Sunday, February 24, 2008

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.

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