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The Immigrant Experience - TCM Spotlight
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,Eat a Bowl of Tea

Eat a Bowl of Tea

Director Wayne Wang's 1989 film comedy Eat a Bowl of Tea (a literal translation of a Chinese phrase meaning "Take your medicine") is a story about Chinese immigrants in the United States – a topic and an ethnic group largely ignored by Hollywood.

The Chinese Exclusion Act set in place by the American government in 1882 banned Chinese immigrants from bringing their families to the United States. That law was not repealed until 1943. Eat a Bowl of Tea, based on Louis Chu's 1961 book of the same name, is set during the first decade following the Exclusion Act's repeal, when a young Chinese American veteran travels to post-World War II China to bring home a bride at his father's urging. Once in the United States, the couple experience interference from their in-laws and practically the entire community of New York's Chinatown, resulting in the husband's inability to make love within the boundaries of Chinatown - and his wife's frustration.

Wang was born John Wayne Wang (named by his father who loved the film Red River [1948] and all things American) in Hong Kong in 1949 to parents who had just fled the Cultural Revolution at the same time as Eat a Bowl of Tea is set. In an interview, Wang acknowledged that the film was a return "to the source of myself." For the role of the wife Mei Oi, Wang cast his own wife, popular Taiwanese actress Cora Miao, and as the American-born groom Ben Loy he chose Russell Wong. As the interfering father, he cast the great Victor Wong, who he once called his role-model for living life. Wong, one of American television's first Chinese reporters (and an Emmy winner), was a former carousing pal of Jack Kerouac who had come to films late in life. At the time Eat a Bowl of Tea was filmed, he had scored a big hit in John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China (1986) three years before and his career was on a roll, having just completed Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987).

Although set in Hong Kong and New York, the film's interiors were mostly shot in Hong Kong to save money, with some location shooting in New York, Oakland and San Francisco. Judith Rascoe (who had previously written the screenplay for Endless Love [1981]) adapted the screenplay from Chu's novel. The production company was American Playhouse, which was a division of PBS that supplied funding to independent films that would later air on American public television. This was one of their last films as they lost their government funding in 1990. Wang found that corporate funding (and distribution by Columbia Pictures) tethered him to a studio system mentality, rather than the independent productions he was used to. "[Eat a Bowl of Tea] was very traditionally shot and I hated it. There was a certain anger in terms of not being able to make the film I wanted to make – I was under the reins quite a bit." It was a trade-off Wang had to make in order for his film to be seen by a wider audience. "You kinda have to eat sh*t in order to do something right And that's also true of film-making. You have to eat a lot of sh*t to make a movie."

Eat a Bowl of Tea was released in the United States on July 21, 1989. Caryn James in her New York Times review of the film called it a "wry, irreverent, endearing new comedy of cross-cultural manners. [...]Eat a Bowl of Tea has the slightly frantic pace of a 1940's screwball comedy. It becomes progressively faster until someone is banished to work in the Garden State Fortune Cookie Factory, someone loses an ear, and events wind down to a happy ending. [...] Russell Wong and Cora Miao make Ben Loy and Mei Oi bright, sensitive, sensible modern young people. But the film's centerpiece is Victor Wong's perfectly realized performance as Wah Gay. Mr. Wong finds just the right mix of affection and irritating behavior for the father who lovingly tells his son what to do and stubbornly refuses to listen – a phenomenon that knows no ethnic boundaries."

Producer: Tom Sternberg
Director: Wayne Wang
Screenplay: Judith Rascoe, based on the novel by Louis Chu
Cinematography: Amir M. Mokri
Art Direction: Timmy Yip
Music: Mark Adler
Film Editing: Richard Candib
Cast: Cora Miao (Mei Oi), Russell Wong (Ben Loy), Victor Wong (Wah Guy), Siu-Ming Lau (Lee Gong), Eric Tsang (Ah Song).
C-102m. Closed captioning.

by Lorraine LoBianco

The Washington Post September 1, 1989
America on Film by Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin
Countervisions by Darrell Y. Hamamoto and Sandra Liu
The Internet Movie Database
The Biographical Resource Center
The New York Times July 21, 1989


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