Book Review. Angela Hui, 2022. Takeaway: Stories From a Childhood Behind the Counter. Trapeze: London. £16.99 (343 pages).
Takeaway is a memoir about growing up as a Chinese ‘takeaway kid’ in rural Wales. The narrative starts when Hui is 12 years old and trying to make friends as one of two girls in her school ‘who doesn’t have white skin’. She is already bound to the unrelenting demands of helping her parents in their takeaway shop (named auspiciously ‘Lucky Star’).
Outside of working hours, she uses the takeaway counter as the only space in the crammed family home where she could play or write homework undisturbed. Referring to the opening hours of the business as ‘service’, Hui immediately creates, perhaps unintentionally, allusions with military or religious order. It soon becomes clear that her relationship with the takeaway – and with her parents – is one dictated by an ingrained sense of filial obligation, guilt at resenting it, and embarrassment.
The absence of the takeaway leaves an awkward space in me, like a corner of a room you can’t find a good use for. I feel my body rearrange itself. Takeaway life and post-takeaway life.
Over thirteen well-contained chapters punctuated by personally significant Chinese recipes, Hui takes us through her struggles with her own bifurcated identity of never quite belonging, either in the Welsh Valleys, where she is a native, or in Hong Kong, where her father’s roots are. Inability to reconcile her two worlds is the source of much mental exhaustion and conflict.
She speaks of her first love, Steffan, who jokes, to her quiet resentment, that his well-travelled family is ‘more Asian than you are’. With sadness she acknowledges that her inability to reconcile her life in the takeaway with Steffan’s perfect Welsh family forced her to break up with him, without ever trying to explain.
She writes passionately of food, both during her annual family trips to Hong Kong where her parents take a much needed reprieve from the backbreaking work in the takeaway (‘it feels great being the majority’), and at home, during their daily family meals, when they express their love in the only way they know: through preparing special, off-menu dishes for the children.
Chinese Steamed Egg
Hui’s writing is authentic, interspersed with rare gems. Her father’s Chinese Steamed Egg is wobbly in appearance and delicate in flavour, ‘which reminds me a lot of the relationship between me and my father’. The weekly lunch at the grand ‘Happy Gathering’ restaurant in Cardiff, where the South Wales Chinese community congregates on Sundays to enjoy steaming delicacies for yum cha, judge each other’s choices and celebrate weddings, is her happy place: you can almost see the ‘song-and-dance’ of her father and uncle’s ritual fighting over the bill. The ‘Global Foods’ cash-and-carry wholesaler, where they restock much like other immigrant food businesses in the area, gives her a feeling of sharing something with the strangers around her whose stories intrigue her, though they are all too busy ‘snaking up and down the long aisles’.
Photo: Angela Hui at https://www.angelahui.co.uk/takeaway.
The story ends when Hui is 26 and her parents have finally made the decision to sell: they pass the shop on to a young Chinese family eager to build their own home – and introduce cashless payments, at last. Hui has finished her Master’s degree in Journalism and moved to London with the love of her life, Tom. Free from the shackles of the takeaway and amidst the bustle of the city, she is learning to embrace her identity and forgive her parents.
Saying Goodbye Is Bittersweet
Saying goodbye to ‘Lucky Star’ is bittersweet: the grief of losing something so dear washed with tears of joy (‘we are all free’). By putting together her memories, Hui tries to make sense of it but also hopes to start a conversation about segregation, loneliness, the generational knowledge and resilience of all those immigrant parents and their children, ‘still working through their trauma while choosing to view life with wonderment’.
Her list of books by East and Southeast Asian authors on food, identity and race towards the end are a good starting point for that conversation – as is her curated Instagram collection of Chinese takeaways in Britain (@chinesetakeawaysuk).
Nevena Nancheva at email@example.com