When I was younger, I grew up on some of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s best musical films, especially The Sound of Music. From there, I looked up to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as two of some of the finest modern musicians who ever lived, right next only to Alan Menken. Their music, songs, and even storytelling methods left behind a lasting legacy and set the standards for musical theater.
One particular project they did together that piqued my interest was a lavish Chinese-American show called Flower Drum Song. I understood that it highlighted the issues and dilemmas that came with Chinese-Americans coming to settle in San Francisco’s Chinatown while struggling to maintain their Chinese tradition and origins. With some romance to spare, of course.
Having not seen the musical or the movie as of this writing, I decided to start with this book, written by C.Y. Lee.
Considered a groundbreaking work of Asian-American literature at the time of its publishing, it centered on the Wang family, who settled in Chinatown after fleeing the encroaching Communists who ruled over China. The father, Wang Chi-yang, held onto his traditional values and nostalgic tendencies of home with the utmost stubbornness and went through life with an occasional cough. Among the other members of his family who came with him to San Francisco were his sister-in-law, Madame Tang, his two servants Liu Lung and Liu Ma, his overbearing wife, the cook, and of course, his two sons, Wang San, the youngest, and Wang Ta, the eldest. While Chi-Yang tended to some of his problems regarding adaptability in American society, both San and Ta embraced the new terrain with open arms. Wang-San was the most susceptible of the American customs, while Wang Ta, who went to medical school, got more desperate for a soulmate to a point where he excavated around Chinatown in the hopes of finding the right girl. The problem was, Ta tended to get so in love with a girl he met after a few dates with her that he proposed to her prematurely. At times where he was at a low point as far as his romantic pursuits were concerned, he often relied on the help of his old friend, Chang Ling-Yu, who was a more easygoing kind of fellow and seemed to know his way with women.
But then, it all changed when Old Man Li and his nineteen-year-old daughter, May Li, came into town. They both came into Chinatown with only a letter of recommendation from a general who they both knew well back in China, performed flower drum songs, and were determined to gather enough money necessary to help them open a Peking restaurant in town. Shortly after arriving, they found the Wang residence, which they mistook to have still been owned by a man named Dr. Poon, its former homeowner. There, they both met Wang Ta, who took a liking to May Li and allowed her and her father to stay at the household, much to the horror of Liu Ma, with whom Old Man Li and May Li quarreled earlier on. Soon, this meeting and the romantic buds that were to blossom between Wang Ta and May Li would have jump-started a chain reaction that would have determined the ultimate fate of the Wang family in their attempted settlement into Chinatown and America.
Now, even if I first found out about The Flower Drum Song with the novel first, I would still have been, and still am, impressed with what a milestone this novel left behind. By the time it came out, it was over ten years since the end of World War II, and some of America’s and Japan’s activities back then were still fresh in many people’s memories. Those included the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan and the bombing of Hiroshima by America with its atomic bomb. Even though China was a different nationality from Japan, there were still some boundaries between Americans and Asians in the mid-20th century. With his novel, the boundaries between them both lessened more and more once the readers caught on to how much they may have related to people like Wang Ta or May Li or Chang. This was a national bestseller, and it gave general American audiences a taste of Chinese culture and their assimilation into America, starting with this book.
According to playwright David Henry Hwang, who would eventually have done a rewrite of the musical, which premiered in 2002, the number of young Chinese-American bachelors living in Chinatown throughout most of the 20th century far outweighed that of single Chinese-American girls. So, this had only increased the desperation in girls to find themselves a future husband, especially since they came with a more widespread level of desirability. However, the Chinese boys were generally not as lucky in terms of finding future wives, and this was shown best through the dilemmas and conflicts of Wang Ta.
Throughout the first half of the book, he was just a hopeless romantic. When he wasn’t busy with his medical studies, he went throughout Chinatown in the hopes of finding himself a good future wife. Whenever he got close to a girl he liked, he was lovestruck enough to prematurely propose to them, only to discover some things about them that made their relationship turn to dust.
The most obvious example of this continuous misfortune occurred when Wang Ta went out with Linda Tung. After going out with her for several days, Ta mustered the courage to ask her to marry him as they watched the Golden Gate Bridge, to which she asked to reconsider, saying she needed time to ask for her “brother’s” consent. Unfortunately, what Ta discovered the following day was that the “brother” stories from her end were all fabricated, and she went out with lots of men before with the same lies. So, while it didn’t end well for Ta, it was fortunate for him when he saw what other disasters came about in town because of her.
