2
BEAUTY AND IDEAL CITIZENSHIP
Inventing Asian America in Rodgers and Hammerstein's
Flower Drum Song (1961)

Overture

No genre is more familiar with, or more sympathetic to, the expression of pathological euphoria than the musical, and no musical more attached to the pathological euphoria of being "Asian American" 1 than Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical film extravaganza Flower Drum Song ( 1961). Directed by the Hollywood veteran Henry Koster and produced by the master of visual spectacles Ross Hunter, Flower Drum Song is a work that everyone who has seen it remembers.It is astounding how many people of various backgrounds and both genders can and do immediately launch into their renditions of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" whenever Flower Drum Song is mentioned.The very mention of this movie elicits response—song even—which is then usually followed by a gentle shake of the head or a roll of the eyes. What is this pleasure of identification and its immediate renunciation? Why is embarrassed irony used to counter the seduction of that tune? One might say that Flower Drum Song itself, as a public memory, symptomatically exhibits a form of excessive euphoria—an involuntary delight that finds itself slightly unseemly.

In 1957, San Francisco writer C. Y. Lee wrote the best-selling novel Flower Drum Song, which detailed love and life in Chinatown in the fifties. 2 Something of this story about an insular Chinese community invited avid public attention: shortly after the novel's publication, Broadway came knocking. Edward G. Robinson took a striking fancy to the novel and insisted on playing the father lead himself. Joseph Fields, the Broadway producer, quickly purchased the rights and was soon eagerly approached by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who offered to develop the project.The musical, opening two years later in 1959, was directed by Gene Kelly.And two years later, Universal Pictures released the film version, made by Koster and Hunter.

-31-

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