Friday, February 29, 2008

Power to the "other" through Kung Fu

My younger brothers both have Bruce Lee posters taped on their bedroom walls (though the 15-year-old one has recently replaced his with images of UFC favorites), and apparently a whole generation of Asian American males has done the same. Watching “Enter the Dragon” this week was my first Bruce Lee experience, and I could easily see why so many of my peers (or a handful of Asian American male friends at Brown) have admitted to modeling their lives on his. Lee’s character is strong, fearless, composed, and confident; he garners respect for his skill in martial arts and also for his unquestionable morality. Bruce Lee is a challenge to the media and advertising industry’s favorite “all-American” man, whose blonde hair and bulky muscles make him look so very natural with a football in hand.

Vijay Prashad’s “Kung Fusion” article shed light on the polycultural appeal of kung fu, especially within Asian American and black communities. He writes: “Kung fu gives oppressed young people an immense sense of personal worth and the skills for collective struggle. Kung fu, Bruce pointed out…‘develops confidence, humility, coordination, adaptability and respect toward others.’” (133) The respect and confidence underdog youths seek through martial arts (as Prashad describes) is something I know well.

My youngest brother, now a freshman in high school, is probably at the height of awkwardness and identity-confusion. Tall and lanky, he has immense disdain for the football players that pick on him and the “jocks” who make fun of his being Chinese (which baffles me, by the way, considering we live in a relatively diverse and absolutely liberal part of NorCal). He found martial arts a few years ago and with it discovered a new kind of confidence, bordering on cockiness. The skills have actually distanced him, more than anything, from what he considers the “mainstream,” and I doubt he is alone in this experience.

Drawing from this week’s sources and personal observations, I can say that martial arts has become an outlet for the “other” in American culture, which includes the oppressed. It provides a sense of empowerment, but at the same time further cements one’s status within that “other” category. So it makes sense on many levels that Bruce Lee is the image of strength that Asian American males can most easily (or acceptably) aspire to match: he is an Asian face, is anything but the norm, and has no desire to prove strength the “all-American” way. Being the “other”, then, is a good thing—it’s just too bad that all these images are so polarizing.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Enter the Dragon: Kung Fu 007?

Bruce Lee's kung fu moves in Enter the Dragon doubtlessly inspired generations of young American kids to learn martial arts. However, I found the film problematic for several reasons, namely, in its portrayal of Asian men, its rampant sexism and objectification of women, and the fact that it seemed to lift a lot of its material from the James Bond series.

The tournament arranged by Han, the arch, sinister villain of the movie, brings together martial arts masters of various races and nationalities. The noteworthy characters are Williams, an African-American man, Roper, an white American playboy (who looks *suspiciously* like Sean Connery), and Oharra, a white man of dubious nationality, who is also happens to be Lee's nemesis. Han's games are held on his private island, where the masters are invited to stay, and are provided with liberal food, hospitality, and promises of sexual encounters with exotic Asian females.

Han's army of martial artists, all Asian men, do not really have speaking roles in the film. His guards are nameless and identity-less; they are there to provide Lee a chance to show off his prowess. In the first glimpse we see of Han's extravagant hospitality, Asian men sumo wrestle as exotic dishes are carried around by waiters. Lee's voice, when he exclaims while making his kung fu moves, has been dubbed over with a strange, high-pitched squeal -- is this meant to parodize Asian men? I'm not quite sure. Lee, I must say, is really bad-ass, and an excellent hero. However, I was rather flummoxed that the American army had to come in and save the day... why couldn't Lee have all the glory?

The women in Enter the Dragon, with the exception of Lee's sister (who is driven to kill herself by Han's men and Oharra in a flashback at the start of the film), are submissive, silent, and slave-like. They are, essentially, sex slaves for Han and his male cohorts. In addition, we learn that Han has been drugging beautiful women with heroin/opium, and keeping them captive in his underground lair. These women we encounter are mostly white -- I suppose this is meant to signify white slavery by an evil Asian opium den lord.

I'm a big James Bond fan, and I know that many of the Bond films predate Enter the Dragon. Therefore, I was a little annoyed that this movie seemed to borrow so much from Bond -- it clearly would be able to stand on its own, I think, and many of the Bond elements seemed cheesy or out of place. The music, for example, sounded quite Bond-esque, but it clashed with the more "Chinese" music at the beginning of the film. The styling and shots were also very Bond. And Han's white cat? Totally Doctor No. Also, the fact that Roper so closely resembles Sean Connery was probably no accident. One thing that was different: Lee refused to use guns, and this made me happy. It prevented the film from veering into Asian-remake-of-Bond territory and made Enter the Dragon really unique.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Flower Drum Song

I was a sucker for Flower Drum Song; I loved it. Almost every aspect of the movie seemed to fall in sync with that strangely quaint feeling you get from watching a musical, whether it was Sammy's Sinatra-like demeanor, the youngest son's hip slang, or the musical numbers. Perhaps one of the reasons I was so engaged in this film, was that it chipped away at some of my preconceptions of Asian Americans before the 70's and 80's. I think in the first movie assigned, there was Victor Wong, who claimed he had to define his own meaning of Asian American since there wasn't such an idea back in the 50's. In Flower Drum Song however, that dichotic identity confusion is still represented by Wang Ta, but many of the San Francesco community seems to almost embrace the American way of life. The Asian American community, in this movie, was not as isolated from American culture (if at all) as Wong stated. For some, such as Auntie and Linda, the American way was actually almost dominant to Eastern tradition.

What is the moral? Or more accurately, was there supposed to be one? I was not sure what the significance of Wang Ta's "failure" to make decisions independent of his father meant. It is interesting how both father and son try and rebel against the conventions set out for them (with Master Wang humerously facing the consequences of not trusting the bank with his money and with his son's inability to set up his own marriage). Maybe it is not so much a statement about about which conventions are most fit in an Asian American community as it is about rebellion in general.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Flower Drum Song: Refreshingly Asian American

While I am well aware that “Flower Drum Song” contains many elements that could leave bad tastes in the mouths of Asian Americans—from the typecast characters to the ambiguously disdainful handling of traditional Chinese culture—there was something extremely refreshing and unique, something comfortable about a cast formed (almost) entirely of Asian characters. I honestly felt that Juanita Hill, in the role of Auntie Liang, didn’t do so badly as a Chinese American middle-aged woman either.

In many ways, this musical (or the book from which it was adapted) was a truly Asian American production; it combined elements from both worlds—Chinese and American—that a person not of both spheres could not have produced. Perhaps it is that I spent years learning Mandarin Chinese and am grateful for any opportunity where the skills prove useful. Master Wang, in his super-Chinese glory, curses “son of a turtle” after hanging up the telephone—it is a literal translation of a commonly used Chinese swear, a very old-man sort of exclamation. While a non-Chinese author and playwright could haul in a traditional Chinese bed frame that invokes dynastic legacy, or emulate Chinese dress with a neck-to-ankle qipao, the incorporation of such close-to-home language is invaluable. Auntie Liang and Master Wang use titles of “my sister’s husband,” and “my wife’s sister,” each time they address one another. It may seem excessive, or odd, but it’s Chinese.

And by having every speaking role played by an Asian person, the inherent ethnic tensions or comparisons are bypassed; here, the characters are simply people, who create their own places in society through means not racially defined. It frees me of the propensity to size up the Asian character up to his Caucasian peer, to scrutinize how he is portrayed or why it is so. Of course there are so many things wrong with Chinese representations in “Flower Drum Song,” but I certainly enjoyed the bits that made me feel “at home” in its bizarre Chinatown universe.

Love and marriage in Flower Drum Song

The portrayal of the inner workings of Chinatown in the movie Flower Drum Song suggests that Chinatown will always be a source of mystery and endless question marks for white America – or any America besides Asian. For the general American audience, there are some familiar ideas, mostly materialistic symbols – the baseball outfit, the convertible, the nightly show girls – and a well-known American phenomenon known as “falling in love.” A concept purportedly unknown to and deemed useless by mainland Asians, falling in love seems to be a key American concept that shows that American individualism and independence reach far beyond mere lip-service and affect such individual and personal decisions such as how to live one’s life and with whom. However, in the movie, there is a twist to this concept in that marriages in Chinatown seem to be largely presided over by the community “elders” who review marriage contracts and by the parents, who more often than not, have immigrated from mainland China within their lifetimes. Wang Ta asserts his independence at the beginning of the film by saying that this is America and he can choose whom to marry, and he is backed by his aunt who exhibits greater desire and eagerness than her brother-in-law to assimilate and embrace American values. However, it turns out that he ends up falling in love with the very girl – who is undeniably traditional and Chinese - that his father had chosen for him. In this way, both he and his father were right and wrong about how he would choose to marry someone, and this seems to be representative of the Chinese-American way: his father brought in cultural values that he thought and knew to be important in a wife, but he could not force this decision on his son, who had to assert his own independence in deciding to love whom he had been presented with. This sort of interplay between the new and old worlds is well played out in the film, even if there are some very stereotypical character portrayals of Asians and Asian-Americans. 

