Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Flower Drum Song

Flower Drum Song is about a Chinese immigrant named Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) and her father who come to San Francisco illegally (by boat, nonetheless) as part of an arranged marriage to nightclub owner Sammy Fong (Jack Soo), who is completely and utterly Americanized and in love with a dancer at his club to boot. He wants to marry his dancer girlfriend, Linda Low (Nancy Kwan), who is mad at him for having an arranged marriage with Mei Li. Sammy decides to take Mei Li to Master Wang's (Benson Fong) house because he is much more traditional and he too has a son, Wang Ta (James Shigeta) who is of marrying age. Master Wang and his sister-in-law (Juanita Hall) instantly approve of Mei Li and want Wang Ta and Mei Li to be married. However, the sister-in-law, Madame Liang, wants Mei Li and Wang Ta to fall in love naturally - the "American way." Unfortunately, Wan Ta has noticed Linda Low and he decides to ask her out on a date, and she accepts. He gets back late from a date one night and runs into Mei Li, who instantly falls in love with him, but not he with her. Linda decides to use Wang Ta as a way to make Sammy jealous, and when Wang Ta proposes to her, she accepts and comes to his graduation from school party. Then Master Wong finds out and he is not so happy! He and Wan Ta have a fight and Sammy sees it as an opportunity to get Wan Ta to fall out of love with Linda. He then arranges for Master Wang, Wang Ta, Mei Li, and Mei Li's father to see Linda's nightclub act (!!!!) They are all shocked at her performance, and Wang Ta runs away and gets very drunk and ends up being found by Helen (Reiko Sato), a childhood friend of Wang Ta's who carries a torch for him. She takes him back to her apartment where he passes out and she sings about how much she loves him and has a big fancy dance number. The next morning, Mei Li drops off an item of clothing at Helen's house that Master Wang needs to be fixed, and she spots Wang Ta's shoes by the door. Assuming the worst, she flees and gets really sad. Wang Ta awakens and realizes his true feelings for Mei Li, and leaves Helen in the dust. We never see her again. Wang Ta finds Mei Li and tells her of his love, which she rejects. She and her father then pursue the marriage contract between her and Sammy. Unfortunately, Sammy has already proposed to Linda who accepted his proposal (for real), but there isn't anything they can do about it. Sammy tries to persuade Mei Li to not marry him, and it makes Mei Li realize that she is still in love with Wang Ta. She and Wang Ta meet before the wedding day and try to come up with a plan to get rid of the marriage contract. During the wedding ceremony, Mei Li announces that because she is an illegal immigrant, the marriage contract is null and she and Sammy cannot get married. The wedding then becomes a double wedding, with Wang Ta and Mei Li getting married and Linda and Sammy getting married too. 
Flower Drum Song was the first Hollywood film that featured an all Asian/Asian-American cast. They casted great actors, all of whom melded into their roles commendably. For this it gets props. However, I just can't get around how incredibly bad this movie is... The unfeasible plot. The perpetuation of the stereotype of a butterfly by Miyoshi Umeki. Nancy Kwan's reprisal of her "whore" role as Linda Low. The representations of the elderly people from "the old country" who can't wrap their heads around their more American offspring. It's all just so... painful.
Rodgers and Hammerstein. A phenomenal duo, right? After all, they did Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, South Pacific... But this was just bad. Bad music, bad plot, worse lyrics, worse-er dance numbers. Everyone talks about how Flower Drum Song was this fantastic musical for Asian-Americans because it showed us (yes, us) in a positive light. It did do that. I commend this film for that. But that doesn't hide the fact that this was a crappy crappy film. 
Look how slanty they drew Miyoshi Umeki's eyes! Blasphemy!
The characters in Flower Drum Song are also strange stereotypes. Sammy Fong is the gambling, Americanized, smooth-talking Asian playboy. Wang Ta is the studious, kind son who rebells a little by dating a nightclub performer but ends up marrying the immigrant girl. Mei Li is the quiet, subservient butterfly who only wants to get married and be happy in the United States. Linda Low is manipulative of her boyfriend(s) and enjoys being an Americanized girl. Madame Liang is proud to be Chinese AND a citizen of the United States, where "all are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happy times." Master Wang is the stereotypical grumpy old man who misses the traditional life back in "the old country" and wishes his children did too. Mei Li's father is just like Master Wang except that he is new to America and doesn't really "get" American ways. Helen is sad. These characters are odd. Sometimes they perpetuate old stereotypes that they were trying to get away from, and sometimes they break away from those and throw a curveball into our notions of what is Asian and Asian American. Unfortunately, the bad outweighs the good...

Oh Flower Drum Song, how do I dislike thee? Let me count the ways.

