The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang

The family Chao or Chow if westernised and if there was more than one, add an s and it becomes chaos, is a wonderful read and none of the word play is an accident.

There are many stories of migrant families leaving in order that their children have better chances than they might have had back in their home country, Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue and Pachinko by Jin Min Lee are two recent examples that I have read. In both books the themes of love, loss and belonging feature heavily and so The Family Chao is no different in these respects. Food can also play a big role in the story as it does in Pachinko but is an integral part of the Chao’s existence because they come from China and run a restaurant and so food ios their way to survive but also the route to their destruction.

Winnie and Leo Chau settle in the US and set up a restaurant serving Chinese food in a small town and have three sons. Dagou who is like his father, Ming who leaves and makes a fortune in the city and James who is a naive student training to be a doctor.

Dagou returns home to help in the restaurant, having worked in New York in restaurants and as a musician. He strikes what he thinks is a deal where eventually he will become a partner in the family business and earn more money. Six years later he is still waiting and now needs the money. This sets up the family conflict from which the rest of the events unravel. Big meals are planned to bring people together to try and sort out the conflict, new girlfriends are invited in to the family and change the dynamics and the parents die. The problem is that the father dies in his cold store because he gets trapped in there overnight. It has always been a danger and this is heralded from quite early on in the story. Dagou is blamed and ends up on trial whereas all the sons have a role to play inadvertently or not.

The sons have always been embarrased by their father: he is a large, coarse man who is vulgar and sexualises most interactions with women. The sons as ABCs (American born Chinese) struggle to fit in with the middle son bullied endlessly by local children, even into adulthood.

James winces at his brother’s expression. And yet, hasn’t he always known this about Ming? That beneath his superiority and charisma, his hyper-competence, his high achievements, there existed this inconsolable self-hatred?


The story demonstrates how racial stereotypes can move from whisper to ‘truth’ and the consequences this can have. Did the family serve dog meat at the meal and where is their dog? As in Pachinko, the sons end up back at home working in the restaurant regardless of their previous careers and education. It’s really quite depressing. The secrets that are held by members of the family are slowly revealed and show how little they knew about each other. They were so busy striving to fulfil the American Dream that they forgot to be a family, always aiming for something that was out there waiting to be grasped.

Ming searches through the family kitchen for supplies. Winnie left them overstocked with canned and dried goods, but the Chao men don’t buy groceries. The fridge is stuffed with take-out containers. While Katherine pretends to catch up on emails from work, Ming digs out from the piled-up counter a sprouting yellow onion and some aged potatoes. He dices the onion, and, after digging the eyes out of the potatoes, he cubes them. He watches Katherine’s reflection in the picture window. She studies his wiry hands moving with confidence from knife to bowl to pan handle. (At home, he won’t use the wok.) He cracks some eggs deftly, showing off his dexterousness perhaps, and makes a savory Spanish omelet. Dagou isn’t the only talented cook among the Chao brothers. The aging cabbage and the carrots from the fridge become, with a few flicks of magic, a salad, dressed with sesame oil and sweetened rice vinegar, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Ming and Katherine sit down at the cluttered kitchen table and eat together, not talking. Although doubtless Katherine would’ve preferred something “more authentic” -fried rice with eggs, green onions instead of yellow, and stir-fried cabbage instead of salad – the dinner leaves her curiously softened.


At one point in the book the three sons are called ‘the Brothers Karamahjong’ and whilst I have never read the book, I have heard of The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky and so looked up a summary. This book has borrowed that plot and reimagined it as an American story. Themes in The Brothers Karamazov are around faith vs. doubt, moral responsibility and free will and those are present in The Family Chao. Each of the characters symbolises some of these ideas. Winnie and James represent faith both religious and in the family, Ming represents doubt and Leo appetite and perhaps selfishness. I always wondered about the role of Katherine Corcoran in the story but hers is an unshakeable faith in the family so perhaps that is what she is there for. She also embodies the racism that White America shows towards those who are not White. Is she White or is she Chinese?

When I finished the book, I wanted to know what happened to the Chao boys long-term. Did James become rich as predicted, did Ming return to the restaurant and stay? Who married Katherine? This means that I wasn’t quite satisfied with the ending for these characters.

You don’t need to know this to enjoy the book but it adds an extra layer of fat to the consumption of this comedy/tragedy.

My questions around the book might be:

  • What is the role of Katherine Corcoran in the story?
  • How does racism affect the story and outcome?
  • There are a lot of references to dogs in the book. What does this symbolise?
  • Who is guilty in this book and what of?
  • The reporting of the trial involved a change in narrator. Why was that and did it work?
  • Different things were expected of each of the sons based on their order of birth. Does this happen in families?
  • I completely missed the two sections – They See Themselves and The World Sees Them – only noticing them on flicking back through the book looking for a quote. What is different between the two sections in terms of narration, style and anything else? This might run alongside my second question.

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