Friday, November 30, 2007

Commentary | "Flower Drum Song" (1961)

My initial reaction to Flower Drum Song was one of indifference. Though I had heard of the movie, I was unfamiliar with its subject matter and therefore viewed it as simply another generic old Hollywood musical. Certainly upon closer inspection, Flower Drum Song is not simply a standard American musical set in San Francisco’s Chinatown; the mere fact that the movie concerns generations of Chinese American characters is in itself a stark departure from anything typically Hollywood.

One of the numbers I found most aggravating was “Chop Suey,” because the notion of “chop suey” that the song seems to be trying to suggest would entail an actual blend of cultures. What I saw and heard instead were only stigmatized images of Chinese traditions (American dance styles that ended with “Asian” bows) and a glorification of American culture (“Hula hoops and nuclear war/ Doctor Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor…”).

To give the film some historical context, its release date was in step with the Civil Rights Movement -- information which only furthered my critical perception of the film. Considering the contemporaneous threat of “blackness” and the need for different racial groups to align as either closer to “black” or closer to “white” allowed me to understand why Flower Drum Song has been criticized for its implication that the “good Asian” is one who assimilates and maintains the model minority image that continues to persist in the mainstream.

Company Credits
Production Companies / Hunter-Fields, Universal International Pictures
Distributors / Universal Pictures (1961) (USA) (theatrical), National Broadcasting Company (NBC) (1968) (USA) (TV) (original airing)

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