My final project will be an analysis of the film and Broadway musical, Flower Drum Song, by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, which portrays the story of Wang Chi-yang, a wealthy refugee from China and his son, Wang Ta. The play depicts the trajectory of the Wang family, who are torn between holding on to traditional Chinese roots and assimilating into Americanhood. My analysis will pertain specifically to the use of libretto and score to construct a notion of Asianness and Americanness and the use of music, dialogue, staging, and costumes to provide a commentary on the performance of immigration into the United States. The construction of Asianness and Americanness highlights the racialization that was present in America in the 1950’s and the othering of Asian immigrants. Immigration in this play can be regarded as a performance in that there is a process of forgetting and a sense of “betrayal” against one’s own cultural roots that are involved in assimilation into the melting pot of America. The key words I will be including in my argument are immigration, stereotypes, whitewashing, racialization, yellow face, and assimilation. These key words are important in the challenge of constructing a new image of America in that these concepts were used to oppress Chinese immigrants and are significant in the ever-present illegal immigration issue in America. In order to analyze Flower Drum Song, I will watch the film adaptation of the Broadway musical and write notes on the performance of immigration and assimilation. Following this, I will read 3 critical reviews and a set of essays about the film. I will also travel to Chinatown in San Francisco, where the play is set, and interview 5 Chinese immigrants to gain a sense of the accuracy of the play’s portrayal of immigration, assimilation, and discrimination through primary sources.
THE PERFORMANCE OF IMMIGRATION
In this video, Mei Li and her father arrive in San Francisco's Chinatown from Hong Kong. An obvious dichotomy is established in that Mei Li and her father are traditional Chinese (traditional garments, customs, music) while the passersby are Chinese-American (western clothing, American accents)
Mei Li and her father on their way to San Francisco. They are illegal stowaways on a ship to America in hopes of finding an American husband for Mei Li.
The process of immigration has always been the subject of intense national debate, from both legal and ethical standpoints. The film and Broadway musical, Flower Drum Song, by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, depicts the story of Chinese-Americans Wang Chi-yang, a wealthy refugee from China and his son, Wang Ta, a college law student. Wang Chi-yang is attempting to find a wife for Wang Ta, hoping that he will fall in love with the illegal Chinese immigrant, Mei Li, who arrived in San Francisco’s Chinatown as a stowaway with her father. The play elucidates the trajectory of the Wang family, who are torn between holding on to their traditional Chinese roots and assimilating into Americanhood. Hammerstein and Rodgers’ use of music, dialogue, and costumes constructs a notion of Asianness and Americanness and provides a commentary on the performance of immigration. While constructing the distinction between Asian and American, the play is highlighting the racialization that was present in America in the 1950s and the “othering” of Asian immigrants. Because of the process of forgetting and a sense of betrayal against one’s own cultural roots as they adopt the behaviours of Americans—much like “learned behaviour”—immigration is regarded as a performance as the audience witnesses the characters’ assimilation into the melting pot of America.
This video is the introduction to Flower Drum Song in which the music is extremely exotic and Asian, reminding the audience that the musical they are about to watch is about the experience of a Chinese American immigrant.
The play’s score begins with a lively and quick-paced drum figure, reinforced by a sharp brass melody, which, because of its exotic style, is suggestive of something “other” and “non-American.” This instills in the audience a sense that the music is from another land and inherently from another people, distinct from the generally white and middle to upper-class audience that populates Broadway theaters. However, the use of a western orchestration—Western strings vs. traditional oriental strings—alludes to the fact that the musical is attempting to show that Chinese Americans are also American, just like “we” are. This raises the question: who are “we”? Who are “they”? And who is given the power to assign these pronouns?
This video is the performance of the song, "Chop Suey," a reference to the melting pot. Wang Chi-Yang's sister-in-law has graduated from Citizenship School and is teased for embodying both American and Chinese characteristics.
