Eat a Bowl of Tea: A Novel of New York’s Chinatown
Eat a Bowl of Tea: A Novel of New York’s Chinatown
by Louis Chu
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in New York City’s Chinatown in 1948; published in 1961.
A newlywed becomes impotent, leading to events that challenge the traditions of his family and threaten their ultimate survival in a Chinese American community.
Louis Chu came to the United States from Toishan, China, as a young boy in 1924. He went on to receive a master’s degree from New York University and to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II. Like many Chinese American veterans, he went back to China to seek a wife as a result of the War Brides Act of 1945. Upon returning to the U.S. with their new spouses, many Chinese Americans like Ben Loy in Eat a Bowl of Tea: A Novel of New York’s Chinatown found building a life in the postwar years a journey filled with both hope and bitterness. Chu, an active leader in New York’s Chinese American community, witnessed the development of Chinatown from an enclave of male survivors, separated from their wives and children by discriminatory laws, into a thriving family society.
Ethnic heritage in the United States
In the mid-1800s the United States. needed cheap labor to work in the California gold mines. China had suffered a recent defeat to Western powers in the Opium War and was struggling economically in the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion. People in China were starving, their lives ruined by war and natural calamities. The lure of possible fortunes to be made in Gum Sahn, the Golden Mountain, as America was called, was tantalizing for many. After the Nanking Treaty of 1842, which ceded Hong Kong to the British and opened up five additional Chinese seaports to trade, international labor brokers were allowed to recruit more freely for American mining and railway companies. The Chinese responded in large numbers, especially in the southern coastal regions. The majority of those who came to the U.S. hailed from the province of Guangdong and were mostly young men and boys.
When they arrived on American shores, negative public opinion had already been formed about the “coolies,” as the Chinese laborers were called. The derogatory term came from the Chinese word ku li meaning “hard labor”—or, as historian Gunther Barth has called it, “bitter strength” (Kwong, p. 19). Racist, ignorant, or misguided impressions had permeated the writings and speeches of merchants, missionaries, and diplomats who had visited China, creating an image of the Chinese as inferior human beings. Such beliefs made it easier to treat these immigrants as exploitable labor.
When large mining companies forced smaller companies out of business because of their superior capital resources and control of cheap labor, the losers blamed their misfortune on Chinese workers, who were harassed, taxed unfairly, and in some cases even murdered. In the 1860s many Chinese went to work building the transcontinental railroad, while others began to hold skilled and semiskilled jobs. As a whole the ethnic group seemed to be entering the U.S. mainstream, but the 1870s saw a slump in the economy. Small manufacturers again blamed Chinese workers for being the allies of large businesses, and the Chinese became the target of more violence and discriminatory legislation. Although the Chinese took their case before the federal courts, they failed to reverse the mounting tide of prejudice against them.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspended the immigration of all Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, for ten years, barred them from most occupations, and prohibited the Chinese already in the United States from becoming naturalized citizens. It was the first federal law to exclude a whole group of immigrants by nationality. President Grover Cleveland supported the act, regarding the Chinese as ignorant of the Constitution and its laws, dangerous to society, and incapable of assimilation.
In 1892 the Geary Act restricted Chinese immigration for ten more years. During this time the Chinese government neared collapse; it had no representatives in the United States and could therefore do nothing to protect its nationals from unfair treatment. Further alienation of the Chinese came about as a result of the white trade unions, which used anti-Chinese attitudes to unify workers. Without any allies in the government, in their home country, or among the working class, Chinese immigrants had to rely on one another for survival.
In 1904 the Exclusion Act was extended indefinitely, and in 1924 foreign-born wives and children of U.S. citizens of Chinese ancestry were also excluded from immigrating. With such a bleak future ahead of them, many Chinese hoped to return to China. Others, however, continued the legal battle against discrimination. They fought hard to overturn the Geary Act of 1892, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law, ruling in effect that undesirable aliens could be deported merely as an administrative procedure, not necessarily as punishment for a crime. Chinese who were not citizens, therefore, had no legal protection. Since most Chinese were not eligible for citizenship, they could be deported for the slightest provocation.