"The Exotic is Uncannily Close"

This is a line from an anthology text that Laura Hyun-Yi Kang quotes in her article “The Desiring of Asian Female Bodies.” It struck me as one way to think about Flower Drum Song. Many of the issues that the film’s characters must deal with would likely have been perceived by white American audiences in 1961 (when the movie was released) as “uncannily close” to their own concerns about modern culture and its impact on traditional American values. Anxieties about women’s independence and sexuality, materialism, youth culture, the generation gap, and the erosion of familial roles all figure in this film. These are issues that would be sites of increasingly vigorous contestation in American society in the years to come. So, on one level, the film encourages the white audience that was its primary target to see themselves and their concerns mirrored in the characters onscreen.

Any closeness in the ideals, struggles, and experiences between the Asian Americans depicted on screen and the white audience in its theater seats is fated, however, to remain uncanny. Uncanny in its definitional sense of uncomfortably strange, unsettling. What makes it so is the film’s indulgence in the exotic and the ways in which this resists full assimilation. Once Mei Li and her father come ashore, the story is contained within San Francisco’s Chinatown, where “Dong, dong! You’re in Hong Kong!” Chinatown may be situated within America geographically but in most other respects it’s merely uncannily close to the mainstream of dominant society. The characters may square dance, incorporate Independence Day motifs into Chinese New Year’s parades, etc., but for white Americans Chinatown and its residents remain a foreign and hybrid space in which the Asian body and customs remain spectacles for white consumption. As one song puts it, “Shark fin soup. Bean cake fish. And the girl that serves you all the food is another tasty dish.” (The film’s sexism draws on the lotus blossom and dragon lady Asian stereotypes, as other have noted, but it also fits within the broader, “all-American” framework of sexism in this period as well.)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Flower Drum Song

As a movie adapted from a musical, I realize that elements of this movie are supposed to require the viewer to acknowledge that this was a musical, and that it's okay for characters to break out into song and take some liberties, but even so, this movie made me physically cringe several times as I watched it. For example, the scene where Mei Li brings Wang Ta's father breakfast, where he said, "Personally I do not agree with the old custom of drowning daughters" - I'm pretty sure I fell off my seat when he said that. Sorry, just had to get that out of my head.

In terms of the actual substance of the movie, I liked that the plot was not completely contrived. It definitely makes use of stereotypes, but I feel that it was done ways that furthered the plot or for humor, rather than to limit the range of the character's personalities. Many characters acted a stereotype, like Wang Ta's father, whose mannerisms and improper verb conjugations marked him as foreign, but through the use of lines like the line about drowning daughters, or "when that day come when you are able to think for yourself, I will let you know!," the characters conveyed the feeling that they were not limited to their stereotypical images through their provoking of unexpected feelings, such as humor. I feel like some parts of the stereotypes still remained strong in my mind after the movie; Mei Li still struck me as the obedient Chinese daughter who followed her father's every order, and Linda, who is not quite the "dragon lady" stereotype, is still reminiscent of that role. In the end though, I felt that their portrayals were far more important to the love story that is the movie. It's interesting that Linda, who acted manipulative and gregarious at times did so because of 5 years waiting for marriage, and Mei Li, who in the traditional search for marriage, learned to break out from traditional roles.

Switching gears, Wang Ta was a character that I liked very much, because he identified strongly with the idea that he was both Chinese and American, as opposed to extremes like his father and his brother. I sympathized with his portrayal of an "Asian American," or specifically "Chinese American," coming into conflict with his father's traditional ideals, but also not assimilating completely into American culture like his younger brother. Throughout the movie, I felt he was the most relatable and down to earth character and in fulfilling this role, he showed an Asian American face to American society that was, at least I felt, realistic and pretty unsterotypical, if not as as outwardly colorful as the other characters.

Flower Drum Song

Although this movie version of the Broadway musical features an all-Asian American cast, I would not credit it as being progressive or depicting its characters in a realistic or even innocuous manner. Throughout the film, characters are branded with inelastic roles by their physical characteristics (thanks to the casting director) and by the accent or speech patterns they were directed to use (ex. "Why are you stare at me?". Even the paucity and simplicity of the words used for Mei Li's musical solos indelibly marks her as a foreigner.

The contrast between Lisa and Mei Li is interesting because I they both represent the opposite of what one might expect at first glance. In the end, it seems that Mei Li is the one that marries for romantic love, while Lisa seems more devoted to the idea of marriage, being a good wife, and fulfilling her womanly duties. ("It's important to be successful in her gender.")

Finally, I was unsettled by the fact that Helen, the most "assimilated" or "American" of the young female roles and the only female character without an accent, was never again seen or mentioned after Wang Ta left her apartment. Especially given her lengthy dance number in which her romantic fantasies and fears are symbolically represented, it was sorely apparent that her story never found resolution.

I do realize that there is a necessity to suspend reality when watching theatrical works such as opera or musicals, but I was consistently uneasy about the ideological work being done by the film's presentation of the characters and their eventual fates.

Flower Drum Song is not really about women

Okay, the last thing I expected to ever see was Chinese square-dancing... musicals are truly another dimension of reality. But that's not what I wanted to talk about.

Let's get to the girls.

The main women in the film were Mei Li, Linda Low, Madam Liang and Helen Chao. I'm frankly tired of talking about the China doll / dragon lady dichotomy... and I haven't even talked about it. I don't even think this film is really that much about the women. Perhaps I've just read one too many feminist film critique, but the women in the film all seem to be projections of the male characters' different beliefs about assimilation (and also objectified subjects of the male gaze... which is a whole other topic of discussion). We've got Mei Li, who represents a successful process of assimilating from pure Chinese to someone who can full-heartedly receive advice from American TV. Then there is Linda Low, who is the bold, exciting, and assimilated to the point of being more American than Chinese (I mean, she had to fake being more Chinese towards Wang Ta to gain his trust). Madam Liang is the optimistic immigrant looking for that "Chinese apple pie" assimilation style (all the good and none of the bad), and Helen is the Chinese-American who is still a little too Chinese in her attitude and behavior (she doesn't even have the guts to tell the man she loves about her feelings in the end).

The main conflict is between the American-born Chinese and the older immigrant generation, which is mainly represented by Wang Ta and Master Wang's constant bickering (and later, Sammy Fong's hopeless situation with his mother... I mean, good grief!). The women are all kind of just swept along in this "to assimilate or not to assimilate" debate (Point: not assimilating makes you lost and confused, like the Li's. Counterpoint: assimilation is bad, just look at Linda Low! Point: but Madam Liang is doing a fine job of assimilating and still being Chinese. Counterpoint: well, Helen is pretty bicultural, but she's still pretty miserable). The debate is finally ended when Mei Li---represented as the most traditionally Chinese character---chooses to let go of her traditional beliefs (her father was miles before her, which surprised me) and starts on the road to assimilation (by accepting advice from that ever-present culture-box: the television).

So the moral of the story is: assimilation is good, whoop-de-doo! Of course, we all probably beg to differ in our enlightened present.

Also, I just had to look up some of the actors on IMDB: Nancy Kwan, who played Linda Low (she did not look Asian at all to me for much of the movie), turns out to be pretty active in the Asian-American community and is pretty much NOTHING like her character in Flower Drum Song (she was born in Hong Kong and lived there pretty extensively, and was originally QUITE modest and against being scantily clad on the big screen... She's also a hot old lady. I hope I age that well). Most of the other main roles went to Japanese-American actors (Mei Li, Wang Ta, Sammy Fong, Helen Chao... played by Miyoshi Umeki, James Shigeta, Jack Soo AKA Goro Suzuki, and Reiko Sato, respectively), which explains Mei Li's funny accent. And as someone else has already pointed out, Madam Liang was played by Juanita Hall, a light-skinned black actress.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Flower Drum Song response

I thought this movie was quite good. Many people were quick to point out the stereotypical images of Asian Americans presented in the movie. Most noticeable are the "Dragon Lady" image of Linda Lowe and the "Lotus Blossom" image of Mei-Li. However, I thought most of the characters had considerable depth, especially if you consider that time period in which this film was released. Linda Lowe is seductive, yes, and uses her beauty to get what she wants, but her real desire is to find someone she can marry. Mei-Li is at first shown to be obedient and expressionless, but shows clear signs of hurt and love when she believes Wang Ta is not interested in her. In the end, she cleverly discovers a way to get herself out of the marriage with Sammy, rather than giving up or relying on someone else to rescue her. These aspects make these characters much deeper than the stereotypes we believe them to have.

Also, the portrayal of males in this film are also atypical. Wang Ta, in particular is considerably more masculine and charismatic than most of the asexual Asian male portrayals we see today. Even Sammy Fong does not fit exactly with those stereotypes.

The film covers a lot of issues, from female sexual identity to generational differences between old China and Asian America, as well as issues of assimilation and acceptance. I don't believe the characters are just another set of stereotypes. I believe the depth and charisma of each of the characters is clear evidence that they are trying to break out of them. What the overall message of the film is might be a good topic for discussion.

"Flower Drum Song" - An Asian American "Chop Suey"

I found this film to be the most entertaining out of all the ones we've watched for class. I think it did a good job portraying Asian Americans in the 1960s while also showing contemporary viewers that some of the struggles Asian Americans faced in the 60s are still present today.