Act I Scene 5 is set in the Wang family garden where the Chinatown community are celebrating both Wang Ta’s graduation from university and Madam Liang’s graduation from citizenship school. Madam Liang begins to sing her song, “Chop Suey,” a Chinese soup which is a reference to the notion of the melting pot, glorifying the idea of assimilation. Some lyrics are light and benign while others jab quickly at more serious issues, revealing a musical collage of references to American popular culture, political events, and Rodgers’ constructed Chinese signifiers. Hammerstein references this construction of images with the following dialogue:
Wang Chi-yang: You are like that Chinese dish that the Americans invented—what do they call it?
Madam Lian: Chop Suey?
Wang Chi-yang: That’s it. Everything is in it all mixed up.
Madam Liang: That is what is good about my new country…I like that!
Flower Drum Song, Act 1 Scene 5
Chop Suey. In the play, they reference Chop Suey, which is a play on the notion of melting pot. Chop Suey is a Chinese soup dish in which "everything is blended together"
The music is initially reminiscent of traditional oriental music, characterized by its pentatonic mode, which uses a scale of five notes for melodies and its monophonic texture, where only one instrument is playing. As the music progresses, it slowly transitions into a jazz tune, incorporating syncopation, and swing rhythm as saxophone and trumpets begin to intersect the Chinese flute that was playing before. The young audience members break into a jazz-style dance until the end of the song, when each member at the gathering gives a traditional Chinese bow to their dance partners. The music and dance displayed at this ceremony symbolizes the internal struggle felt by the Chinese immigrants to assimilate into Americanhood, yet still retain their Chinese values and traditions. While the young people are fully versed in the jazz styled dance, symbolizing American assimilation, the older generation struggles to keep up with their pacing and footwork. This performance of the older generation as trying to adapt to American culture is pertinent to the immigrant lifestyle, where first generation immigrants are still firmly rooted in Chinese traditions, whereas their offspring are fully integrated into American society.
The dialogue that Hammerstein and Rodgers provides for the characters also offers a commentary on the performance of immigration. When the audience is introduced to Wang Chi-yang, a clear dichotomy is established in the way he interacts with his sons, Wang Ta and Wang San. While Wang Chi-yang speaks in a thick Chinese accent and is always spouting out Chinese idioms, his sons speak using, what Chi-yang calls, “American-style slang.” Wang Chi-yang is upset that he can longer communicate with his children because they have donned the American way of speaking and Madam Liang attempts to teach him American slang. Soon, Wang Chi-yang attempts to integrate this slang into his conversations with Wang Ta. According to Schechner, “Performance is a restored behaviour or twice-behaved behaviour that performed action that people train for and rehearse.” Because Wang Chi-yang continually practices American slang with his sister-in-law so that he can communicate with his sons, this is seen as a twice-behaved behaviour and is considered a performance. Although reluctant, he is beginning to assimilate into Americanhood. Wang Ta is constantly challenging his father’s ideals, questioning the truth and meaning behind the Chinese idioms his father spouts. Consistently making conscious decisions to rebel against these Chinese sayings—proposing to Linda Low without consulting his father first, staying overnight at a nightclub—Wang Ta is demonstrating a betrayal of sorts to his Chinese roots as he attempts to integrate himself into American culture.
One of Wang Chi-Yang's sons and his friends complaining about the older generation, who refuse to assimilate into American culture.
Wang San is the epitome of full assimilation, as seen in his interactions with his father and in the songs he performs. The manner in which he speaks is always contrasted with how his father speaks, as seen in the following exchange:
Wang San: She’s got a yen for him.
Wang Chi-yang: A yen?
Wang San: That’s when someone sends you. And Ta sends her.
Wang Chi-yang: Sends her where?
Wang San: Oh, Pop, that’s bop!
Flower Drum Song, Act 1 Scene 4
When the audience is first introduced to Wang San, he performs the song, “The Other Generation,” in which he complains about how the older generation, or the first generation immigrants—his father—will never truly understand him because they are still grappling with the thought of letting go of their traditional Chinese traditions. Wang San even mentions a certain hierarchy, in which he describes his father as Chinese, his brother, Wang Ta, as both Chinese and American, and himself as fully American.
