Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989)

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 film 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.