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Flower Drum Song Deserves a Second Look

Flower Drum Song
Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) and other cast members in Flower Drum Song. Sammy Fong (Jack Soo) is at the far left.

By Louis Chan
AsAmNews National Correspondent

I remember being just four, squirming in the back seat of my family’s four-door sedan.

My dad worked as a postal clerk. My mom was a full time homemaker.

We didn’t get to go on a lot of family outings, but my parents did take me to the drive-in theater to see Flower Drum Song, the musical about life in Chinatown adapted to film from a book by CY Lee.

As my bratty self was apt to do in those days, I complained.

‘What’s so good about this?” I said to my parents.

“Don’t you like the singing,” she said.


I quickly fell asleep in the back of the car, much to the relief of my mom and dad who could now enjoy their date night in peace.

Fast forward to my years in college. Like so many Asian American students at the time, I looked at Flower Drum Song with disdain. It played up all that Whites considered exotic about San Francisco’s Chinatown, romanticized the struggles of growing up Chinese in America and glossed over the poverty so prevalent in the community.

Today, CY Lee is 99. I read with interest his interview in the Los Angeles Times.

He’s apparently still active, working on a manuscript , an English translation of a book of stories written about the San Gabriel Valley where he now resides.

Lee is aware of the criticism Flower Drum Song received from within his own Asian American community. He acknowledges he intentionally played up the exotic–the nightclub dancers, the “smoked duck feet steamed with pork” and “medicine pig tail soup.”

“I wrote that novel totally for an American audience,” Lee says. ” They don’t want to read about things they know already.”

In 1961, Flower Drum Song became what the Times called the “first major Hollywood studio film about and starring Asian Americans.”

The article made me want to give the movie a second look. I imagine I’d have a different reaction than I had as a whiny 4-year-old.

I suspect even my dismissive attitude about the movie I carried through my college years would change.

What are your memories of Flower Drum Song? 

Do you see the movie as advancing Asian Americans into the mainstream or stereotyping the community as outsiders and un-American?

Read the article in the Los Angeles Times and learn about playwright David Henry Hwang’s thoughts on the movie.





  1. RE: Flower Drum Song deserves a second look: Seeing Flower Drum Song as a child I can recall my feeling uneasy as all the major characters were Asian and speaking English. Asians were not featured in any mainstream feature movies that I had seen before and I must it was unnerving to watch. Where were the Whites? How come the Asians weren’t speaking Pig English like Hop Sing the cook on the Cartwright Ranch. How come Asians were acting strong and honest, not weak and sneaky like in the War movies of the Fifties. I was totally confused. I didn’t like it and in retrospect feel the film while showing Asians as humans and not caricatures, the stereotypes are evident. Big plus for exposure for Asians, minus for going for entertainment value and not developing plot and characters instead relying on Western generalizations of Asians.

  2. RE: Flower Drum Song deserves a second look: I had a totally different experienced with watching Flower Drum Song, even though I was too young to understand there were a Western generalizations of Asians what I saw were beautiful and strong women standing for what they believed in. It was a time you didn’t see strong (Asian) women anyway not on tv or movies. Whether we agree with Lee going for the entertainment value or not, because he did, we at least have something to discuss today and if he didn’t do what he had to, there would be no Flower Drum Song.


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