Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Idea of Setting

What first struck me about Flower Drum Song were the interesting background selections, particularly the private garden of the Wang family. The visually accurate recreation of a beautiful Chinese garden in San Francisco alludes to the immigrant desire to manufacture familiarity and a connection to the homeland. Whereas Wang-Ta’s father, Mei-Li and her guardian admire the beauty of the garden, the more assimilated characters tend not to reflect or spend a lengthy time in the location. Major social functions are generally the only moments when the younger Asian Americans in Flower Drum Song remain in the garden.

Wang-Ta’s younger brother epitomizes the lack of appreciation for Chinese aesthetics, and subsequently culture. He is always dashing out of the house for American social and cultural activities, ranging from baseball games to marching in a local parade dressed as an American revolutionary. Wang-Ta himself is barely in the house, clearly demarcating the generational divide in terms of mindset and culture. However, as the median between his stubborn Chinese father and American brother, Wang-Ta is forced into the role of mediator between the two extremes. The settings where Wang-Ta is the center of attention are thus either distinctly American or Asian, representing the oftentimes conflicting values of being an Asian American. The date scene with Linda Low on the hill in the Mercedes convertible is distinctly perceived as American, while the wedding scene with Mei-Li resembles a traditional Chinese marriage atmosphere. Interestingly, Helen’s apartment is an arguable safe haven from Wang-Ta’s perspective as an Asian American since the area is situated relatively far and isolated from Wang-Ta’s traditionalist father and the more Americanized Linda Low. Disregarding the romantic agenda of fellow Asian American Helen, the apartment is a temporary haven from the internal identity debate. The peace is short-lived due to Mei-Li’s appearance and Wang-Ta’s hasty departure. The little screen time in the apartment reflects the fact that Asian Americans have little reprieve from questions of identity.

As a Roger and Hammerstein production, Flower Drum Song is technically created for a white audience, and the presentation of settings and places support such a notion. Echoing Chan is Missing, the “foreign” Chinatown is again the primary setting of the movie. Nevertheless, the Chinatown and Chinese community presented in Flower Drum Song depicts a clean, orderly, civil realm anchored by a middle-class Asian population. The swift robbery scene then shatters the assumed peacefulness of the community fairly early in the movie. The actual setting of the robbery is not a major issue, but the refusal to report the crime to the police by Wang-Ta’s father reveals the preconceptions of institutions of authority from a hardened immigrant point of view. The general misconception that crime in actual Chinatowns was low is briefly confronted in Flower Drum Song. As the real Chinatowns were rather untidy and sometimes dangerous places, Roger and Hammerstein attempted to portray an idealized Chinatown that was consistent with a “model minority” community. Settings in the film were thus an essential component to the plot construction of Flower Drum Song.

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