A refuge within a society: New York’s Chinatown
In an effort to escape harassment, many Chinese moved as far away from mining and railway work as they could. “They soon realized that the concentration of such a large number in an anti-Chinese environment was disadvantageous to their survival because it accentuated their high ‘visibility’” (Wong, p. 35). New York, a large city that was home to many different ethnic groups, offered an opportunity not only to escape notice but also to find new niches for employment that didn’t depend on either white employers or workers. Thus the Chinese came to specialize in occupations that could survive on local patrons, such as hand laundries, grocery stores, and small, low-investment restaurants. English was rarely spoken and not required to run these businesses. By 1940, 84 percent of the Chinese in New York were employed in restaurant or laundry work. Their businesses remained small partly because many planned to go back to China once they had saved enough to retire.
New York’s Chinatown helped Dr. Sun Yat-sen build his revolutionary cause in China. His birthplace and political base was their own Guangdong Province. A branch of his Guomindang, or Nationalist, party was established in 1921 in New York and recruited members. In Eat a Bowl of Tea Wah Gay is a member.
A Chinese community sprang up on the East Side of lower Manhattan, its inhabitants hailing mostly from Toishan, China. Because of the restrictive immigration laws, before the 1940s it included few women and children and hardly any family life, factors that made acculturation into mainstream American society more difficult. During its early years the inhabitants were not exclusively Chinese, and the neighborhood had its share of gambling houses, saloons, opium dens, prostitutes, panhandlers, thieves, and assorted underworld figures. Despite the presence of these pleasure-seekers, the majority of Chinese kept to themselves—yet the stereotype of a dangerous fringe society of Chinese would remain associated with Chinatown.
Social and business organizations
The internal social and political structure of Chinatown replicated the home province. The first tier consisted of people from the same clan and the same village joined together in organizations called a fong, a social and mutual assistance group where members could ask about jobs, pool or borrow funds to open new businesses, or find partners for joint ventures. The second tier was the family or surname association. Because of the lack of family life and unfamiliarity with local customs and language in the early days of Chinatown, this group helped generate some family feeling and an atmosphere of brotherhood.
Other groups, called tongs, were originally fraternal organizations centered primarily on illegal businesses and vices. It was a way for some individuals in the community to gain quick money and prestige when it would have otherwise been denied them by society at large. Their origins were linked to secret societies opposed to the seventeenth-century Qing regime in China, though their political focus had dissipated by the nineteenth century. Tongs tended to attract those whose district or family associations could not protect their economic interests. They were involved in prostitution and gambling as well as the sale of opium. Their power was enforced by kidnappings and assassinations. Later, as legitimate businessmen joined their ranks to protect their own interests, the tongs permeated the mainstream of Chinatown politics.
Because of the chronic rivalry among all of the associations, another organization sprang up to mediate their differences. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association resolved interassociation conflicts, becoming known to those outside Chinatown as its unofficial city hall. The CCBA collected membership fees, and all business transactions had to be reported to the association in detail. Over the years the CCBA became a powerful organization. But decisions made by the CCBA were not always abided by voluntarily; some acted in accordance with its judgment because of social or economic pressure and the desire to preserve one’s good “face” (respectability and prestige). Those who refused to follow the CCBA’s decisions were on occasion physically forced to go out of business or leave the community.
Gaining equal rights
Many Chinese Americans felt that securing their equal rights in the United States was linked to China’s gaining respect in the world. In the late 1930s Chinatown’s community tried to persuade American foreign policy to move away from its neutral position in the Sino-Japanese War. It was the first time the supposedly “passive” Chinese were actively seeking a relationship of sorts with U.S. society at large. World War II nurtured this interaction between the Chinese community and the mainstream. China’s antifascist objectives and U.S. interests placed them on the same side. In New York City 13,000 Chinese were drafted, almost 40 percent of the city’s Chinese population. Meanwhile, other Chinese—who had previously been excluded from the industrial labor force as well as most white-collar jobs—found jobs working in factories, shipyards, offices, and laboratories. Many employers continued to hire Chinese after the war. In 1945 the War Brides Act was passed, allowing Chinese veterans to sponsor their wives from China as immigrants to the United States. Many men who were not already married went to Hong Kong and Canton to look for wives. After marrying in China, these brides came to the United States as non-quota immigrants.
