‘Chinglish‘ is how Jo’s family communicate. Generations do not speak the same language, but then Jo’s mother and father barely speak. Jo and her sister and brother are wary of upsetting their father, while their mother’s only joy seems to be found in deep fried pizza. There are no presents, rewards, praise, or breaks from the routine of the Chinese takeaway, above which the family lives. Only Simon is absent from the drama, removed to their grandparents, yet he feels it; there’s untold history between Simon and the children’s father.

Jo’s parents seem to have no interest in her dreams. Their aspiration seems to be for her labour in the shop, blind obedience, that she cares for the baby, interprets, stands on the box at the till to take the orders, and runs to the shop, avoiding embarrassing Gurdeep.

Embarrassment is Jo’s greatest foe. She tries to hide at school. Yet how can the only Chinese girl in the year hope to hide away? Jo doesn’t understand when she’s taunted about eating dogs. She is aware that the family is a disaster when it comes to caring for pets, however…. hamsters, dogs, goats, sparrows, none seem to fare well.

Jo tries to keep Goth friend, Tina, away from the flat above the takeaway. However, Tina knows about it, just as she knows of Jo’s dreams to leave the toil and fear in her life. Jo keeps a fashion sketchbook. She has dreams of working for Mizz magazine. Can a girl like her, who doesn’t fit the pack, and branches beyond the norm when there are opportunities, hope to have a career? A future? What of her little sister? What of baby Larry?

‘Chinglish‘- an almost entirely true story- is an outstanding diary account of an ‘outsider’ living through the 1980’s. The times may change, but feelings of being outside the norm for any reason, resonate honestly. We urge Jo forward, we hurt for her mother. Sue Cheung’s story is superb. Bookwagon recommends ‘Chinglish’ wholeheartedly to older readers.



Sue Cheung

(Andersen Press)

An almost entirely true story

Jo is not certain why her family is moving to Coventry. They don’t discuss such decisions. It’s a fait-accompli, not that anyone would understand that term. Her mother speaks hardly any English, while her father speaks both Chinese and English but is uncommunicative. Meanwhile Jo and her brother and sister speak a smattering of Chinese only.
It’s not just language where there’s a division. There’s aspiration too. While Simon lives with their grandparents and works hard toward his exams, Bonny is hanging out with Maxine, shoplifting and smoking and she’s in primary school!
Jo records her life in her diary. We know that she wants a career in fashion. While school work lags behind, she maintains a fashion sketchbook of ideas and designs, taking a lead from Yoko Ono. It’s 1984, a time of New Romanticism, Goths, hair volume, Space Invaders. Not only through her ethnicity, but her family, the lack of communication, the upstairs 2- bedroomed flat above the takeaway flat, the secrets and threats, all cause Jo to hide. Is there a chrysalis beneath the blue mascara? Or is Jo destined to follow the same track as her mother? Can an arranged marriage with a boy who picks his spots, and the joy of deep-fried pizza, be as bad as it appears?
‘Chinglish’ is a compelling read. Jo’s path is difficult.The injustice, ignorance and the lack of interest and support shown is woeful. Yet there’s an indomitable spirit, sibling bond and huge determination that overwhelms this story. Did I mention laughs? You’ll never look at a hamster in the same way…


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