Why did first Hollywood film with a mostly Asian cast flop? The tale of 1961 musical Flower Drum Song

Based on the 1957 novel by Chin Yang Lee and directed by Henry Koster, the film deals with timely issues of immigration and integration in San Francisco’s Chinese-American community, even though a lot of its stars are plainly Japanese.

Arriving illegally on a boat from Hong Kong with her father, Dr Han Li (Kam Tong), the innocent Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) is a “picture bride” brought over for an arranged marriage with roguish nightclub owner Sammy Fong (Jack Soo), whose girlfriend Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) has other ideas.

But while staying with traditional patriarch Wang Chi-yang (Benson Fong), Mei Li falls for his oldest son, Wang Ta (James Shigeta), another of Linda’s suitors. Will romance bloom between the “right” pairs of lovers?

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While the usual obstacles occur, the real conflict is between East and West; the old ways and the new.

When Mei Li and Dr Li arrive in Chinatown, they are surprised to find that nobody speaks Cantonese. Wang Chi-yang clings to Chinese tradition, but his sons embrace the American dream.

At one point he compares Wang Ta to chop suey. “You are like the Chinese dish the Americans invented,” he says. “Everything is in it, all mixed up.”

Wang Ta describes his heritage more elegantly. “I’m both,” he says, “and sometimes the American half shocks the Oriental half”.

(From left) Jack Soo, Nancy Kwan, Miyoshi Umeki and James Shigeta in a lobby card from Flower Drum Song. Photo: Getty Images

The clash of cultures occasions some good jokes. Mei Li says San Francisco must be “a very holy place” because it is named after a saint.

When he is mugged by a Caucasian robber, Wang Chi-yang cannot identify the culprit because, “All white men look the same”.

And Madame Liang (Juanita Hall) orders, “A dozen 1,000-year-old eggs – and make sure they’re fresh”!

There are some terrible gags, too, especially from the wisecracking Sammy, who declares himself, “A dead duck – Peking style”.

Reiko Sato (left) and James Shigeta in a lobby card from the film. Photo: Getty Images

Wang Chi-yang’s shocking comment to Mei Li that, “Personally, I never fully approved of the old custom of drowning daughters”, is another story entirely.

The song-and-dance numbers are equally hit and miss. Stand-outs include Linda’s reductive but fun I Enjoy Being a Girl (also released by Doris Day and Peggy Lee), which she performs in front of three mirrors, each, through the magic of cinema, showcasing a different look.

The brassy “Grant Avenue” livens up the second half with a celebration of Chinatown life: “You travel there in a trolley / In a trolley you climb / Dong, dong! You’re in Hong Kong / Having yourself a time”.

Compared to the likes of West Side Story, another musical about American immigrants that came out the same year, the rest of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s efforts are immemorable, stagy and sluggishly choreographed.

Miyoshi Umeki (left) and James Shigeta in a lobby card from the film. Photo: Getty Images

The 1958 Broadway version was directed by Singin’ in the Rain legend Gene Kelly, but Koster shows none of Kelly’s pizazz, often keeping both characters and camera static.

More problematic is the question of whether the film pokes fun at, or promotes, racist attitudes. In Hollywood films of the era, Asian characters were often played by Caucasian actors in “yellowface” make-up.

Mickey Rooney’s Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, also out in 1961, is perhaps the most notorious example, although the practice continued well into the 21st century.

Quite what possessed the filmmakers to cast Japanese actors – let alone Hall, who is African-American – in Chinese roles is anyone’s guess, but over the years, the argument that Flower Drum Song was, for its time, quietly subversive has gained traction.

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From 1882 to 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese labourers from entering the United States. Later, the Communist revolution of 1949 meant Chinese immigrants underwent intense government scrutiny.

In 1956, the Chinese Confession Program represented an amnesty of sorts, allowing illegal immigrants to become US citizens, but it caused so much suspicion that it was nicknamed the Confusion Program.

So to show Chinese immigrants – especially illegal ones – as upstanding American citizens was a big deal, and one that struck a chord with viewers.

“As a boomer Asian-American, you did not often see people that looked like you on TV,” wrote American playwright David Henry Hwang, who updated the play in 2002, in the Los Angeles Times. “And the idea that the younger generation, at least, was portrayed as American [in the movie] was unusual.”

A poster for Flower Drum Song. Photo: Getty Images

“So growing up, the musical represented one of the few positive portrayals of people that looked like me.”

Or, in the words of journalist Jeff Yang, whose 2023 book The Golden Screen explores the contradictions of Asian-American cinema, “For Asian audiences, it was a transformative experience: proof that we could own the stage, command the spotlight, and be the stars of our own stories, if only given the chance”.

They would not be given the chance for long.

Flower Drum Song was nominated for five Academy Awards and two Golden Globes, but won none, and made just US$10.7 million on an estimated budget of US$4 million – a major disappointment, especially when compared with West Side Story’s US$47.5 million.

The message, as far as studio executives were concerned, was clear. The next Hollywood film with a majority Asian cast, Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club (1993), would not appear for more than 30 years.


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