Asians are not commonly known for their singing and dancing abilities so the broadway musical set-up of this film definitely served to make Asians also American. While showing Asians as American, the film also showed the struggles that Asians face. The struggle to actually learn Chinese, the expectation to achieve a high level of education, the emphasis on finding the perfect husband/wife with all the right qualifications, the idea that the father must approve of any relationship beforehand, and the evilness of anything Americanized are all themes that I'm sure many Asian Americans have definitely come across in dealing with "the other generation."

Although this film may have been groundbreaking for its time, there were still some stereotypes portrayed in the movie that bothered me. The fact that being Chinese entails not showing others what's on one's mind (when Wang Ta and Linda Low are talking in her car), that Chinese are so skeptical of Western culture that they won't even put their money in the bank, Wang Chi-Yang's entire "orientalized" house are just a few. Being made in 1961, during the Civil Rights movement, I guess some parts had to be sacrificed in order to make more progress in other parts of the movie.

I think what makes this film most Asian American is how it shows all the different and controversial aspects of being Asian American. Asian American experiences all depend on generation, past environment, present environment, age, gender, etc. There is not just one role that Asian Americans are known for so its hard to make an overarching generalization about Asians. There are so many generalizations of Asians which ultimately works to defeat another generalization that "all Asians are the same." This film did a good job showing all the different dimensions of being Asian. There are "FOB" Asians, and there are assimilated Asians. However, within assimilated Asians, there are those who are completely assimilated, and there are those who are assimilated but only to a certain extent. FOB Asians could be the perfect match for the more Americanized Asian, while the more Americanized Asian can still be attracted to the completely assimilated and "plastic" Asian. In the end this film displays so many aspects of being Asians American that it makes it difficult, for me at least, to even make a generalization about this film. I hate generalizations. I think writing this blog has made me even more confused.

Fractured Identity: I Enjoy Being a Girl

Having never seen Flower Drum Song before (indeed, I wasn't even aware it was a musical), I was surprised when I recognized the song "I Enjoy Being a Girl." Recorded and performed by everyone from Miss Piggy to drag queens, the unbearably catchy Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is made even more memorable by Nancy Kwan's performance in Flower Drum Song. Frolicking around in a barely-there camisole with pointed toes and long black hair, Kwan definitely makes an impact, at least for this forum member: "I also really enjoy that she enjoys being a girl... I think I was 5 or 6 years old at the time, and I couldn't take my eyes of Nancy Kwan. I've had a thing for Asian women ever since."

A definite product of its time, the staging, lyrics, and performance of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" in Flower Drum Song is rife with 50s era notions of female identity. Linda Low's identity as a "girl" relies on men and their characterization of her:
"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'm 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."

Kwan's hyper-sexual posturing (neck stretched, toes pointed) in a no-where-to-hide brightly-lit mirrored bedroom supports this male-gaze fantasy. Linda Low physically exists only as a male projection of the ideal female.

At the same time, however, there is an inadvertant tension/fracturing of identity that occurs in this scene that is particularly interesting, even if it is simply coincidence, and suggests a more nuanced way to read "I Enjoy Being a Girl." The character of Linda Low can be interpreted as a Dragon Lady... who wants to get married, a woman who uses her sex... so that she can "go-steady." This dichotomy is enhanced by the casting of Nancy Kwan, a hapa actress who uses an accent in the film, only to sing in perfect American English (her singing was dubbed by B.J. Baker). The staging also emphasizes a fracturing or multiplicity, as there are 5 mirrors in the set that portray different sides of Linda Low (3 floor to ceiling, one on the vanity, and a small hand mirror).

Does this fractured identity directly oppose the male-gaze fantasy? Is it complicit?

The Idea of Setting

What first struck me about Flower Drum Song were the interesting background selections, particularly the private garden of the Wang family. The visually accurate recreation of a beautiful Chinese garden in San Francisco alludes to the immigrant desire to manufacture familiarity and a connection to the homeland. Whereas Wang-Ta’s father, Mei-Li and her guardian admire the beauty of the garden, the more assimilated characters tend not to reflect or spend a lengthy time in the location. Major social functions are generally the only moments when the younger Asian Americans in Flower Drum Song remain in the garden.

Wang-Ta’s younger brother epitomizes the lack of appreciation for Chinese aesthetics, and subsequently culture. He is always dashing out of the house for American social and cultural activities, ranging from baseball games to marching in a local parade dressed as an American revolutionary. Wang-Ta himself is barely in the house, clearly demarcating the generational divide in terms of mindset and culture. However, as the median between his stubborn Chinese father and American brother, Wang-Ta is forced into the role of mediator between the two extremes. The settings where Wang-Ta is the center of attention are thus either distinctly American or Asian, representing the oftentimes conflicting values of being an Asian American. The date scene with Linda Low on the hill in the Mercedes convertible is distinctly perceived as American, while the wedding scene with Mei-Li resembles a traditional Chinese marriage atmosphere. Interestingly, Helen’s apartment is an arguable safe haven from Wang-Ta’s perspective as an Asian American since the area is situated relatively far and isolated from Wang-Ta’s traditionalist father and the more Americanized Linda Low. Disregarding the romantic agenda of fellow Asian American Helen, the apartment is a temporary haven from the internal identity debate. The peace is short-lived due to Mei-Li’s appearance and Wang-Ta’s hasty departure. The little screen time in the apartment reflects the fact that Asian Americans have little reprieve from questions of identity.

As a Roger and Hammerstein production, Flower Drum Song is technically created for a white audience, and the presentation of settings and places support such a notion. Echoing Chan is Missing, the “foreign” Chinatown is again the primary setting of the movie. Nevertheless, the Chinatown and Chinese community presented in Flower Drum Song depicts a clean, orderly, civil realm anchored by a middle-class Asian population. The swift robbery scene then shatters the assumed peacefulness of the community fairly early in the movie. The actual setting of the robbery is not a major issue, but the refusal to report the crime to the police by Wang-Ta’s father reveals the preconceptions of institutions of authority from a hardened immigrant point of view. The general misconception that crime in actual Chinatowns was low is briefly confronted in Flower Drum Song. As the real Chinatowns were rather untidy and sometimes dangerous places, Roger and Hammerstein attempted to portray an idealized Chinatown that was consistent with a “model minority” community. Settings in the film were thus an essential component to the plot construction of Flower Drum Song.

“Tomorrow we must go to the temple of Ding How and thank the goddess of heaven for television”

Having seen “Sound of Music” and “King and I,” I’m not exactly sure what I expected for an Asian Rodger and Hammerstein musical; I would describe “Flour Drum Song” as a frightening mix of Asian stereotypes, music, and dancing. I wasn’t sure if the use of language like “my father” and “my son” and descriptions of Mei Lee as having “skin like white jade” and being “built like a Ming vase” were intended to be humor or if it was supposed to be a somewhat realistic depiction of Asian Americans. I also found myself laughing a lot at the contrast between the on/off use of the Chinese accents by the un-Americanized characters like Mei Lee (“lotus blossom”) juxtaposed against the fluent English characters such as Linda Low (“dragon lady”). In the opening scene Mei Lee sings the song “One Hundred Million Miracles” (the theme song of the movie) but for me the disappearance of FOB Mei Lee’s faux accent once she started singing was the biggest miracle of all. I guess presenting an all Asian American cast was a miracle too.

Despite the offensive content throughout the movie, there are some truths in the father’s struggle to keep his two sons from becoming too Americanized. The character of the younger brother was intended to serve as comic relief with his use of American slang, yet I felt able to relate to the conflicts that Wang Chi-Yang’s sons have with their father. Phoebe Eng also writes about this conflict between children of Asian American parents in “Warrior Lessons;” the feeling of guilt and tension that accompanies going against our parent’s wishes. Madame Liang (Wang Chi-Yang’s sister in law) also plays an interesting role in the film. Constantly correcting Wang Chi-Yang about American culture, she draws attention to places where the Chinese and American culture clash. Even within the ridiculousness of this movie, there are some honest themes that relate to the experience of Asian American immigrants in the United States and the conflict between maintaining one’s Asian identity and Americanization.

flower drum song. the entire time i was watching this movie, i was seriously conflicted because of a couple of things. for one, i was shocked/pleasantly surprised that a movie with an all asian-american cast like this one was possible in '61. i kept on waiting for the punch line or the yellow face or something to pop up so i can say, 'yeah, of course.' secondly, though produced in '61, this movie did portray a lot of... well, stereotypical images of asians/asian americans that this country can't seem to get enough of out of any culture. my deal was, here we have this semi-breakthrough film with asian actors portraying very asian, specifically chinese, themes. however, there were still many serious flaws with the way we were being portrayed... or were there?

i know that this movie got a lot of beef because it came out during the civil rights period when people had changing views of how to portray minorities in film in a way that was more legit. but still, this was pretty much a breakthrough for asian american film/art... plus, all these themes were portrayed by Asian Americans themselves... so here we have the first all-AAPI cast film displaying stereotypical images in their own way. is it a problem when asians are doing it? we know that the red flag goes up immediately if a white woman in yellow face starts singing chop suey but if an asian american woman does it, is it better? maybe even right? i'm having a hard time liking this movie but completely disliking it at the same time because i can only imagine how excited all the young asian children would have been watching this asian-american-sound-of-music pop up on the big screen. but still, even if it was a 'correctional' film trying to better represent the aapi community in san francisco, they couldve done a better job to resist showing hackneyed images to the white public, repeating them over and over in their head (chinese traditional stereotypes, etc etc). i dont know. i have to admit i enjoyed the film. it was funny and provocative at times, though idealistic and couldve used some work especially with the two "wetback" characters and ta's father.

i especially think it would be interesting to compare and contrast the characters of mei ling and linda in class.. also, i didnt get to talk about this in my post, but speaknig of asian american (especially female) representation for children in modern media, what about mulan? what about disney's mulan works or doesnt work in contrast with flower drum song?

