A very belated tribute to an actor I’ve actually seen only in a couple of films, but whom I like a lot: James Shigeta. The Hawaiian-born Shigeta passed away on July 28 this year, and it came to me as a shock a couple of days ago when I discovered that he was gone—and that no newspaper and none of the sites I occasionally visit—mentioned it. The news, however, made me remember the first film in which I saw James Shigeta: Flower Drum Song, one of his earliest films. Very different from his debut film (the superb The Crimson Kimono, one of my favourite noirs), but enjoyable in its own way—and an interesting commentary, both deliberate and unwitting, on immigrants in the US.
Most people, when talking of Rodgers and Hammerstein, speak of films like The Sound of Music, South Pacific, Carousel, Oklahoma! and The King and I. Flower Drum Song, based on the 1957 novel by CY Lee, was their eighth collaboration – and, while it was nominated for several Oscars—rarely seems to be among the first Rodgers and Hammerstein films that come to mind. Truth to tell, I had actually never seen it till a few years back.
But, without further ado: what this film is all about.
The story begins through a series of watercolours as the credits roll: watercolours which start by depicting the busy streets of Hong Kong, and end—with the titles—at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Here, on a ship sailing into San Francisco Bay, are two stowaways all the way from Hong Kong: Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) and her father Doctor Li (Kam Tong).
They’ve come with a scrap of paper on which is scrawled an address in Chinese. Dr Li is worried; they are, after all, illegal immigrants. They mustn’t draw attention to themselves. Mei Li is rather more practical: if she faints on the street because of hunger, they’ll draw even more attention than if they ask someone directions to that address.
Eventually, with the help of a lady who can read Chinese, and a policeman (who, when he discovers they’re from the East, asks, “Ah, from New York?”), Mei Li and Dr Li arrive at their destination: the very fashionable Celestial Gardens nightclub, the owner of which is Sammy Fong (Jack Soo).
From the conversation which follows, it emerges that Mei Li is here as Sammy’s picture bride. Sammy, though, doesn’t seem to have been expecting her. He (though he doesn’t say that to the girl and her father) isn’t keen on marrying Mei Li. In fact, he’s been having, for the past 5 years, an affair with the sultry Linda Lo (Nancy Kwan), the lead dancer at Celestial Gardens.
This is a sticky situation; even Sammy, American though he may be, realises that. It won’t do to outright tell Dr Li that they’ve come all this way—and illegally too—for nothing. He must save face; his own, and Dr Li’s.
Fortunately, Sammy Fong knows someone who can help: Auntie Liang (Juanita Hall, the only non-Asian to play a major role in the film). Auntie Liang is about to finish citizenship school, runs a successful food business, is very savvy, and is on the lookout for a bride for her nephew, Wang Ta (James Shigeta).
Ta is about to graduate from college and has no intention of getting married in the near future, but his father Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong) is very anxious for Ta to get a wife soon. And not one of these American girls either (which includes Chinese-American girls): they’re all, in Wang Chi-Yang’s opinion, too modern, too irreverent, too everything that isn’t right.
Sammy Fong figures Mei Li will be just right. For Wang Chi-Yang and Auntie Liang, at any rate; whether or not Ta himself will be keen on marrying her isn’t his concern.
So Mei Li’s photo is passed on to Auntie Liang, who immediately approves.
Sammy and Auntie Liang accompany Dr Li and Mei Li to Wang Chi-Yang’s house. Here Wang Chi-Yang, after examining the girl’s teeth (and being informed by Dr Li that Mei Li has a tendency to plumpness—a sign Wang Chi-Yang interprets, correctly, to be a sign of fertility), is immensely pleased. Yes, this is the girl he wants for a daughter-in-law.
Auntie Liang offers a word of advice: Wang Ta is a young man, and American. He will not be happy about marrying a girl just because his father’s chosen her. He would want to do it the American way, not the Chinese: he would want to fall in love with a girl and marry her.
Wang Chi-Yang (who’s so old-fashioned, he keeps all his vast wealth in a large box under his bed, wads and wads of dollars stashed away), huffs at this. But he gives in. Sort of. All right: Ta will get one week to fall in love with Mei Li.
Ta, of course, has no idea of all that’s being planned for him. He is busy fixing up a date with a girl he met recently—and who should it be but Sammy Fong’s girlfriend, Linda? Linda is obviously bored with Sammy, and happily goes along on a light-hearted jaunt with Ta, telling him that she’s a student of music. And Ta, sweet and naïve that he is, believes her.
For Linda, the date with Ta is a good way to pass the time—until she realises, from a chance remark that he makes, that his father is filthy rich. Linda immediately gets much sweeter, much more loving, and much more eager.
…so eager, in fact, that at their next date, she sweetly bulldozes Ta into letting her come for his graduation party. She tells him that her brother, who’s a sea captain, Commodore Lo, is very strict: he will not approve of her going about with Ta, and will want her to marry Ta. Ta is a little taken aback at this, but Linda is so lovely and so brilliantly persuasive, he can’t bring himself to say no.
