I AM ABOUT to make a shameful admission.
I have never seen “Miss Saigon” or “Madame Butterfly” — nor do I care to.
I have seen “Flower Drum Song” — maybe two, maybe five times.
A public confession like this compromises me on several fronts: my integrity as a pop culture writer and my status as a Chinese-American.
It would also inspire a blank response by many who missed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical and 1961 film. Based on a book by C.Y. Lee, the movie tells the story of Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) and her father Dr. Li (Kam Tong), who escape from communist China to San Francisco to be with her husband-to-be, Sammy Fong. His mother had long arranged a marriage for her nightclub-owner son, but Fong (Jack Soo, who later played Nick Yemana in “Barney Miller”) is more intent on his lead dancer, Linda Low (Nancy Kwan). It doesn’t help that Low has her sights on the wealthy Wang Ta (James Shigeta), so Fong goes to Wang’s father (Benson Fong) and tries to arrange a match with Mei Li and Ta. That she’s a far more traditional girl is to the liking of the Wang family patriarch, who does not get the Americanized ways of his children. Naturally, Ta takes to Mei Li, after realizing Low has been lying about her occupation, but misunderstandings occur and Mei Li insists on marrying Fong.
The American musical comedy was the first to star an all-Asian-American cast and had enough peppy songs (“I Enjoy Being a Girl,” “Don’t Marry Me” and “A Hundred Thousand Miracles”) for a decent score. And by virtue of being the first, it has engendered emotions from delight (for its sense of fun) to indifference (for its quality) to virulent antagonism (for its stereotypes).
My confession is far from brave, since it’s sanctioned by the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. As part of its 20th anniversary, the festival features “Flower Drum Song” as a centerpiece presentation. The program notes describe it as a “wondrous white elephant of a Hollywood musical — ripe for rediscovery” and advises potential itchy audiences, “Relax.”
“Even though it was rife with stereotypes, you can see the legacy of that film in many films over the last 40 years,” says festival director Chin-Hui Wang. “We realize that today, at this festival’s 20th anniversary, there are so many images of Asian-Americans that one film doesn’t deserve and will not have the burden of representing the entire community.”
So coming out now as a “Flower” watcher is hardly contentious, though it had to be suppressed in the ’70s and ’80s on both aesthetic and political grounds. First, musicals had long fallen out of favor. Second, the ethnic studies movement, fueled by civil rights advances, had extended its mission to expunge colonialist attitudes to Hollywood and the media. In the Asian-American studies subcategory, “Flower Drum Song” became the equivalent of cultural napalm. Although based on a book by a Chinese-American writer (and Harvard graduate, for all you credential-hounds), the musical comedy follows the artistic sensibilities of two upper-middle class New Yorkers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Its daring to have an all-Asian cast in some cases merely fueled the resentment of a minority class who had been long denied center stage.
Perhaps I was merely too young to take offense. I did have a predisposition to like that movie: My mother, who passed on a love of musicals, had attended high school in Hong Kong with Nancy Kwan.
I had also begun to identify with the immigrant experience. To be an immigrant is to subscribe to the folklore of the self-made American; to be an Asian-American is to enter the politics of a minority group identity. One is self-defining; the other must take into account how others define them.
So I chose not to see that movie as a barometer by which others could judge me. Besides, it was a breakthrough (even though the patently Japanese “Mei Li” didn’t fool me a bit): Asians were playing Chinese roles. I indiscriminately watched Charlie Chan films in which a Swedish actor and others played the title character. I’d seen John Wayne as a Mongol warrior. Lon Chaney had a thousand faces, at least one of which was Asian. Luise Rainer won a best actress Oscar as a Chinese peasant, and other women who have gone “Oriental” include Myrna Loy, Katharine Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and Bette Davis.
This might be a complicated and ad-hoc way of viewing a musical, but hindsight allows you to add an eloquent veneer to what would otherwise be a simple dumb pleasure. “Flower Drum Song” was simply as silly and sweet as most musicals, whether it be “Oklahoma!” or “Top Hat.”
Yes, under the accusatory lens of discrimination, the film can be found guilty: Accents imply an un-American Asian tongue incapable of learning “proper” speech; the concept of arranged marriages and dancing girls reinforce female exoticism and subservience.
Yet as much as songs like “Chop Suey” set my teeth grinding, I personally recognized the harrumphing patriarch who would use coughing spasms as a method to get his way. Kwan, as a Hong Kong native, didn’t affect her accent, but proved she was ably bilingual. She was sassy, scheming and snappish, but her aims to marry rich were no worse than the ones espoused by Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe in “How to Marry a Millionaire.”
Its defiant good cheer, though, is perhaps what drew me repeatedly to its television reruns. I have seen enough Chinese classics — from Chinese and American melodrama to Chinese poetry — and read enough English and American literature of doomed women to want to see the union of the two. Too few Asian-Americans perform comedies, especially on-stage. For me, a worse cliche and perpetuated mistruth is that an Asian woman would kill herself as the ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate sacrifice, as I’ve witnessed with my mother and countless other women, is living.
With this festival offering, Wang says, audiences can join those who have always liked “Flower Drum Song” and laugh at what once offended. It launched filmmakers’ careers and achieved what it could at the time. “We have much stronger control over our own images,” Wang says. “We’re making our own images now.”
We also see more clearly now. A hundred thousand miracles, they happen every day.
Events editor Vera H-C Chan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 925-977-8428.