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.)