The racism, trauma and humour of growing up in a Chinese takeaway (2024)

She was expected to muck in from an early age. This meant helping out in the kitchen. Later she would serve customers the moment she arrived home from school. “You never had a break. There was no social life. You never left the takeaway – especially if you lived above the shop. You never even left the building,” she says.

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All of which might explain Cheung’s utter bemuse­ment 30 years later, when she was told, by her literary agent, that her experiences would make a brilliant book. After a career in advertising, Cheung had begun writing and illustrating children’s picture books. Dreaming up stories about kindly aliens was one thing; transforming her own childhood into popular entertainment was something else entirely. “Who is going to want to know about a working-class girl growing up in a takeaway in Coventry?” she reasoned.

Lurking beneath this scepticism were reservations of greater significance. Writing about her family would not only involve raking over years of racial abuse, alienation, loneliness and boredom, it would mean confronting a dark history of domestic abuse doled out by her own father, which eventually tore the family apart.

“I do not want to write a book dredging up all the stuff I have spent most of my life burying. I blamed everything on my childhood – on my parents. I have completely blotted it out of my past. I do not want to relive it all and write it down in minute detail. In fact, I can’t think of anything worse,” she told herself.

Cheung’s agent persisted, and eventually won her over. “Maybe this can turn into some kind of therapy,” she decided. “It was like a challenge to myself: I think I am over it all, but am I really?”

Time has proven her agent’s instincts to be spot on. His conviction that a lot of readers would be fascinated by the story of a working-class Anglo-Chinese girl growing up in a takeaway has proved prophetic. Over the past 12 months, Chinglish, the funny, moving and occasionally unsettlingly candid novel that Cheung eventually produced, has wowed critics and readers alike.

It ended 2019 by being nominated as a book of the year in The Guardian newspaper. In 2020, Chinglish won Best Young Adult novel at the Diverse Book Awards, while Cheung herself was nominated for 2020’s Blossom Awards (rewarding distinguished contributions by members of the British-Chinese community). And now comes the biggest triumph of all: Chinglish has been longlisted for one of the most prestigious children’s book awards in the world, 2021’s CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals.

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It is tempting to say that the whole world has been living versions of Cheung’s sequestered child­hood over the past year and a bit.

Chinglish might have been written before Covid-19, but the insular, emotionally torrid and occasionally absurd experiences of its heroine, Jo Kwan, seem tailor-made for life in lockdown: the mental and emotional strain, the sharp increase in domestic violence and the newly powerful importance of art and books as a means of escape.

The mood swings of our waking hours echo in Jo’s deceptively bright and breezy voice, which can slide from hilarity to horror, from denial to sudden revelation, from innocence to hard-earned wisdom.

There are some very funny, if very dark comic set pieces – perhaps the most memorable of which is the tale of the Kwans’ exploding pet goat (yes, exploding). But between the big laughs and teen angst is Jo’s growing realisation of the violence inside and outside the family home.

I meet Cheung in Oxford, home to that perceptive literary agent, just before Britain’s latest lockdown. It is not hard to hear Jo’s funny, vivacious voice speaking through her creator. Cheung is by turns frank and funny, and great fun to be with – extraordinary given her childhood strife, but that toil may have prepared her for pandemic life.

“I guess my inbuilt self-preservation means I’m quite resilient as a person and good at tack­ling these sorts of challenges when they come up. I had a sense that I would get through it no matter what.” It also helps to have a few Sopranos box sets on hand.

Cheung has not been surprised by the rise in abuse aimed at Britain’s Asian communities, not least the fast-food industry.

“Because of China’s role in the pandemic, I knew Chinese restaurants and takeaways would be hit hard. For a lot of people, East Asians were seen as the embodiment of the disease and that stigma definitely kept people away.”

Her own parents have retired and so have not felt the brunt of lockdown or the backlash to the government’s “Eat Out to Help Out” initiative.

This leads us swiftly on to Chinglish, whose intriguing subtitle is: “An Almost Entirely True Story”. Given the harrowing portrait of violence, I begin by asking: just how “almost entirely true” is the novel?

“All the stories are true,” Cheung says firmly. “The only bits I made up are the glue that hold all the anecdotes together. The anecdotes are often disjointed and there are gaps in your memory, so you have to join it all up to make a narrative.”

Cheung required no artistic licence, however, in depicting the gruelling life of a takeaway daughter. “I would get back from school and straight away be in the kitchen. The takeaway normally opened about five o’clock, which gave me half an hour to prep the food. Chop mushrooms, peel and chop onions, peel and gut prawns.

“I hated that job, especially when it was cold. My dad left the doors and windows open all year around. In the winter it was freezing. The prawns had spikes on their tails. Because they were covered in brine you would be lacerating yourself and the brine would get into the cuts. It was sooo painful. Disgusting.”

