Academic journal article MELUS

Reading for Historical Specificities: Gender Negotiations in Louis Chu's 'Eat a Bowl of Tea.'

Academic journal article MELUS

Reading for Historical Specificities: Gender Negotiations in Louis Chu's 'Eat a Bowl of Tea.'

Article excerpt

Since its rediscovery in the mid 1970s, Louis Chu's novel Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961) has become not only an active cultural agent for Asian American writers' self-empowerment but also an important site of Asian American critics' ideological contestation. One ongoing polemic in the interpretation of the novel concerns assessments of its historical status in the face of the accomplishments of post 1970s Asian American writings, assessments, I find, often characterized by critics' inattention to or misunderstanding of Chu's treatment of women. For example, various readers praise Chu's novel for its pronounced revision of prior literary representations of Chinatowns and its bold fashioning of an alternative Chinese-American sensibility but simultaneously restrict the book's significance to its "carnivalesque" qualities:(1) the squalid, run-down New York Chinatown; the resourceful, tough-minded bachelors; and the richly nuanced voices and vocabulary that defy cultural standards of both China and of mainstream America.(2) On the other hand, readers informed by feminist critical perspectives are quick to point out the novel's lack of fully developed female characters and to argue that Chu's depiction of New York Chinatown bachelor society does little more than trivialize women, representing them from a "masculinist" perspective, as well as reproducing patriarchal dominance.(3) Noticeably, the critics who affirm the merit of Eat a Bowl of Tea do so often at the expense of serious investigations of the issue of gender on the ground that Chu's novel is after all a story about men, while those who emphasize the novel's weakness presuppose a Chinese-American immigration history in the pre 1960s era marked only by patriarchal domination. Underneath both assessments is a tacit acceptance of a given and static male "essence" in Chu's novel, an acceptance that raises important questions about the meaning of Chu's representation of New York Chinatown's male discourse and about the ongoing difficulties we as contemporary readers face in regard to historically conditioned and ideologically interdependent concepts of race, gender, and class in the study of Eat a Bowl of Tea.

Fredric Jameson observes that the reader "never confront[s] a text immediately, in all its freshness as a thing-in-itself"; rather, a text comes before the reader always already read through "sedimented reading habits and categories" developed by "inherited interpretive traditions." What tends to be distorted or rendered absent by such inherited interpretive traditions, according to Jameson, is History as it is - History that can be comprehended only through locating and making sense of the traces it has left on the text. Thus, interpretation becomes a historical/political act in which critics symbolically "[restore] to the surface of the text the repressed and buried reality" (9, 10, 20).(4) Jameson's observation is relevant to the analysis of the issue of gender in Eat a Bowl of Tea in at least two senses. First, in light of the observation, the predominant male presence in New York Chinatown bachelor society is not a natural or culturally coherent phenomenon but one contingent upon the structural limitations of Chinese immigration history in the United States? Such a male-dominated society, I will argue, is full of inconsistencies and contradictions caused by distortions, partial entrenchment, and fragmentation of Chinese patriarchal values in the process of their troubled transplantation. Second, the lack of fully developed female characters in Chu's novel, as a formal embodiment of the material truncation of Chinese immigrant life, points to the specific mode of suffering endured by Chinese men in America while it suggests the disruptive potentials of Chinese-American women's agency to be activated through our reading of gender in Chu's novel. Such disruptive potentials, I argue, can be brought into play through examining several interrelated elements in the novel that hinge upon the marriage between Ben Loy and Mei Oi - Wah Gay's cultural identity, Ben Loy's impotence, Mei Oi's adultery, and tea as a healing agent - elements that reveal fissures and cracks in New York Chinatown's patriarchal order, open up possibilities for a vengeful surfacing of the suppressed female sensibilities, and, as I will show in the last portion of my analysis, suggest Chu's attempt to reconstruct New York Chinatown community's gender relationships on a non-traditional basis. …

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