Miss Chopsticks by Xue Xinran
Translated by Esther Tyldesly from Chinese
Miss Chopsticks (2007) is an entertaining, good, very pleasant story about three country girls who go to the big city in search of their fortune. The book is set in rural China and the city of Nanjing. Nanjing is a city of about 6.5 million. (It is also often called Nanking). It is located in south China. In the 20th century it is remembered for the Nanking Massacre in 1937 during which the Japanese Imperial Army killed around 300,000 civilians men, women, children and infants in an orgy of rape and murder fully sanctioned by Japanese military leaders.
The time is a few years after the great cultural revolution in which millions of city people were sent out in the countryside to labor with and supposedly learn from the peasants. In rural China a couple that had only daughters were a laughing stock. A man was not considered a real man if he could sire only daughters.
The father of the girls who are the central characters of Miss Chopsticks was so humiliated when his wife gave birth to only girls that he just gave them numbers not names. So the girls ended up
being called One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Six. The six girls are a potentially crushing burden on the father. He fears no one will want to marry them as they come from a father who can sire only girls. He finds a husband for two of his daughters and one of his daughters takes herself out of the story.
Sisters Three, Five and Six go into the nearest big city, Nanjing, to seek their fortune, aided by Uncle Two.
The girls are very naive in the ways of the huge and wicked city. Three gets a job in a traditional restaurant right next to McDonalds and KFC. The restaurant does great business as it serves wonderful traditional food at fair prices. Five gets a job at The Water Dragon. The Water Dragon is a health spa where the clients take mineral and herbal baths and get foot massages. Five's sisters and uncle are a little worried as they have heard some stories about what can happen to country girls in such place but the Water Dragon is a completely legitimate and honest business. Five adopts as her mentor the chief engineer of the business and ends up learning a huge amount and becoming a great helper to her employers. Six was the most educated of the girls. Six loves books. She ended up with a dream job working at the Book Taster's Tea House, surrounded by wonderful books, both traditional Chinese and western.
As the story proceeds on one of the girls will stare down an angry mob. One will fall in love. One will handle a visit with government officials as good as any Confucian sage could have. The girls have some adventures and learn a lot about the big city, eat a lot of very well described food, learn some good life lessons and have some fun.
I laughed out loud when one of the older women in the book lectured the girls on how they missed out on the great experience of being sent to work among the peasants. I really enjoyed seeing how Six was able to develop her love for reading and begin her Reading Life while working in the tea house owned fellow book lovers. The characters are well drawn. Some sad things happen to the girls but nothing that is not a part of growing up. We learn a lot about the conflict of generation in China between those who lived through the cultural revolution and those born after it. We see age old conflict of city versus country people. We learn about the inner working of tea houses, bath houses and restaurants. We get a pretty close look at sibling relationships.
Miss Chopsticks is worth reading and will repay our time with enjoyment and edification.
Xue Xinran was born in Beijing in 1958. She was a very well known radio journalist in China before she wrote her best known work The Good Women of China. I look forward to reading this book.