I’ve come to believe that movies are like memories from our actual lives: our perception of them is not fixed but is constantly shifting depending on what’s going on for us at that moment. As I rewatch many of the films that I know so well, I am surprised by how often I experience them in a completely different way as I get older. Continuing my re-evaluation of Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals that I began on Yom Kippur, I attended the final two screenings of that film festival this weekend, including the duo’s 1961 film, “Flower Drum Song.”
I fully expected to greet this story of Chinese-Americans in San Francisco with audible catcalls for its outrageous stereotypes of Asian culture. Instead, as I watched the film for the first time in years, I had the impression that the all-white writers and filmmakers handled the subject with much more respect than I remembered. Oh, there are plenty of moments that might make Asian-American viewers cringe today, but as an overall depiction of a community, it didn’t seem nearly as offensive as I used to think it was.
In my frequent derision of the musical, I’d always point to the ridiculous song “Chop Suey” as an example of all that was wrong with this story. I’d adopt my own offensive pidgin accent and start warbling:
Chop suey, chop suey,
Living here is very much like chop suey!
at which point I’d decry the fact that Oscar Hammerstein II was so oblivious to Asian-American culture that he didn’t even know that chop suey wasn’t an authentic Chinese food. Woops. When I saw the film this weekend, I realized I had forgotten that this was the whole point of the song. Before singing it, Madame Liang, who has just become an American citizen after years of training, describes how this American-invented dish describes the assimilated culture she’s now a part of: a little bit of Chinese mixed in with a little bit of American. Now I get it, although the song is hardly one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s greatest achievements:
Hula hoops and nuclear war
Doctor Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor
Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee, and Dewey
Chop suey, chop suey!
Ballpoint pens and filter tips
Lipsticks and potato chips.
In the dampest kind of heat wave
You can give your hair a neat wave.
Chop suey, chop suey!
Good and bad, intelligent, mad, and screwy.
Violins and trumpets and drums
Take it all the way that it comes
Sad and funny, sour and honey dewy
Ouch. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” it ain’t. The two female leads in the film are a study in contrasts. Miyoshi Umeki’s Mei Li is an off-the-boat traditional girl from mainland China who knows nothing of the brash American lifestyle (and therefore is seen as more virtuous) while Nancy Kwan is the fully assimilated opportunistic showgirl, Linda Low, who sings risqué numbers at Sammy Fong’s Chinatown nightclub wearing provocative Asian-inspired get-ups that would feel right at home in a stripper’s closet. The filmmakers tried to have it both ways with Linda and I suppose they succeeded. On the one hand she is a money-grubbing trollop who seems just a few degrees removed from a high-class prostitute, but on the other hand, she explains her misdeeds away with her wholesome desire to quit the glamorous life, get married, and cater to her man for the rest of her life like a good American wife. Every bump and grind she performs is in the service of landing her guy so in her own way, she’s just as “pure” as Mei Li. Nancy Kwan was a knockout as Linda Low, and she sings the one number from this musical that crossed over and became a bona fide hit. Just don’t expect this song to be adopted as the theme for the National Organization for Women any time soon:
I flip when a fellow sends me flowers
I drool over dresses made of lace
I talk on the telephone for hours
With a pound and a half of cream upon my face!
I’m strictly a female female
And my future I hope will be
In the home of a brave and free male
Who’ll enjoy being a guy having a girl like me.
Oy. And yet I have to admit that I didn’t even find that song as offensive as I used to. Maybe this isn’t good news. Do these changing perspectives just mean I’m getting old and losing my edge? Or am I just abandoning some of the holier-than-thou political correctness of my youth? Maybe it’s a sign of maturity that I’m finally able to view these stories from the context and times in which they were written. On the other hand, I was not alone in taking issue with the treatment of Asian-Americans in “Flower Drum Song.” There was enough of an outcry about it for Broadway producers to hire Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang to rewrite the libretto of the musical for the 2002 Broadway revival. This unprecedented move was highly controversial and many critics attacked the new version as a sacrilege to the memory of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Kendall and I saw the show with some friends when it previewed here on its way to New York. I was the only one in my group who kind of liked the new version which thoroughly updated the story and included political analyses of the Chinese Communist government. Now that I’ve seen the film again, though, I’d just as soon go back to the original. If we’re going to start “fixing” Broadway musicals to better fit our modern sensibilities, we better start hacking away at every popular show from the very beginning of musical theatre. As much as I recently bemoaned some of the outdated aspects of the film version of “Carousel,” I really don’t want to see anyone rewrite that story to address my 21st century concerns.
