Places: Eat a Bowl of Tea

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1961

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: 1941-1949

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York Chinatown

*New Eat a Bowl of TeaYork 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.

Suggested ReadingsChan, 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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