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.