Eat a Bowl of Tea is a 1989 film directed by Wayne Wang in a Chinese America setting. It was crafted from a novel by Louis Chu, the novel was by the same name and had been published in 1961. The work is a depiction of the clashes between Chinese culture and way of life and the American ideas existing at the time in Chinatown of the City of New York in the period after the Second World War (Xiangyang, 2004, p. 215).
The US immigration laws had been relaxed at the time. It has gained recognition over the years as a significant study in Asian American studies. The focus is on four main characters. They constitute a newly married couple, Ben Loy and Mei Oi, and their respective fathers, Wah Gay and Lee Gong. Russell Wong acted as Ben Loy, Cora Miao as Mei Oi, Victor Wong as Wah Gay and Lau Siu-Ming as Lee Gong.
The film’s main comic is the impotence of a bridegroom after tying the knot. He finds himself in conflict with his community’s culture since his ideas don’t match with the community’s way of life. Issues of ethnic identity are brought out while at the same time bringing up light moments (Shu-yan, 1993, p. 99).
The film begins with a Greek chorus, and a noticeably 40s setting. The newly-weds, Ben Loy and Mei Oi are peacefully sleeping when their sleep gets interrupted by the doorbell (Shih, 2001, p.45). It is a prostitute at the door and Loy lies still in bed to conceal his past way of life from his new wife.
The story is then taken back, the scene is a gambling joint where Wah Gay and Lee Gong, who are Chinese immigrants and close friends find out that Wah has a son who should settle down and Lee has a marriageable daughter. Both these men’s wives and the daughter, Mei Oi, are in China.
These men decide to send Ben back home to marry Mei. Ben is at first reluctant and sees no sense in this because he’s gotten used to flings with the white prostitutes of New York (Shih, 2001, p.46). He eventually decides to move to China and there he marries Mei and takes her back to New York so they can start a family. All these movements, unfortunately, end up making the young man impotent.
Though they made love at the initial times, Mei becomes increasingly frustrated because her conjugal needs are not taken care of. As time goes by, a visitor, Ah Song calls at the couple’s. He flirts with Mei and she gives in. Later, she discovers she is pregnant and knows not who between Ah Song and Ben is responsible; at one time Ben had successfully made love with her.
Due to neighborhood embarrassment, the couple moves to Stanton. Even there, however, Mei can’t keep off the urge to see Ah Song and eventually convinces Ben that they move back to New York. The affair between Mei and Ah Song again goes on. Ben decides to retaliate and slices off Ah Song’s ear (Jinqi, 1995, p. 35). Wah Gay and Lee Gong decide to leave that community due to shame.
The young couple decides to start anew and move to San Francisco. There Mei gives birth and the new setting enables them to get back on the right track. The film title comes into place here when Ben visits a Chinese herbalist, Dr. Suey, to cure his impotence. Dr. Suey advises him to eat a bowl of tea.
Even though the tea is thick, black, pungent and hard to ingest, Ben keeps going back (Shih, 2001, p.49). He eventually regained his masculinity, though it is not clear if it is the tea that helped him or it was his change in way of life.
Major themes in the film
One of the themes coming out is appearance versus reality. At face value, Ben looks like an innocent and righteous man, however, he is concealing a dented past in the form of promiscuity. The young Mei from China is expected to be faithful to her husband but she does the opposite (Jinqi, 1995, p. 47).
Another theme focuses on strains between the old generation and the new generation of the time. The young couple is living in modern-day America but is still under pressure to conform to Chinese traditions.
The family and its continuity were still highly regarded at the time. This theme clearly comes out when the two friends Wah Gay and Lee Gong make an arrangement for their children to get married (Jinqi, 1995, p. 48).
This film is rich in representations whereby Chinese and American cultures clash with one another. For example, the couple’s first time alone in China on screen is against a background of an outdoor illustration of Lost Horizon, a well renowned American film (Shu-yan, 1993, p. 105).
When the couple moves to San Francisco to escape embarrassment, well known sights are spread over the surface with Chinese music. Eating tea is an illustration of Ben going against the culture and way of life of the Chinese (Xiangyang, 2004, p. 224). It shows Ben’s urge for independence and moving away from his father’s control.
Ben’s impotence and inability to continue his lineage is an indication of the inability to bring together Chinese and American ideologies at that time. These include societal expectations, personal wishes and business issues.
Jinqi L. (1995). “Reading for Historical Specificities: Gender Negotiations in Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea.” p.35-51.
Shih, D. (2001) “A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 45–53.
Shu-yan, L. (1993). “Otherness and Transformation in Eat a Bowl of Tea and Crossings.” Philadelphia: Temple UP, 99-110.
Xiangyang, C. (2004) “Constructions of Chinese Identity in Eat a Bowl of Tea and Chinese Box.” Re-Reading America: Changes and Challenges. Cheltenham: Reardon, 215–26.