David Henry Hwang's Re-vamped 'Flower Drum Song' Comes to the Bay

October 27, 2008

The story of Asian American immigrants living and breaking out into song in SF's Chinatown has been criticized since its original Broadway production in 1958 and its film adapation in 1961. In a NY Times article on Hwang's 2002 revival of the musical, the playwright said, "'Flower Drum' had become something to demonize. It was seen as patronizing, stereotypical, not authentic."

Hwang's version re-vamps the original to eliminate stereotypes while still maintaining the Rodgers and Hammerstein framework. From the San Jose Mercury News: "The "Chop Suey" number, which features Asian women as chorus girls wearing takeout Chinese food containers, and the infamously sexist "I Enjoy Being a Girl" ditty are placed in the context of a play within a play, a nightclub act where all the sentiments are playacting...This tongue-in-cheek approach to the often touchy subjects of race and gender is meant to help modern audiences hear the music with fresh ears."

I haven't seen the film, so I've missed out on the cringe-worthy Asian cultural cliches. But watching this all-Asian American cast dance in the clip below...kinda makes me happy, especially considering that this was the early 1960s. Even seeing Nancy Kwan — forever cemented in cinematic history as Suzie Wong — lip-synch a song about a strictly superficial element of womanhood isn't bugging me too much. I mean, at least she's lip-synching in English. It makes Hwang's revival all the more significant because it eliminates the hack while still acknowledging the talent of its actors, singers, and dancers.

Flower Drum Song runs October 28 through November 9.


Sylvie Kim

contributing editor & blogger

Sylvie Kim is a contributing editor at Hyphen. She previously served as Hyphen's blog coeditor with erin Khue Ninh, film editor, and blog columnist.

She writes about gender, race, class and privilege in pop culture and media (fun fun fun!) at www.sylvie-kim.com and at SF Weekly's The Exhibitionist blog. Her work has also appeared on Racialicious and Salon.



I saw Flower Drum Song for the first time at the 2007 San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival. If you ignore the outdated stereotypes, it's fun movie and really astounding to see a cast that's all Asian American.