Told from an omniscient point of view, the narrative begins with a white prostitute pounding on the door of Ben Loy’s Chinatown apartment in New York City. She’s hoping to do a little of their usual business, but things have changed. Ben Loy is now a married man. A veteran of World War II, Ben Loy has just returned from China, where his father and mother had arranged for him to find a wife. With beautiful Mei Oi now in his life, Ben Loy has resolved to put his shameful past behind him. He’s going to work hard, create a good life for his family, and become a successful member of society.
Ben Loy, however, finds the atmosphere in Chinatown stifling. Only a few weeks into his new marriage, he begins to suffer from impotency. Mei Oi is crushed and feels personally rejected. She had been so happy that she didn’t have to marry a farmer or a teacher; Ben is a waiter in a restaurant. She was happy that her father in the United States had found such a handsome husband for her. Even her mother and the matchmaker from their village in China had approved. Why has Ben Loy lost interest in her?
Shortly thereafter, gossip is bouncing off the walls of the Wah Que Barber Shop and the Money Come club house. Why doesn’t Ben Loy’s wife have a fat stomach yet? Lee Gong and Wang Wah Gay, father and father-in-law of the bride, are wondering why it’s taking so long for Mei Oi to produce a grandson. With the pressure mounting, Ben Loy follows Mei Oi’s advice and goes to see a doctor and an herbalist. It’s psychological, says one. Weak kidney, says the other. At first he’s reluctant to mix the doctor’s western pills with the herbalist’s recommended tea. Then, growing desperate, he faithfully follows both prescriptions. But nothing happens. He still can’t make love to Mei Oi. Ah Song, a gambler at Wang Wah Gay’s mahjong club, takes advantage of the situation. He finds Mei Oi at home alone, a lovely young wife feeling very unloved, and seduces her.
Mei Oi becomes pregnant, but by the wrong man. The affair is discovered and everybody loses face because of Mei Oi’s indiscretion. Should the family run away from Chinatown? Where would they go? The cuckold Ben Loy is avenged when his father-in-law goes after Ah Song with a knife. Rather than killing him, he manages only to cut off his ear. Ah Song goes to the police. Wang Wah Gay’s family association appeals to the tong to pressure Ah Song into dropping the charges. Ah Song is banished from the community.
THE YOUNGER GENERATION
In the mid-1930s the Chinese Youth Patriotic Society called for the elimination of decadent behavior, such as gambling, and threatened the more conservative Chinatown community by admitting women into their ranks. Different from the older generation, this group was motivated by the desire to become a permanent part of American life. They were not willing to tolerate isolation and committed themselves to promoting friendship between the Chinese and mainstream American society.
Wang Wah Gay and Lee Gong leave Chinatown because of their humiliation. The marriage of their children had turned them from close friends into members of the same family. Now, after years of working hard in the restaurant and laundry businesses, separated from their wives back home in China, these two survivors go their separate ways.
Ben Loy and Mei Oi move to San Francisco. The baby is born and they are happy again, though Ben Loy is still haunted by his impotence. He finds another herbal doctor who prescribes more bitter black tea. After the haircut party of their new son, an old Chinese custom celebrating the baby’s birth that takes place during the first months, Ben Loy and Mei Oi are preparing for bed when Ben Loy’s vitality returns. For the first time, after many struggles, fears, doubts, failures, and bittersweet victories, they are able to enjoy each other again as husband and wife.
How cultural heritage shapes the family’s choices
Eat a Bowl of Tea is not only about New York’s Chinatown and a case of marital infidelity there. It is also about the strength of Chinese American culture, an exposé of its adaptability in the face of adversity.
After more than twenty years of manual labor in the drudgery of the restaurant business, Ben’s father, Wang Wah Gay, has finally managed to achieve semi-retirement at his mahjong club. Having given up his goal of returning to China and the wife that he had to leave behind when he first came to the United States, Ben’s father now spends his days gambling with his cronies; he feels happy to have married off his son and looks forward to the day when he can brag about his grandson.
