"Forty Percent Is Luck": An Interview with C. Y. (Chin Yang) Lee

Article excerpt

Andrew Shin

California State University, Los Angeles

On October 2, 2001, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles premiered David Henry Hwang's adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song to glowing reviews. Its initial run was extended, and after several months, the production moved to Broadway. Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, which opened at the St. James Theater in December 1958, is itself adapted from C. Y. Lee's novel The Flower Drum Song published in 1957. Rodgers and Hammerstein's original production was the first Broadway show to feature Asian American players, and the film version, released in 1961, inaugurated the careers of the first generation of Asian American actors, including Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, and Jack Soo.

C. Y. Lee's work and career, however, have been largely overlooked because of the reception of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, which many observers felt perpetuated Orientalist stereotypes of Asians. Although Lee's novel was a New York Times bestseller, it quickly went out of print and rarely appeared on university reading lists. Ironically, the inception of the nation's first ethnic studies programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which aimed to overhaul a curriculum focusing on a received canon of predominantly white, European, and EuroAmerican writers, proved inimical to Lee's playful vision of the mixing of Chinese and American traditions in Chinese American life. The very identity politics and cultural nationalism that fueled ethnic consciousness-raising refused Lee's evocation of the Chinese experience in America.

Hwang's musical, Flower Drum Song, meditates on its own process of artistic renewal, restaging, in a contemporary idiom, Lee 'S analyses of cultural and generational conflict as a struggle between Old Master Wang's desire to sustain Chinese traditions in the form of a run-down Chinese opera house and the Americanborn son Wang Ta's desire to transform the opera house into a Western-style nightclub. Significantly, Hwang's adaptation draws attention to Lee's modernity: the novel's representation of cultural conflict and the invention of new traditions in immigrant life is timeless and remains as relevant for contemporary audiences as it was in 1957. Indeed, Lee's depiction of life in San Francisco's Chinatown is undergoing a renaissance due in large part to Hwang's intervention: the musical, reinterpreted by Hwang, is once again on Broadway; in 2002, forty-five years after its initial publication, Penguin Books reissued Lee "s novel. Also in 2002, the Enlightening Noah Publishing Company of Santa Clara, CA published four of Lee's works in Chinese: The Flower Drum Song. Lover's Point, Corner of Heaven, and a collection of short stories, Changsan Girl. Traditional Magazine of Taiwan is currently publishing Lee's memoirs in Chinese, with the English version forthcoming.

C. Y. Lee's life offers a window to the historical and political upheavals of the time. He was born on December 23, 1917, in Hunan Province, China, and his family moved to Beijing when he was ten. Shortly after Lee enrolled at Jinan's Shandong University, Japan invaded China, forcing him to flee to Yunnan where he completed his bachelor's degree at Southwest Associated University in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in 1942. That same year, driven by the continued turbulence in China, he traveled to the United States and enrolled in a graduate comparative literature program at Columbia University. After less than a year, he transferred to Yale University to study drama with Walter Pritchard Eaton, Eugene 0 'Neill's mentor, graduating with an M.F.A. in 1947.

After completing his studies, Lee worked as a journalist, editing a Chinese-language newspaper, and wrote a daily column for Chinese World, a newspaper published in San Francisco's Chinatown; he also taught Chinese at the Monterey Army Language School. Lee is fond of telling the story of how he managed to stay in the United States and continue his writing career: in 1949 he won a Reader's Digest-sponsored contest for "Forbidden Dollar," a short story anthologized in Best Original Short Stories later that year. …