What's in a Page: Lillian Li on Number One Chinese Restaurant
Anyone who has ever appreciated the good-natured hustle and bustle of a family-owned restaurant will instantly recognize the charm of Number One Chinese Restaurant. The novel, from debut author Lillian Li, centers around the Beijing Duck House, an establishment that has been passed down from immigrant parents to their son, Jimmy. The only issue? Jimmy is looking to unload the place.
Chinese Restaurant explores not only the family dynamics at play among the owners of Duck House, but all of the bonds between the many people it takes to help the place run like a mildly well-oiled machine. Li blends her own heritage with a sharp eye for humor and interpersonal relationships. Her secret? It has a whole lot to do with LaCroix.
Read on for her answers to all of EW’s burning questions.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
LILLIAN LI: Fanfiction! Harry Potter fanfiction to be exact. I co-wrote it with my best friend in fifth grade. I still remember the plot — a love potion prank gone wrong causes McGonagall to fall for Snape. Hilarity ensues. There’s a definite possibility this story is still online.
What is the last book that made you cry?
I found out about Anthony Bourdain’s death the same day I was supposed to drive to Chicago for a literary festival. I took Kitchen Confidential with me, and my co-passenger and I took turns reading it out loud. My edition has a preface that Bourdain wrote in 2000 and I started choking up when I read this passage:
“After too many meals on planes or out of hotel mini-bars (the book tour diet), I’d slip off to a restaurant in a strange city, sit down at the bar, order a beer and an appetizer, and strange and wonderful things would happen; amuse gueules would appear, one course after another, appropriate glasses of wine, little tastes of cheese, desserts. I’d look over toward the kitchen, and some wise-ass cook — a total stranger — would be giving me the thumbs-up from behind the kitchen door.”
What is your favorite part of Number One Chinese Restaurant?
I love this part later in the book that I secretly call “Feng Fei’s Revenge.” Feng Fei is the matriarch of the Han family, and we only get to see her through her son’s eyes. So the first time we dip into her head, it reverses a lot of assumptions. She’s not the weak, little widow her family thinks she is.
Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo.
Where do you write?
Wherever it’s free (so mostly at home).
Which book made you a forever reader?
It wasn’t so much a book as a Chinese recording of Aesop’s fables that my parents would play in the car when I was a little kid. I was a nightmare baby and toddler — the only two things that would calm me down were stories and driving around. I (and my poor parents) must have listened to that cassette so many times. I can still hear the narrator’s voice in my head.
Pick a GIF that you think, in this moment, best describes you and your book:
Manatee face smush, for sure.
What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
I drink a lot of LaCroix. It’s a Midwest company (Wisconsin), so it’s been slowly seeping into my life since I moved to Ann Arbor five years ago. I didn’t even like seltzer five years ago…now I’m utterly under its mind control. I’m really glad LaCroix’s infected the rest of America! I feel a little less insane/frivolous for buying a 30-pack every other week.
What was the hardest thing to write in Number One Chinese Restaurant?
Figuring out what happens after you illegally dispose of a restaurant… Basically, without spoiling too much, something bad happens to the restaurant where all the characters work. While I had no problem writing about the disaster itself, I quickly realized I had no idea how to write the aftermath of the disaster — do the police get involved, who contacts insurance, how does this affect the staff, how much paperwork is involved? Luckily, I realized the reader isn’t that interested in the minutiae of insurance claims, but for a while, that was a rabbit hole I went down.
If you could change one thing about any of your books, what would it be?
The acknowledgments! There are so many more people I’ve become gravely indebted to since the final edits were due. I’ll have to give them extra kudos in the next one…
If Number One Chinese Restaurant had a movie tagline it would be:
I’ll quote Feng Fei here: “You are the stories people tell of you.”