waiters were singing “Happy Birthday” in Chinese. All fifteen of them had crowded around the party table, clapping their hands. Not a single one could find the tune. A neighboring table turned in their chairs to look. Their carver kept his eyes on the duck. The song petered out. The customer blew out the candle on her complimentary cheesecake, and, still applauding, the waiters scattered back to their tables, speaking the restaurant’s English again.“We need great leader,” one waiter said to no one in particular. “Song not even song if no him.”
Sitting silently in a booth nearby, Jimmy Han fingered his duck-patterned tie. The waiter had clearly meant for him to overhear. No one called him “great leader.” Jimmy did have a strong and supple singing voice — a surprise, especially to those who knew him — but the staff’s real nickname they used behind his back: “the little boss.” Disrespectful, but what could he do? Most of the waiters had been around long enough to remember him as a boy. Some of them for thirty years. Who else outside his family had known him for that long? The waiters picked their way through the restaurant. Jimmy’s chest began to ache, and he pressed his hand against the bulging fabric of his jacket pocket. The thick envelope resting inside seemed to seize, like a second heart.
On the other side of the booth, Uncle Pang betrayed nothing. He didn’t look like a man about to walk away ten grand richer. He looked like a man who’d just finished his potstickers. Shallow pools of oil spotted his saucer. His thumbnail ran lazily over a blot of black vinegar on the tablecloth. Uncle Pang was always picking something apart.
“Will you be serving duck at your new restaurant?” he said suddenly. He’d been looking around the dining room, but his attention fell back onto Jimmy.
Jimmy let a familiar tingle of lightning shoot through him. He considered what had once been an impossible question.
“We’ll see.” He wet his finger in his glass of seltzer and cleaned a smudge off one of the framed headshots on the wall. “I have a lot of decisions to make.” The envelope seized again; the lightning disappeared. “What can I even afford?”
Uncle Pang didn’t react. He merely shifted in his seat. His right hand began to tap an impatient, cascading beat against the tablecloth, the rhythm skipping on the ring finger’s turn. Forty years and Jimmy was still not used to the missing finger. The stub had just enough flesh to bend at the knuckle.
“A fool could tell you.” Uncle Pang looked around once again for Ah-Jack, their waiter, before scratching at an unseen speck on his crystal watch face. “Duck is simply a chicken that takes longer to make.”
Jimmy used his fists to push himself out of the corner he’d sunk into. “I’ll go see what’s keeping your duck.” He bumped his ass down the squeaky vinyl seat, his long legs tangling beneath him.
“I was very happy to hear that Jack had come out of retirement,” Uncle Pang said. “But he might no longer be Duck House material, don’t you think?”
“It was Johnny’s idea to hire him back,” Jimmy said as he stood up. His older brother, in Hong Kong for another month, had a nasty habit of making decisions for the restaurant over Jimmy’s head. This one he’d made right before jetting off in January. “Loyalty counts for too much with him.”
“Yes.” Uncle Pang inspected the blade of his knife and rubbed at a water stain. “A good thing loyalty means less to you.”
Uncle Pang’s English, always fluent, had grown more dramatic over the years, to great effect. A cold tail of sweat curled down Jimmy’s lower back.
“I’ll be quick.” He bumped his hip lightly against the table.
“Take your time,” Uncle Pang said. “I’ll find someone to keep me company.”
Reviews: “So expertly does first-time novelist Lillian Li conjure the Beijing Duck House, a gaudy, tatterdemalion restaurant in Rockville, Md., that readers of Number One Chinese Restaurant can almost taste its signature dish and feel the heat of its woks. . . . By turns darkly funny and heartbreaking.”—The Wall Street Journal
“A darkly comic novel about complicated families—those created by blood and those forged through circumstance. With wit and heart, Li explores a Chinese-American community torn between ambition and loyalty as each character strives for a world bigger than the restaurant that has bound them together. An exciting debut.” —Brit Bennett, New York Times bestselling author of The Mothers