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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Happy 2013 from the Golden West Review

English: Great Wall of China
If I stand on my toes, I can almost see Crescent City from here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This being New Year’s Eve, this will be the last post of the year on The Golden West Review. I am spending the New Year’s Break finalizing plans for the next twelve months.

In our first eight months, we posted 67 articles and photographs. For 2013 we already have 153 articles planned, not including the timely stuff that pops up and the odd photograph. With a new job, our return to California after nearly two decades in China, and four other blogs to run, needless to say this is looking to be a busy year.

Just a quick heads-up: because of problems accessing our servers from China, there will be times where we will be posting by e-

mail. This will mean fewer photos and less links, so bear with us as we wrestle with the Great Fire Wall off and on during the first half.

Please accept my best wishes for a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year to you and the people you care about. And keep the comments and emails coming!

Best,

David

Sunset over the City

City of Blinding Light by twoeyes
City of Blinding Light, a photo by twoeyes on Flickr.

I spent what was probably the pivotal summer of my life – the summer of 1985 – studying Chinese in a third-floor walk-up studio apartment at Haste and Telegraph in Berkeley. The great virtue of the place was that it was west-facing and had an unobstructed view of the bay and the City.

There are a number of cities in the world where the mixture of water and skyline creates a magical effect at sunset. Hong Kong is one, and the view from Kowloon toward the Island at sunset changes the character of the city utterly. Shanghai along the river is like that, as is London.

But there is something about San Francisco viewed from the east at sunset that will be for me forever precious. And I know it is more than a view. It is a nexus in my soul where the view, the time, the place, and what I was doing all come together in a moment of such emotion and beauty that the heart aches just thinking about it.

I want to call it “love,” but it is a love that is neither the love of a spouse, the love of a child, a parent, or a brother. It is a love of life, a love that celebrates the wonderfulness of being alive, being you, and being on a journey that goes to ever more wonderful places.

(Photo credit: Tony Park)