In the eyes of Chinese culture, Wang Wah Gay has fulfilled a solemn obligation in finding a wife for his son. Unlike the old days, he has even made sure Ben Loy liked his choice for a mate. And now, for a surviving member of Chinatown’s bachelor society, nothing could be more important than the promise of an offspring. But Ben Loy’s impotence and Mei Oi’s adultery mean that he will lose “face”—the very core of his respectability and honor. With so much at stake, Ben’s father feels he has no choice but to avenge this dishonor with violence. And so he goes after Ah Song, the one who has made visible this private family shame.
Like his father’s, Ben Loy’s behavior and aspirations have been shaped by the history of Chinatown. Raising a child in the absence of a family environment, Ben’s father has tried to keep him away from gambling and women, but Ben Loy has had his share of illicit pleasures. Feeling guilty already about his past, there is extra pressure on Ben Loy to succeed in his marriage as well as to follow admirably in his father’s footsteps in the restaurant business. It is not inconceivable that this kind of stress might lead to impotence, and it is ironic that the very demand to gain respectability may have made him incapable of achieving it. His guilt and shame are intensified by his wife’s infidelity. Not only has he failed to run his family with a firm hand, as his father has always taught him, but all of the beauty, sympathy, goodness, and understanding he saw in his wife’s face has turned into a mockery of his weakness. He began with an idealized picture of the passive but beautiful woman whom he had married, but the ideal has collapsed in its new-world environment.
Mei Oi is homesick for her mother and the familiar environment of her village in China. She is devoted to Ben Loy as her culture dictates, yet feels isolated in the confines of her new home. She envies the independence of the Chinese American women who have managed to defy tradition by working in the sewing shops. Powerless to disobey her husband’s wishes, however, she must resort to being first and foremost his wife. She has been taught not to speak. Her task is to cook his rice, darn his socks, and comfort and nurse him in sickness. Yet her desperate need for human contact gives rise to internal conflict and an uncustomary decision. She chooses to satisfy her own needs before her family’s, thus upsetting the fragile equilibrium of her world.
Just when it seems that all hope of saving Ben Loy’s family is lost, they unwittingly discover strength in traditions of their culture. It is by relying on the cultural values of perseverance, obedience, and loyalty that Ben Loy’s family finds resilience. Ben Loy honors Chinese tradition by obeying Chuck Ting, the head of the Wang Family Association, and leaving New York with Mei Oi until the scandal cools down. Through the maneuverings of Ting and his reliance on the allegiances of the family association and the local tong, Ben Loy’s father avoids a possible jail sentence for having attacked Ah Song, and the community expels Ah Song from its midst altogether. And the blind devotion that Mei Oi was trained to give her husband helps keep them together until the lessons of the New York episode can be learned.
Louis Chu had firsthand experience in Chinatown. He lived in New York his entire adult life, working for the New York Department of Welfare and as director of a social center. In 1950 he started a record shop in Chinatown to help support his wife and four children. A year later he and his wife started the Chinese radio program Chinese Festival on WHOM-FM, which would remain on the air for a decade. He was a well-known figure in Chinatown, serving as executive secretary of the Soo Yuen Benevolent Association. In addition to having gone to China to find a wife like the protagonist in his story, Chu had daily experiences that would help Eat a Bowl of Tea come alive in colorful detail.
The neighborhood is the same even though the name of the restaurants, tea shops, herb companies, barber shops, and clubs have in most cases been changed. A 1961 Library Journal interview explained, “Mr. Chu views his book as an attempt to ‘portray a very small segment of human life’” (Serebnick, pp. 604-05). In some cases they may be personal memories from his own life. When Lee Gong goes to the China Pagoda restaurant, posing as a disinterested customer to check out Ben Loy as a possible mate for his daughter, the scene recalls Chu’s own experience. For his 1939 New York University master’s thesis on Chinese restaurants, Chu posed as a waiter to get an inside look at how restaurants were run. Ben Loy’s frenetic hustling from table to table and to and from the kitchen parallel the chaos he writes about in his own paper, down to the $.35 tip he received at the end of the evening.
Chu not only has an eye for visual particulars, but an ear for authentic dialogue. He directly translates idioms heard from the Sze Yup dialect:
“Wow your mother.”