Much to Ta’s surprise, when he gets home at night after his date with Linda, he finds a stranger at home: Mei Li. Ta, of course, hasn’t a clue that Mei Li is his bride-to-be (at least as far as his father, her father, and she are concerned). Mei Li, however, is instantly enchanted by him, and falls head over heels in love.
It’s a grand party, celebrating both Ta’s graduation from college as well as Auntie Liang’s graduation—after five years of slogging—from the citizenship school. Mei Li has been having a wonderful time (wearing a daring ‘American’ gown gifted to her by Wang Chi-Yang), when Linda arrives with her ‘brother’ (actually, a colleague from Celestial Gardens). Within minutes, she’s announced, loud and clear enough for everybody to hear, that her brother has given the go-ahead for her marriage to Ta.
Ta is embarrassed. His father doesn’t know what’s hit him (Linda’s exuberant hugging of her future father-in-law does nothing to endear her to him). Mei Li, with her usual grace and dignity, pleads a headache and goes away to her room. Sammy Fong, meanwhile, manages to wrangle a quiet word alone with Linda: what’s this all about? And Linda tells him she’s just trying to get some ‘social security’. Sammy is not pleased.
The next morning, Dr Li comes to Wang Chi-Yang to let him know that they’ll be leaving. Wang Chi-Yang, distressed, goes to talk to Mei Li to persuade her to stay—Ta, he says, doesn’t really love that other girl; he will come to love Mei Li.
Mei Li, because she’s been brought up to always venerate her elders, cannot refuse Mr Wang, and so she agrees to stay.
But will Mei Li’s one-sided romance come to anything? Wang Ta, even if he’s not really in love with Linda (and yes, even he doesn’t seem to think it true love), is certainly not in love with Mei Li. They are, after all, polar opposites. Mei Li is traditional, Chinese to her bones. Ta, though he looks Chinese, is American. If it comes to that, he shares more in common with the quiet dressmaker Helen Chao (Reiko Sato), a family friend who is also in love with Ta, but will probably never even summon up the courage to tell him.
So who gets the man? Ambitious, brash, glamorous Linda, who’s already publicly staked a claim? Shy, quiet and oh-so-traditional Mei Li, who is favoured by our hero’s father? Or Helen (who doesn’t seem to have much of a chance)?
What I liked about this film:
The lyrics, by Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers’s music is nothing exceptional, but for me the highlight of the songs of Flower Drum Song was the lyrics. The signature song—A Hundred Million Miracles—for instance, has wonderfully poetic (and poignant) little examples of everyday things that are minor miracles: the creation of a song, the first steps of a toddler, the hatching of fledglings… another of my favourite songs from the film is Love, Look Away: a beautifully touching expression of a love that one knows can never be.
Talking of Love, Look Away: the second thing about Flower Drum Song that I really like is the choreography. The dream sequence that follows Love, Look Away is a particularly fine example of ballet (as in the dream sequence from Oklahoma!, here too the main actors are replaced for much of the sequence by professional dancers, but the overall effect—depicting Helen’s useless love for Ta, her hope that he will someday love her too, and her knowledge, deep down, that he will not—is mesmerizing).
Finally, the entire concept of race, cultural and generational differences, and more. Flower Drum Song, in an era when Hollywood was still very racist, is unusual (not that it manages to overcome what was perhaps an inherently racist bias, but still). One major plus point for me was that this was a film not about the white majority, but about the Chinese population in San Francisco, and it shows: barring Juanita Hall and a bit part by a white actor (who, ironically, plays a mugger), all the speaking parts are by people who’re of Asian origin. No yellowface.
And, refreshingly, even some tongue-in-cheek jabs at the racist stereotypes that prevail in society: there’s a scene where Wang Chi-Yang, distraught and shaken after being mugged, is asked by Auntie Liang what the robber looked like; he says, “Don’t ask me what he looked like! All white men look alike!” There’s also the fact that whenever Auntie Liang mentions food, it’s always something the ‘average American’ back then—and possibly even now, in some cases—would consider outlandish: snake meat, octopus, thousand-year eggs. (There’s a risk with this one, though: it just might be too subtle for some audiences to realise that fun is being poked).
The film acknowledges the various types of Chinese in America: those (like Wang Chi-Yang) who still cling doggedly to their roots and their traditions; those (like Helen Chao, or even Ta) who, while more inclined to American-ness because of their growing up in America, still do have vestiges of their Chinese-ness; and people like Wang Ta’s younger brother, who is out-and-out American. These differences—subtle and not, wide gap or bridge—are touched on throughout the film, but not in any great depth.
Something that is a grouse of mine with most Hollywood musicals: not much in the way of storyline, not too well-scripted, and just too much faffing through songs. In Flower Drum Song, the basic story is sweet and predictable, but there are plot elements (Linda and Sammy’s relationship and the path it takes, or Helen Chao, or even Mei Li’s relationship with Ta) which take unexpected—and unexplained—turns.
Slight spoiler ahead:
And there is—though not as absolutely in your face as a lot of Hindi films have made it over the years—the idea that the ‘good’ (read traditional, treating elders’ word as gospel truth, etc) girl wins in the end. Not completely, because it’s not as if the bad girl loses outright, and also because the good girl does show some initiative and spine… but still. It is there. And it does get my goat.
RIP, Mr Shigeta.