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Flower Drum Song

A Bold New Story of Asian America

By Patrick L. Purdon

Flower Drum Song

Virginia Theatre, New York

Written by David Hwang

Directed by Robert Longbottom

Starring Lea Salonga, Jose Llana, Randall Duk Kim

Late night cable television can reveal a world of untold treasures. Just after the New Year, I sat in my California home flipping through channel after channel of amazing grilling machines, toll-free psychic savants, and fool-proof instant-millionaire schemes.

Buried in this treasure-pile of fantastic refuse, I discovered something truly remarkable. Turner Classic Movies was showing Flower Drum Song, a musical-film from 1961 based on the popular Rogers and Hammerstein production. In typical American musical theater style, I witnessed dynamic, talented people dancing and singing jazzy scores mixed with a funny plot on a backdrop of vibrant settings.

But dig this: The characters and performers were virtually all Asian-American. Asian Americans telling stories of romance, heartbreak, and laughter. Asian Americans sharing passionate kisses. Asian-American men playing strong romantic lead roles. Asian-American people speaking and singing in perfect American English. Asian Americans telling a tale of family bonds and generational conflict. Asian-Americans portrayed as “real” Americans in every way.

I ran upstairs and woke up my mom to watch the rest of the show with me. “I remember hearing about this show when we lived in Hong Kong, (in Cantonese) ‘fah-gu-gaw,’ but I’ve never seen it before,” she said. I had never seen it before either, and in fact, after 25 years of living in this country, I had never seen anything remotely like it.

American popular culture has had a long history of constructing the “Asian” person as a perpetual foreigner who can never become a “true” American. In real life, this constructed stereotype encourages overt acts of discrimination that can be justified in terms of the foreigner label (e.g., go to Google and type in “Wen Ho Lee,” or “Congressman David Wu Department of Energy...” Get it?). I was amazed to learn that forty years ago people had dared to tell the story of Asian America a different way. When I learned that Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang had re-written Flower Drum Song and that it was showing on Broadway, I took the first chance I could get to go see it.

Flower Drum Song is the story of a 1950’s Chinese-American community in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The original story was a best-selling novel by C.Y. Lee, which was later adapted by Rogers and Hammerstein into the musical comedy and movie. The musical and movie centered on the mixed-up love lives of Wang Ta, a first-generation Chinese-American seeking freedom from his Father’s old-world traditions; Mei-Li, a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant from China sent to fulfill an arranged marriage; Sammy Fong, a swingin’ rat-pack-like nightclub owner betrothed to Mei-Li; and Linda Low, a sexy showgirl working at the nightclub.

While the original Flower Drum Song had popular appeal for its beautiful music and its talented cast, academics disliked it for its surface-level depictions of Chinese culture and its assimilationist model for Chinese America, which suggested that the road to legitimate “American-ness” lay in the total abandonment of Chinese cultural forms.

Fast-forward to present-day, and enter the creative team of David Henry Hwang, Robert Longbottom, and David Chase. Hwang and company kept much of the original music, but completely re-wrote the story. Mei-Li, played by Lea Salonga, is now the daughter of a Chinese opera boss who comes to California to escape Maoist political persecution. Ta, played by Jose Llana, remains the central character, but is amplified to become the moral center of the story, within and around whom the dialogues of cultural conflict and transformation play out. Linda Low, played by Sandra Allen, is sexier, more exuberant, and more independent than the original.

Together with Ta’s father, Wang (Randall Duk Kim), and Madame Liang (Jodi Long), a talent agent with a talent for orientalism, they transform Wang’s failing Chinese opera house into a swinging night club whose dance show brings fame, fortune, big-time laughs, and moral confusion.

The new Flower Drum Song is sexier, funnier, more hip, and more deeply feeling than the original. The story of the immigrant experience is told with touching immediacy: When Mei-Li emerges from the crowded, inhuman hold of a freight ship to finally see the blinding sunlight of the “Gold Mountain,” the hopes and dreams of distant cousins who came before are captured in a moment that wells up with visceral intensity.

When you’re done choking back tears (and I ain’t no mamma’s boy neither), you’ll be laughing your tail off. The show-tune numbers “Grant Avenue,” “Chop Suey,” and “Gliding Through My Memoree,” are hilarious, thanks largely to the comic sensibilities of Randall Duk Kim and Jodi Long.

Embedded within these comic routines is a satirical deconstruction of race where stereotypes are appropriated by the very people being stereotyped and then exaggerated to reveal their folly. Laughter and tears give way to raw sex appeal whenever Sandra Allen graces the stage (Yow!). Her sultry rendition of “I Enjoy Being A Girl” re-invents the song, making a statement of independence and self-determination. Broadway fans accustomed to elaborate song and dance routines will not be disappointed.

The vocal talents of Lea Salonga and Jose Llana shine in songs such as “Love, Look Away,” and “Like a God,” while the dance skills of the multi-talented cast are highlighted in “Fan Tan Fannie.”

A remarkable feature of the show is how it manages to deliver pointed social commentary without being preachy. This is partly because of the show’s warmth and humor, but also because of excellent acting on the part of the entire cast.

If the show falls short anywhere, it may be in how it fails to make mention of the deeply-rooted but little-known history of Chinese Americans in California. For instance, we know that Ta is a first-generation Chinese American, and that Mei-Li is a new immigrant from China, but we know little about Linda Low’s background. If we were to imagine her ancestors as immigrants from the 19th century, even a brief glimpse into her past might have reminded the audience of Chinese America’s long-standing history.

Nonetheless, the show represents a tremendous breakthrough in storytelling about the Asian-American experience. The humor, energy, and artistic excellence of the show make it worthwhile for people of all backgrounds.

And if you think Broadway is too far away, it isn’t. For fifteen dollars I rode the Chinatown Bus to New York, and the driver made it there in 3 hours and 30 minutes, leaving plenty of time to see the show and enjoy one of the finest cities in the world.