Topic of Our Choice: Model Minority in Film

December 2, 2012 at 6:57 am Leave a comment

Of all the films we have watched in Asian Americans in Media this semester, the one that sparked my interest the most was Flower Drum Song (1961). For some reason, the huge Hollywood production and its portrayal of San Francisco Chinatown intrigued me. ­Flower Drum Song is a textbook example of a Hollywood studio film. It’s in Technicolor, it’s bright, and shot in 35mm widescreen film. In other words, the movie is very slick. Because the film looks this way, it glamorizes Asian Americans according to the Hollywood formula. In other words, it portrays them in the terms of the Hollywood studio system, which at the time was run by powerful white men. In the opening scene of the film, when Mei-Li and her father first arrive in Chinatown, it is clear that this version of Chinatown is a yellowface version of the generic USA small town, in which the passers-by are all dressed as white middle class Americans of the time. This scene shows that Flower Drum Song’s version of Chinatown is one devoid of ethnic individuality. The Chinese Americans in Flower Drum Song have all assimilated into American culture and are, in fact, the yellowface version of white American middle class. Another way in which Flower Drum Song portrays the San Francisco Chinatown community as model minorities is through its acceptance of and desire to achieve 1950s and 1960s white middle-class values. This is seen in many of the characters; Auntie Liang for example is shown taking citizenship class, doing whatever she can to become part of American society. She also expresses this in her desire for Mei-Li and Wang Ta to fall in love naturally before they marry, “the American way.”  Nothing is more distinctly American than baseball, so when we see Wang San, Wang-Chi Yang’s youngest son, in his baseball uniform, it is a clear indication of his willing assimilation into American culture. A desire to uphold these values is also seen in the women of the film’s aspirations of marriage. Both Mei-Li and Linda Low share the wish for a husband, someone to take care of them, an American ideal of middle-class consumption and assimilation. The way Flower Drum Song ignores the ethnic identity of the Asian American community is unique to the films we have watched this semester, which is perhaps why I found it the most interesting of the films we examined in class.

By Izzy Michaelson

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