Wang Ta’s next (pockmarked) date after that, Helen Chao, took a more tragic angle. At first, these two went out as casually as they can, with Ta seeing her as more like a sister figure and an easy friend to get along with. However, the more they went out, the more obvious it became that Helen had the hots for him, even though he didn’t return her sentiments. And by the time he did so, he felt terrible for turning her away, only to feel worse off when he discovered from the papers that she committed suicide.
By the time he met May Li, however, he had started showing a more courteous, selfless, and braver, if not more rebellious, side to him. I say rebellious because, unlike the rest of his family, who tried to cling to their traditional roots, he started adapting more to the new surroundings.
However, only one member of the family was utterly enraptured in the American customs, much to the rest of his family’s horror, and that would be Wang-San. Instead of studying Confucius, he went out to play ball with his school buddies. Instead of eating with chopsticks, he started eating with silverware. And instead of eating regular Chinese food, he began eating hamburgers, hot dogs and made sandwiches. Of course, it led to him being disciplined, both verbally and physically, and with a bamboo stick, by Wang Chi-Yang.
Speaking of whom, Wang Chi-Yang was a mellow – if also stubborn and almost zealous – man who generally practiced traditional Chinese customs in his settlement into America. He did so to never forget his hometown in China, especially his late wife, who passed away a couple of years before they moved. I looked at him feeling like he was the hardcore traditionalist methods personified, primarily because of how unwilling he was to try new things in Chinatown. He even refused to have his cough checked with anything besides traditional herbs, becoming, as Wang-Ta put it:
You are a sick man, both socially and physically.
I honestly found him more interesting when he made an effort to step outside his comfort zone and explore what America had to offer. There was one moment when, after spotting Wang-San in the middle of a ball game and reacting to it with the innermost fury, deep down, he found himself fascinated by it and rooting for Wang-San. At one point, he even attempted to peruse through the regular streets of San Francisco only to quickly change his mind when he accidentally ended up in a strip club. And most importantly, after an explosive debacle with his family, and at the very ending of the book, he made the bold leap to check his cough at a local hospital at the heated insistence of Wang Ta, since he studied at medical school, anyway.
His sister-in-law, Madam Tang, seemed like a reasonable but equally and traditionally dedicated woman, who always had ideas of how he and her family can adapt to America while still upholding their ritualistic practices from back in China. Sometimes, Ta and San liked hanging out with her, sometimes for money, but most other times, because she had a more mellow, somewhat flexible outlook on life. In a way, it made her the easiest one in the family to like in their eyes.
Wang Chi-Yang’s servants, who tagged along with him and his family from China, started as slightly appealing characters. One of the servants, Liu Lung, was deaf and struggled to listen to whoever asked him a question, while his wife, Liu Ma, constantly scolded him and criticized him for even being deaf at all. They started off as amusing, but once the following characters I’ll speak of came into the picture, more and more parts of their personality were exposed until they left you sympathizing with one while the other crept under your skin.
The two people who came into Chinatown, whose names were Old Man Li, and his daughter, May-Li, were respectable people who arrived with very little; they only came in with a letter of introduction and instruments. Nonetheless, they still had a burning desire to start fresh in America after leaving China behind. In their case, their dream was to open a Peking restaurant where they could have served away and danced away to the satisfaction and amusement of their customers. Until then, they settled with performing flower drum songs for the passersby who stopped to listen, Old Man Li with his gong, and May Li with her flower drum and ribbons. If anything, though undocumented, these two represented the American Dream, especially for anyone, regardless of origin or nationality, who came to America in pursuit of something better than what they started out with.
Old Man Li felt like a slightly optimistic, pretty pleasant guy, and May Li was the more sensible one in the duo, though she was prone to lose her cool at times, too. When you look closer at their background, it only added to the freshness and interest of their family dynamics. And once they crossed paths with the Wang family, many friendships were made while others fell apart due to their arrival. That was especially the case since Liu Ma, who didn’t trust them at all, suspected them of being homeless beggars from the streets.
Wang Ta’s friend, Chang, was a super pleasant guy who was always the guy Ta looked to for help or solace, especially concerning his romantic pursuits. I really like this guy because of not just how open-minded he was, or for how cheerful on a regular basis he was, but mostly for how savvy he was on women, which ones to go for, and which ones to watch out for. It made him look like a carefree but still friendly and knowledgeable judge of character. On the side, he initially had a Ph.D., but when he felt like this wasn’t getting him anywhere, he tossed it into the gutter and instead settled for a job as a grocery clerk. His ways of accepting whatever came his way and finding the best in even the more mundane parts of life reminded me a bit of Bert from Mary Poppins.
