FEATURED WRITER - Helen Tse
By: PP Wong
elen Tse is a bestselling author, entrepreneur and award winning restaurant owner. Her beautiful memoir Sweet Mandarin has been published in 33 countries to great global acclaim. After studying law at Cambridge University, Helen worked as a successful finance and tax lawyer. She left her job to open the busy restaurant - Sweet Mandarin. In 2009 Sweet Mandarin won Gordon Ramsay's F Word - Best Local Chinese Restaurant in the UK and was also featured on British business show Dragon's Den.
In 2008, Helen was presented with an honorary doctorate degree from Staffordshire University in recognition of her contribution to literature. She continues to write, cook and inspire new writers from her home in rainy Manchester.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
I grew up reading Enid Blyton and loved the sense of adventure she evoked. I also loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird at school – it revealed right and wrong and how things are not always as they seem.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
I’d be panda, a Kung Fu panda.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
My violin and my bible
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Entrepreneurial, enthusiastic and inquisitive
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
Xinran – her books looking into women’s lives in China are fascinating and an eye opener
A is for… appetite. Would you like a Banana milkshake? Banana fritter? Banana cake? Or just a plain banana?
Banana fritter please with ice cream
What made you decide to write your wonderful memoir Sweet Mandarin?
I pitched a cookbook to the publishers and it was Random House who asked me to write about the stories behind the food. They advised that I was the first British born Chinese author and I was astounded! At that point I felt compelled to write as I thought it wasn’t right that in the 21st century, no British born Chinese person had been published and we are already deemed a ‘silent minority’ and I felt compelled to share our story with the world.
I knew snippets of our family story but started to ask my grandmother and mother more questions as we walked around the Chinese supermarket. It seemed every bottle and packet that my grandmother picked up unraveled another chapter in her life. I was fascinated to really learn about my family’s history and wrote the book every weekend over an 18 month period. At that same time, I was setting up our own restaurant, Sweet Mandarin with my two sisters, and through understanding the hardships our family had been through, it made the problems of building our restaurant pale in comparison. This book and the stories I discovered gave me the strength to overcome my problems and be grateful for the opportunities I have due to the sacrifices made by my grandmother and mother.
Share with us the journey of how your book got published.
When we opened our restaurant, Sweet Mandarin, we appeared on Blue Peter for Chinese New Year cooking up Firecracker King Prawns and making fruit origami. It was at the BBC studios that we met a producer whose daughter was a literary agent. Jessica visited Sweet Mandarin and we cooked for her. She loved the food and agreed to be my agent. A literary agent has the contacts with the publishers and she introduced me to the likes of Random House and also helped me improve my book proposal. The publishers will agree a timeline to submit your manuscript as well as the advance payment and royalties. Note that if the publisher did not like your manuscript, the advance would have to be paid back.
Given that I had never written a book before, this was a daunting process and they asked me to submit half of the manuscript part way through to see if the book was working. The publisher came back and said they didn’t like the book – so 150 pages went down the drain.
They said the biggest problem was that given that I was a lawyer, the writing was too historical, and in a third party voice. It distanced the reader. So the editor suggested I be the voice and put the story in the first person and I be the storyteller. I re-wrote the 150 pages and I’m pleased to say the publishers loved the rewrite, and I whole-heartedly agree with this piece of advice because it made the book the success it is today.
My second book, Sweet Mandarin Cookbook is being published in January 2014 and the process of publishing a cookbook is much more involved than my first book (an autobiography). When we pitched the cookbook, we received numerous offers and then it gets interesting because you can really negotiate the best possible deal for your book. We decided to go with Kyle Cathie Books because she agreed to launch this book in the UK and the USA (which is a huge market). The Cookbook has to be visually stunning and so the team was much bigger including food photographer, food stylists, props and my sister and I as chief cooks and tasters!
Many new writers face a lot of rejection. How do you deal with rejection?
My initial manuscript was rejected (see above) but generally I’m open and receptive to criticism because I want to improve and if the publishers have advice, take it!