The summer heat was not much of an improvement. “That meant kill the maggots. Streaming out of the bins. Kill them before they got to the door. Hot water. Bleach.”

The largest and most obvious gap in Cheung’s memory concerns her parents. Like protagonist Jo’s mother and father, they left China in the 60s, arriving in the English Midlands: Nottingham to be precise. Where in China did they come from?

“New Territories. That’s all I know.”


“Really. My grandparents fled Communist China. But I don’t really know about mum and dad coming over.”

Really, I say again, a bit pointlessly.

I don’t know anything else because we didn’t have conversations like that with our family. It was all related to the takeaway

“I don’t know anything else because we didn’t have conversations like that with our family. It was all related to the takeaway. ‘Chop the onions or serve the customers.’ Very basic communication. They never asked about us, and we never asked about them. It was not the done thing.”

This family omertà shuts down several expected avenues of conversation: Cheung has no idea how her parents adapted to life in England. But she can make educated guesses about other subjects: why her father speaks passable English while to this day her mother can hardly say a word.

“When the Chinese came over from Hong Kong, you had two types of people: the cooks who stayed in the kitchen, and the front-of-house who met customers. They learned English quite quickly. Those in the kitchen never had that opportunity. They were enclosed in this space speaking Chinese the whole time. Working such long, unsociable hours, it stays like that.”

This linguistic segregation deep-froze Cheung’s parents, socially and culturally. “Instead of becoming more British they became even more Chinese,” she explains. The opposite was true for their four children. None of them learned to speak Chinese beyond the most basic level, something that was unusual within the local expatriate community.

“I used to hear all the other kids converse [in Chinese] with the adults and feel so ashamed that we couldn’t do that with our parents. We used to avoid talking to the grown-ups and then they would know that we couldn’t speak Chinese. We could understand them ridiculing us, but we couldn’t talk to them.”

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The language barrier created divides within the family – between the Chinese-born parents and their English-born children. “We didn’t understand each other because they never conversed with us. We couldn’t understand Chinese and my mum couldn’t understand English. My dad did, but he just didn’t talk. That’s why the book is called Chinglish.”

Cheung remembers watching TV and wondering why families portrayed in British soap operas were so different from her own. “Why aren’t we having family holidays, and Christmas with a tree and turkey?” she thought. For Christmas dinner, her mother would shove a live lobster in the wok. “Christmas was like any other day, but with a giant crustacean.”

Her desire to conform, she suggests, said more about the cultural influences moulding her teenage self than any rebellion against her Chinese heritage. “I wanted to do Western things because I grew up in a Western environment. Those were the things I liked. When you are a teen girl you want to look like all the Western people in the magazines.”

A few seconds later she adds, “I only hated being Chinese when I was in the takeaway, being made to serve. I wouldn’t ever say I hated being Chinese, I just wanted to blend in.”

Is it at all possible, I ask in a mild cross-examination, that conformity to these Western standards was driven by self-hatred, whether brought on by English racists or her Chinese parents? Cheung pauses. “I was just thinking, ‘Why haven’t I thought that?’

“I think that the negativity coming from my parents was stronger than any bullying I got externally. Being made to feel useless, not worthy, stupid – that gets drummed into you far worse than anything outside.”

Later, she returns to the theme. “I was so ashamed. I totally appreciated my parents coming over with nothing and starting a business. But when you are a teenager you really resent it,” she says. “You just want to fit in and not stand out for any reason.”

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Conformity was never really an option for Cheung, something Chinglish dramatises in ways both hilarious and tragic. Late 20th century English xenophobia is a prime offender. “When you’re in a Chinese takeaway you are basically a sitting duck for racist remarks and attacks. Especially drunks on a Friday and Saturday night,” says Cheung.

“I was a teen and so I was in the middle of it all. It was a really rough part of Coventry. I could see and hear everything. I couldn’t hide. With the racism, you just wanted to hide away.”

What sort of things did she want to hide from? “We used to get all sorts of insults hurled at us. Then we used to get actual physical things hurled at us: peeled carpet tiles off the floor. I don’t know if it’s normal not to have any loose objects in Chinese takeaways because they can be used as missiles.”

Chinglish recasts these terrifying encounters into sharply funny passages. There is a great scene when Cheung’s knife-wielding uncle vaults over the serving counter and chases an antagonist down the street. The real-life equivalent kicked off when a drunk customer called her mum a “Chinky”.

When a fellow customer demanded the racist apologise, he was headbutted for his trouble, sparking a mass brawl inside the shop. “It was the worst thing I had ever seen because it was right in front of me. I had to call the police because I was the only one who could speak good enough English.”

As Cheung is quick to add, the aggression continued after the restaurant closed. “The violence didn’t just stop on that side of the counter but continued on the other side with our own dad and domestic violence. We didn’t get a clip though, we got a proper belting.”