Otak-Who?: Anime as Asian American Culture

Though anime has long been a staple of the popular youth culture of Japan, the medium has only entered the mainstream consciousness of the United States in the past fifteen to twenty years. Even now, years after both Time and Newsweek ran feature articles about the phenomenon and almost a decade after the height of the Pokemon craze, the majority of anime followers are members of a distinct subculture, many of whom are not Asian or Asian-American. How does one explain this fascination with Japanese animation? To what extent do animated films and television series reflect Japanese culture, or Asian culture as a whole? And how have anime and its cultural implications changed since traveling to the U.S.?

Anime (a Japanese abbreviation of the word “animation”) can perhaps best be defined by making a comparison to animation traditions of the U.S. While American cartoons (with Disney as the prime example) are usually geared toward children, anime targets a wider age range, including young adults. Perhaps as a result, it also covers a broader range of genres, from fantasy, to post-apocalyptic science fiction, to romantic comedy, and so on. As Susan J. Napier says in Anime from Akira to Princess Monoke, “anime works include everything that Western audiences are accustomed to seeing in live-action films,” which is reflected in a visual style more similar to mainstream feature films.

Another distinguishing feature in anime is the human body, which undergoes some interesting changes, including morphed proportions, Caucasian or racially ambiguous features, and high sexualization. I would like to explore how non-Asians form ideas about Asian bodies-- and Asian culture more broadly-- through watching anime, both on the part of devout fans and of typical Americans who have perhaps seen only a few images of Sailor Moon.

To Juanita Hall, Thanks for a Great Performance: A Response to Flower Drum Song

Before I begin to critique the Rogers & Hammerstein musical (for the record, I hate this movie), let me praise the film for featuring an all Asian American cast (Hi, Juanita Hall. What did you say? Really? So you’re not Asian American? Sorry about that). Jokes aside (because really, Juanita Hall was really fantastic as the aunt, Madame Liang), such casting is hardly ever seen today whether in film, theater, or television (Sorry Margaret Cho about your show…). I also want to point out that the lack of Asian Americans in mainstream culture is not limited to entertainment but also subjects that are supposed to be factual. For example, I was watching Anatomy of Sex on the Discovery Channel and besides being heteronormative, the only Asian/Asian American that appeared was the waiter in the Chinese restaurant (for about 3 seconds). With this example in mind, Flower Drum Song in its casting was pushing the cultural norms. This cannot be underplayed (especially when compared to, say, the other Rogers & Hammerstein “Asian” movies, South Pacific & Pacific Overture). Furthermore, things could be worse…we could have seen a performance of Miss Saigon.

Now, let me say that I have not experienced such cognitive dissonance than while watching Flower Drum Song. Firstly, who was the protagonist of the movie? Mei Li? Linda Low? Plot Device, er, I mean Helen? Wang Ta? His Venerable, Honorable Father/Madame Liang’s Brother-in Law? What I am trying to say is that women in the film are used as vehicles to examine (read: shove down our throats) assimilation. Perhaps Laura Hyun-Yi Kang’s “The Desiring of Asian Female Bodies: Interracial Romance and Cinematic Subjection” could be expanded to show that not only does the white male go through a transformation while pushing racial/gender/class issues raised but not examined to the background but that the female body is also used to propagandize a certain kind of assimilation: American dressed in Chinese clothing. For example, the New Year celebrated in Chinatown was ambiguous. They may have been dressed in clothing resembling Chinese clothing but the use of “Stars and Stripes Forever” was disorienting. And wasn’t March King John Philip Sousa of Portuguese descent? As a quick side note, I did enjoy the scene between Mei’s father and Ta’s father that alongside the eagle, women’s breasts are an American Icon. Furthermore, the dance numbers are degrading not just for their Asian stereotypes (“Fan Tan Fannie”) but that they are distinctly trying to shape what a woman is supposed to be and to a certain extent denying any other possibilities (“I Enjoy Being a Girl”). (Hi Sarah Jessica Parker. No, I would not like to buy whatever you're hacking from the Gap. No, I mean. For real. I'm going to close the door now...)Is all a woman can do is look pretty and get married? I know the film takes place in the fifties but really? Another example is the way that American slang was used to highlight how assimilated the children are. Does there have to be a choice to be either Chinese or American? Note Wang Ta’s conversation with Linda Low on their first date. He says his father is Chinese but his brother is American. And can we discuss the song “Chop Suey”?

Additionally, despite insinuating that the Flower Drum Song is an ancient Chinese song and dance, the music for “A Hundred Million Miracles” was clearly not Asian, not even a little chinoiserie. And while on the subject of Mei Li, she embodies every characteristic of the Lotus Blossom stereotype.

I am, however, aware that this film is an adaptation of the Broadway adaptation of the novel. In all honesty, I think something got lost in translation.

Lastly, I would like to point out some of the film’s failures as a movie-musical. It is far too long (at 2 hr. 11 min) and some of the dance numbers (that really strange dance sequence) was unnecessary.

Before I end my response, I also want to say that I wished that film had taken everything to an extreme as to go over the edge and become satire. It seemed that as over-the-top as the movie was, it seemed to be begging to be taken to that next level. In that respect, I was going to do my response from Mei Li's point of view, but I decided a more direct and flippant critique would better serve my purpose.

-Christopher Huynh

P.S. Did anyone else find the reference to Connie Chung in Kang's essay on page 78 funny?
Also for your consideration:

Response to Flower Drum Song

The female characters in Flower Drum Song fit the two categories of Asian women that Renee Tajima talks about: Mei Li as the "Lotus Blossom baby" and Linda as the "Dragon Lady." In this sense, the film does perpetuate the stereotypical portrayal of Asian women, but at the same time it pushes those images outside the boundary of the typical objectification of women by providing females characters with their own voice. Helen's "Love, Look Away," Mei-Li's "I Am Going to Like It Here," and Linda's "I Enjoy Being a Girl" all narrate the story of Asian American females from the perspective of the female characters. The film could have narrated the story from a strictly male point of view, thereby possessing females within their language, keeping them silent and powerless like an object. Although male characters like Dr. Li and Master Wang do treat women like objects from time to time, the movie itself leaves some room for the female characters to speak. I am very surprised by how Dr. Li, although he is supposed to have just arrived from China, does not attempt to dominate every decision and action of his daughter, perhaps as a result of assimilation during his brief time in the United States. I notice that Mei Li's seemingly endless smiling face (which is unnatural and doll-like) finally relaxes its cheek muscles towards the end of the movie as she begins to believe that Wang Ta does not love her, breaking away from the "Lotus Blossom Baby" image. When she does confirms that Wang Ta loves her, however, Mei Li does not hesitate to kiss him, something that also disentangles her from the typical image of the modest Asian woman.

Another point I should mention from the movie is the process of assimilation represented by the Wang family. At one point Wang Ta says, "My father is Chinese, my brother is American, and I am both." Both his brother and Wang Ta are second generation immigrants, yet somehow one is Chinese American and the other is only American. Does this mean that Wang Ta is in the transition bridge between his father and his brother? If Wang Ta should be rebelling against the Asian ways of his father, why isn't he just like his brother? What prevents him from losing that Asian side of him, his age?

Flower Drum Song - "What are these things for?"

Although I’ve seen various Rodger and Hammerstein musicals, I was never aware that they had written a musical about (and featuring) Asian Americans. I was pleased with their overall representation of Asian Americans in Flower Drum Song, as it provided a huge contrast to the representation in Broken Blossoms, where Asian Americans were consistently portrayed as foreign.

One aspect of the movie I found interesting was the use of clothing to make a huge emphasis on the generational gap. In the beginning, the viewer is introduced to Ta Wang’s father as he sits in his Chinese-themed garden, dressed in traditional Chinese clothes. His children are then introduced, with Ta wearing a sweater and tie outfit and his younger brother dressed in a baseball uniform. I felt this generational difference may have been overplayed a bit, with San Wang (the younger brother) using very American slang when talking to his father, while the father is left puzzling over what his son could have possibly said. Clothing is also tied in with the stereotypes of Asian female sexuality seen in the movie, as Linda Low dances around in just a towel while she sings “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” a song in which being a girl is entirely contingent on how other men treat her. The extroverted sexuality of Linda is contrasted with the passivity of Mei Li, who wears traditional Chinese clothing (which “hides everything,” according to her father).

