Cold sex food for thought

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 March, 1998, 12:00am

Eating Chinese Food Naked by Mei Ng, Hamish Hamilton, $170 Ruby Lee is no innocent Oriental nymph. Nymphomaniac would be a more accurate description. She likes sex often, and she does not mind who with.

Mei Ng's first novel unveils a raw Chinese sub-culture in the impoverished New York district of Queens, where Ruby's parents run the local laundrette.

The book is driven by the ordinary characters in this family. Nothing very dramatic happens, except that Ruby makes the slow transition to establishing an independent life as a second-generation Chinese American.

After graduating from a course in women's studies she moves back to the laundrette while deciding what to do with her life.

As a young adult, she assesses her childhood and her relationships with her parents and siblings. She finds some humanity within the conflicts born of poverty, days spent handling others' dirty clothes, her parents' loveless marriage and the huge cultural gap between the generations. The parents from China have been able to give little direction to their American children.

The book explodes some Chinese stereotypes. Ruby's eldest brother Van has a family of his own, but spends his time spaced out jamming on his guitar rather than being a responsible family man. His parents were raised in China, but migration had shattered the traditional concept of filial piety. Ruby's sister, Lily, is also unattractively selfish and dysfunctional.

Like other novels by Chinese Americans, such as Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, this book's greatest interest is its portrayal of a culture in transition. Unlike Tan, Ng does not draw heavily on the colour and drama of China's recent history, wisely avoiding a story of human suffering that now verges on a cliche. Only a few pages, describing her parents' arranged marriage, are set in China, staying true to the character-driven nature of the book.

Ng also differs from other Chinese American authors in drawing unashamedly ordinary characters who are not upwardly mobile and superior in culture and intelligence to other Americans. Ruby is not destined for academic stardom or a powerful career. She dresses sloppily and only just manages to hold down a job. Taking minimum control of her life is a major achievement.

Ruby's highly sexed nature is a contrast to the concerned daughter we get to know in the laundry. She is frank, sensuous and open, with both men and women. But devoid of romance or passion, this degenerates to dull titillation. Eating a Chinese take-away, nude, turns out to be neither a culinary nor sexual climax, however saucy the publishers would like to portray the scene.

Ng is at her strongest in developing the relationships between daughter and parents. While sex in 1990s America is so open that it has lost its mystery, the emotions between Chinese mother and daughter are more controlled, deeply held and engaging. Ng's first novel has to be admired for its honesty and perceptiveness. But it is no more likable than the true-to-life characters it portrays.