Wednesday 19 May 2021

Pot-sticker dumplings and scarlet gloop: Nicky Harman reviews Maisie Chan’s Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, 2021, and looks back at Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet, 1982


Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths is a delightful story featuring the eponymous Danny, son of parents who run a Chinese takeaway, his friend Ravi, his doting granny (Nai Nai) and assorted oddball friends and neighbours. Danny loves drawing, hates maths, and is appalled when Nai Nai moves to Birmingham from China and he has to share his bedroom with her. He can't speak her dialect, she snores like a train, farts for England (or rather China) and worst of all, she turns up at his school to bring him Chinese lunch. Oh, and he has to look after her because his mum and dad are busy running their takeaway. When the local bowls club are less than welcoming, he leaves her at the bingo and goes off to play in the park. Then Danny discovers that Nai Nai, unlike her grandson, has maths skills in abundance. She not only becomes the local bingo champion, she takes her grandson in hand and helps him create a great school project based on Fibonacci
fractals in Romanesco cauliflowers. 

A novel about an immigrant family inevitably has a certain amount of cultural information to impart. Dragons, in their Chinese version, feature a lot. As Danny says, ‘I was really pleased with my newest creation that I called a DRUCKON. It was a mutant duck with a dragon’s head. It’s very Chinese, if you ask me. Dragons are the most beloved and lucky creatures in Chinese mythology, and ducks are yummy and succulent. The tricky part was the head. Chinese dragons don’t look like other dragons and they have no wings. Ravi is basically an expert on all things medieval and knights. He says that Chinese dragons are anomalies, which is a nice way of saying they’re ‘weird’. And they don’t go around trying to eat princesses or battle knights. I think that’s nice. A druckon is a Chinese win-win.’  

There is also an odious tiger mother, who drags her daughter Amelia to an unending series of after-school improving activities, as a result of which she is fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin.  And there is The Chinese Way – Danny’s dad drills its tenets into his son – hard work, respect for his elders, and of course the importance of maths, the bane of Danny’s life. We even learn a bit of the language, when Danny and Nai Nai exchange a few words in Chinese. However, Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths wears its culture lightly. The heart of the novel is the friendship and respect that grows between the boy and his granny, and the adventures they share. 

Chinese immigrant families in the UK are almost invisible in literature, but as I read Danny Chung, Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet immediately sprang to mind. (It happens to be one of my favourite novels.) In Sour Sweet, Chen, his wife Lily and her sister Mui arrive in London from Hong Kong in the 1960s and go into business. There are two main stories in the novel: we read how Lily and Mui come to terms with their new life – Lily remains resolutely traditional, while Mui embraces British life enthusiastically – while the other thread follows the in-fighting in a Triad gang, the Hung family, who eventually get Chen into their clutches.

Fifty years separate the stories and that makes for interesting comparisons. Of course, the novels are aimed at different readers: an adult readership and pre-teen young readers. But there are similarities. Both families run restaurants, both firmly believe in The Chinese Way, both have a newly-arrived and eccentric grandparent. (Grandpa in Sour Sweet prefers to sleep under the counter instead of the bedroom, and invites fellow-patients from the local clinic to tea, even though they cannot understand each other.) Both families are the odd-ones-out in their communities. Lily and Mui have no friends apart from their customers and a benevolent widow, Mrs Law, and remain culturally and socially isolated in their London suburb. They are further ‘othered’ in one rather odd way: Mo chooses to have his characters speak a sort of Canto-English. ‘Bad talk!’ Lily reprimands Chen. And ‘Husband, door is stuck!’ And she asks her son about his aunt’s new baby, ‘Did you like baby, Son?’ to which Man-Kee replies, ‘Didn’t like it.’ I do not think that this would be considered either acceptable or necessary today, although at least when the family have something important to say to each other, they revert to received English.

Multi-culturalism and racism are not explicitly addressed in either novel but, by way of a contrast to fifty years ago, Danny lives in a Britain that feels more accepting of its separate communities: his best friend is Ravi, an Indian boy, and we are given snapshots of Ravi’s family and his crowded home.

British appreciation of Chinese food has improved over half a century too. In Sour Sweet, ‘The food they sold… bore no resemblance at all to Chinese cuisine. Sweet and sour pork was their staple, naturally: batter musket balls encasing a tiny core of meat, laced with a scarlet sauce that had an interesting effect on the urine of the customer the next day.’ In 2021, Danny soon finds that his bothersome Nai Nai is a wonderful cook, ‘
Nai Nai went into the kitchen to make herself a pot of tea and came out ten minutes later with a plate full of guotie, or, as some people call them, potstickers. I loved them, but Ba never had time to make them for me any more. He was always too busy. I grabbed some chopsticks and started munching them down after dipping them in soy sauce with a bit of cut ginger in it. Nai Nai’s potstickers were SO good, just like Ba had always said.’

Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate the progress in British taste buds: in 1973, my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I organized a dinner for them, with family, (white British, one and all) in a Chinese restaurant in Earls Court, possibly the first in London to serve Peking Duck. My parents (farmers in Wiltshire) arrived in some trepidation, probably worried that dinner would be musket balls and scarlet gloop and that they would lose face with their brothers and sisters. They left delighted and well-fed. I was eternally grateful to my landlady, who had introduced me to the restaurant. She was Dymia Hsiung, widow of playwright Hsiung Shih-I and a writer herself, as well as an enthusiastic mah-jong player and a fabulous cook. Now there’s a cultural connection to conjure with.








Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, by Maisie Chan, delightfully illustrated by Anh Cao, age-graded 9-11 years, Piccadilly Press,10th June 2021.

 Sour Sweet, by Timothy Mo, new edition, Paddleless Press, 1999.