Mei Li and Linda Low also emphasize the two different stereotypes of Asian women (as described in Screening Asian Americans) in their physical actions. Near the end of the movie, when the marriage contract between Mei Li and Sammy Fong is being reviewed, Mei Li willing steps up and opens her mouth, showing her submission as she will allow anyone to physically inspect her to see if she is fit for marriage. On the other hand, when Linda receives an invitation to Mei Li and Sammy’s wedding, she forcibly tries to push Sammy out of the door when he goes to visit her, which I felt emphasized the “Dragon Lady” stereotype.

There is an instance of a stereotype of Asian male sexuality seen when Mei Li’s father and Ta Wang’s father inspect an American dress that they want Mei Li to wear to the graduation party. Mei Li’s father inspects the bra inserts of the dress and asks, “What are these things for?” As noted in Laura Hyun-Yi Kang’s “The Desiring of Asian Female Bodies,” Asian males are portrayed as having “measures of confinement and the sexual abandonment of the oriental female” (75). Thus, their seeming ignorance of an aspect of the dress that expresses female sexuality further drives in this notion that Asian males are unknowledgeable about Asian female sexuality.

Overall, I really did enjoy this film and thought that it was a great decision on Rodger and Hammerstein’s behalf to have an Asian American cast. One question I had about the movie was about the role of Helen. She doesn’t appear to fall in the two stereotypes of Asian females much like the other young Asian American women do in this film. What is her purpose and representation in this movie?

Flower Drum Song: Assimilation of the Asian American

I truly enjoyed "Flower Drum Song", the story of two couples fighting for their voice in marriage. It brings up many important issues raised in an Asian American community: one being assimilation.

In the film, we meet 3 members of the Wang family, each with their own degree of assimilation into the American culture. First, we meet Wang Chi-Yang, the head of the family who is firm in his traditional Chinese ideals. He is adamant about his son marrying a girl from mainland China, with Confucian values and honorable Chinese morals. To sharply contrast Chi-Yang, we meet his youngest son, Wang San who is completely immersed in the hip young, American culture. He is quick to use slang of the early 1960s and dresses in "American" clothes. And to mediate the two, audiences meet Wang Ta, one of the leading characters in the film. As the eldest son, he is conflicted between the two cultures: his traditional Chinese values and the new American way.

Through this representation, we can see the correlation between cultural divides and the generation gap. Chi-Yang is old and stubborn, refusing to adhere to the American lifestyle. When approached by his sister-in-law to put his savings into the bank, he becomes outraged. We also meet Sammy Fong and his mother: a young hip club owner thriving in the American lifestyle and his traditional mother who has arranged for his marriage. It is easy to see the correlation between age and assimilation. However, we also meet the character Auntie Liang, Chi-Yang's sister-in-law, who is born of the same generation as Chi-Yang and Moadame Fong, but more readily assimilates to the American way of living.

In the end, the young bordering both cultures, Wang Ta, does not have to choose either one, but rather incorporates both into his life. He does indeed choose to marry the woman his father has selected for him, but by plan of his father, he has independently fallen in love with her.

The film is a great example of the complexity of Asian Americans. Yes, we do have stereotypical Asian characters such as the shy, demure girl in Mei Li, and the Asian seductress Linda Low. But we also see characters of diversity in Wang Ta, and as the movie progresses, Wang Chi-Yang who slowly gives into the American way.

Appreciating Flower Drum Song

Flower Drum Song was the first American movie featuring an all-Asian American cast that both my parents and I had ever watched. While I was at home this weekend, I had my parents watch the movie with me and they were so surprised at how ahead of the time the Asians in the movie were. They hadn’t realized that Asian Americans at the time could dance and be part of a musical that was so westernized. I was also really impressed by the huge Asian American cast and their talents. The makers of the movie talked about how hard it was to find enough Asian Americans to cast and how they had searched everywhere to fill all the roles. I was impressed that the filmmakers did not resort to having non-Asian Americans fill the roles, even though that would’ve been the easier thing to do. The whole time I kept thinking about how this movie was probably not even targeted towards Asian Americans and how non-Asian Americans must have taken the film. Cultural differences and generation gaps were a major theme in the late 50s and 60s for all different races and this musical must have been relatable to so many people. I thought the film did a good job showing the complete spectrum of what it means to live in America from new immigrants like Mei Li to those just beginning to assimilate into American culture like the Chinese father, and then to the totally assimilated through Linda Low. The diversity of the characters and the different life values each had made it hard to criticize any part of the movie for being too stereotypical. Everyone was coming into grips of what it means to be an American in a different way.

When the movie first came out, Asian American embraced it, but then started complaining that it was too old-fashioned. The issue of cultural appropriation as well as portraying Asian Americans as being a little behind in westernization offended people at the time. They argued that San Francisco Chinatown was more modernized and was not correctly portrayed in the movie. Although there is valid reason for this concern, I think it’s important to look at the fact that the actual book was written by a Chinese man living in Chinatown and that the making of this movie was not necessarily a celebration of a culture, but more importantly a celebration and recognition of a community.

Flower Drum Song: Generation Gap

The Flower Drum Song was a musical performed by a nearly all Asian cast that told the tale of a convoluted love story. I thought the film did an excellent job representing the generation gap and how second generation Asian Americans can feel lost and confused. I thought one of the opening songs between the adults and the three kids about communication set the stage for the whole movie. Ta talked to Linda in the car about how he feels the tear between his American and Chinese halves. I found the many exchanges on views between Ta and his father mildly entertaining and thought the film did a good job showing how both styles of thinking had their pros and cons. The discussion in Screaming Monkeys about respect and how “filial piety cannot become a cultural excuse that absolves us from having to determine who we are and what are lives stand for” can be applied to the relationship between Ta and his father. When Ta makes his decision to marry Linda, while angry, his father does not go to the extreme extent of disowning Ta or anything similar to that nature. Ta learns on his own what type of girl he desires and that while his father may not be as assimilated into the Western world as he is, his father can still offer credible advice.

For the most part I was focusing on the old vs. new and did not see a lot of the female stereotypes come into play. With that said, I agree with Monica’s last reference to Feng’s quote on page 77 and her connection of Mei Lei illustrating the China doll figure and Linda as a representative for the Dragon Lady personality. However, I felt how the manipulative gold-digging female character was played made it seem not uniquely Asian. Therefore, I did not think a whole lot of it aside from the fact that it contained elements of a stereotypical love triangle involving someone who was arguably the most beautiful but was not necessarily interested in love and instead valued material possessions. It seemed that the movie was applicable to the section in Galang's book devoted to the Asian feeling of expectation (especially with marriage).

Response: Flower Drum Song

I found Flower Drum Song enjoyable in the way most 1960s musicals are enjoyable: humorous and entertaining if you look past the implicit racism and sexism. Throughout the movie I felt conflicted. While I found it gratifying to see a predominantly Asian American cast, I worried that it served to isolate Asian Americans from mainstream America even more, casting them as perpetual foreigners who exist in their own little world apart from the rest of the nation. While I was glad to see that not all the Asian American characters were depicted as being "backward" and "foreign" (indeed, Sammy seemed more an American stereotype ala Guys and Dolls than an Asian American one), I was troubled by the way in which many characters were still overtly exotified (the father refuses to put his money in a bank and even goes so far as to push the alarm to test the bank's security; the father's sister's wife places a rather bizarre-sounding [at least to white American ears] grocery order; many characters still believe in arranged picture marriages; etc.). Furthermore, while I admired Linda Low as the liberated, "new" woman, I chafed at how the liberated woman could only exist in the form of someone who was also both manipulative and gold-digging, and I was frustrated by the way this film reinforced the lotus blossom/dragon lady dichotomy and offered no truly desirable roles for Asian American women to fill. Finally, while I am always a fan of a Hollywood happy ending in which everyone ends up with their true love, I found the romance between Wang Ta and Mei Li exceedingly hard to believe (Why does he so suddenly change his mind about her? Why does she so suddenly forgive him?). Their feelings for each other felt contrived, and I think this served to somewhat alienate them from the viewer. As such, while Flower Drum Song represents a huge step forward from Broken Blossoms, it is still in many ways inherently problematic and needs to be questioned and examined.

Flower Drum Song is Chop Suey

I thought it was very refreshing to see a cast entirely of Asian Americans, especially considering that Flower Drum Song was filmed in the pre-civil war era. To put it into a historical context, during this period the U.S. was starting to enter French colonies of Southeast Asia and as the cold war in China was coming to an end, the Chinese Americans in the U.S. had to be portrayed as harmless and assimilated to American culture. For this reason I see why it may have been fitting to have a cast of Asian faces. Flower Drum Song covered the whole gamut of Chinese American stereotypes (the docile immigrant, the traditional father, the assimilated children, the "sex symbol"). What confused me however, were the contradictions in the characterizations that surfaced through the entire movie. How is it that Wang Ta's father is more conservative and traditional than Mei Li's father who is literally "straight off the boat" from China? Depriving Mei Li's father of a distinct voice or role in the movie seems to perpetuate the stereotype of the emasculated and powerless Asian man.

