Written by Patrick Hao
Wayne Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea begins with narration discussing the predicament that Chinese American communities found themselves in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1886 had prevented many Chinese men from bringing to America their wives and daughters. This created a “Bachelor Society ” in the various Chinatown’s, stunted by the lack of single Chinese women and the taboo of inter-racial dating. However, with World War II, China as allies, and the returning Chinese G.I.’s, America was loosening its immigration policies and beginning to allow veterans to bring home Chinese wives.
This socio-political dynamic is the backdrop of Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, a woefully underseen film by a woefully under-discussed filmmaker. Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Louis Chu, the film centers on Ben Loy (Russell Wong), a GI returning from WWII in New York City’s Chinatown, who is sent by his father Wang Wah Gay (played by frequent Wang collaborator Victor Wong), back to his hometown in China to bring back an arranged bride, Mei Oh (played by Wang’s wife Cora Miao), the daughter of one Wah Gay’s gambling buddies. As one of the first couples in New York Chinatown of child bearing age, they are expected to produce offspring to continue the survival of a community.
“I feel like everyone is watching,” Ben admits to his Mei at one point in the film. This concept of a community gawking is prevalent throughout the film. When Ben goes to China to meet his bride, he is met with the curious eyes of many of the Chinese villagers who have never met an American Chinese before. Rumors abound that an American GI would not have all four limbs, and be mangled by war. At the wedding banquet back in New York City, the young couple are met with the prying eyes of hundreds of geriatric Chinese men as they represent the future of a dying community and as the source of Ben’s father’s newfound reputational prestige within the community. The pressure from the community for a baby manifests itself in Ben’s impotence. And for Mei, being in a new country with no true community of her own, loneliness.
Yet, despite the weightiness of these themes, Wang’s film is breezy and casually funny, couching the politics of diaspora and gender in the structure of a Classic Hollywood romantic comedy. Wang’s power as a filmmaker is his richly textured observation of a people in a time and place. His subtle gestures and characterizations of the community gives them specificity, which in turn, becomes universal. The film almost becomes a series of vignettes as it jumps from a gaggle of old men joking and gossiping in the barbershop to Ben stopping fights in the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant he comes to manage. In doing so, Wang paints a beautiful tableau of a community in transition, affecting family, sex, and culture.
Eat a Bowl of Tea seems particularly informed by Classic Hollywood films in more ways than just genre. Wang seems to be in conversation with films of Classic Hollywood. In one particularly clever critique of Classic Hollywood, Ben and Mei share their first kiss silhouetted by Ronald Colman’s face from Lost Horizon. In another scene, during the height of his impotence, Ben is especially titillated by Rita Hayworth from The Lady from Shanghai, to the point he rushed home with his wife to take advantage. These two films being used is especially pointed for being representative of pop culture’s blatant exoticisism of the “Orient.” The two films are also representative of the two desires that inform the themes of Eat a Bowl of Tea – the desire for preservation of a community and the desire for sex.
However, this is by no means a perfect film. Russell Wong is in the Henry Goulding camp of handsome but uncharismatic leading men. The original novel is also sadder and more caustic. Wang and screenwriter, Judith Roscoe, purposefully sanded off some of the edges of the source material to be lighter and more winsome. The results are the loss of some of Mei’s interiority and a third act that feels a bit too tidy. Wang himself has tinkered with edits of the film in re-screenings, including a less “happy ending” that was foisted upon him by the studio.
However, Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wayne Wang’s career feel ripe for rediscovery. The recent retrospectives on The Joy Luck Club and focus on AAPI-centric filmmakers always feels light in its consideration of Wang and his career. Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wang’s other works such as Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, Chan is Missing, and more recent independent works like Princess Nebraska should make him a name that is worth considering in line with Ang Lee and the recent crop of Asian American filmmakers like Alice Wu, Lulu Wang, and Andrew Ahn.
Eat a Bowl of Tea is especially notable for its place as one of the first studio films to have an all-Chinese cast. The only white person with a speaking role is an uncredited Jessica Harper. More importantly, the film feels enlightening in its depiction of a period of Chinese American history that is often ignored, and its frank depiction of the politics intersecting sex, gender, and tradition. Yet it never becomes a film that feels like its purpose is to deliver a didactic “message” or a history lesson. Wang’s film is lived in with all the thorniness and haphazardness of real life. Much like a bowl of tea in its idiomatic title, all that bitterness of the film’s themes goes down surrounded by the warmth of Wang’s rich filmmaking.
Eat a Bowl of Tea Trailer
Eat a Bowl of Tea is currently available to purchase and rent on most digital storefronts.