“Go sell your ass.”
“What a stinky dead snake.”
“If you say one more word, I’ll stuff your mouth
(Chu, Eat a Bowl of Tea, pp. 15, 111, 206)
Such spicy language not only adds humor to the satire, but alludes also to the proud, stubborn, feisty dignity of Chinatown’s male inhabitants.
The communist threat
Chinese Americans experienced a spillover of hostility from the U.S. government’s antagonism toward the new communist regime in China. When the Korean War of the 1950s found the U.S. and China fighting on opposite sides, Chinese Americans came under suspicion. U.S. policy favored China’s Guomindang (GMD) or Nationalist Party, by 1949 led by Chiang Kai-Shek and based on the island of Taiwan. Since many in the Chinese American community showed little support for Chiang, they were assumed to be pro-Communist. Some were even accused of acting as “communist” agents. Investigations were conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration Office. Under the 1950 Internal Security Act, the government had the power to incarcerate the entire Chinese community, as had happened with the Japanese community during World War II. Though there was no such detention of Chinese American citizens, harassment continued.
The 1955 Drumright Report found widespread fraud in the falsification of documents by Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong. The report further stated a belief that communist agents were using these illegal channels to infiltrate the United States. Stiff requirements for Chinese entering the country followed. This hostile environment led many Chinese to discontinue activity with liberal or progressive organizations. As a result, the conservative leaders in the community, especially members of the New York City branch of the GMD, assumed power. The GMD and conservative associations used communist-baiting tactics to threaten the community to bend to their will. A Chinatown an-ticommunist league was formed to keep the community in line. By the mid-1950s the powerful Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance and the Chinese Youth Club were so mercilessly harassed that few dared to remain members. Their influence in Chinatown was destroyed.
Working people no longer had any organizations looking out for them. The mediation of disputes fell once again under the jurisdiction of the now autocratic and corrupt tongs and associations. Without the activities of the Youth Club, many of Chinatown’s young people resorted to gambling, drinking, and prostitution. By the mid-1950s, the liberal era was over for New York’s Chinatown. This conservative atmosphere persisted into the early 1960s, when Eat a Bowl of Tea first appeared.
Eat a Bowl of Tea was published in 1961 and seems to have been misunderstood—or at best underappreciated for its rich depiction of a segment of Chinese American life. “While this is a legitimate subject for fiction,” said one reviewer, “it is unfortunately beyond the scope of Mr. Chu’s abilities as a novelist to handle. In language and development, the book is frequently tasteless and raw” (Field, p. 33).
The broader scope of Louis Chu’s story of a “small segment of human life” seems to have been lost on the mainstream readership of his time. It is not surprising, considering the mindset of many Americans in the conservatism of the late 1950s and early 1960s as reflected in an article in New York Times Magazine. Its writer was impressed by the apparent intact nature of Chinese families in Chinatown:
There has been an inevitable “Americanization” of the young people, but it has chiefly been a surface change of costume and mannerisms. They remain fundamentally Chinese, and segregation in their case is not a problem. In fact, one wonders who is excluding whom. A sentiment Chinese respect with gratitude is, “We are let alone in America.”
(Mclntyre, p. 49)
The irony of the writer’s interpretation of that sentiment most likely would not have been lost on Louis Chu.
Chu, Louis. “The Chinese Restaurants in New York City.” Master’s thesis, New York University, 1939.
Chu, Louis. Eat a Bowl of Tea: A Novel of New York’s Chinatown. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1961.
Field, Carol. “Locale: A Chinatown.” New York Herald Tribune (February 19, 1961): sec. 4, 33.
Kinkead, Gwen. Chinatown, A Portrait of a Closed Society. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Kwong, Peter. Chinatown, New York-Labor and Politics, 1930-1950. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.
Mclntyre, William A. “Chinatown Offers Us a Lesson.” The New York Times Magazine (October 6, 1957): 49.
Serebnick, Judith. “First Novelists, Spring 1961.” Library Journal (February 1, 1961): 597-613.
Wong, Bernard. Patronage, Brokerage, Entrepreneurship and the Chinese Community of New York. New York: AMS Press, 1988.