Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668
Louis Chu (chew) and his family immigrated from a small town near Canton, China, to Newark, New Jersey, when he was nine years old. Chu completed his elementary and secondary education in New Jersey. He continued his education with a bachelor of arts degree in English from Upsala College, East Orange, New Jersey. Later, he received an M.A. in sociology from New York University. He also did postgraduate work at the New School for Social Research in New York City.
During World War II, Chu served in the United States Army and was stationed in Kunming in southeastern China. After the war, he returned to China and later married a woman who was born and raised there. The couple had four children.
For many years, Chu was the only Chinese American disc jockey in New York City. Between 1951 and 1961, his program, Chinese Festival, was broadcast four nights a week on radio station WHOM. In 1961, he became a social worker for the New York City Department of Welfare. As part of his duties, he directed a social center in Chinatown. Active in the Chinatown community, he was executive secretary of the Soo Yuen Benevolent Association.
It was also in 1961, while working for the Department of Welfare, that Chu published his first and only novel, Eat a Bowl of Tea. The novel signaled the beginning of realism in Chinese American writing. Though Chu is sometimes considered the first Chinese American novelist, Chinese Americans had been publishing in the United States since the late nineteenth century. The early writers published sketches, short stories, and autobiography.
Eat a Bowl of Tea is a tragicomic novel that chronicles the adventures of the Chinatown bachelor society prevalent in the United States before World War II. Stringent laws had prevented the immigration of Chinese women before 1945. After World War II, because China was the United States’ ally, there was an easing of the restrictions. Chinese women could legally enter the United States, thus changing the demographic composition of Chinatown.
Chu, bilingual in Chinese and English, could easily observe and interact with the Chinatown inhabitants. His linguistic abilities allowed him to understand and sympathize with both older and younger members of the Chinese community. His firsthand knowledge gave a certain authority to the work, although early reviewers rejected the work as not representative of the Chinese. Further, some critics did not like the novel’s writing style.
Eat a Bowl of Tea is the story of Wang Ben Loy (Chinese surnames are given first), a young Chinese American accustomed to having his affairs, including his marriage, arranged by his tradition-bound Chinese father. It is also the story of New York’s Chinatown, dark and dank. It is a bachelor society mired in unrealistic cultural traditions, social institutions, codes of behavior, and conventions that should have disappeared long ago. Yet the old “bachelors” who populate New York’s Chinatown cling to the old ways. Chu’s Chinatown is unlike the exotic locales portrayed in works by Chinese American authors Jade Snow Wong, Virginia Lee, or Lin Yutang.
The protagonist’s sexual and psychological impotence is the central image in the novel. The stress from the demands of trying to satisfy two cultural traditions, Chinese and American, causes Ben Loy to become impotent with his new wife, Mei Oi. The bowl of tea in the title refers to the bitter herbs Ben Loy must eat not only to regain his potency but also to gain his individuality and his independence from Chinese cultural traditions.
Upon its publication, a number of American critics ridiculed Eat a Bowl of Tea, referring to its language as tasteless and raw. They did not realize that Chu, rather than using “fortune cookie” English to represent Chinese speech, as some earlier writers had, translated the immigrant language literally. Chu’s direct translations retained much of the language’s original essence. In 1979, nine years after Chu’s death, the Washington University Press reissued Eat a Bowl of Tea. The novel was also filmed in 1989.