Let's begin with this song, shall we? Doesn't the title A Hundred Million Miracles scream "awkward!" to you? Maybe just a little bit? The very dissonant chorus of "A hun-dred mill-ion mir-a-cles! (Drummy drummy drum beat)" does not inspire feelings of wonder or happiness or make me want to sing along. The lyrics too are just... bad.
My father says that children keep growing,
Rivers keep flowing too.
My father says he doesn't know why,
But somehow or other they do.
They do! some how or other they do.

A hundred million miracles,
A hundred million miracles are happ'ning ev'ry day,
And those who say they don't agree
Are those who do not hear or see.
A hundred million miracles,
A hundred million miracles are happ'ning ev'ry day,

Miracle of changing weather:
When a dark blue curtain is pinned by the stars,
Pinned by the stars to the sky,
Ev'ry flow'r and tree is a treat to see,
The air is very clean and dry.

Then a wind comes blowing the pins all away,
Night is confused and upset!
The sky falls down like a clumsy clown,
The flowers and the trees get wet - Very wet!
Cringe. Make it stop. (And then there's a reprise later... Ack) You really have to listen to the melody and read the lyrics to really absorb all of the badness and destruction and bad goosebumps that this song dishes out. But that's not all! Miyoshi Umeki's accent makes it all the more painful. There's (thankfully) no switching of the "r"s and "l"s here, but it still sounds incredibly foreign. It doesn't translate well at all. (Fun Fact: Umeki actually went on after this movie to the TV show The Courtship of Eddie's Father - kind of a step down from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, huh?) It's phrases like, "ev'ry flow'r and tree is a treat to see... very clean and dry... night is confused and upset... clumsy clown... get wet - VERY wet!" that make my tummy twist in pain. 

And Suzie Wong enjoys being a girl. Aside from conveniently leaving out that certain time of the month, she seems very happy with her girlhood... Linda Low is not a whore... but you see the correlation? Both fluttery, girlish characters who enchant every guy who walks by (Yeah, yeah, yeah, both are played by Nancy Kwan, but that's not the point).
I'm a girl, and by me that's only great!
I am proud that my silhouette is curvy,
That I walk with a sweet and girlish gait
With my hips kind of swivelly and swervy.

I adore being dressed in something frilly
When my date comes to get me at my place.
Out I go with my Joe or John or Billy,
Like a filly who is ready for the race!

When I have a brand new hairdo
With my eyelashes all in curl,
I float as the clouds on air do,
I enjoy being a girl!

When men say I'm cute and funny
And my teeth aren't teeth, but pearl,
I just lap it up like honey
I enjoy being a girl!

I flip when a fellow sends me flowers,
I drool over dresses made of lace,
I talk on the telephone for hours
With a pound and a half of cream upon my face!

When men say I'm sweet as candy
As around in a dance we whirl,
It goes to my head like brandy,
I enjoy being a girl!

When someone with eyes that smoulder
Says he loves ev'ry silken curl
That falls on my iv'ry shoulder,
I enjoy being a girl!

When I hear the compliment'ry whistle
That greets my bikini by the sea,
I turn and I glower and I bristle,
But I happy to know the whistle's meant for me!

I'm strictly a female female
And my future I hope will be
In the home of a brave and free male
Who'll enjoy being a guy having a girl like me!
Her emphasis on the word "hairdo" cracks me up every single time. And I guess I'll admit it, this is a catchy, bouncy, silly song and I found myself humming it the other day while doing homework. Alright, big confession: this song is fun to sing. But it is also really bad, both lyrically and musically. Rhyming "hairdo" with "air do?" "Great" and "gait?" "Female" and "free male?" Breaking some new ground there, I would have never thought of that... See what I mean by stupid lyrics? Now because this was an all Asian/Asian-American cast, does this say anything about Asian women? Or just Asian-American women? Because Mei Li isn't prancing around in her room with her three reflections trying on clothes for her - she pretty much wears the same clothes the whole movie. Linda Low enjoys being a girl, but not the good, sweet, quiet Chinese girl. She is the bold American girl - and comes off as a whore in comparison to Mei Li. She's not quite as bad as Suzie Wong, but she's pretty close. "Out [she goes] with her Joe or John or Billy." Not to mention Sammy and Wang Ta, she goes out with Joe, John, or Billy! Does this imply that Asian-American girls are, uh, shall we say, more free-wheelin' than Asian girls from "the old country?" Maybe not free-wheeling, but more desirable? After all, Wang Ta falls for Linda Low first, and when he sees her nightclub act, he sees how "loose" she really is, and begins to recognize his true feeling for the more virginal Mei Li. Here it's the classic "virgin vs. whore" case - something that may become a trend in later films. 

Chop Suey. Juanita Hall was African-American. Not Asian. And yet she played the role of Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese woman, in another Rodger's and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific. So was this really an all Asian cast? Apparently not! Out, cur!
Chop suey, chop suey! 
Living here is very much like chop suey.
Hula hoops and nuclear war,
Doctor Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor,
Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee, and Dewey,
Chop suey, --Chop suey!--

Stars are drifting overhead,
Birds and worms have gone to bed.
Men work late in laboratories,
Others read detective stories.

