Sue Cheung

Andersen Press Ltd

ISBN 9781783448395

As heard on Radio 4's Woman's Hour and BBC Breakfast TV It is difficult trying to talk in our family cos: a) Grandparents don't speak English at all b) Mum hardly speaks any English c) Me, Bonny and Simon hardly speak Chinese d) Dad speaks Chinese and good English - but doesn't like talking In other words, we all have to cobble together tiny bits of English and Chinese into a rubbish new language I call 'Chinglish'. It is very awkward. Jo Kwan is a teenager growing up in 1980s Coventry with her annoying little sister, too-cool older brother, a series of very unlucky pets and utterly bonkers parents. But unlike the other kids at her new school or her posh cousins, Jo lives above her parents' Chinese takeaway. And things can be tough - whether it's unruly customers or the snotty popular girls who bully Jo for being different. Even when she does find a BFF who actually likes Jo for herself, she still has to contend with her erratic dad's behaviour. All Jo dreams of is breaking free and forging a career as an artist. Told in diary entries and doodles, Jo's brilliantly funny observations about life, family and char siu make for a searingly honest portrayal of life on the other side of the takeaway counter.

Librarian's Book choice

Chinglish has been described as 'East is East Meets Georgia Nicolson' but it is so much more than that. While it contains semi-autobiographical and humorous elements written in a diary style with darker undertones, it is brought to life by Sue Cheung's quirky illustrations, irrepressible sense of fun and brave honesty. She was initially concerned about the project, questioning herself, 'Who would want to know about a working-class girl growing up in a Chinese Takeaway in Coventry?' but her tale of adolescent growing pains, fraught family dynamics, racial discrimination, unusual food, unfortunate pets, 1980's fads, artistic ambitions, friendship dramas and thornily unpredictable home life is a compulsive read that will have you crying with laughter one minute and emotionally shaken up the next. Amid the madcap craziness, there are painful memories and Sue is not afraid to reveal them in a bid to 'help kids going through the same things as I did' because 'like yin and yang good can't exist without bad.'

Sue's protagonist Jo Kwan shares her diary entries from 1984-1987. As the book progresses, the reader learns why her family had to move from a house in Nottingham where they owned a Chinese Restaurant called The Golden Empire, to a poky butcher's shop in Hull to a cramped flat over a Chinese Takeaway called The Golden Dragon in Coventry. She is excited about meeting up with her brother Simon again, who has been living with their grandparents, even though he insists on calling her 'Pongo'. Jo also has to contend with her little sister Bonny ('devil spawn') who has problems with sharing, her increasingly erratic father, her embarrassing mother, eccentric grandparents (who think nothing of chopping chickens' heads off and using urine as fertiliser), kleptomaniac goats, gross scaly chicken's feet, disgusting prawn deshelling, boiling maggots, idiots who say she 'smells like soy sauce', annoying neighbours and a potential arranged marriage ('shudder'). She wonders why her life can't be like her perfect cousins, Jill and Katie.

There is also a language barrier. As she explains, because not everyone speaks English and Chinese in her family, 'we all have to cobble together tiny bits of Chinese and English into a rubbish language I call Chinglish. Plus, we are the only in our family to speak Hakka- a dialect hardly anyone uses!

Jo's frustration builds from the ages of 13-16 as she tries to follow her dreams and navigate the treacherous waters of school where her friendship with cool Goth Tina and crush on Nik Kershaw lookalike Warren from South Africa are the only things keeping her sane. Her voice is by turns self-deprecating, nostalgic and poignantly frank. She has the reader's sympathy throughout (even though she is judgemental at times about others) because she captures the rawness caused by insensitive bullying and the sense of awkwardness she feels at being different. Jo's passion for fashion and artistic flair is evident as is her desire not to be trapped in a dead-end existence of takeaway slave without an outlet for her creative imagination.

Chinglish is a reading event not to be missed. From Soy Sauce as a cure-all remedy to excruciating ear piercing to 'goaty backs' to bunion exposure to exploding food to tricky matters of the heart to trying to get discovered as a serious artist, it is a riotous and authentic story about dealing with vicissitudes, developing fortitude, believing in yourself and becoming who you want to be.

Sue quipped 'I've always been able to draw ever since I could pick up a crayon without eating it,' and her cartoon style drawings, at times hilarious, at others sad, synchronise perfectly with her text. This expressive debut teen novel will appeal to both young and old, especially dreamers, doodlers and readers wanting something unique. It is personalised by Sue's thought-provoking Afterword and includes helplines and websites at the back of the book for young people going through similar experiences.

384 pages / Ages 12+ / Reviewed by Tanja Jennings, school librarian




Sue Cheung


Chinglish is an autobiographical/fiction novel about growing up in the early 1980's as a Chinese girl who knows almost nothing about her ethnicity but struggles to fit into the English lifestyle, too.

Jo's family lives in a small Chinese takeaway, having moved away from their previous business. They struggle to communicate, Jo's mum speaks no English and Jo speaks no Chinese, their dad speaks limited English, so together, they communicate with a mixture of Chinglish'.

The book is written in diary form with Jo desperately trying to put a brave face on everything that happens but as the book progresses, she slowly lets slip all that is happening as her family falls apart. Harrowing in parts when it is revealed that Jo's father is a gambling addict who has gone bankrupt twice, which is why they have had to move away from areas, he has a vicious temper and all of the family has suffered violence at his hands; their older brother Simon lives with their grandparents because of it.

Despite all of this, Jo remains optimistic that she is going to break the cycle of her family life and not end up chained to the takeaway like her long suffering mother. With the help of her best friend and a supportive teacher, Jo realises her dream of a career in fashion.

I would recommend this book for age 12 upwards. I found it hard to get into initially but ended up loving it.

384 pages / Ages 12+ / Reviewed by Amanda Hamilton, school librarian

Reviewed by: Amanda Hamilton