Flower Drum Song

September 24, 2010 at 9:21 pm Leave a comment

Flower Drum Song is a film adaptation of a Broadway musical created by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II of the same title. Rodgers and Hammerstein was a famous composer/lyricist duo that created other Broadway hits in the 40’s and 50’s such as Oklahoma, South Pacific, King and I, and The Sound of Music.
The musical was based on a novel by Chinese American author C.Y. Lee. Lee was born and raised in China, but graduated from Yale. He was an active journalist in Chinatown, San Francisco. In his novel, he addresses generational and cross-cultural conflict that modern
Chinatown residents faced. The original book is darker than both musical and film. One of the bigger differences is that in the book Helen (Wang Ta’s friend) commits suicide in response to her unrequited love for him.

Both the musical and film were significant because they were the first to star a mostly Asian American cast – played by a mix of Asian and Asian American actors and actresses. The only non-Asians (besides extras as Sammy’s night club) were the white mugger and Auntie Ling, played by Juanita Hall, an actress of African American and Latin American descent who has donned yellow-face in a number of other productions (such as South Pacific).
Nancy Kwan, who plays Linda Low, became a major sex symbol and one of the most visible Eurasian actresses in the 1960’s due to her roles in “Flower Drum Song” and “The World of Suzie Wong.” She was born in Hong Kong. Her father was Chinese and her mother was a Scottish model.

We want to quickly give some background on the setting of the movie, Chinatown. For those of you who aren’t from California – everything started after 1849, the discovery of gold, and work on the transcontinental railroad. It was racism and hatred surrounding competition for jobs when the railroad was completed that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). The next big date was the 1906 Earthquake which destroyed, among many other things all the immigration records that had been stored at City Hall. There was a deliberate effort at this time to rebuild Chinatown with infrastructure, Western Institutions (like a YMCA), and also to promote tourism by building fantastic facades on all the new buildings that were in line with what Americans thought of as Oriental. The club that Sammy Fong’s club is loosely based on a real nightclub called the Forbidden City- it had normal shows, but also ones that played up the exoticism of its all-Asian American entertainers.

Now, back to the movie. This film was released in 1961 (incidentally, the same year West Side Story). In the post-WWII time period, United States attitudes and laws regarding immigration were changing. Because of the Cold War, the US was looking to attract support, and loosening immigration laws in a public relations act. It demonstrated American ideals of freedom, individualism, self-improvement, capitalism (or at least, it addressed an area that the US could have been criticized in before). Legislatively, the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act (1943) and the Immigration and Nationality Act (1952) changed policies so that the Chinese were able to immigrate into the states and apply for naturalization. There was also an attempt to make ethnicity more important than race – ethnicity was defined as cultural characteristics that someone could change or lose, while race was something you were stuck with. There was a big push for all ethnicities to assimilate.

posted by: Jasmine Kim and Alexis Chuck

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