In Eat a Bowl of Tea, both Wang Wah Gay, owner of a mahjong club, and Lee Gong, a retiree, are old “bachelors” in New York City’s Chinatown. They decide to marry their children, Wang Ben Loy, a local waiter, and Lee Mei Oi, who lives in China. Their separation from their wives in China for more than twenty-five years prompts the two old men to agree that Ben Loy should bring Mei Oi to the United States after their marriage. Mei Oi, as a newcomer, has difficulty adjusting to the male-oriented communal life in Chinatown, and Ben Loy, pressured by work and his father’s expectation that he will produce a son to continue the family line, fails to comfort her with love. The young wife, coveted by other “bachelors,” finally falls victim to the predatory Ah Song, who impregnates her. When the affair is discovered, Ben Loy shuns the community for fear that his impotency has been disclosed. Mei Oi cannot confide in her father, a total stranger. Wah Gay, shamed by the incident, resorts to violence, cutting off Ah Song’s ear. Both Wah Gay and Ah Song are forced to leave Chinatown. Ben Loy, after drinking this bitter bowl of tea, resolves the problem by moving with Mei Oi to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where they can make a fresh start.
Widely acclaimed by Asian American writers and critics, Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea is the first Chinese American novel that realistically depicts New York’s Chinatown bachelor society in the United States shortly after World War II. The novel focuses on the struggles of a young Chinese American who attempts to define his identity.
As the novel opens, it is revealed that the protagonist, Wang Ben Loy, a bridegroom of two months, has become impotent. Ben Loy is a Chinese American in his twenties, a filial son, obedient to his Confucian father, Wah Gay, who left him in China for twenty-five years while establishing himself in America.
Wah Gay, owner of a gambling establishment in Chinatown, sends for Ben Loy, who works as a waiter, joins the U.S. Army, then returns to waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant. Ben Loy alleviates his frustrations by regularly patronizing prostitutes; unfortunately, he contracts several venereal diseases. In 1948, Ben Loy fulfills his filial duty by marrying Mei Oi, a China-born daughter of Wah Gay’s longtime friend.
Neglected by her husband, Mei Oi becomes pregnant by Ah Song, a notorious Chinatown philanderer. Chu appears sympathetic with women by implying that husbands must share blame for the infidelity of their wives when sexual and emotional needs are unsatisfied.
Mei Oi passes off the expected child as Ben Loy’s, but when Ah Song is sighted sneaking from her apartment, Chinatown buzzes with gossip. Feeling disgraced, Wah Gay ambushes Ah Song after a tryst at Mei Oi’s apartment and slices off his left ear. Justice is served when the unofficial Chinatown judicial system condemns Ah Song to five years’ ostracism. Having lost face, Wah Gay exiles himself.
Ben Loy and Mei Oi go west to San Francisco, where Mei Oi has a baby whom Ben Loy accepts. They look forward to having others after Ben Loy’s impotence is cured by a Chinese herbalist, who makes him “eat a bowl of tea” of medicinal herbs. Most important, Ben Loy breaks from the patriarchal control of his traditionalist Confucian father and becomes the arbiter of his Asian American identity.
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...
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