One of the most exciting things about “Flower Drum Song” was the huge Asian-American cast, a real first for an American studio film. It’s great to see that many talented Asian-American actors but this is also one of the troubling aspects of the film since many of the roles of the Chinese and Chinese-American characters are played by Japanese and other non-Chinese Asian actors. Of course, to us white folks watching this film in the 1960s, what did we care? What did we even know? I hate to evoke the “they all look like” stereotype, but I doubt the casting choices caused any ripple in non-Asian circles. Maybe Chinese-Americans didn’t give a damn either—at least the Asian characters weren’t being played by white actors as had usually been the case in Hollywood.
Who can forget German Luise Rainer’s Academy Award-winning performance as Chinese peasant O-Lan in the film version of Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” or Katharine Hepburn’s bizarre portrayal of peasant Jade Tan in Buck’s “Dragon Seed” (she didn’t even shed her distinctive Bryn Mawr accent for the role)? I guess actress Anna May Wong, seemingly the only Chinese woman in 1930s and 40s Hollywood who ever stepped in front of a camera, could only make so many films. Oh, and lest we forget Jennifer Jones’ Dr. Han Suyin in “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” a movie in which Jones spends a large amount of her screen time telling anyone who will listen that she is Eurasian, as if she’s trying to convince even herself of this absurd casting decision.
So better Japanese Miyoshi Umeki as Mei Li than Jean Simmons, right? I don’t mean to slight Umeki, who died earlier this year. She was a delight in this film and one of the few transfers from the original Broadway production. Umeki’s co-star as Linda Low on Broadway was Japanese-American Pat Suzuki. At least Nancy Kwan, the movie’s Linda Low, was half-Chinese! The other original cast member who made it to the film was Juanita Hall, whose two biggest roles in her career were Madame Liang in “Flower Drum Song” and Bloody Mary in “South Pacific.” Two Asian characters—and yet Hall was African American! Go figure. Maybe I’m making too much of this. I just wonder how we would’ve felt if the film version of “Fiddler on the Roof” had featured a largely Arab cast (what’s the difference—we’re all Semites, we all look alike. no?). But I’ll shut up. I did, after all, think Swedish beauty Ingrid Bergman did a great job as Golda Meir in her last film role. Besides, the Chinese eventually got their cinematic revenge for “Flower Drum Song.” In the recent film version of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” the two principal roles of the Japanese Geishas were played by Chinese actresses.
“Flower Drum Song” holds a special place in my heart because it is literally the first film I ever saw. I’ll never forget the night that my brother, sister, and I got into our pyjamas, piled into our car with pillows and blankets, and went to see the movie at a drive-in movie theatre in Chicago. Assuming the film took a year or so to make it to the local drive-ins, I still must have been under four years old, and yet I vividly remember this night. In fact, it’s the only time I remember watching a film with all five members of my immediate family.
All weekend I couldn’t get Mei Li’s big song, “A Hundred Million Miracles,” out of my head. I’ve been singing it nonstop around our house in my version of Miyoshi Umeki’s accent, sounding something like “a hundid meelyown midukows.” My tortured accent infuriates my daughter who thinks I’m making fun of Chinese people. Despite my feeling that these old musicals should be left alone, I’m actually encouraged by Leah’s outrage. Being such a musical lover herself, I look forward to seeing what her generation comes up with as they try to depict diverse aspects of our cultural landscape in more realistic and sensitive ways. Something tells me their lyrics will be more complex than this “Flower Drum Song” tune about the exotic wonders of Chinatown:
You can eat, if you are in the mood,
Shark-fin soup, bean cake fish.
The girl who serves you all your food
Is another tasty dish!
You know you can’t have a new way of living
Till you're living all the way
On Grant Avenue. Where is that?
San Francisco. That's where’s that!