Flower Drum Song – a class discussion
Flower Drum Song was based on the 1957 novel, The Flower Drum Song, by Chinese-American author C. Y. Lee. It was the eighth stage musical by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The piece opened in 1958 on Broadway and was subsequently made into a 1961 musical film. The team hired Gene Kelly (famous for Singin’ in the Rain) to make his debut as a stage director with the musical and scoured the country for their cast. With the exception of Juanita Hall (who also starred in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific), the main cast is mostly Asian. Anna May Wong was actually set to return to Hollywood with the role of Auntie Liang in Flower Drum Song, but died of a heart attack following liver disease on Feb. 3, 1961. And for historical context, this movie was produced in 1961, four years before the Hart-Cellar Act, which lifted the national quota on Asian immigrants.
Portrayals of Femininity: What Exactly Does “Being a Girl” Entail?
In the film Flower Drum Song (1961), Rodgers and Hammerstein provide two female characters in stereotypical orientalized Asian American roles–the Dragon Lady in the form of Linda Low, and the Butterfly as Mei Li. These two characters exhibit textbook qualities of their respective archetypes. Linda is hypersexualized, manipulative, and dominating, whereas Mei Li appears virginal, sincere, and submissive. The consistent juxtaposition of these two characters throughout the film force the audience to question which female is more desirable.
The differences between these two characters extends beyond these traits to the performance of the actors in these roles. The vocal parts assigned to each character is significant in that they reflect the stereotypes at play, what with the soprano ingenue and alto seductress. But, there is an added layer of complexity when examining these stock characters in terms of race. Mei Li, the Butterfly, comes directly from China, and her appearance and vocal patterns reflect that racialization. Linda, on the other hand, is from San Francisco, has a Western name, and is more European in appearance. This dichotomy reinforces the orientalist notion of the West as male and the East as the female.
But, despite these differences, they both share a crucial value: preserving the patriarchal system, even if it results in their own commodification. When analyzed in the barest of terms, both of these women want to get married, and their actions steer them towards that objective. Incidentally, in striving toward that goal, they become things, not people. Mei Li allows herself to be inspected like an animal or manufactured product, and Linda’s song “I Enjoy Being a Girl” places the utmost importance on her appearance, not her personality or intellect.
Questions for discussion: Where does Helen fit in? What about Madam Liang? How does the representation of these female characters compare to the previous representations we have seen?
Race Representation and the Generation Gap
One way that representation of race manifests itself in Flower Drum Song is through a generation gap: the older versus newer generation. If we compare Ta to his father, there is a clear distinction in both their dress and their speech. Ta wears american suits and ties while Master Wang wears stereotypical Chinese garb. He even “accidentally” burns his suit when he is forced to wear one. Wang also holds on to a more traditional way of doing things. He is hesitant to put his money in the bank, and when his sister in-law finally convinces him to do so, he is unaware of how to behave in such a contemporary western setting and sets off the alarm, momentarily creating a frenzy. His scenes with his younger son are especially comedic because they highlight a boy who has completely adopted the “American” way of life and an older man who is still holding on to the values he grew up with–presumably in China.
Perhaps a secondary dichotomy stemming from this generation gap is one between the Chinese versus Chinese-Americans. This differentiation is most evident at the beginning of the film, when Mei Li and her father land up in the middle of San Francisco. Their “traditional” garb and pigeon English serve as a stark contrast to the rest of the people in the street, who speak and dress in the “american” away. Certain characters make little jabs at the pair and at the idea of holding on to this culture. When Mei Li goes up to a man with her slip of paper to ask for directions he responds with, “Sorry sister, I can’t read Chinese.” The police officer she talks to offers a more apologetic, “I guess I should’ve taken lessons in Chinese.” Linda Low gives us the most ignorant response of all, when she mistakes the greek letters of Ta’s fraternity to be Chinese symbols. It is clear that characters such as these–most certainly Linda Low–have acclimatized themselves to an American way of life.
Questions for Discussion: Does American culture appear to have a negative or positive impact on characters in the film? How do you feel like the generational gap was portrayed? Do you think it was done in a truthful light or exploited for comedic purposes?
By Kayla Dalsfoist, Priscilla Hsu, and Aliza Lalji
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