Eat a Bowl of Tea

by Louis H. Chu

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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 establishment—is hardly an exemplary one for a model Confucian father. Ben Loy, on the other hand, must keep up appearances in order to conform with his father’s desired image of him as a good, hardworking boy. Behind this façade of ideal filial duty, however, Ben Loy surreptitiously finds release by frequenting prostitutes, which threatens the fruitfulness of his marriage and thus endangers the continuity of the family, ideal or otherwise.

After the novel’s crisis, the obstructing representatives of the older generation, Wah Gay and Lee Gong, lose their authority and fade into voluntary exile. Chu shows the Confucian system of family hierarchy in retreat. The action then focuses on the now-unobstructed actions of the younger generation, Ben Loy and Mei Oi, as they attempt to rebuild their marriage and their lives. They found this new sense of self and family not upon an authoritarian hierarchy but upon mutual love, understanding, and forgiveness. They also move from the old American East (New York) to the new American West (San Francisco). In so doing, Chu’s youthful characters are following the archetypal American journey westward to find a second chance at happiness and self-realization on new frontiers.

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Critical Context