Rogers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song is an interesting piece of Asian American musical history. At its time, it was one of the only musical productions that featured a majority Asian cast and the first such musical to garner widespread acclaim. The timing of Flower Drum is not coincidental. Rather, as Christina Klein explains in her book Cold War Orientalism, Flower Drum corresponds to a period of Asian American racialization vis-à-vis Cold War era immigration laws.
Up until the 1952 McCarran- Walter Act, Asians were largely excluded from immigrating to the United States. It was this very process of exclusion that began the process of Asian American racialization by categorizing all people of Asian descent as alien (Klein 225). The McCarran-Walter Act is very much a product of Cold War conflict: it was designed to welcome colonized Asian nations into American hegemony while simultaneously painting America as a more “diverse” and “moral” nation than their Soviet enemies (Klein 226). Moreover, immigration is a formative site for Asian America. As Lisa Lowe points out, Asian immigrants were first racialized through exclusionary immigration policy and branded as perpetual foreigners (5-6). Ironically then, Asianness in America came from policies that sought to eliminate Asians from America. This background is crucial to understanding Flower Drum Song as it furthers narratives of immigration, citizenship, and assimilation while subverting narratives about Asian American alienation.
Flower Drum reinforces the narratives of integration that were beginning to become popular in the United States. The play focuses on the struggles of first generation Chinese immigrant Mei Li and her love affair with San Francisco native Wang Ta. The musical is centered around Mei Li’s quest for love and citizenship as well as the difficulties of second and third generation immigrants to deal with cultural expectations of their parents. The story ends on a high note with Mei Li being offered citizenship via marriage and quickly adapting to American culture. In short, by the end of Flower Drum Mei Li is well on her way to becoming a good assimilated American citizen.
Thus, Flower Drum highlights the bipolar nature of American immigration policy. On the one hand, American immigration policy has always been, and continues to be, discriminatory against Asian immigrants; on the other, in the 60’s, America began embracing the “melting pot” narrative thereby valuing immigrants at the same time they excluded them. Flower Drum illustrates both narratives through Mei Li’s fear of deportation and her eventual integration into the American citizenry.
The music of Flower Drum reflects this dichotomy between excluded alien immigrant and assimilated Asian Americans. For example, when Mei Li’s theme “One Hundred Million Miracles” is meant to be a traditional flower drum song and utilized East Asian motifs. When Mei Li first performs this song, she is dressed in traditional Chinese garb and is largely unaware of American culture. Conversely, “I Enjoy Being a Girl”, the theme for Linda Low (a non immigrant) does not contain any semblance of traditional Chinese music. As Klein points out, her song is about “what all ‘girls’ in the 1950s are supposed to care about: clothes, hairdos, and dates with boys…” (237). Moreover, Linda is dressed in all white and performs in a room with white décor thereby “literalizing her assimilation” (237). However, the definitive song of the musical, “Chop Suey” attempts to deconstruct this dichotomy by emphasizing that Asianness and Americanness are not mutually exclusive, thereby furthering the popular narrative that diversity is to be celebrated rather than demonized as it once was.
Flower Drum Song thus offers unique insight into Asian American racialization during the Cold War.
Flower Drum Song. Dir. Henry Koster. Perf. Nancy Kwan. Universal-International, 1961.
Klein, Christina. Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961. Berkeley, Calif.: U of California, 2009. Print.
Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.