Flower Drum Song

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I’m strictly a female female
And my future I hope will be
In the home of a brave and free male
Who’ll enjoy being a guy having a girl… like… me.”

“Flower Drum Song” is a 1961 film musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It shows the lives of Chinese illegal immigrants in Chinatown San Francisco in post WWII America. The film and subject matter are very controversial because they present themes and stories of immigrant lower class “aliens” into the US, a taboo topic especially in mainstream American culture. Furthermore, the implications of this are many, especially when it is a musical composed by two white Jewish American men. Questions of race performance, and the politics of who gets to tell who’s story arise. Similarly with The Sound of Music, it is both sad and lucky that for a minority population to be represented in the mainstream stage, Rodgers and Hammerstein have to step in and write a musical.

Among many strange things –the costume, the stereotypical performance, and the scenery (!) – one of the moments that was most interesting to me was the “I enjoy being a girl” scene. Here we see Linda Low, an Americanized Asian young woman, gets ready to go out on a date. Linda is also a stripper, and the scene right before this one shows her performing a orientalist Chinese cabaret act in the restaurant/ bar she works at. Her body, already embodying all sorts of politics and minorities, is refracted into three mirrors as she dances and admires herself. In this masturbatory scene, Linda sings about performativity, gender expectations, and manipulation. She acknowledges that she is a good performer, and that she can get what she wants with her performance. This moment is very self-reflective of the film, I belief. As we witness Linda low witness herself, we stop seeing her as an object and understand her as subject, as owning her own body and her own representations of it.

“Flower Drum Song” is a strange musical. And the fact that it needs to be performed by a certain race, using the words written by a different race, telling stories of performance, gender, and nationality, is a lot of politics for me. All in all I didn’t find the story compelling, although “I Enjoy Being a Girl” is still stuck in my mind. Who gets to perform race, religion, nationality, gender? Are Chinese- Americans only allowed to perform parts where their race is pertinent to the plot? How about Japanese- Americans? Should this musical be performed by Chinese immigrants or any Asian immigrant? Isn’t that perpetuating race stereotypes? And if their bodies are not to be related to their character, – in the way that Julie Andrews playing a role that might perhaps some day be sexually arousing to a woman doesn’t make her a lesbian – then why do they have to be Asian at all? This is all very confusing.

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