Flower Drum Song (1961)

Being an American of Asian descent and avid student of classic Hollywood, Flower Drum Song was on my must-watch list for many, many years. It’s pretty much the only musical that is meant to be for an all Asian American cast. Notice I didn’t hyphenate. Several of the characters were presented as Americans who happened to be Asian, which was a huge deal at the time. It still is, which goes without saying.

Seeing the casting atrocity that was 21 played out within the Asian American community, I am very aware of plays, musicals, movies and what have you, that are meant for Asians.

But before I get any further, the actor who played Wang Ta, was so damn handsome.

Be still, my heart! *fans self* Whenever he was on screen, I was like, “That’s the kind of guy I wanna marry!” Tall, dark, and handsome. Americanized like me, caught between two worlds.

The whole catalyst of the story begins when Sammy Fong tries to pawn off Mei Li to college student Wang Ta. Mei Li is a fob, who is also Sammy’s picture bride. She wasn’t expected to arrive for another 5 years but stowed away on a boat with her dad. According to Wiki, the practice was solely Japanese and Korean, but I could swear I studied Chinese picture brides as well. Probably in my History of Photography class.

It just so happens that Wang Ta’s father Wang Chi-Yang has been looking for a suitable bride for his Number One Son. Master Wang Chi-Yang is sort of the overbearing, stereotypical Asian dad type, who says stuff along the lines that he’ll let his son know when he’s old enough to make his own decisions. He instantly approves of Mei Li when they meet but his sister-in-law Madame Liang insists that Wang Ta and Mei Li fall in love naturally because “that’s the American way.” She’s been taking citizenship classes to become an American.

There are clear problems with the story, in that it does sort of play up the azn stereotype of the time. Linda Low is that stereotypical girl of her time: her goal in life is to get married. “I Enjoy Being a Girl” is such a goofy song but it’s iconic. I have to look at it from that talking point and nothing more. Her character manipulates Wang Ta to get a marriage proposal out of her boyfriend, Sammy. They’d been together for 5 years and still no proposal. Wang Ta had met her on a double date with other people, and gave her his pin on their first date. She plays the stupid girl stereotype to the hilt in her interactions with Wang Ta, but she’s a clever one. She knows exactly what she’s doing. Of course, she keeps secret that she is a dancer at Sammy’s nightclub. Back then, being an entertainer was frowned on in Asian cultures. It might even be true today. My dad sometimes calls the people on the variety shows on TFC “commoners.” Doesn’t stop him from watching it, but there ya go, lol. Of course, keeping such an explosive like that completely backfires eventually.

Mei Li’s character is sort of this stereotypical diminutive fob that people all assume Asian girls are supposed to be. Not that I didn’t love her, ’cause I did. I was rooting for her and Wang Ta to get together (which they do, SPOILER ALERT!!). They fell in love at first sight, despite it being an arranged marriage. But there were things going on that involved Sammy and Linda that kept them apart until the last 5 minutes of the film. But her characterization irked me, only because I am a modern young lady. If my future husband’s family expected me to wait on them hand and foot and to be a meek little thing, I’d have to set them straight with extreme prejudice, lulz.

I saw some subtle similarities to “Guys and Dolls,” one of my favorite musicals.

  • Linda is very much like Adelaide, dancer in a nightclub, only Linda is way more devious.
  • The gambling scene before “Don’t Marry Me” and any dancing scene at Sammy’s club.
  • The manipulation of a pair of lead characters to marry. In their defense, Adelaide and Nathan were together for 14 years and Linda and Sammy were together for 5.
  • The double wedding at the end, which also reminded me of the wedding scene in Ever After with Drew Barrymore. Both sets of couples looked at each other from the altar longing and sniffled. 🙂

Then on top of all this, there was a subplot of Helen Chao, a seamstress. She had been in love with Wang Ta for years, and worked as Linda’s seamstress at the nightclub. Her meddling made Mei Li fall out of love with Wang Ta briefly. Her musical number, “Love, Look Away” was so beautiful. We all knew her unrequited crush on Wang Ta would get her nowhere. I guess in the original book, she committed suicide. Meep.

Overall, I loved it. It was fun, light-hearted, and silly; a lovely, all-around musical. It wouldn’t play well today, since the libretto was written by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Seriously, what do white folks know about Asians if not our stereotypes? If someone were to remake the film (and not just a revival on Broadway), they’d have to leave it in its time period of late 50s, early 60s methinks.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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