This week’s Writing New York film is Wayne Wang‘s Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989), an adaptation of Louis Chu’s novel of the same name, which was published in 1961. Set in New York’s Chinatown in the late 1940s, the film tells the story of a young Chinese American war veteran, Ben Loy (Russell Wong), whose father, Wah Gay, (Victor Wong) has arranged for him to be married in China to the beautiful Mei Oi (Cora Miao). The film’s opening dramatizes the results of U.S. laws beginning with the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Chinese men who had come to the U.S. were barred from marrying U.S. citizens and from sending for their wives and families from China. As a result, the Chinese population in the U.S. was overwhelmingly male, and Chinatowns became bachelor communities. In an early scene, Wah Gay leaves the apartment of the prostitute he frequents only to find a long line of Chinese old-timers stretching down the stairway.
The marriage of Ben Loy and Mei Oi is made possible by the War Brides Act (1945), which permitted the wives and children of U.S. servicemen to enter the U.S. regardless of nationality. The Act thus offers new hope for the revitalization of Chinese American families and communities, and all of Chinatown waits expectantly for Ben and Mei’s first child. But there’s a problem: after consumating their marriage in China, Ben and Mei return to the U.S., where Ben finds himself to be impotent in the face of his father’s and his community’s expectations. Complications ensue.
The film, which runs about 102 minutes, is a faithful adaptation of Chu’s novel and offers a vivid, unsentimental portrait of New York and its Chinatown after World War II.
Eat a Bowl of Tea was released on DVD, but it’s currently out-of-print, though copies are available through amazon.com. Sadly, Chu’s novel is also out-of-print, though Bryan and I are hoping to do something about that in the not-too-distant future.
Click here for an insightful review by Oliver Wang, an assistant professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach. His blog ChasingChan.com is devoted to Asian American cinema.