This video is the performance of Wang San's song, "The Other Generation." In the song, he complains about how behind the older generation is in adapting to American culture
Finally the costumes that each character wears speaks to their background and the stages of assimilation that they are in. When Mei Li and her father first arrive in San Francisco’s Chinatown, there is a clear juxtaposition established between themselves and the Chinese-American immigrants that walk the streets of Chinatown—Mei Li and her father’s traditional oriental costumes in a street full of Chinese-Americans dressed in Western suit and tie attire. As the play progresses, however, Mei Li dons a beautiful Western dress, which she believes will help her attract a husband because she looks American. This gradual progression in Mei Li’s costumes, from traditional oriental garments to Western ones, is symbolic of her assimilation into Americanhood. In this sense, Mei Li is undergoing a process of forgetting and is also demonstrating twice-behaved behaviour, demonstrating the performance behind immigration. This is also accompanied by her speech mannerisms, in which she attempts to speak in American slang and tell American jokes, albeit unsuccessful at times.
Mei Li and her father's arrival into San Francisco's Chinatown. Their traditional Chinese customs—their clothing and the flower drum—stands out against the Chinese Americans in the background who wear Western clothing. The difference is further reinforced by the background actors' lingering stares as they walk by, underscoring the fact that there is a difference between them.
Mei Li: Wang Ta, why do you stare at me?
Wang Ta: I didn’t know you.
Mei Li: Do I look like a tomato?
Wang Ta: What?
Mei Li: Wang San said you like American tomatoes.
Wang Ta: (chuckles) Don’t let him teach you any English.
Flower Drum Song, Act 1 Scene 5
Another establishment of the difference between American and Chinese, seen in the Western attire of Wang Ta and the traditional garments of Mei Li.
The costumes worn by Wang San is also indicative of his assimilation into Americanhood. When the audience is first introduced to Wang San, he is seen wearing a baseball jersey; baseball is commonly referred to as the American pastime. This, in contrast to his father’s Chinese robes, is symbolic of his full immersion into Americanhood while his father is still grasping onto his Chinese roots.
Wang Chi-Yang and his family. This photo underscores the difference between generations in a family—the father, a first generation immigrant, is firmly rooted in his traditions while his sons are assimilated into American culture, dressed in a suit and tie and dressed in a baseball jersey, the American pastime.
While Flower Drum Song was written and performed around 50 years ago, it still remains one of the only Broadway musicals to feature an all Asian and Asian American cast. Although the play is successful in showing a different side of Chinese America than many white audience members envisioned, it also perpetuates stereotypes and power hierarchies. This is all done in an effort to portray the performance behind immigration, specifically the use of music, dialogue, and costumes, which all contribute to constructing a contrast and dichotomy between Chinese and American. By gradually diminishing this contrast and blending in characteristics of American jazz, speech mannerisms, and garments, the musical perpetuates an image of assimilation and conveys the notion of forgetting one’s own culture in order to integrate themselves fully into American society.
Asian stereotypes are reinforced and exaggerated in order to emphasize the difference between Chinese and American.
“Flower Drum Song.” Flower Drum Song Movie Script, https://www.scripts.com/script/flower_drum_song_8346.
Malm, William P., and James R. Brandon. “Musical Traits Common to East Asian Cultures.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 May 2018, https://www.britannica.com/art/East-Asian-arts/Musical-traits-common-to-East-Asian-cultures.
Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. Routledge, 2013.
INTERVIEWING THE PEOPLE OF SAN FRANCISCO'S CHINATOWN
Upon travelling to San Francisco’s Chinatown myself in order to conduct further research about Flower Drum Song, I visited a music shop in the heart of Chinatown, the Lian Hua Trading Inc. There, I interviewed the music store owner about musical styles and its uses in Flower Drum Song to establish Asianness. Hua informed me that the over–exaggeration of the characteristics of Chinese-style music—the pentatonic mode and monophonic texture—serves to remind the audience that the musical is about a foreign people.
In Chinatown, I also interviewed many passersby about Flower Drum Song to gain a sense of the accuracy of the film’s portrayal of Chinatown and immigration in comparison to actual lived experiences of the people living there. I was informed that because Flower Drum Song constructed its own version of Chinatown in a studio, the characteristics and quarks of the community was highly exaggerated and very over the top, depicting many temples and gardens littered around the area when in reality, there are very few. In the real Chinatown, the infrastructure is highly westernized and consists of mainly shops and parks.