Eat a Bowl of Tea Analysis
by Louis H. Chu

Start Your Free Trial

Download Eat a Bowl of Tea Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

This novel portrays a major social change in the Chinese community during the 1950’s and the 1960’s. Before 1949, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese laborers from bringing their families to the United States. These so-called “bachelors” usually had wives in China, with whom they reunited only occasionally to have children. The lack of family life caused these men to live dissipated lives, gambling and visiting prostitutes. After 1949, new brides crossed the Pacific Ocean and started to change the communal scene in Chinatown. The impact of their arrival reached its climax in the 1960’s when the “bachelor” lifestyle became moribund. Author Louis Chu did not achieve fame or financial success with this book because his unexotic, realistic depiction of early Chinese Americans was not attractive to American readers. With this novel, however, Chu succeeded in bringing the issue of Chinese American communal life to public attention.

Suggested Readings

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Chan, Jeffrey. Introduction to Eat a Bowl of Tea. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979. Excellent introduction by a distinguished Chinese American scholar and writer. Praises Chu for his transcription of Cantonese idiom and satirical analysis of Chinatown society. Includes brief biography of Chu.

Chua, Cheng Lok. “Golden Mountain: Chinese Versions of the American Dream in Lin Yutang, Louis Chu, and Maxine Hong Kingston.” Ethnic Groups 4 (1982): 33-57. A comparison of Chu with Lin and Kingston. Analyzes the conflict between the Chinese ideal of family and the American Dream of success, happiness, and individual identity. The critical approach is historical and archetypal.

Gong, Ted. “Approaching Cultural Change Through Literature.” Amerasia Journal 7, no. 1 (1980): 73-86. Traces cultural development from Chinese to Chinese American in Monfoon Leong, Louis Chu, and Frank Chin. Examines common themes of the father-son relationship and generational conflict.

Hsiao, Ruth Y. “Facing the Incurable: Patriarchy in Eat a Bowl of Tea.” In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. Places Chu in the tradition of literary debunking of patriarchy. Theorizes that while patriarchy is portrayed as the real villain in the novel, Chu fails to free his own creative imagination from male images of women; patriarchy remains an incurable malady of Chinese society.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. A groundbreaking book on Asian American literature. Chapter 4, “Portraits of Chinatown,” contains an illuminating discussion of the literary and sociological qualities of Chu’s novel.

Ling, Jinqi. “Reading for Historical Specificities: Gender Negotiations in Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea.” MELUS 20 (1995): 35-51.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New York Chinatown

*New York Chinatown. New York City’s Chinese quarter, which is the novel’s primary setting. The author lived there and was an active and notable figure in the community. At the close of World War II, Chinatown is a close-knit, predominantly male society of aging bachelors. These old men, separated by racist immigration laws from their wives and families who remain in China, loyally cling to their inflexible, chauvinistic Cantonese sensibilities and customs, oblivious to the changes that China has undergone in their absence and isolated from mainstream American culture. A homogeneous society with a strong adherence to tradition, parental authority, and strict supervision, Chinatown represents the “old world” these men have left behind and functions as a prison, ensnaring its inhabitants in nostalgia and thus rendering them powerless.

To illustrate how New York’s Chinatown is a closed community, the story’s action occurs inside buildings such as barbershops, restaurants, apartments, and clubhouses. These establishments provide refuge for the Chinese exiles who live out...

(The entire section is 1,823 words.)