Eat a Bowl of Tea

by Louis H. Chu

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Critical Context

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First published in 1961, Eat a Bowl of Tea initially met with unappreciative reviews. It was neglected for almost two decades until a post-1960’s generation of Asian American scholars, led by writers Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan, resuscitated it. The book was successfully filmed in 1988 by Wayne Wang and has been given a secure place in the canon of Asian American literature. Louis Chu’s only published novel has earned for its author the accolade of Chinese America’s first distinguished novelist.

The central conflicts of Eat a Bowl of Tea—the generational discord between traditional immigrant parent and assimilated American child and the clash between familial community and individual identity—have become frequently revisited sites of struggle by subsequent Chinese American writers. One thinks of Fred and Pa Eng in Frank Chin’s play Year of the Dragon (1974), the author and her shamanistic mother in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: A Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), or the numerous mother-daughter duels in Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club (1989). Chu’s book is also prized because it is the first novel by a Chinese American insider depicting Chinatown life in a realistic, unexoticized way; more popular novels such as Lin Yutang’s Chinatown Family (1948) and Chin Yang Lee’s Flower Drum Song (1957) romanticized and stereotyped the subject. An especially notable difference is Chu’s realistic mirroring of the conditions in the “bachelor society” of America’s Chinatowns. This bachelor society originated because earlier racist American immigration laws excluded the wives of working-class Chinese men from entering the United States while equally racist miscegenation laws prevented Chinese men from marrying American women and establishing families. Thus, working men such as Wah Gay and Lee Gong returned home to marry and then left their wives in China while they sought employment in America, enjoying a conjugal visit perhaps once a decade (less frequently than most convicted felons in American prisons). In the Chinatowns of that period, then, the population was overwhelmingly male, mostly “married bachelors.” Hence a woman such as Mei Oi, the war bride of a Chinese American soldier, was a precious rarity in her community.

Chu’s realism is also evident in his dialogue. He renders the language of his working-class Chinatown characters with so fine an ear that one can hear the Cantonese cadences underlying the broken English and savor the authenticity of the speakers’ colorful banter. Early book reviewers who expected Chu’s ghetto characters to speak in standard English or Hollywood “Charlie Chan-ese” were bewildered, but the expressiveness and authenticity of Chu’s rendered dialogue has since gained appreciation. Later Chinese American writers such as Chin and Tan have successfully followed Chu’s lead in representing the real language of Chinese America.

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Critical Evaluation