Flower Drum Song, much like the musical number, "Chop Suey", attempts to mix a generally western plot (the obstacle that lovers face but ultimately overcome) with several Asian stereotypes, which consistently reminds us as the audience that we are essentially dealing with "non-Americans". Underlying this is the general notion that assimilation is "good", and traditional Chinese ways are "bad" because the goal of the characters (especially Mei Li) is to learn more about American culture, or, in Master Wang case, realize that the "American way" is not so bad after all (when he opens a bank account). Yet throughout the movie we are reminded that the setting of the film is in Chinatown (with only a handful of White actors), there are seldom if any interactions with non Asians, and the cast is constantly poking fun at or perpetuating Asian stereotypes. The film creates a distinct contrast between those who are assimilated (like "Sammy" Fong), and those who aren't (like Master Wong), yet reminds us that they are still in Chinatown, and are not truly "American". What is the message that this film is trying to send about immigrants and assimilation to American culture? The only message I am getting is mixed.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Flower Drum Song- Two Female Stereotypes

I was very intrigued by the film Flower Drum Song because I hadn’t seen a practically all-Asian cast musical before. I though the film presented a very interesting dichotomy between the two stereotypes of the Asian woman. In Laura Hyun-Yi Kang’s article “The Desiring of Asian Female Bodies: Interracial Romance and Cinematic Subjection,” Kang cites filmmaker Renee Tajima who argues that there are two basic types of Asian women representations. According to Tajima, there is “the Lotus Blossom baby (a.k.a. China Doll, Geisha Girl, shy Polynesian beauty), and the Dragon Lady (Fu Manchu’s various female relations, prostitutes, devious madams)” (Kang 77). Flower Drum Song continues to perpetuate these dual stereotypes in its portrayal of female Asian characters in the film.

The film focuses on the life of Mei Li, an illegal Chinese immigrant brought to San Francisco by her father in order to be married off to a stranger. Mei Li follows the stereotype of the shy, submissive, and virtuous daughter, the “China doll,” even as she is forced into marrying a man she does not love. In one scene, she is inspected by her potential father-in-law, Master Wang, who makes her stand on a table to be inspected, almost like she was a show dog at the Westminster Dog Show. Master Wang makes her open her mouth and inspects her whole body while Mei Li passively participates. Her father even says that she is “strong as an ox” to which Mei Li replies, “Thank you father.” While throughout most of the film, Mei Li prescribes to this submissive stereotype, she finds a way to marry the man she loves, although she does it in a way that does not dishonor her father. So although it appears that she is standing up for her beliefs and is bucking the stereotype of the passive daughter, in the end she continues to follow the quiet doll-like role, although at least she can use her brains to her benefit.

Meanwhile, Linda is presented as the opposite as Mei Li and instead is presented as more similarly to the stereotypical “Dragon Lady.” Linda is willing to manipulate Ta and trick him into offering to marry her—all with the ultimate purpose of her making Sammy jealous. Linda’s risqué dance numbers and dirty comments further demonstrate her devious and scheming behaviors as she also lies to everyone about her so-called brother.

Although I was happy to see a film in which Asian people are given star roles (or in this case, the cast of the entire film), I was still upset to see the same stereotypes of Asian women still presented to the audiences, further perpetuating them even more.

Flower Drum Song: West Side Story of the West Coast?

I was surprised that most of the cast of Flower Drum Song was (or at least looked) Asian-American, and that there seemed to be only one Caucasian actor in the film (the mugger). Master Wong's remark that "All white men look alike" seemed rather ironically humorous to me. The characters seemed to run the gamut of Asian stereotypes: the Lotus Flower, the Dragon Lady, the Confucius father figure, etc. The story was rather cliche, but as entertainment, the costume and set designers did an excellent job.

This film reminded me a lot of West Side Story in its themes, choreography, colors, and cinematography. In fact, the two films were both released in the same year, 1961. The colorful costumes, the culture clash, the forbidden love affair are subjects echoed in both movies. I think its interesting how each film treats the immigrant experience in America. Upon Mei Li and Dr. Li's arrival in San Francisco, they discover that many of the Chinese people they encounter can't read or speak Chinese -- they are assimilated. When they go to Sammy Fong's club, Celestial Gardens, for the first time, they discover that most of the patrons are Chinese and that the performances are more Vegas-showgirl than traditional flower-drum song. What's more, the announcer tells the audience that all of the girls performing are "college grads", implying that the "new Chinese woman" is smart, sassy, and talented.

An emphasis on generational clashing was definitely evident throughout the movie, especially in the song "Chop Suey". Master Fong's kids are all "Americanized", playing baseball, dancing the cha-cha, and complaining about their ancient dad. Madame Liong's supermarket order of octopus, seahorse, dried snake meat, "longevity noodles" and a dozen thousand-year-old-eggs ("Make sure they're fresh!", she says), seems to be poking fun at traditional Chinese food. Master Wong complains that he wants a traditional Chinese girl for his son to marry, since the American Chinese girls are "without reverence or filial devotion". The elder characters in the film all cling to their customs and traditional ways, while the younger generation has attached themselves to American culture.

The "picture bride" system, therefore, would obviously seem archaic to someone like Sammy Fong. Sammy looks at Mei Li's picture, and dismisses her by saying "Mom picked her out for me," as if Mei Li was a new suit or pair of shoes his mother had purchased for him I found it difficult to like Mei Li, for all her meekness, deference, and modesty (she only slightly redeems herself at the end by breaking her marriage contract with Sammy). She submits herself to be practically auctioned off to the highest bidder -- one particularly troubling scene is when Master Wong inspects her teeth and comments on her fertility, while Dr. Li declares her "strong as a cow". Mei Li has no problem being treated as an object, because she wants to obey her elders. Linda Lo seemed much more interesting to me, although herself a stereotype of 60s femininity -- she says that although she has hobbies of ". . .singing, cooking, and first aid; the main thing is for a woman to be successful in her gender".

Although I feel that this film was still problematic, pushing Asian stereotypes and objectifying women, it was an entertaining study of a 1960s Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Its message is not what I'd personally want white American audiences learning about Asian-American culture, but it's nice to see so many Asian actors on the big screen in a movie from the pre-civil rights era.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Asian Blepharoplasty: Cultural Rejection?

Annie* comes from a small California city known for its affluence, and—for the Bay Area—its rather skewed demographic makeup: 15 percent Asian and otherwise almost entirely white. She spent her high school years clad in Abercrombie, surrounded by friends and a number of admirers. And one summer, on a routine family trip to Korea, Annie made the choice to undergo double eyelid surgery.

“She came back and everyone said, ‘Oh, she looks so different now.’ They said she was cuter,” a classmate recalled.

Does Annie’s background story matter? Perhaps it is everything, or maybe it means nothing at all—but as a Korean American teen who chose to surgically alter her epicanthic folds, Annie has undeniably become part of a recognized trend in the Asian American community. Asian American women are looking to blepharoplasty, or eyelid plastic surgery, in numbers far greater than their “occidental” counterparts.

Figures support that blepharoplasty is growing in popularity throughout Asia and the United States: in 1997, 159,232 patients in the U.S. underwent the procedure. By 2006, this number had increased to 209,999. After further research, I will be sure to include statistics representing Korea and China, nations that have become popular destinations for Asian Americans seeking the double eyelid. There, consumers find potentially better quality, or more Asian-specific surgical techniques at a lower cost than American physicians offer. (Though eyelid surgery specialists are not a rare find in Southern California: check out, featuring a non-Asian doctor who attempts to explain the difference between Asian eyelid surgery and “occidental” eyelid surgery.)

Hypotheses as to why Asian and Asian American females are choosing this procedure vary, yielding a similarly diverse range of community responses. Some criticize those who undergo the transformation as wanting to look “more western” or “more Caucasian”, shunning their Asian heritage. If this was the case with Annie, her having grown up in a predominantly white community may have been a causal factor in her choice. Can the Asian eyelid surgery trend be attributed to Asian Americans being steeped in American culture and media images?

A Korean American friend who grew up in the same Bay Area town says that the desire for “larger, rounder” eyes comes from a Korean belief about facial features: eyes that are more slanted are associated with deceptiveness or shifty character, whereas “bigger eyes are just…better,” she said. If this is true, the motivation to undergo plastic surgery is not necessarily connected to a Caucasian aesthetic ideal. She continued that cosmetic surgery in general has become an essential part of modern Korean culture. Those who hope to make it to celebrity status, whether in television or music, are expected to have undergone some sort of procedure. Eyelid surgery, my friend said, is so common and comparatively minimal in Korea that it is sometimes not considered a surgical operation at all. But perhaps it is impossible to look at modern “Korean” conceptions without considering globalization and the resulting, much broader cultural milieu from which these ideas draw influence.

When the Asian American teen returns from a trip to China or Korea with changed eyelids, her peers are sure to notice and their reactions will certainly vary. Just like any other sort of cosmetic plastic surgery, blepharoplasty gathers all of the usual criticism or praise and comes with the same expected high costs and recovery tribulations. Yet unlike breast augmentation or liposuction, it carries an additional aspect of being tied strongly to ethnicity. It is reported that 15 to 20 percent of Asian individuals have the “double eyelid” that is common among people of non-Asian descent. Is an Asian American woman’s choice to change her eyelids a statement about her feelings surrounding Asian identity? Maybe she doesn’t know the answer herself.

