Early one morning in New York’s Chinatown, two newlyweds awake to the sound of their doorbell. Wang Ben Loy, the young husband, opens their door to find an undesirable figure, a prostitute, from his past. The woman does not believe he is married and only becomes convinced when shown a pair of his wife’s underwear on a clothesline. Ben Loy returns to bed with his beautiful wife, Mei Oi, but not to rest. Instead, thoughts of his recent impotence torment him.
Ben Loy is a young, hardworking Chinese American waiter in Stanton, Connecticut. Dominated by a stern Confucian father, Ben Loy finds his only freedom from patriarchal strictures in surreptitiously meeting prostitutes in nearby New York City during his days off work. He and a fellow waiter even expressly rent a hideout in New York, the apartment now tenanted by Ben Loy and his bride.
Ben Loy’s father, Wah Gay, had migrated from China several decades before to make his fortune in America, but he eventually ended up running a Chinatown gaming establishment. During his thirty years in America, Wah Gay returned to China once to marry and father a son, returning to New York to work. At age seventeen, Ben Loy joined his father. After Ben Loy reached his twenties and served in the U.S. Army in World War II, his mother wrote his father suggesting that their son marry.
Lee Gong, an old friend and mah-jongg partner of Wah Gay, who led a life similar to Wah Gay’s, also wants to marry off his daughter, Mei Oi, who still lives in China. These two elders tacitly arrange a marriage between their children. Ben Loy is then sent to their ancestral village, where he meets Mei Oi; fortunately, the intended couple are attracted to each other. After a happy wedding, followed by a blissful few weeks, the couple leave for Hong Kong, then New York. Much to the newlyweds’ dismay, Ben Loy loses his potency once he leaves China. Blaming his previous licentiousness, Ben Loy feels guilty and incompetent; Mei Oi feels undesirable and neglected.
On the couple’s arrival in New York, their fathers throw a huge wedding banquet. Many guests hint that the couple is expected to have a child in the next year. Mei Oi becomes depressed and frustrated as time passes and her hopes of conceiving a child dim. It is then that Ah Song, a regular at Wah Gay’s establishment, seizes his opportunity. Ah Song is a notorious philanderer who preys on credulous women with tales of exaggerated wealth and protestations of love. He quickly seduces the vulnerable Mei Oi, who soon becomes pregnant. Ben Loy, pleased to save face by his wife’s pregnancy, avoids thinking about how their child was conceived.
The secret is exposed, however, when Ah Song is spied leaving Mei Oi’s apartment. Gossip spreads rapidly and reaches Lee Gong, who chides his daughter. Then Wang Chuck Ting, the Wang Family Association’s president, informs Wah Gay of the situation and advises that the couple move to Stanton to minimize the family scandal. Wah Gay berates Ben Loy, who received intimations of his cuckoldry from the barbershop gossips, and he slaps Mei Oi in anger. Although the couple move to Connecticut, hostile relatives there force them back to New York, where Ah Song and Mei Oi resume their trysts.
On one such rendezvous, the furious Wah Gay ambushes Ah Song and cuts off his left ear. Ah Song presses charges, and Wah Gay hides from the police in an old friend’s laundry in New Jersey. Wang Chuck Ting, joined by the Ping On...
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Tong (the association that informally governs Chinatown), then intervenes. With their political clout, this informal judiciary persuades Wah Gay to emerge from hiding and coerces Ah Song to drop charges. Ah Song is then banished for five years. However, the loss of face Lee Gong and Wah Gay suffer because of the scandal forces them to seek anonymity in other states. Ben Loy and Mei Oi also decide to move westward to San Francisco to start a new life. All is forgiven between the couple, and the birth of the baby, whom Ben Loy accepts as his, adds joy to their lives. Free from the oppressive presence of his father, Ben Loy flourishes and seeks remedies for his impotency. He finds a Chinese herbalist who prescribes that he eat a bowl of bitter, medicinal tea regularly. This cure works, Ben Loy regains his virility, and the couple reunites with thoughts of a new baby and renewed life together.