Jo drops hints throughout the novel about her father’s past business failures and mood swings, but the scene in which he turns on his son, who in retaliation beats his father to within an inch of his life, shocks after the lighthearted high jinks in the pages before.

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Has Cheung managed to explain her father’s appalling behaviour? She says allusions have been made to mental health problems and traumatic events in his past. A car crash in which he was the only survivor. Vague references to “a fire in his belly that sometimes explodes”. But as she does so often, Cheung eventually returns to the pressure cooker of life in a takeaway.

“I used to think it wasn’t a cultural thing. It was something unique to my family. My cousins got whacked but not in the way my dad whacked us for no reason at all. There was a lot of violence in a lot of families in takeaways. It is probably down to the amount of hours everyone was working.”

Cheung’s experience of domestic abuse was one big reason she was reluctant to write Chinglish. Not only to avoid revisiting these old scenes, but out of fear that it might trigger new ones. “I was worried when I heard they knew about the book,” she says.

“Then I heard my dad had cataracts. I thought secretly, ‘Yes! They won’t be able to read it until he has his operation.’” She laughs, albeit weakly.

“You never get away from the child inside of you, do you? Even though my dad is really old and frail now, I was still thinking, what’s he going to do when he finds out? I wrote it without them knowing. How was I going to tell them about it anyway?”

How about the rest of her family? Cheung, like Jo, has an older brother, who in the novel bears the brunt of their father’s fury, and a younger sister and brother. “My siblings knew from the start,” she says.

“My elder brother was totally supportive and pleased that the story is out there. My little sister is fine about the story being told but has probably not read the book properly. She doesn’t really like to go back there.”

It is no accident that both moved far away: to Sydney, Australia, and Oregon, in the United States, respectively. She sounds more than a little sad when she says her youngest brother continues to live at home with their parents.

The impact of this trauma has been profound. Again like Jo, Cheung was a natural artist. “Art was the only escape. The fact I drew and painted was my way of getting away from it. I had nowhere to turn. I only had the one friend. I was quite a loner. It was very hard to form friendships because of the dysfunction in the family.”

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Eventually, this same talent provided an actual way out when Cheung, like Jo, won a place at art school in London. The only problem was that she was utterly unprepared to deal with the world outside the takeaway. She became pregnant aged 19 and ended up living in a squat near Kings Cross.

“When I told my mum that she was going to become a grandparent, her immediate response was, ‘Get rid of it or get out of my house.’” Cheung pauses. “I got out of the house. They disowned me, basically, until the point I had the baby.”

When her mother visited, she found her daughter and granddaughter living in poverty. “I was so desperate I was looking for pennies in the gutter.” Cheung was invited back into the family restaurant (now relocated to Southampton), along with her baby son and his father.

“Things might be different this time,” Cheung thought, but “within a few weeks, my son’s dad caught my dad beating my little sister up in the stockroom. He intervened and punched my father. That was when my dad said, ‘I never want to see you again.’”

But Cheung still had not hit rock bottom. She moved to Newcastle, in northeast England, and, still naive, dev­eloped a serious drink and drug problem. “I thought everybody in the world was on drugs and drink,” she says.

She eventually escaped the downward spiral of addiction, but only by walking out on a second family. “I got a job in London and began commuting back and forth at the weekend just so that I could bring in some money and start building my life back up again. At some point, I stayed in London. That’s when my son’s dad became a single dad.”

I totally forgive my parents. As an adult I realise they didn’t know any better

Today, Cheung says she has a good relationship with her 28-year-old son. Relations with her parents, by contrast, have never recovered. Although she has spent the past few years thinking about them daily, she rarely speaks to them, and sees them even less. “As you can tell I am still very confused about my childhood,” she says at one point.

Nevertheless, she has learned compassion. “I totally forgive my parents. As an adult I realise they didn’t know any better. When you’re a kid, it’s nothing like that. It’s like a living nightmare. It’s taken this long to forgive them but I still prefer to keep them at arm’s length geographically, which I think is healthy.”

As to whether or not writing Chinglish helped her navigate this path towards understanding, Cheung says, “It’s probably saved a lot of money on therapy.” She compares excavating certain memories to opening old wounds.

“Some bits, like when my brother kicked my dad’s head in, were awful. But I found myself laughing during the funny bits, though there were tears as well. It helped me get rid of the last residual awfulness inside.”

It has not hurt that Chinglish has sold well, been adored by readers and in the running for high-profile prizes. Yet perhaps the most important thing to come out of the process is that Cheung has been connected with other people with eerily similar experiences.

“Since Chinglish has come out, I’ve had so many Chinese people of my generation messaging me. Not just from Britain but all over the world – the diaspora – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and saying, ‘Oh my god this is exactly what happened to me. This is my story.’”

The racism, trauma and humour of growing up in a Chinese takeaway (2024)
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