Eat a Bowl of Tea is a comic, satirical novel that probes the way of life prevailing in the American Chinatown society of the 1940’s. Its plot develops along classically comedic lines, and its central conflict is between a generation of elders and a generation of young people, between the tradition-bound first-generation Chinese sojourners who came to America primarily to make money (since racist laws excluded them from establishing families in America) and the new-generation Chinese Americans who were in America to make it their homeland (the laws having begun to change in the 1940’s). Ideologically, this conflict is a clash between the Confucian Chinese ethic of family hierarchy on the one hand and the American Dream of the individual’s right to pursue happiness and identity on the other. Wah Gay and Lee Gong represent the Confucian older generation, while Ben Loy and Mei Oi represent the younger generation of Chinese Americans. For example, Wah Gay treats his son as his property and his responsibility, allowing Ben Loy no opportunity to develop his individuality—Wah Gay makes all the decisions regarding Ben Loy’s education, career, and marriage.
Louis Chu shows that this oppressive familial structure leads to disingenuousness and hypocrisy. Wah Gay’s insistence of playing the role of the provident father creates an ironic tension between his ideal image of himself and his real circumstances: His livelihood—operating a gambling...
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