You may know that we have recently launched a range of dipping sauces under the brand Sweet Mandarin and we have to push forward with retailers to sell these sauces. Some say yes, some say maybe, some say no. Rejection is sometimes difficult to take but is part of everyday life. It’s a numbers game so generally if you ask 10 people, 1 person will say yes. Sometimes we don’t know why we are rejected but it might well be a blessing in disguise. I’m a Christian and there is a verse, Jeremiah 29.11 God has plans to prosper you, not to harm you. There is no point being anxious about rejection as if it’s not meant to be, then let it go graciously and wait for what is meant for you.
Before becoming an author and restaurateur, you worked in a top law firm. What made you decide to quit your job and follow your dreams?
I studied law at Cambridge University and qualified as a tax solicitor with Clifford Chance in London and Hong Kong and then moved back to Manchester (my hometown) to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers International Tax Department where I ended up heading up the China Business Desk (helping UK companies invest in China and Chinese companies invest into the UK). At the same time, I had just returned from a family trip to Hong Kong and had rediscovered my roots and felt really compelled during this time to do something in business with my two sisters, and I ended up quitting my job at PricewaterhouseCoopers to open Sweet Mandarin restaurant. When we were having the launch party, I saw many people shake their heads wondering what had these twenty something girls done – they had taken 3 steps back. But I also remember the older Chinese were nodding their heads in approval, wishing their sons or daughters would carry the dimming flickering torch, and have someone to pass down their family recipes to.
Everyone has their own life to lead and I believe we have to follow our dreams. My passion is food, people and business and at that time, Sweet Mandarin was an expression of our dreams and is still going today and its expansion into sauces and books has been really amazing.
Back to the law though – I would like to add that I have since set up my own law firm Arthur McDonalds Solicitors which specialises in Immigration Law and through that I have managed to keep working as a solicitor and help people.
No path ever closes completely unless you want it to, and life is more fluid than we generally make it out to be.
What are the positives and negatives about working with family?
Positives – I love working with my sisters who I know have my back every step of the way.
Negatives of working in a family – it is quite insular and you don’t meet that many people in the company!
What happens next in the busy life of Helen Tse?
I am very thankful to God for all the blessings in my life and hope to continue with the writing, the restaurant, the sauces and my law firm. I am always happy to help budding writers. Feel free to connect with me! BW
Did you have to use a lot of your business skills to become a successful author?
When I launched the first book Sweet Mandarin there was no such thing as Twitter! How I marketed the book was going to every single dinner / event and talking about my story as a keynote speaker, followed by a book signing. I also worked with a large number of schools as the book became part of the National Curriculum for English, Chinese studies and Citizenship in the UK, USA and Hong Kong. I never quite realised the impact of my book and its universal appeal until I received a letter from a woman in India to thank me for writing the story – she had wanted to commit suicide but when she read of our hardships and how we had pulled through – she had a change of heart and wanted to give life another go. I burst into tears when I read that letter. I never knew my family’s story would touch her life in this way.
There are also international book fairs which I was invited to and there, you can market your book to the international audience. A book is also multi-faceted and with different channels, my family’s story can be told. The book was made into an audiobook with BBC Books and True Heart Theatre made a theatrical performance of the book which was fantastic. Moving with the times, in 2013, the book was made into an EBook and is now downloadable on Kindle.
Contrast that to our cookbook which is coming out in January 2014, we have Twitter (@sweetmandarins) with over 40,000 followers, Facebook and Pinterest which we will use to promote and encourage people to buy the book. In addition, we have made YouTube videos to tie in with the recipes.
To find out more about Helen Tse's business and writing endeavours do visit the website:
Helen Tse has made an extremely generous offer to help new writers! You can contact her at:
The book Sweet Mandarin is published by Random House.
FEBRUARY 2014 UPDATE!!
Helen and her sister Lisa have written a new cookbook!!
The bestselling cookbook is published by Kyle Books