Responsa: The Problem of Flower Drum Song

A watercolor piece by Dong Kingman, from the m...
A watercolor piece by Dong Kingman, from the movie “Flower Drum Song.”  (Photo credit: kaffeinebuzz)

In a comment on my post about the GWR’s favorite San Francisco films, Bay Area pal Will Lee noted that the Chinese community fairly hated Flower Drum Song for its rather ham-handed casting that had Japanese actors playing Chinese roles.

To tell the truth, I don’t care much for the film either. I think it insults the intelligence not just of Asians, but of all viewers who could tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Part of the problem was almost certainly the studio’s choice of director, the German-born Henry Koster, a fine filmmaker who was in the sunset phase of his career. Had Universal cared to give the helm to a younger, more savvy director, the result might have been better.

But maybe not. Koster wasn’t the only issue. Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, who brought C.Y. Lee‘s original novel to the stage and eventually to film, saw the world – and Asians – through the eyes of their core audience of American moviegoers, few of whom had either knowledge of or regular interaction with Asians, or had ever been to Asia out of uniform. Indeed, I would wager that, in their own eyes, the composer and the librettist felt that, they were offering Americans a glimpse into a subculture of which most were ignorant.

A blatant example of that ignorance shared screens in 1961 with Flower Drum Song. Mickey Rooney’s embarrassing characterization of Holly Golightly’s Japanese-American building superintendent I.Y. Yunioshi in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s was greeted across America with laughter and nodding heads. In that context, in that time, the casting of a Japanese to play a Chinese seems a minor offense.* Thus, to a degree, Flower Drum Song was an artifact of its moment in history.

Step back a quarter century, though, and Hollywood was not even comfortable casting Asians in what were purely Asian leading roles. The top six billings in The Good Earth went to Anglo actors, despite the wishes of novelist Pearl S. Buck and producer Irving Thalberg. The best way to see Flower Drum Song, then, is as a midpoint in the evolution of how Hollywood portrayed Asian characters between The Good Earth and The Joy Luck Club. Koster’s film may be offensive to us today, but at the time, it was a minor breakthrough.

* Today, it seems more of an offense. I have had an earful from Chinese and Japanese offended by Rob Marshall’s choice of three Chinese actresses to play Japanese women in his 2005 adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. I agree.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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