*Annie's name has been changed.

Asian Americans on primetime network television: A look at Heroes

Each year the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition releases a report card that grades each network television station on their representation and employment of Asian Pacific American actors. Of the hundreds of actors cast as regulars on primetime television only 27 were Asian American. While this may be a cause for celebration, as it is an increase from last year’s number of 24, Asian Americans are represented less on primetime television than most minority groups. This brings me to questions I have been grappling with all semester in this class and also my video production class: How do you represent a marginalized group accurately? Is any form of representation enough?

While the scope of these questions is probably too large to answer in a mere semester, I would like to spend this time studying the portrayal of Asian Americans on primetime television by focusing on NBC’s hit show, “Heroes”, as a case study. “Heroes” boasts having one of the largest Asian American casts with Sendhil Ramamurthy, Masi Oka, Jason Kyson Lee and reoccurring cameos by Erick Avari and George Takei. How are Asians represented in this show? What stereotypes are prevalent? How do Asian Americans relate (and consume) these representations? What does the show say about Asian Americans? What does the show say about American consumer culture?

I just began watching the show a couple of weeks ago with classmate, Shiyin Wang, and I must say that I am addicted; I need to see the next episode like the super-hero-painter/ prophet (who can only see the future when he is high) needs his fix. The plot revolves around a group of genetically enhanced people who discover their powers and come together to “save the world”. Interestingly, all of the Asians in “Heroes” are foreigners despite the fact that they are played by Asian American actors. The star of the show is Japanese American (and Brown alum) Masi Oka, who can teleport and travel through time and space. His average, mortal best friend, Ando, accompanies him on his quest to America where they run into all sorts of trouble.

At this point I feel pretty ambivalent towards the depiction of Asians in Heroes: they are the comedic relief with their goofy antics and poor communication with Americans. Although, this may change as the character develops over time. Within this paper I plan to apply the semiotic theories of representation acquired throughout my career as a mcm student towards the representation of Asians in “Heroes”. I will account for my initial reaction, the feelings of Asian Americans on Brown’s campus who watch the show and also the ideas of on-line Asian communities concerning this matter. While the intention of these characters may not be to represent a giant, multi-faceted group of people, unfortunately due to the lack of Asian people’s presence on network television, that is exactly what it does. I am interested in learning if Asian Americans view the Asian presence on “Heroes” as progressive, despite its use of various inaccuracies and stereotypes.

That being said, if anyone in this class watches the show, I would love to talk to you.

Introduction to Asian Foreign Adoption

For much of mainstream America and especially for avid celebrity stalkers, the name Maddox Jolie-Pit invokes the image of the adorable mohawk-wearing six-year-old child of international superstars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. But Maddox is no ordinary child receiving his X and Y chromosomes respectively from his legal parents like his sister Shiloh. Maddox, who was adopted from Cambodia by his famous family, represents the growing trend in American culture: Asian foreign adoption.

According to K.A. Condit in her paper “Familial Legacies: Rethinking Transnational Asian Adoption in the 21st Century,” between 1990 and 2005, international adoption rates have more than tripled with 42.75% coming from East or Southeast Asian countries ( Condit presents a fascinating argument in which it is suggested that foreign adoption is significantly shaping and rapidly changing Asian American culture and the relationship between Asians and Asian Americans with the greater American mass society. Condit compares the fact that historically, Asian Americans did not received the same rights and were not as respected as their white American counterparts (for example, regarding immigration exclusion under the Chinese Exclusionary Act, and more recently, anti-interracial marriage laws legally permitted in a few states until 2000) with the notion that now, the number of foreign adoptions from Asia has skyrocketed in popularity. The writer also argues that the presence of Asians in American foreign adoption is forever altering the concept of the American nuclear family since “the Asian American adoptee appears to occupy a highly contested and contradictory space” (

In addition, foreign adoption is shifting the fundamental perceptions and stereotypes of the face of “Asian America.” Unlike in the past where Asians had to fight to gain their American citizenship and naturalization, now when Asian children are officially adopted, they automatically gain U.S. citizenship ( This suggests there has been a change in popular opinion in which American society now embraces the idea of foreign, non-white peoples joining into general society. The presence of Asian foreign adoption is dramatically changing cultural and familial practices as well. Adoption is no longer a taboo subject and adoption in which the parents and adoptive children are not the same race is also becoming more accepted. Hundreds and hundreds of adoption organizations and family support groups have formed to aid families in the often lengthy and highly expensive process. The heightened popularity of Asian foreign adoption represents a visible shift in the increasing overall acceptance of Asians in American society and its effect on society will be more prominent in the years to come.

Living The Healthy Asian Way

Over the years, many things Asian have crossed overseas to infiltrate themselves into American fads, but especially those imports having to do with health and well-being have been particularly popular. Feng shui. Acupuncture. Herbal medicine. Yoga. The Asian Diet. All pretty recognizable buzz words. On the TLC, a feng shui expert advises desperate home sellers on how to make their homes as presentable and energetically-positive for prospective buyers on the show “Please Buy My House.” A quick search on Amazon for “Asian Diet” brings up this first hit: “Feed Your Tiger: The Asian Diet Secret for Permanent Weight Loss and Vibrant Health.” Charlotte in “Sex and the City” visits an acupuncturist famed for having the magic touch with women trying to get pregnant – it doesn’t work for her.

            There still seems to be a certain mystery surrounding these health fads that more and more Americans are starting to follow, and probably justifiably so. After watching the infomercials for Kinoki footpads, you can’t help but laugh at the ridiculous “it’s a miracle!” sort of tone that the narrator takes on while explaining that these foot pads not only come from the far-away land of Japan but will also help cleanse your body of harmful toxins that you, as an American, just are not aware of. The Japanese, however, are very knowledgeable about this and use footpads all the time. The portrayal of Asian people harnessing a sort of secret and ancient knowledge that the hard and cold technology of Western biomedicine cannot crack is not recent. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the National Institute of Health, was established in 1998 and claims to be testing different complementary or alternative methods, such as acupuncture and ginseng, with scientific criteria. The fact remains, however, that Chinese medicine appears to work and the biomedical community cannot come up with a good explanation of how that might be happening. Some doctors recommend their patients to acupuncturists, not fully understanding why it works but knowing that it does, and researchers are investigating different herbal medicines and finding to their surprise that the plants do, indeed, have special properties (

            The striking thing about the Asian-influenced healthy lifestyles or medicine is the lingering presence of “otherness,” of being the unconventional way to do something. Even the name “complementary” or “alternative” medicine implies that there is a mainstream and “right” way that will try to swallow an alternative method into its own if they can justify it. Thus, there was and still is a great hesitance to accept Chinese medicine, for example, even though it had been practiced for much longer than biomedicine because it did not fit the socially constructed Western criteria for healing and treating people.

            So, it will be interesting to learn more about the history of Asian influences on the American people’s lifestyles and see the current trends in accepting Asian-ness as the smarter, healthier, other choice.


Can you read the title of this post? Are you chuckling right now? Did you actually manage to read this post before class, even though I posted at 5-freaking-AM?

Translated from Chinese, with an extra dash of fluency thrown in, them words mean "White people can't read this." I laughed pretty hard when I first saw a T-shirt with that written across the front. I mean, how brilliant was that? It was all the times of being misunderstood, taken as Japanese, and being "ching-chang-chong"ed at, rolled up into one awesome slogan... and then you passive-aggressively stick the slogan on the back of an unsuspecting [white] schlub. Of course, there are white people who CAN read it, but they can never really understand how sweet it is to see it for the first time as a Chinese-literate Chinese-American.

The internet isn't telling me where this phrase came from, but it was at least popularized through the Yellow Fever video that took to the internet a few years back (if you haven't seen it: WATCH IT, it's hilarious). And then you get the groups on Facebook and other places, proudly waving the banner of 白人看不懂.

The phrase might have already passed its peak (perhaps like AzN pRyDe), but it still means something to those who can relate. It's in the same spirit as sites like Hanzi Smatter, which is basically a spit in the face of that "You're in America--Learn English!" attitude (I guess instead, it's saying "There are other people on this planet--Try not to look like a dumbass to 1/6 of them").

To me, it's also a clear wave "goodbye" to the days when we all wistfully hoped for the Melting Pot to actually smelt all the ethnicities together. Like those moments on Ally McBeal when Ling would just break out in Mandarin and take everyone else down a peg... it's really OWNING your language/heritage/ethnicity/culture and being proud of it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Asian Dramas

In class, we discuss and watch Asian American media, which portrays Asians in Western settings. Personally though, most of the Asians I have seen in the media are from well, the Asian media. I am referring to music, movies, and dramas from Asia that are appreciated here. This trend is very understandable; after all, the portrayal of Asians in American media is very sparse and often not agreeable for a variety of reasons we've been discussing. Media imported from Asia however, more accurately reflects the values and ideas that Asian Americans are familiar with from their upbringings, which is why imported Asian media is also a part of the Asian American experience. As we consider globalization, imported media is an increasingly popular means of entertainment.

