As Asian-American writers are increasingly considered mainstream, populate “best books” and “books to watch” lists, and receive acclaim from both critics and the general public, there has been a rediscovery of works of some of the early pioneers. Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, just re-released by University of Washington Press as part of its Classics of Asian American Literature series, was first published in 1961, re-released in 1979 and adapted for film by Wayne Wang in 1989, also to critical acclaim.
Chu, born in 1915 in Toishan (Taishan) in southern China, immigrated to the New York area, where he finished high school, followed by college, a master’s degree and training in social work. He became New York’s first Chinese disc jockey. Set in Chinatown, Eat a Bowl of Tea was his only novel.
The book was revolutionary when it first came out, at a time when, writes Jeffrey Paul Chan in the introduction to the 1979 edition:
Missionary portraits and autobiographies depicting a Chinatown devoid of white characters, save for prostitutes, where gambling and adultery marked the Chinese criminal, unassimilable and pathologically opposed to Western ways, are numerous.
Even early Chinese American writers depicted Chinatown in stereotypical ways influenced by white Christian missionaries “anxious to assimilate the ‘heathen’ Chinese.” In Eat a Bowl of Tea, Louis Chu breaks from this norm and presents a realistic portrayal of the bachelor society of New York’s Chinatown in the late 1940s. Because of the exclusionary laws that prohibited Chinese male laborers from bringing their wives and families to the US, Chinatowns were predominately male back then.
In the book, the elders of New York’s Chinatown are loud and unapologetic, often cursing their friends’ mothers; Chu doesn’t translate when his characters speak in the Toishan dialect. Two old friends, Wang Wah Gay and Lee Gong, scheme to arrange the marriage of Wah Gay’s son and Lee Gong’s daughter. The men’s wives are back in China and they don’t want their children to suffer the same loneliness they were forced to endure because of immigration laws; by the late 1940s it was possible for Chinese American men to bring wives from China.
While arranged marriage was becoming passé in Chinatown at that time, the two friends feel like their children would make a good match. They are both upstanding, hard-working adults. Wah Gay’s son, Ben Loy, works as a waiter in Connecticut. And Lee Gong’s daughter, Mei Oi, is still back in the village in southern China where she’s enrolled at an English school. The two men don’t want their children to think they are meddling, so Ben Loy returns to China with the goal of finding a wife, but has no idea that he will be matched with the daughter of his father’s best friend. Mei Oi, on the other hand, is informed that Ben Loy will travel to her village with the intention of proposing. Just like the men who had left the village for brighter opportunities, Mei Oi is open to this arrangement.
She knew she wouldn’t marry a farmer. A farmer’s wife worked from dawn till dusk out in the fields. She could see all around her farmers’ wives toiling incessantly, gathering firewood, turning the earth, planting, harvesting, exposed to the elements in all sorts of weather. Cracked hands. Calloused feet. A face bronzed and lined and hardened by the wind and sun. Not a pretty picture, but a common one. Marry a school teacher? Not Mei Oi. There was this common observation. Unless you’re poor, you would not be teaching.
Before Ben Loy meets Mei Oi, he had frequented so many prostitutes over the past five years that he’d contracted syphilis and gonorrhea multiple times. On his trip back to China, he stops in Hong Kong for a number of days and hires a different prostitute each night. Once the couple meets in the village, they fall in love at first sight. But the honeymoon will be short-lived.
Ben Loy is impotent; Mei Oi feels rejected. Enter Ah Song, a known wife-stealer and member of the Chinatown bachelor society. Ah Song preys on an unsuspecting Mei Oi. She cries over and over, “please don’t, please don’t” as she tries to push him away. He only tightens his grip on her.
Mei Oi’s affair with Ah Song was the sort of things that a country girl would never dream could happen to her. Once it happened it was not within the easy-going personality of Mei Oi to halt it.
It’s difficult to see this “relationship” as anything but coercion and rape. Even then, although the matter is handled within the community, Chu invokes the word as Ben Loy’s uncle pleads the case for Ah Song to be banished from New York Chinatown.
… We all have sons and daughters-in-law. Do you want your daughter-in-law to be raped by such a rascal as Ah Song? It is true that this Ah Song is a member of our organization, but we all know of his stinky reputation. We need not go into any elaborate details, for we do not want to keep you here and take away precious time. If we permit Ah Song to remain in our community, would this not be a license for him to continue his exploits? Who will be the next victim?
The result remains nuanced. Mei Oi doesn’t come out of this blameless in the novel, and her own husband feels betrayed, as do her father and father-in-law.
The couple decides to relocate to San Francisco, where they’re finally out of the reaches of their families and the pressures of New York. San Francisco brings the couple together and it is there that they work together to overcome Ben Loy’s impotence. With Mei Oi’s support, Ben Loy readily consults a Chinese herbalist in their new community.