Book Review: “Chinglish” by Sue Cheung

Following on from my review of Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, I’ve decided to do more book reviews on my blog, so here’s my next one.

Books telling the stories of Britain’s Asian and East and Southeast Asian communities are practically non-existent, but Sue Cheung, a.k.a. Sue Pickford, is one of the first to have hers told with her debut young adult novel Chinglish. A diary-style retelling, complete with the odd detailed, comic illustration here and there, based on her childhood as a teenage British-born Chinese girl growing up in Coventry and living above her parents’ takeaway, Chinglish is hilarious, frank and even often emotional.

Jo Kwan is a short and shy but arty and ambitious 13-year-old at the beginning of the book as she talks us through her family’s business-hopping, from a Chinese restaurant in Nottingham to a butchers in Hull and now to a takeaway in Coventry. She hates their “living quarters” (if you can call the tiny flat above the takeaway that), finds her little sister Bonny annoying and troublesome, her barely English-speaking mother uncaring and her temperamental father not one you’d want to cross on a bad day – which appears to be too often. She gets along with her studious older brother Simon, but he lives a few streets down with their grandparents for reasons that become chillingly clear as the story progresses.

Poor Jo has a lot to juggle throughout her teenage years: fitting in at school, avoiding jealous and racist bullies, boy trouble, helping out at the takeaway when not at school, living in a madhouse with her dysfunctional family and their bizarre number of pets that constantly come and go, and trying to fulfil her dream of running away to make it big in the art and design industry or to work for her favourite fashion magazine Mizz. All whilst also feeling not quite Chinese at home and among family and their Chinese friends, but at the same time not feeling White or English amongst people at school, in society and public or even when compared to her one and only friend, Gothy Tina.

At first Jo (Sue) tells us she is only going to put the good stuff in the diary, but as time progresses, it’s sadly obvious that that’s just not always possible as things get honest and even a little terrifying. With a diary-like book you often wonder where the story is going and whether someone’s life is really exciting enough to write a diary let alone read it, but as so many things continue to happen, you’re even more engaged and intrigued as you read on. But little are you prepared for the twists at almost every corner as a new diary entry comes along. From having to deal with abusive customers to dealing with the surprise of a new baby in the family on the way, from how some of the poor pets sadly meet their maker to domestic violence. The story doesn’t just reflect the joyful or funny things and memorable moments in life, but addresses the worst that often makes us who we are or stronger or encourages and inspires us in life, as well as allows us to learn from our or other people’s mistakes.

As they say you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth and it’s thankfully not all bad, even after the shocks that keep coming. There are heartwarming moments of true friendship, sibling bonding, faith in humanity and basic human kindness being restored, crazy adventures and tales of pets, and of course ecstatic news for Jo that you’ll just have to read the book to know what that is and all the other things are.

Chinglish is both a laugh-out-loud humorous and sometimes gobsmackingly sad story but one that so many people can relate to on every or different levels. You don’t have to be a Chinese person living in the U.K. to understand the racism and ignorance she faces or the struggle of feeling different on both sides, or a teenage girl to understand the complexities of getting through school, looking nice and dating boys. Hell, you don’t even need to have grown up in the 80s to get any of it. And even if you are a Chinese person in the U.K., we don’t – believe it or not – all have the same lives. Unfortunate Jo has parents who could care less about their children’s education (mine certainly did!) and she sadly never got to eat turkey on Christmas Day (I bloody wish we could’ve had lobster like them!), but for some many of the stories told ring true. And we’ve all been teenagers growing up and many of us remember school being a tough time, so there are plenty of Jo’s entries that we can identify with as well.

At the end of the book you’re left happy that all ends well for troubled Jo but also dying to know more of her life after that. How does Bonny cope being left the oldest child at only 11? What path does Larry take as he grows older? What happened to her parents’ lives, especially her dad? Do she and Tina ever reunite (we know they’re still good friends, at least)? We need a part two!* And I can’t wait for the TV adaptation!

Sue Cheung as Jo Kwan writes in a witty way as if straight from her teenage mouth, with stories that keep the reader engrossed as she grows. There’s amusing anecdotes, descriptions and jokes along the way, entwined with the bad and painful memories she had to dig up and put in – all while still in the style of a overjoyed, confused, despairing and sometimes horrified teenager. Chinglish – certainly worthy of the awards it’s won and been shortlisted for – is a book worth reading no matter who you are, where you’re from or what age you are. It may be aimed at young adults and be great representation for the untold and unheard of stories of Britain’s Chinese population, but its beauty and brilliance lies in its universal appeal.

Rating: 4.5/5 (only because I wanted to closure on her first boyfriend Warren’s story and whether he was actually gay!)

*”Part two” can be read here in short… WARNING: it’s definitely NOT warm and fuzzy!

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