After doing some research on Chinese portrayal in the Western film scene (on Wikipedia, naturally), I came across the musical, Flower Drum Song, one of Rodger and Hammerstein’s lesser known works, in fact I hadn’t heard about it before I read about it on Wikipedia. The musical follows the story of Mei Li, an illegal immigrant who arrives with her father in San Francisco, to honour a marriage contract between her and local club owner, Sammy Fong, who is dating Linda Lo, a performance artist who works at Celestial Gardens. Fong tries to pass Mei Li on to Wong Ta, who at the same time happens to be dating Linda Lo, who is getting frustrated at Fong’s lack of commitment.
It interweaves many themes, such as the dichotomy between the older, traditional Chinese living in America and the younger, more Americanized generation – reflected nicely in song. As well as the people, the theme of love is prominent, whether it is the formalized arranged marriage reflecting older Chinese traditions, or the more relaxed type of love typical of America.
I think that some of the musical is well done, such as the dance numbers, and some of the songs are fabulous – such as Love, Look Away (an emotional number sung by Helen) and I enjoy being a girl (a friviolus, fabulous performance by Linda). I wasn’t a huge fan of Mei Li’s opening song, which was repeated again a few times in the film to my chagrin. The film had a lot of comedic elements and didn’t take itself seriously, which was quite good.
I did feel that the musical played up to a lot of Chinese stereotypes through character and storyline, and the dialogue included lots of Asianisms which I felt were unnecessary e.g. “You’ve got egg foo yung on your face!”. Wong Cheong was a stereotypical Chinese elder who sought to uphold the Chinese traditional values of love and honour. I also though it glorified America too much, such as the importance of television make a big contribution in the finale, and the way that America and Americanism was promoted. No one could read Chinese at the start of the film, all of the other Chinese people thought it was strange!
Some of the characters were stronger than others, Wong Cheong and Madame Liang were fantastic as they tried to make sense of the modern Western world that they lived in, and Mei Li’s naiviety was endearing at times. Wong Ta, although handsome, was a bit too dithery for my liking as he couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted or who he loved, and when he did it was left to Mei Li to act to let them be together, despite him promising in that later stages of the film to come up with an idea (fool). However, the star of the show was undoubtedly Nancy Kwan as the fabulous, sassy Linda Lo – who had a confident turn as the singer.
This musical played a big part in Asian portrayal in Western cinema. At the time of the musical’s release, and prior to this, there were hardly many Chinese stars or films around. In the 1920s, Anna May Wong was a popular star yet she was the only Chinese actor/actress to gain any sort of recognition in America. Asian roles were scarce and often European actors and actresses were hired to play them. Flower Drum Song was notable for being a film that starred almost all Chinese actors and actresses, and it highlighted Chinese culture and values. Some feel that it may have not been entirely successful, but I think that it was the first film to do any sort of thing like this, and should be commended for this.. It is amazing to see Chinese culture portrayed in Western film – it is not really a frequented area for film, and sometimes, Rodgers and Hammerstein do go a bit overboard, but it is good to see the results on screen.
Overall, I think the film was light and funny, and there were some great moments. Right from the start, when Mei Li and her father made their arrival in the boxes and made “yelp” and “argh” noises; the two men responsible for overseeing the imports put it down to being stomach noises, as stomachs often make those kind of noises – this was quite funny to watch, and it kicked off what was a great film to watch. Some moments do appear quite outdated and don’t really fit in with Chinese values today, and sometimes the script is a bit heavy-laden with Asian references, such as “I‘m going to break his…rice bowl”, which are a bit unnecessary, but I would still recommend this film to watch. It has somewhat been forgotten from Rodger and Hammerstein’s back catalogue which is disappointing. It would be great to see Chinese culture represented more in Western cinema today.