PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989)

Oliver Wang

Wayne Wang portrays the challenges of forging an Asian American sexuality within a racialized politics of desire.


Eat a Bowl of Tea

Director: Wayne Wang
Cast: Russell Wong, Cora Miao, Victor Wong, Eric Tsang
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 1989
US DVD Release Date: 2003-06-03

The splashy ethnic wedding is becoming a standard-bearer in independent or foreign films appearing in American theaters. Look at Joel Zwick's My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, even Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham (which features a raucous British-Indian wedding amidst all the footballing). There's nothing that liberal U.S. moviegoers like better than watching the spectacle of Otherness conjoined with the tradition of matrimony, as it gives them the opportunity to watch noisy debacles of strange languages and stranger customs being thrown about like so much rice and confetti.

In Wayne Wang's Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989), the first act ends with a ethnic wedding of sorts. In the late 1940s, American-raised Ben Loy ('90s Asian American heartthrob Russell Wong) returns to China for an arranged marriage to Mei Oh (Wang's offscreen wife, Taiwanese actress Cora Miao). At the ceremony, held in Loy and Oh's ancestral village, the bride is dressed in traditional Chinese robes, donning a bizarre headpiece of multi-colored pom-poms that looks stolen from the prop closet of Flash Gordon. Ben sports a huge ribbon across his chest, like he's a human corsage, but his matrimonial suit is an U.S. Army uniform, the drab olive green contrasting with Mei Oh's garish outfit.

The uniform is a reminder of this wedding's circumstances. The backdrop is not just rural China, but American and Asian geopolitical relations for the previous 100 years. At the beginning of the film, Ben's father Wah Gay (venerable comic actor Victor Wong) explains that sojourning Chinese American men were prevented from marrying American citizens and bringing foreign-born wives over. This racialized immigration policy effectively turned an entire generation of men into reluctant, lifelong bachelors. As a WWII veteran, Ben Loy can subvert these restrictions by bringing a bride over from China, thus becoming one of the first men in his Chinatown community to have the opportunity to raise a family.

Based on a 1961 novel by Louis Chu, Eat a Bowl of Tea is an unlikely blend of romantic comedy and historical fiction that centers on the collision of family, culture, history, and most of all, sex. After passionately consummating their marriage in China, Ben and Mei return to New York, only to find he's literally made impotent by career and familial pressures. Mei Oh spends her days at home, a lonely newlywed who is understandably upset when Ben brings home a television to serve as her surrogate companion in his absence.

As Ben's ardor first deflates, he explains to Mei, "I feel like everyone is watching us." The situation isn't helped when Wah Gay pesters his son about why he isn't procreating. Eventually, Mei Oh is left open to the advances of local lothario Ah Song (played by charm and smarm by Eric Tsang, one of the great character actors in contemporary Hong Kong cinema). When Mei reveals that she's pregnant (with the paternity undetermined), the whole community descends into chaos, set to the wailing tones of Cantonese curses and laments.

For all the intended comedy of Eat a Bowl of Tea, it deals with sobering issues. Ben's impotence is the manifestation of how an entire community's sexual relations have been manipulated and governed by racist government policy. Unlike the sexual and racial politics of a movie like Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, Eat a Bowl of Tea focuses on more than just cultural values and engages the historical forces that corral human relationships. (Sociologist Yen Le Espiritu reviews the history and legacy of these forces in her excellent book, Asian American Women and Men: Labor, Family, and Love).

Throughout the film, radio and newspapers bring updates of the Communist Revolution in China, half a world a way to most, but practically neighborhood news in Chinatown, since Cold War politics threaten to prevent any of them from ever returning home to see long-separated families and spouses. In one scene, a worried barbershop patron openly expresses his anxiety at the threat of impending war between the U.S. and China. "They're going to put us in camps!," he worries, "Just like the Japanese" (referring to the WWII internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans).

Likewise, Wang portrays the challenges of forging an Asian American sexuality within a racialized politics of desire. Early, when Ben and Mei first meet in China, they flirt by standing behind an outdoor projection of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937). Back in New York, the couple, already facing Ben's impotence, find titillation in watching Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai (1948). Wang's use of these two films is meaningful on several levels, first because they represent popular and colonial ways in which Hollywood depicted "the Orient" in the 1930s and '40s. Moreover, the ease at which white characters open themselves to sex and passion mockingly contrasts with the myriad problems confronting Ben and Mei. (See media studies professor Darrell Hamamoto's discussion of this topic in his essay, "The Joy Fuck Club.")

Despite such weighty history, the film is crafted out of Louis Chu's literary sophistication and Wang's cinematic talent; the narrative never seems didactic or heavy-handed. Wang's portrait of 1940s New York Chinatown is an extension of his similar, pseudo-ethnographic sketch from his debut, Chan Is Missing (1982), which looks at San Francisco's Chinatown in the early 1980s. Wang reconstructs the bachelor society with a likable cast of bit players who playfully jostle at each other in mah jong parlors, barbershops, and corner diners.

Wang doesn't overdo it on period details, but he's a master of small gestures. This film captures the confusion and claustrophobia of a restaurant kitchen, the sound of mah jong tiles shuffling against one another, the dark and slick sidewalks of inner city Manhattan. There are no soaring skylines, no swelling Gershwin overtures, just lowly living and work spaces and the sound of Japanese American singer Pat Suzuki warbling "How High the Moon."

However, the movie still suffers from some major storytelling flaws. Ben Loy is given the biggest arc in the film, but his journey from harried son to independent man never coheres. Especially wanting is a confrontation between Ben and Wah Gay, so the patriarch is never taken to task for his contribution to his son's marital dysfunction. Likewise, the resolution between Ben and Mei -- the "kiss" that all romantic comedies turn on -- is nearly destroyed by an awkward mesh of bad acting and writing.

For a film where the pacing is mostly patient, the last few scenes feel rushed, and surprisingly trite in a commercial fashion, unexpected for a director long lauded for his independent vision (then again, he did direct this year's Maid In Manhattan). Wang is missing from the DVD as well. It took 14 years to release, and you would think someone would have tried to sit him down for a commentary track, but there are no extras on the disc at all (unless you count French subtitles).

For all these shortcomings, what I always remember about this film is that it's one of my students' favorites whenever I've screened it in Asian American cinema classes at UC Berkeley. Students like it for its accessibility -- it's one of the more commercially polished features by an Asian American director prior to the 1990s -- and for its tittering look at sex and relationships within an Asian American community. The fact that the film engages sexuality so frankly (even if it is rated PG-13) and ties it into broader social and historical forces, makes it refreshing, both enlightening and entertaining.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.