Impact

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145

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...

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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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 276

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

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*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 their days gossiping with other bachelors, gambling and playing mah jong, and participating in Chinese social and political organizations, such as the Wang Association, the Chinese Masons, the Kuomintang, the Chinese Elks, and Ping On Tong. Chinatown’s settings are often depicted as dingy, dimly lit basement dwellings that are dark and empty. This symbolizes the stagnant, decaying state of Chinese immigrants who, during the period in which the story is set, are denied United States citizenship.

In New York’s Chinatown, newly married protagonist, Ben Loy, like the Chinese bachelors separated from their wives and families, cannot reproduce. In Chinatown, Ben Loy is imprisoned by his dutiful sense of obedience to his father and his father’s traditional ways and by guilt over his own youthful indiscretions. Consequently, Ben Loy is stripped of his masculinity and becomes impotent with his traditional Chinese wife.

Sunwei District

Sunwei District (sewn-way). Region in southern China in which Wah Gay’s and Lee Gong’s home villages, Sun Lung Lay and New Peace Village, are located. In contrast to New York’s Chinatown, these Chinese villages are depicted as rural and natural with roads of cobblestone and dirt. To Wah Gay and Lee Gong, who have spent more than half of their lives in the United States, the villages of Sunwei nostalgically represent the China of their youth—a China that no longer exists. To Ben Loy, however, the villages of Sunwei seem old, narrow, and staid and represent stifling traditions, set ways, and limited choices. With its gouged countryside and dismantled railway system, Sunwei District reflects the cultural and political upheavals China experienced during the early part of the twentieth century.

*San Francisco Chinatown

*San Francisco Chinatown. San Francisco’s Chinese quarter, in which Ben Loy and Mei Oi eventually make their home and where Ben Loy establishes his independence from his father, regains his virility, and accepts Mei Oi as the wife of his choosing and not of his father’s. For Ben Loy and Mei Oi, San Francisco’s Chinatown symbolizes a hopeful future, new ideas, and new frontiers as they rediscover their love for each other in this place of new beginnings.

*Stanton

*Stanton. Connecticut town to which Wah Gay sends seventeen-year-old Ben Loy to live when he first comes to America because Stanton is a small and safe town, in contrast to New York City—a big city filled with temptations. Stanton is also the town where Ben Loy and Mei Oi briefly move after Mei Oi’s affair with Ah Song is discovered.

Form and Content

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Eat a Bowl of Tea is a romantic comedy realistically depicting the “bachelor society” of American Chinatowns shortly after World War II. The novel opens on the protagonist Wang Ben Loy, a newlywed bridegroom awakened by the doorbell of his apartment in New York’s Chinatown. At the door, he finds a prostitute soliciting an old client. Ben Loy convinces her of his marital state, then rejoins his bride, Mei Oi, in bed; meanwhile, Mei Oi’s interior monologue reveals that Ben Loy has recently become impotent.

Flashbacks establish the characters of Ben Loy and his father and describe the events leading up to his marriage and impotence. Ben Loy is a Chinese American in his twenties, a filial son to his stern Confucian father, Wah Gay, owner of a gambling establishment in New York’s Chinatown. Wah Gay, an émigré to America, had returned in 1923 to his native Sunwei in Kwangtung Province. He married, stayed until his wife bore a son, and then left her and their infant in China for twenty-five years while he established himself in the United States. Ben Loy grew up in China until 1941, when his father sent for him. After a year of schooling and another year waiting tables, Ben Loy joined the U.S. Army, then returned to restaurant work. In 1948, he traveled to China to fulfill his filial obligations by marrying Mei Oi, the daughter of Wah Gay’s longtime friend Lee Gong. Although their match is arranged, Ben Loy and Mei Oi were attracted to each other, and their nuptial consummation in China was joyous and sexually fulfilling. Now that they have returned to New York to set up house, however, Ben Loy has become impotent.

The plot complication intensifies when Mei Oi’s feelings of husbandly neglect drive her into the arms of a notorious Chinatown playboy and seducer, Ah Song. When Mei Oi becomes pregnant, she initially passes off the expected child as Ben Loy’s, much to the family’s pleasure. Unfortunately, Ah Song is seen sneaking out of her apartment, and Chinatown soon buzzes with gossip of Mei Oi’s infidelity. Eventually, Wang Chuck Ting, president of the Wang Family Association, hears of the affair and informs Wah Gay of this family disgrace. The novel’s tragic climax occurs when Wah Gay ambushes Ah Song sneaking out of Mei Oi’s apartment and slices off his left ear. Wah Gay is then forced to hide from the police in a friend’s New Jersey home.

In the resolution, Chinatown’s unofficial judicial system intervenes, and Ah Song is condemned to five years of ostracism. Having lost face, Wah Gay and Lee Gong exile themselves from New York. Ben Loy and Mei Oi leave New York for San Francisco, where Ben Loy is free from patriarchal control, and he accepts Mei Oi’s baby as his child. Eventually, Ben Loy seeks a cure for impotence from a Chinese herbalist, who makes him “eat a bowl of tea” brewed with medicinal herbs. This bitter medicine miraculously allows Ben Loy to recover his virility, and he and Mei Oi renew their love and look forward to having another baby.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 278

Suggested Readings

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.

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