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Before Asians Were Crazy & Rich, We Were Singing a Flower Drum Song

Flower Drum Song was the first Hollywood movie to tout a cast of actors almost-exclusively of Asian descent (more on that below). A musical not widely known, decades later the film has a conflicting legacy. As the 61st anniversary of the Rodgers and Hammerstein film Flower Drum Song approaches, The Asian Cut wanted to take a look back at the ground-breaking film.

Flower Drum Song follows Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) and her father, Dr. Han Li (Kam Tong), who have arrived in San Francisco's Chinatown from Hong Kong in search of Sammy Fong (Jack Soo), a nightclub owner who has been arranged to marry Mei. The Li's stay with the Wang family until Mei is married, which includes Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong) and his Americanized children, Wang Ta (James Shigeta) and Wang San (Patrick Adiarte).

Like all Rodgers and Hammerstein movies, Flower Drum Song is a musical with plenty of singing and dancing and has some great performances. Nancy Kwan, who plays Linda Low a showgirl at Sammy's nightclub, has a particularly iconic show tune in "I Enjoy Being a Girl". The song "Sunday" brings the light hearted, slapstick comedy, performed with precision by Kwan and Soo. And my personal favourite, a beautiful dance number called, "Love Look Away", between Wang Ta and Helen Chao (Reiko Sato), a woman drowning in her unrequited love for Wang Ta.

When it was released, Flower Drum Song made $10.7 million against a $4 million budget. Keeping in mind that South Pacific and The Sound of Music bookend Flower Drum Song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein filmography, the return on the film has been viewed as moderate to poor. The movie itself is largely forgotten and never gained classic status like Sound of Music or Oklahoma!, and to be honest, Flower Drum Song just isn't nearly as good as those films. But the quiet legacy Flower Drum Song does leave behind is important.

I was really surprised when I discovered that a Hollywood movie from the '60s with a primarily Asian/Asian-American cast existed. And to put my surprise in context, Breakfast at Tiffany's was released just one month(!) before Flower Drum Song.

Breakfast at Tiffany's may be famous for Audrey Hepburn's classic Holly Golightly, but it's equally as infamous within the Asian-American film community for one of the most egregious displays of yellow face by Mickey Rooney.

Yellow face was a common practice in Hollywood at that time with respected actors like Marlon Brando and Alec Guinness donning prosthetics and accents to appear as Japanese in films like The Teahouse of the August Moon and A Majority of One, respectively. So for a film to actually hire mostly Asian and Asian-American actors in a time when yellow face was readily accepted is curious and surprisingly progressive.

I stress "mostly" here because there is one interesting casting choice. Anna May Wong, an American-born Chinese actress who was one of the first real Asian-American stars in Hollywood, was originally cast as Auntie Liang, the sister-in-law of Wang Chi-Yang. Sadly, Wong became ill and passed away suddenly prior to filming. An incredible tragedy in itself, Wong's loss is only deepened by the missed act of poetic justice for her to have a role in a film like Flower Drum Song given all the challenges she faced in her career.

Juanita Hall as Auntie Liang

In Wong's place, Juanita Hall, an African-American and Irish-American actress, was cast as Auntie Liang, a role she played in the original Broadway production. Thankfully, her yellow face isn't dreadfully obscene, but it serves as a reminder that while Hollywood was prepared to front an Asian-American movie, old habits die hard.

"Fun" Fact: the use of yellow face continued in earnest well into the '80s and '90s. The final Fu Manchu was released in 1981 with Peter Sellers in the titular role, and Linda Hunt even won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously in 1983. And how could we forget Alex Borstein's Ms. Swan character on MADtv in the '90s?

Casting aside, the story itself was considered refreshing at the time. The generational conflict between traditional elders and their American-born children showed Asians in a light different to the martial artist or China doll stereotypes. The character of Wang San, the youngest of the Wang household, has a strong affinity for baseball and often confuses his dad with his California surfer vocab. Linda Low is a strong-willed, flirtatious show girl with a wicked sense of humour. Even the character of Mei Li, who at first appears very delicate and amiable, cracks jokes and eventually takes a stand for her own happiness. Flower Drum Song gave Asian actors an opportunity to take on roles which would not have previously been available to them.

Some notable achievements and (actual) fun facts from the Flower Drum Song cast:

  • Miyoshi Umeki was the first Asian woman to win an acting Academy Award for her role as Katsumi in Sayonara. Umeki was also nominated for a Tony Award for playing Mei Li in the original Broadway production of Flower Drum Song.

  • James Shigeta is perhaps most well known to modern day audiences for his role in Die Hard as Holly McClane's boss, Joseph Takagi.

  • Jack Soo's most memorable role was as Sergeant Yemana in the ABC sitcom Barney Miller where he continued to break negative stereotypes.

  • Both Nancy Kwan and Reiko Sato are professionally trained ballet dancers and, while they did not sing in Flower Drum Song, all the dancing is theirs.

  • James Hong has a small role in Flower Drum Song as a host in Sammy's night club, a profession he would famously portray again in "The Chinese Restaurant" episode of Seinfeld. Cartwright, four!

Flower Drum Song is far from a perfect movie. The progressive legacy of the film can be betrayed by songs like "Chop Suey," the use of stereotyping, and the casting of many Japanese and Japanese-American actors as ethnic Chinese characters. It's a movie that has conflicted many in the Asian-American community. The calls to assimilate with American culture can be seen as whitewashing, but yet, it was refreshing to see Asians being portrayed as Americanized. Playwright David Henry Hwang revised the musical in 2001 and in speaking to The LA Times described the conflicting nature best: "[g]rowing up, the musical represented one of the few positive portrayals of people that looked like me. And then, at another point in my life, it became something to be demonized.

Kwan had often been confronted by Chinese-Americans complaining that ethnic Japanese people were playing Chinese in Flower Drum Song. Her response? "You can’t win. They should be happy it was an all-Asian cast regardless of Japanese and Chinese." (LA Times) It's a rather flippant remark for something so historically sensitive, but I see her point. For Hollywood in 1961, this was a real win for Asian-Americans and it should be remembered as the first step towards better representation for Asian-Americans in movies.


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