Eat a Bowl of Tea was neglected for almost two decades until a post-1960’s generation of Asian American readers and scholars rediscovered it and acclaimed it the first authentic Chinese American novel. Since then, it has often been reprinted, has been made into a sensitive and entertaining film, and has become an Asian American classic. It is most often praised for its honest realism, classic comic structure, and deeply American themes. Louis H. Chu’s novel is the first by a Chinese American insider depicting Chinatown life in a realistic mode. Certainly, more popular works about Chinatown life preceded it, including Lin Yutang’s novel Chinatown Family (1948) and Chin Yang Lee’s Flower Drum Song (1957); however, these works depicted Chinatown life in a stereotypical manner. Chu’s observation and recording of his Chinatown is, by comparison, more authentic and knowledgeable of life and work in Chinatown.
Unlike Lin and Lee, who neither lived nor worked there, Chinatown is integral to Chu’s life and career. Born in Toishan, China, Chu immigrated to America when he was only nine. After graduating from college, he became director of a New York social center, host of the radio program Chinese Festival, and executive secretary of Chinatown’s Soo Yuen Benevolent Society.
Chu’s realism is especially original in his dialogue. Chu renders the language of his Chinatown characters with such a fine ear that one can hear the cadences of Cantonese underlying the broken English and savor the authenticity of the speakers’ banter. Early book reviewers who expected Chu’s ghetto characters to speak in polite standard English or Hollywood’s stereotype of Chinese American speech patterns were bewildered by Chu’s raw, unadulterated language.
Chu’s novel also faithfully mirrors the “bachelor society” of America’s Chinatowns. This society of men without women was created by racist American immigration statutes of the early 1900’s forbidding working-class Chinese from bringing wives into the United States, while equally racist miscegenation laws prevented Chinese from marrying Americans and establishing families in America. (Only wealthier Chinese merchants were allowed to bring wives into the United States.) Thus men such as Wah Gay and Lee Gong left their wives in China while working in America, enjoying a conjugal visit perhaps only once a decade. In the Chinatowns of that period, then, the population was overwhelmingly male, mostly “married bachelors.” Hence, a woman like Mei Oi, a war bride of a Chinese American soldier, would be a precious rarity in the Chinatown community.
In addition to its realist qualities, Eat a Bowl of Tea is a comic novel of archetypally classic construction. Classic comedy usually depicts a change from one kind of society to another. Initially, the negative characters who obstruct this change control the society; eventually, the incidents of plot that unite the hero and heroine cause a new society to crystallize around the hero. Indeed, the conflict in Chu’s novel is one between a society of elders and a society of youth, between the tradition-bound Chinese sojourners (in America to make money) and the new Chinese Americans (in America to stay). Ideologically, the Confucian Chinese ethic of family hierarchy clashes with the American Dream of the individual’s right to pursue happiness and identity. Wah Gay and Lee Gong represent the older Confucian sojourner generation, while Ben Loy and Mei Oi represent the younger Chinese American settler generation. Typical of the Confucian father, Wah Gay initially allows Ben Loy no opportunity to develop his individuality, making decisions for Ben Loy’s travel, job, and even marriage. Chu shows that this oppressive familial structure breeds hypocrisy. For instance, Wah Gay’s playing the role of the moral father is...
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ironic because his means of livelihood, a gambling joint, is more suitable for a gangster than for a model Confucian father. Similarly, Ben Loy keeps up appearances as an obedient, hardworking son, but he secretly resorts to prostitutes as a release.
After Wah Gay’s wounding of Ah Song, the Confucian family hierarchy begins to disintegrate as the representatives of the older generation, Lee Gong and Wah Gay, go into exile. The action then focuses on the younger generation, Ben Loy and Mei Oi, as they attempt to rebuild their marriage unencumbered by repressive expectations. The young couple’s new sense of family is a loving partnership, not an authoritarian hierarchy. Here, Chu’s novel becomes attuned to a profoundly American theme as its young couple moves from the old American East (New York) to the new American West (San Francisco). In so doing, they are following the archetypal journey of the American explorer who voyages westward to seek a second chance at life on new frontiers. Thus, rooting his novel in Chinese America, Chu brings to fruition a work that consorts with themes deep in the American grain: the dream of the individual to pursue happiness and self-actualization, the desire that America be another Eden. Eat a Bowl of Tea is Chu’s only published novel, but, with it, he is deservedly designated Chinese America’s first novelist, the worthy forerunner of Frank Chin, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Amy Tan.