Watching the 1961 Rodgers and Hammerstein Flower Drum Song musical film over and over again was an activity I automatically associated with my childhood visits to my Gong Gong and Po Po’s (Grandfather and Grandmother in Cantonese) house. My Gong Gong even went so far as burning the soundtrack on a CD so I could go home and sing “Chop Suey” whenever I wanted to, or pretend I was half as pretty as Nancy Kwan.
It wasn’t until college when I asked my Chinese American friend if she liked Flower Drum Song too that I learned there were racist undertones. Among these racist stereotypes portrayed in the musical are the Dragon Lady (Linda Low) and Lotus Blossom Baby (Mei-Li). Not to mention the political incorrectness of a “glamorous” Chinatown and illegal immigration issues.
Heartbroken by this news, I wondered if it was possible to reappropriate these old school musicals created by non-Asians and turn them into something worth appreciating. Flower Drum Song was written around the time of the Civil Rights Movement, where heightened racial sensitivity may have partially played a role in its initial flop at the box office. It is important to recognize that Flower Drum Song brought together an almost all-Asian American professional cast, a great feat at that time when non-Asians portrayed Asians and most films did not feature Asians as leads at all.
Playwright David Henry Hwang found a way. In 2002, he revised the script for Flower Drum Song and although it received mixed reviews and had a short run on Broadway, it definitely opened up the discussion on correcting and addressing stereotypes.
"I think the original Flower Drum Song was demonized during a period in American social history when it was necessary to do so. When APA's (Asian Pacific Americans) began writing our own stories, we needed to draw a distinction between our work and popular examples of these stories which were written by non-Asians. Nowadays, when Asian authors and films are more numerous and popular, we're able to view the original Flower Drum Song in a more balanced and nuanced light." -- David Henry Hwang
Asian American representation in musical theater still has a long way to go. Many raise the question of whether or not it is even appropriate to continue performing controversial musicals such as Miss Saigon and South Pacific, both plots of which take place during the Vietnam War. It’s hard to deny the fact that some of the most controversial musicals have great music and dance choreography. As my friend Alex puts it, when Liszt’s “Rhapsodie Espagnole” borrowed from Spanish themes, no one complained about “cultural appropriation” back then. It was just another beautiful melody. I believe that there are ways to reclaim these arts, however it must be done carefully and tastefully. I will continue to support past, present, and future Asian/Asian American productions because I agree with Lea Salonga that history, good or bad, must not be forgotten and must continue to be told through the arts. Until there are more Asian and Asian American centered plays and musicals, revivals of the ones already written still provide employment and command attention towards Asian and Asian American actors.
“There are going to be musicals and plays that will be set in very dark and almost, not embarrassing, but shameful times of history. Those things still need to be staged because how else are we going to learn about what has happened in the past?” -- Lea Salonga
On a tangent, another issue is racial authenticity. Within Flower Drum Song, Japanese American actress Miyoshi Umeki played the Chinese character Mei-Li, Japanese American actor James Shigeta played Chinese American character Wang Ta, Japanese American actor Jack Soo played Chinese American character Sammy Fong, and many other Asian actors in the film played characters of different Asian ethnicities. When talent pools are small within an ethnicity, it is much easier to cast a different Asian. This casting obstacle remains today, for example, Filipina singer Lea Salonga has played Vietnamese character Kim in Miss Saigon and Chinese character Mei-Li in the 2002 revival of Flower Drum Song. Regardless, I’m glad the directors went out of their way to find talented Asian actors and to not cast non-Asians to yellow face Asians.
*The title is a reference to the Avenue Q song “There’s A Fine, Fine Line”
Interview with David Henry Hwang on Flower Drum Song: http://usasians-articles.tripod.com/davidhenryhwang-musicals.html
Another article on Racism in Flower Drum Song: http://charlestonreader.wordpress.com/2010/06/13/the-racism-test/
Interview with Lea Salonga on Miss Saigon: http://sarahlynnpablo.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/what-lea-salonga-thinks-of-dont-buy-miss-saigon/
- List of Other Controversial Musicals:
- - Flower Drum Song
- - Miss Saigon
- - South Pacific
- - West Side Story
- - Another list found here: http://www.tbd.com/blogs/tbd-arts/2011/01/a-brief-history-of-musicals-about-racism-6752.html