Sunday, November 16, 2008

Flower Drum Song

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I went to see a live production of "Flower Drum Song" at the Center for Performing Arts in San Jose, California. I always loved the original production, made into a movie in 1961. "Flower Drum Song" was a Broadway hit in 1958. Fifty years have passed since it first made the scene.

The 1961 film starred Nancy Kwan, an exotic beauty, as well as James Shigeta and Myoshi Umeki.

As a conservative, I am most certainly not into ethnic grievances, but "Flower Drum Song" was not about that. It was a genuine celebration of the Asian experience in America, the culture shock for new arrivals, the striving to know, as new immigrants, what facets of their old culture should be retained and what discarded in their transformation into Americans.

"Flower Drum Song" of 1961 is a bit dated, with the hip young Asians saying things like "hep cats" and calling each other "daddio." Also, it isn't politically correct in our brave new world, where any ethnic theme is a potential minefield of outrage and victimization and hatred of white people. Imagine, Myoshi Umeki's character (Mei-Lei) had to get out of an arranged marriage in the original, and did so by admitting that she was in the country illegally. "My back is wet," she confessed to her would-be mother-in-law. She thus escapes her marriage to Americanized hipster Sammy Fong and marries Wang Ta instead. Poor Sammy has to settle for Linda Low (played by Nancy Kwan). Poor bastard. We should all suffer such a terrible fate.

Talking about "wet backs" today is strictly verboten, so the whole show had to be rewritten. The new story that replaced the old is lame, in my opinion. It features pretty, dancing Asian girls dressed up like boxes of Chop Suey take-out. Mmm, Chop Suey never had legs like those. In any case, I thought the silliness of these depictions was something akin to "The Producers" and their play "Springtime for Hitler," which featured German girls dancing around with giant pretzels and sausages on their heads. However, the latter was supposed to be ridiculous.

The only good thing about the new version of "Flower Drum Song" is that it preserves all of the original songs, songs like "The Flower Drum Song," "You Are Beautiful," "I Enjoy Being a Girl," "Don't Marry Me," and "Love Look Away."

I once was seriously involved with a Chinese woman, an immigrant from Hong Kong, who introduced me to the culture of San Francisco's Chinatown, with its open air markets, weird vegetables, ducks hanging by the neck in store windows, birds nest soup, mooncake with egg and Chrysanthemum tea. Gaudy, cacaphonous Chinatown, with its sights and smells and sounds, was an experience I will never forget. It is here where the story of "Flower Drum Song" unfolds.

Since my Chinese love story ended badly, the song "Love Look Away" always held special meaning for me. In the video below, a star of the modern production, Lea Salonga (a lovely Filipina), sings two songs. The first is "I Enjoy Being a Girl." (I suspect that, if Pamela Geller had a theme song, this would be it.) The second is "Love Look Away." Enjoy.

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