Flower Drum Song Introduction

February 26, 2009 at 1:06 am 1 comment

Flower Drum Song is a 1961 musical movie by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Produced by Americans Joseph Fields, Ross Hunter and directed by Henry Koster, the musical is about ethnic assimilation into American culture, and the generation gap between Chinese parents and Chinese American kids set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name which premiered in 1958. The movie starred a mostly Asian cast including Nancy Kwan as Linda Low, James Shigeta as Wang Ta, Jack Soo as Sammy Fong, and Juanita Hall as Auntie Liang. The musical was based on a book by C.Y. Lee which was published in 1957. C.Y. Lee was a journalist who worked for two Chinatown newspapers.

After WWII, Americans became increasingly interested in the “Far East”. However, not until 1965 (and so during the time of the release of the movie) Asians were still being lumped into two large categories of “Chinese” or “Japanese”. It was released after the Korean War, and in the middle of the Vietnam War. At the time, the Cold War and communism scare were prevalent, and McCarthy-ism was sweeping the nation. The Japanese were declared a risk during WWII, and the Chinese exclusion act not removed until 1965.

It was an important movie because of the portrayal of Asian Americans – “they’re Americans who happened to be born Asian”. The term “Asian American” was first introduced in the early 60s by activists who were trying to phase out the term “Oriental”, as they claimed it was colonial and derogatory. Prior movies and musicals, such as Sayonara, Miss Saigon, The King and I, and South Pacific, were not as contemporary because they did not actually portray Asian characters who were viable romantic interests and human beings. Flower Drum song counteracted this by extracting/toning down the factors of exoticism from its relationships. In doing so the film was able to phase out the “Yellow Peril” and villainous stereotypes that had become pillars of asian representation. However, all of the past movies were set in Asia or locals far away from America and the characters were ethnically Asian, not Asian American. Flower Drum Song is the first movie with Asian American characters and issues.

The movie was received well. It garnered many Academy Awards Nominations: Best Art Direction-Set Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Music/Scoring of a Musical Picture, and Best Sound. The musical stayed on Broadway for several years, as well as receiving many awards and nominations at the Tony Awards.

Scenes discussed in class:
-“Generation Gap” – the children don’t understand the father’s POV and the father doesn’t understand the children. They both sing about it.
-Chop Suey song and dance routines
-Linda Low’s song, “I Enjoy Being a Girl”.

Things discussed in class:
-Why was Juanita Hall the one who sang “Chop Suey”?
-The variety of Asians in the cast, who were all supposed to play Chinese Americans
–Mostly because of lack of ability to find people to cast in the movie, as well as the types of skill needed for the singing and dancing roles.
-Yay portrayal of Asian Americans, however there were still many stereotypes. And the notion that all Asians look alike.
-The significance/dichotomy of the dances in the Chop Suey scene
-The significance of the costumes, especially in the “Generation Gap” scene.
–Younger son is wearing a baseball costume!
–Elder son has a suit on, wears western clothing
–Master Wang only wears chinese robes. Hates his Western suit so much that he burns it.
–When Mei Li first dons a western dress is she noticed by Wang Ta?
-Discussion of stereotypes
— Linda Low = dragon lady– Mei Li = reserved but driven girl. Respects patriarchal structure of the family.— Comparisons to O-Lan
– Master Wang’s stereotypical appearance (the mustache, the robes, ect.)
-Differences between the book and the movie (Helen commits suicide, flower drum song is sung by a servant), why were these shifts put in place?
-Total lack of politics in this movie (kind of)
-Gender and femininity issues (mostly about Linda Low)

-Liana and Bailey

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Presentation and Discussion of P.O.P./Cultural Intimacies on Wedensday, 2/18, 7pm, BH210 Mini-Festival of Recent Asian American Films @ the Claremont Colleges

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