Saturday, February 23, 2008

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.

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