Some are roaming 'round the country,
Others sit beneath just one tree.
Tonight on TV's Late, Late Show
You can look at Clara Bow! --Who?--

Chop suey, chop suey!
Good and bad, intelligent, mad, and screwy.
Violins and trumpets and drums,
Take it all the way that it comes,
Sad and funny, sour and honey dewy,
Chop suey!

Ballpoint pens and filter tips,
Lipsticks and potato chips.
In the dampest kind of heat wave
You can give your hair a neat wave.

Hear that lovely La Paloma,
Lullaby by Perry Como.
Dreaming in my Maid'nform bra,
Dreamed I danced the Cha-Cha-Cha.

Chop suey, chop suey!
Mixed with all the hokum and bally hooey.
Something real and glowing grand.
Sheds a light all over the land.

Boston, Austin, Wichita, and St. Louey,
Chop suey.
Chop suey, chop suey!
Chop suey, chop suey!

And nowhere do they mention Chinese/Asian culture. It's all American. Zsa Zsa Gabor? Perry Como? "Lipsticks and potato chips?" Not so mixed up. Assimilation, much? Conformity, much? May we agree that this too is a painful and ugly song? CHOP SUEEEEEYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!! Gross! Ew! It's obnoxious and stupid - what kind of message to it send to viewers? Don't listen to those Asian people, they sing about chop suey! Not only that... these lyrical geniuses named Rodgers and Hammerstein... rhyming "suey" and "suey" with "St. Louey" and "screwy" and "dewy" and "hooey." I am blown away. And then that dance number? Awkward hoedown with a Cantonese square-dancer caller dude? Funky funky waltz? That jazzy awkward tap dance? Those radical "rock and roll" moves? And then it ends with the couples bowing at each other with their little prayer hands and the gong noise? Who choreographed this? That was awkward and ugly! It's painful until you get to Patrick Adiarte's sooper cool solo bit near the end. And what being implied here? It shows that Asian people look really strange and awkward when trying to dance American-style. It shows that we cannot assimilate! Perpetual foreigners! Blasphemy! We can dance fine if we choose to! We can dance. We can sing. Don't you take that away from us - it's all there in Flower Drum Song. Just don't watch us, because it'll be, you know, awkward.

Remember that girl Helen? The one who gets dumped by Wang Ta? She gets to sing too. And then has a big dance number. Fancy, huh? This song is just really boring, so I'll save you the trouble of reading the lyrics. It's the dance number that gets me. Reiko Sato was a classically trained dancer, so there's no complaints in terms of her technique - but the part where James Shigeta transforms into the Monkey King... And they dance and dance-fight and then there's clones of him... It's a whole two minutes and thirty seconds of confusion. It's obviously choreographed in a Western style (much more successfully so than in Chop Suey) that works... but the Monkey King masks? The pseudo-bonsai tree? The cellophane fluttering in the background? It's all kinds of bad. It's awkward. It's a rip-off of Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly's pas de deux in Singing in the Rain. 

I am not denying in any way that this film was monumental in it's casting choices and presenting Asians and Asian Americans as normal people, with only one non-Asian actor. However, it still showed us as awkward assimilators - perpetual foreigners. And it was just a crappy musical. 

Watch it here!


  1. I wonder what other examples there are in which we could say the same- that the "first" example, the pioneering example, is of lesser quality, compared to white mainstream offerings. Do I hear All-American Girl?

  2. You might also hear The Wiz - a pioneering film in terms of an all African-American cast but some incredibly forgettable songs.

  3. Flower Drum Song is a wonderful musical. The numbers are beautiful and completely American stanndars. It was a product for its time and reflects it. Your critique is waaaaay off. The actors who appeard in it, who are still alive, would disagree with you.

  4. Hello Jasmine,

    Your review is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors - is English your first language? Unfortunately, it's also riddled with every single cliche and trope that would be drilled into an impressionable kid's head in an Asian American Studies 101 class. Pages and pages of blather and opinion, none of it original... and by the way, copy-pasting the entire lyrics of a song does not constitute literary analysis.

    Nevertheless, I can't blame you for all of that. I blame your teachers. I blame society.

    I hope you have the good sense not to pursue AsianAm studies in University... otherwise, you'll graduate and move right back to your parent's basement. Or maybe you want to break the "stereotype" of the Successful Asian American... go for it!

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  6. Just an awful review! This is the film version of a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway play with the kind of great songs and dance numbers that us old-timers miss. Yes, perhaps there are a few stereotypes and silly notions, but it is fun and funny and a pretty amazing story and production considering the time in which it was written. I can't believe someone is so close-minded as to shallowly judge something like this without knowing anything about its history or theatrical relevance.