Lion's Head, Four Happiness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 October, 2009, 12:00am

Lion's Head, Four Happiness
by Xiaomei Martell
Vintage Books HK$128

What started off as a trickle in the early 1990s has become a flood, with Western publishers scrambling to knock out semi-autobiographical fiction and memoirs by mainland writers. Publish enough memoirs by mainlanders and, like throwing infinite darts at a dartboard, sooner or later one will strike the bull's eye.

Many such memoirs dwell on the hardships of growing up in austere times, the Cultural Revolution seemingly the literary catch-all for recent mainland suffering, and, like sex, drugs and rock and roll (see Zhou Weihui's Shanghai Baby, Mian Mian's Candy) misery sells. Autobiographical works with grim subtitles sell well and a 'banned in China' label also helps.

Xiaomei Martell's Lion's Head, Four Happiness contains no loveless copulating. There is not a hint of sedition and personal suffering is downplayed in favour of fond memories. Though the words Cultural Revolution are used on the book's cover to suggest political upheaval, Red Guards - mentioned in passing in recognition of the chaotic times - were largely avoided by Martell and her family. Severely lacking in crises, therefore, Martell's is the slow if charming recollection of an unremarkable childhood, much of which seems to have been spent eating or preparing to eat.

Martell was born in the Inner Mongolian capital Hohhot in 1964, the year that the mainland first successfully tested a nuclear device. Arriving 10 years earlier, fellow writer Fan Shen, in his Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard, recounts his complicity in political activities that led to deaths during the Cultural Revolution. Lijia Zhang, also born in 1964 and author of Socialism is Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China, recalls frustrating teenage years labouring in a Nanjing missile factory producing weapons capable of reaching the US. Both memoirs convey the other-worldly feeling of life during momentous times in recent mainland history.

Lion's Head has no such hook, and to differentiate her tale from the rest Martell has turned to food, detailing the ingredients and tastes of dishes that came her way from her birth to the book's conclusion, when she graduates from university in Beijing. When held up to Fan's and Zhang's more extreme experiences, Martell's anecdotes about chopping vegetables or of Uncle Deng's 'unbeatable' lion's head meatballs of the book's title might struggle with an audience jaded by thrill-packed mainland memoirs.

Yet Lion's Head is a gentle and nostalgic reminiscence liberally seasoned with quirky cultural asides: phoenix feet (chicken feet) are said to cure wrinkles, and walnuts are believed to nourish the brain. Gastronomes will undoubtedly savour Martell's recipe. Those preferring political drama to pan-fried jiaozi might plump for something more substantial.