The story was very interesting, too. As I mentioned earlier, I was fascinated by it after hearing bits and pieces of it concerning the musical. But once I started to dig deeper into it, here’s what really did it for me. This story, which first made its publishing debut in 1957, then its musical debut in 1958, and finally, its movie debut in 1961, had an all-Asian cast of characters just living life in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Considering how much of a minority the Asians were in America at the time, not to mention how little recognition they got from the general American media, the idea of diving into their lifestyles as authentically as possible during that time period was nothing short of captivating, as well as ahead of its time.
But that’s not the only thing I like about the story. It was an immigration story that dwelled on Chinese immigrants’ issues on their arrival into America. How did they settle into America? How much of what they left behind could still have been part of their identities? What traditional aspects of the old country could they have maintained? And how much of it had to be sacrificed in their settlement into America? Wang Chi-Yang, Madame Tang, and the servants all believed in Confucius, the Chinese Zodiac, matchmaking, traditional medicine, and all else that pertained to the cultural practices of China, or rather, pre-Communist China. Meanwhile, Wang Ta, Chang, and arguably May Li had a little more openness to the ideas of the new world while still never forgetting who they were first and foremost. And of course, there were people like Wang-San who got so into the new world that it can be pretty challenging to balance both lifestyles equally well.
This leads to another argument from the book that felt quite compelling: its emphasis on generational conflicts. Even though the elders still practiced things the old-fashioned way without much consideration for trying something new, the younger folks were more restless; they attempted to be more outreaching and not so confined by the boundaries of the old world. For instance, the parents or grandparents wanted their children to be married to particular children only they thought would’ve been a perfect match for them. In contrast, the younger people felt more compelled to make their own decisions on the matter and seek out a level of independence.
Ironic. Madam Tang felt that Wang Ta, by welcoming May Li and old Man Li into his family’s house, was like his mother in hospitality. Yet, when it came to keeping things in the household and among the family in traditional order on the wife’s behalf, or so Wang Chi-yang thought whenever he thought of her, they took it a step too far by deciding on their offspring’s futures. And what happened when they met someone they either didn’t like or thought didn’t align with the traditional rituals they planned for the sons? They became superstitious until they slowly started disavowing what Chi-Yang’s wife stood for and instead became the very thing they feared from the outside world. As you can tell, there’s a fine line between traditional devotion and traditional fanaticism.
By the time the quarrels between the Wangs and the Lis started to erupt, this was fascinating because not only was this a confrontation between the Eastern and Western way of living, but it was a war between different parts of China, too. The Wang family came over from Hunan, China, whereas Old Man Li and May Li, besides being homeless, spoke Mandarin. So, they all might have brought more of their home country with them to America than they thought.
And the conflicts I spoke of concerning the characters? Since they were all of Chinese origin, I came away feeling that with every page to turn of the story as I trod along through it, all three conflicts - the West vs. the East, the old vs. the new, and what David Henry Hwang called ‘growth vs. stagnation’ - were in play at the same time onto the same people. So, it was a threefold experience and no less an eye-opener, consequently becoming triple the food for thought.
It was a revolutionary book when it first came out, and it was self-evident why that was. The cast of main characters was compelling, the story was an enlightening experience, the descriptions of the Chinese delicacies and activities themselves were fun, and it paved the way for more and more attempts of looking at the world from such viewpoints as theirs to follow.
Prepare to be entranced by all the beauteous rhythms promised from this song.
My Rating: A low B+
Without diving into specifics, let’s say that Liu Ma got the entire family, except for Wang-Ta and Liu Lung, to kick Old Man Li and May Li out of their house by ‘showing’ that they stole the family’s priceless heirloom: a gold clock that Tang-Wa’s mother owned. Then, Liu Lung bellowed out after the two left that Liu Ma planted the gold clock in their possessions to frame them. So, upon that discovery, Wang-Ta furiously ordered Liu Lung to whip Liu Ma down with his father’s bamboo stick. But, when Madame Tang complained more about Liu Lung’s retaliation than Liu Ma’s framing, Wang-Ta rebuffed her with…
This is the first time that bamboo stick has been put to its right use.
...and in all frankness, I looked at him like he just spoke my language.
Lee, C.Y., & Hwang, D.H. (2002). Introduction. In The Flower Drum Song. Introduction, Penguin Books.