Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Eat a Bowl of Tea

If you had told me a month ago that I wouldn't like a novel centered around female faith-healers, but I would like a novel centered around male impotence, I wouldn't have believed it.

And yet, it's true.  I enjoyed Louis Chu's novel, Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961).  A self-proclaimed, "Novel of New York's Chinatown," Chu's text focuses on the Chinese American community post-World War II.

Although the novel is often described as depicting the Chinese American "bachelor society" of the 1940's, I don't think that label is entirely accurate.  Most of the men depicted are married (ultimately): in the case of two of the main characters, Wang Wah Gay and Lee Gong, their wives live in China.

As the novel repeatedly explains, it was not uncommon for Chinese American men to marry in China and then emigrate to the United States, more or less permanently.  At the same time, however, these men always hold onto the possibility of return: I think identifying the protagonists as members of a "bachelor society" erases the cultural nuances of their situation.

In Chu's novel, the post-war generation of Chinese American men exist in a state of cultural and geographical transience--in some cases, they go back and forth between China and their adopted country (the U.S., Canada, the Philippines), and in other cases they stay in the west and help their children relocate.

As a result, the novel depicts the generational conflicts that occur when centuries-old Chinese traditions clash with a newly-conceived notion of "American" identity.

The novel centers around the arranged marriage of Wang Wah Gay's son, Ben Loy, to Lee Gong's daughter, Mei Oi.  The young couple meet in China (thanks to the maneuvering of their parents), are immediately attracted to one another, and quickly marry.

Things are going just fine until they return to New York and Ben Loy becomes impotent.

What is particularly interesting and clever, I think, is the way in which Ben Loy's impotence (and the consequences that result) becomes a vehicle for Chu's depiction of the Chinese American community at large, the role of the elder generation and its traditions in the lives of the younger generation, and the function of mobility.  (Travel is a kind of Viagra for Ben Loy.)

As I said, this was one of the most pleasant surprises of the novel: that Chu could use a device rife with comedic potential as a way of making very serious and astute observations about Chinese American society in the 1940's.

Because, let's face it: no card-carrying feminist like myself is going to want to read a couple of hundred pages about a guy lamenting the fact that he can't get it up now that he's married, despite the fact that he frequented numerous prostitutes prior to his marriage (and suffered the requisite bouts of syphilis and gonorrhea as a result).  Chu's style and approach prevents his material from being reduced to that, and I for one am quite thankful.

At the center of the novel, of course, is the daughter-in-law, Mei Oi.  Although we see relatively little depth in her character, in many ways, it is the role that she plays in shaping the definitions of Chinese American masculinity (and paternity) that are highlighted.

Wah Gay arranges for his son to marry Mei Oi because she is not "fook sing," an American-born Chinese girl.  Ben Loy, for his part, is identified in China as a "gimshunhock" like his father-- that is, a Chinese-born man who is living in America (also known as a "Gold Mountain Sojourner").

The marriage of Mei Oi and Ben Loy is influenced--even on its most intimate level--by the couple's expectations of each other and the way in which those expectations are shaped by their understanding of Chinese culture and traditions.  This understanding is complicated, of course, by their newly-emerging place and status within American culture, figured in the depiction of New York's Chinatown.

Chu's novel is interesting and highly readable--he opts for short chapters that offer brief vignettes depicting the couple's married life, the atmosphere of Wah Gay's mah jong club, and surrounding scenes and connections in Chinatown.  As with Fae Myenne Ng's novel, Bone, I had a hard time finding it at a library and ultimately had to opt to purchase it.

I'm glad I did.  There is much in Chu's novel to return to.

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