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Two significant occasions - one of mourning and the other of celebration - mark the beginning of the novel. Though paradoxical, they provide for a get-together for the two families. The two families appear to be friendly to each other but, within the congeniality, lie hidden secrets, problems, troubles and misunderstandings.
One notices various complex relationships - between mothers and daughters, cousins, in-laws, grandchildren, aunts and nieces. The personalities of the two friends, Winnie and Helen are also very finely etched. They share some deep secrets, which are unknown to the rest. The relationship between Winnie and her daughter Pearl is curious and strange. Right from her childhood, Pearl has found it difficult to adjust to the beliefs of her mother. She has instantly disliked many things selected for her by her mother. Instead, Pearl looked up to her father, Jimmy Louie.
Pearl is the product of the extreme differences in the points of view, of her father and mother. For instance, Winnie would always try to make Pearl believe in ghost stories whereas Jimmy Louie, being a Christian Minister, tried to inculcate in her a faith in God. Pearl had found it all very confusing. Therefore she neither believed totally in her father nor in her motherís views.
Pearlís response on her fatherís death was very strange. Jimmy Louie had been weak and bedridden for quite some time before his death. Pearl could not relate such a frail figure with the lively interactive image of her father as a minister. Pearl refused to accept her fatherís death, to the extent that she refused to acknowledge him as her father. Winnie was totally shocked and had compelled her to cry. But Pearl was adamant and refused to shed tears. The emotional outburst of Pearl at Grand Auntie Duís funeral, is in fact her belated intense reaction to her fatherís death. None of the people present, except her mother, could understand the true cause of her outburst. Winnie feels relieved that her daughter has at last let free her pent-up emotions. Pearlís outburst can also be seen as an indication of the fear that she is experiencing regarding her illness.
In spite of Pearl having misgivings about her mother, one sees the varied aspects of Winnieís personality in her various roles. She is a loving grandmother to Tessa and Cleo (they lovingly call her Habu), a good friend to Helen and one also notices that she has a lot of respect for an elderly lady like Grand Auntie Du. Phil Brandt also shares a good rapport with his mother-in-law, Winnie.
Winnieís business skills come to light in her dealings with the customers. She is a hard-working lady and shrewd in money matters. Her talk with Pearl, on saving money on toilet paper, shows that she takes pride in her judicious attitude. Though Grand Auntie Du is Helenís aunt, Winnie takes more interest in the preparations of her funeral than Helen does. Winnie does it as if it is her duty towards the departed soul.
At the banquet as well as at the funeral, the reader clearly senses the difference in the attitude of the Kwongs and the Louies. The Kwongs are too pretentious whereas the Louies are much more calm and dignified.
At times this pretentiousness leads to humor. The presence of hired Chinese women mourners is indeed ridiculous. They are wailing even though they do not have any personal feelings for the dead person. Also, the video taping of each and every single incident of the funeral by Uncle Henry (Helenís Husband) provokes laughter. It seems as if some joyful event is taking place. The only difference here is that the faces of the people here are more somber. In fact, some of the mourners are more concerned about the lunch after the funeral. Even more ridiculous is Rogerís engagement. After two disastrous marriages and one failed engagement, Roger now proceeds joyfully to his fourth engagement to Mimi.
After the funeral service, Winnie shows Pearl the altar, left for her by Auntie Du. She then relates to them the Chinese myth of the farmer who turns into a Kitchen God due to the virtuosity of his wife. This story related to Pearl by her mother has a far- fetched meaning, which would be clear towards the end of the novel. Winnie packs the Chinese altar for her daughter but removes the picture of the Kitchen God from it. Winnie wishes only good luck for her daughter and her family that is untainted by the ill influence of the Kitchen God.