One specific form of imported media from Asia that has grown in popular in the U.S., especially in larger cities with large Asian ethnic centers (or actually anywhere, considering the Internet these days), is Asian drama, from Korea, Taiwan, India, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, etc, etc. The ones that I'm more familiar with are the ones from Taiwan and Korea. I'm sure at least one person reading this post has heard of Meteor Garden, Full House or Coffee Prince (available at easily accessible sites such as Like any type of popular culture, these dramas create stereotypes, images, and standards that consumers will be influenced by, different from the ones created by the portrayals of Asians in the American media, but also relevant in context of Asian American consumerism.

The main characters in these dramas are more than often, good looking actors and actresses, which makes sense in terms of attracting viewers, but these actors and actresses often portray similar roles in many different shows, with often, predictable endings. The rich, handsome, intelligent, and suave man winning over the heart of the incredibly stubborn, cutely clutzy, super energetic girl, or the quiet reserved "traditional" girl after a series of amazingly romantic/unrealistic events is a recurring theme that must leave some sort of impression on viewers, especially Asian American viewers, who, turning to this type of media for a connection to their Asian roots, may get a misleading impression of what they should expect in real life when they meet other Asian Americans, especially in the context of dating. The image of a successful male with money, looks, and intelligence as a suitor in these dramas does not match up with most real Asian American males, much less the stereotypical emasculated Asian male in American media. In the end, I feel that perhaps this results in the further emasculation of Asian males, especially in the eyes of Asian females. The same mismatch in perceptions can also occur the other way as well, from males looking for the type of female like the protagonists in the dramas, but not finding the equivalent in real Asian American females. The crossing of cultures and representations here results in interesting dynamics, because the stereotypes that might be created by the dramas in America may not be created within the original country's audience, since that audience has an entire world around them with which to relatively judge the reality of the program. If the main interaction with Asians in the media were with people like those at the top of this post, how would your subsequent interactions with other Asian Americans be influenced?
Fast skipping beats dance from the speakers as the audience clap and scream for the host of Wowowee. Beautiful dancers glide across the stage to welcome the audience and camera. Wowowee is a game show that has captured the attention of the Filipino community in the Philippines and worldwide since its premiere three years ago.

Broadcasting every evening, Wowowee serves to connect Filipino media to entertainment from around the world, especially to the American mainstream. The master of ceremony Willie Revillame speaks to contestants in English and Tagalog, which is one of the major languages of the Republic of Philippines. On an episode, Willie indirectly points out the integration of American language into Filipino medium.

Willie: You do not know?
Contestant: I do not know.
Willie: You do not know how to speak English?
Contestant: No, I do not know how to speak English (spoken in English).

English is essential for contestants to understand the show since some music featured is performed in English. During Questune, a segment of the show where a keyboardist plays a portion of the song, contestants must name the song correctly in order to win. Additional points are given to those who can sing the song correctly. Often, the songs are popular American songs that most contestants know.

Wowowee serves an extended network of viewers. Broadcasting from Quezon City, Philipines, the game show reaches many countries and allows the community of viewers to feel connected. The shared language and entertainment across television sets provides a sense of security to those who might feel distant and disconnected.

The Power of Print: Navigating Nha Magazine

Nha magazine positions itself as “the premier Vietnamese-American lifestyle magazine.” Behind the magazine’s attractive covers, articles (mostly in English but some in Vietnamese) range from profiles of Vietnamese American such as Chloe Dao, political issues (Vietnam: economic tiger or cub?) and fashion. Beneath the title on every cover are three words that make the topics of the magazine clear: Lifestyle, Culture, Identity. Niche magazines are interesting mediators of identity sense they are from the community for the community. For example, in the July//August 2006 issue, the magazine had articles such as “The Plight of Vietnamese American Students at San Francisco State University”, a profile on artist Khanh Troung, and a short story tac gia Co Ngu. What, then, is the impact of this magazine on the Vietnamese community in the US? How does it shape the community? Are its claims of being the premier magazine for the community valid?

Though previously stated that beneath the title are always “Lifestyle, Culture, Identity” it begs the question of who is in charge of the definitions and to whom is it being sold? The magazine is presumably for an upper-middle class audience not only for its content (each magazine dedicates a section to a high fashion editorial shoot) but that on the website it lists the income of the community and describes it as “affluent”. Additionally, the magazine is geared more towards a younger audience (20s and 30s). The magazine also states a circulation of 25,000 and a readership of between 80,000-100,000 (a little less than 10% of the Vietnamese population in the US). Also, what are the implications of its emphasis on fashion? In its attempt to incorporate fashion into culture and politics, how does Nha compare to mainstream magazines like Vanity Fair, Details, and Vogue in its influence and being influence?

The magazine still provides insight into how the community views itself and how it positions itself into mainstream America. Furthermore, the magazine may still prove to have some influence on the community’s identity. For example, in the latest issue, the magazine focuses on where the Vietnamese culture is now in relation to where it’s come from. Also, Magazines, including Nha, provide clues to the mutual relationship of influence between the consumer and distributor of culture.


Christopher Huynh

Asian Tattoo Art: a source of Empowerment or a source of Embarrassment?

For the last six months, I have considered getting a tattoo. Ever since I was young kid, I’ve enjoyed buying temporary tattoos from vending machines and covering my body with images of scorpions, cobras, and barbwire. Tattoos symbolize a lot of different things for me: rebelliousness, self-expression, permanence, empowerment, legitimacy, and beauty. During my numerous visits to tattoo parlors and hours on the web searching for that perfect design, I have often thought of getting a tattoo that represents my Japanese heritage, like a Kanji symbol for my middle name. Yet, whenever I thought of following through with it, I couldn’t help but compare myself to the numerous Asian symbols I have seen over the years on non-Asians. Would my friends see the symbol on my back and put me in the same group as the hipsters and gangsters alike who get an Asian symbol for “good luck” or “power?”

I have a friend from high school who prides himself on his “multicultural collection” of tattoos. He has an American Indian symbol of an eagle, a Celtic knot, and a Chinese symbol for “strength.” Whenever I see his tattoos, they scream imperialism, racism, extotification, and exploitation, yet could the same symbol for me be a source of empowerment and legitimacy? With the majority of people getting Asian tattoos being white and black, the popularity of Asian tattoo art could also easily be viewed as a success of integrating Asian culture into the mainstream. Is it less offensive for a non-Asian to get a Kanji character if he venerates the symbol by knowing its meaning and history? Another interesting phenomenon which has taken place is the mistranslation (both intentional and accidental) of Asian characters: “gas” instead of “spirit” or “blood and intestines” instead of “blood and guts.” Poorly drawn and even upside down characters are another regular occurrence. For all of its complexities, Asian tattoo art serves as a good lens for examining production and abuse of Asian American popular culture.,2933,194732,00.html

Welcome to America, Yao Ming

On June 28 2003, after the Houston Rockets used the number one pick of the NBA draft on Yao Ming, Shaquille O’Neal went on the Best Damn Sports Show Period to say, “Tell Yao Ming, ‘ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.’” He followed his taunt with some kung fu chops through the air. Yao, a 7’6” center from China, was heralded as the NBA’s next dominant center, the next Shaq, the man who would take O’Neal’s crown as the best at his position. Shaq, ever a media darling, received almost no negative press for the comment. The Asian American community did complain, to which Shaq responded that his comments were not racist.

Surely to O’Neal’s chagrin, NBA fans voted Yao Ming to start in that year’s All-Star Game, over Shaq. In fact, Yao received more votes than any other player that year, primarily due to the fact that voting was global. Said ABC sportscaster Brent Musburger, “the hordes of China” helped Yao steal the All-Star berth from O’Neal.

Since Yao Ming entered the NBA, he has embodied a number of contradictions. His 7’6” 310-pound body is large and numbering, but his playing style has often been criticized as soft. His popularity in China generates resentment from fans and commentators alike, and yet he has been the face of the NBA’s attempts to break into new markets, especially China. The mixed results of Yao’s foray into the mainstream, masculine world of the NBA is a case study for how Asians have entered pop culture, and how Asian men have dealt with constructions of masculinity.

In basketball vernacular, players and teams can rely on power or finesse. O’Neal is the prototypical power player, using his strength to push, crash, and simply move players on his way to a thunderous dunk. Yao is the opposite: a finesse player who uses skilled shots, clever passes, and deft hooks. In a league obsessed with manly toughness, the finesse player gets no love; Yao has been called soft throughout his career. He lacks aggression, toughness, and the ability to intimidate other players. His YouTube highlights include falling down when attempting to defend against fast players, and getting blocked by a barely–six foot Nate Robinson. Commentators have noted that Yao’s lack of aggression reflects cultural differences.

How does Yao’s performance on the court affect Americans’ perceptions of Asian men? How does Yao, nick-named the Great Wall of China, represent Asia and China to the U.S. public? How does Yao’s integration into basketball (or lack thereof—none of his teammates attended his wedding) speak to Asians’ integration into U.S. culture?