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?