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Charles Wright looks at C.Y. Lee's 1957 novel The Flower Drum Song, later adapted (and re-adapted) for the musical theater. logo

The Flower Drum Song, C.Y. Lee's 1957 bestseller, brought the voice of Chinese immigrants into American fiction more effectively than ever before, introducing a wide spectrum of readers to non-stereotypical Asian-American characters. Besides being a critical and popular success, Lee's gentle yet gritty first novel had the imprimatur of Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, a publishing house noted for the literary taste of its editorial staff. Lee was the first Chinese-born novelist invited all the way into the clubby inner sanctum of New York's publishing establishment.

Lee's own saga is as colorful as his novel, perhaps more so. Born to an affluent, politically well-connected family in Hunan Province, he came to the United States on a student visa in 1943 when the Nationalists were permitting educated males to leave China in hopes of saving them from death at the hands of the Japanese. Initially, Lee wanted to write for the stage. He earned an M.F.A. in playwriting at Yale, but discovered that Broadway producers shied away from Asian settings and casts. Trying his hand at fiction, he won a short story award from Writers Digest. The combination of the $750 prize and $1,000 from Ellery Queen for reprint rights to his winning effort allowed Lee to embark on the project that would become The Flower Drum Song.

Lee has written other books in the succeeding 45 years; but his literary career peaked, at least in popularity, with his first novel. Sad to say, The Flower Drum Song, despite the acclaim it received, was destined to be eclipsed by the fame of the Broadway musical Flower Drum Song (note the elimination of the definite article). With music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and a book by Hammerstein and Joseph Fields, this entertainment was strikingly different in emphasis and tone from the novel. For many years, the novel has been out of print and scarce, hard to find even in second-hand bookshops and on internet bibliophile sites.

With a new version of the R&H musical comedy on Broadway, Penguin Books has reissued Lee's novel as a handsome, relatively sturdy paperback. The new edition includes an introduction by David Henry Hwang, the Baby Boomer playwright who has concocted an entirely new libretto for the musical revisal. In Hwang's assessment, The Flower Drum Song is "a major achievement in American literature" and "an Asian American classic." He's right about that, but he goes out on a limb when he suggests that the novel disappeared because a younger generation of readers misconstrued Lee as "glorifying white American culture at the expense of Chinese customs." This hypothesis has a hollow ring; it's hard to imagine anyone, even militant proponents of political correctness, actually reading The Flower Drum Song and drawing such a conclusion.

The more likely explanation has to do with a late 20th century change in the publishing industry dictated by shifts in readership. Lee's novel dates from a time, soon after World War II, when serious fiction enjoyed a much larger following than today, when a wide range of readers around the country discussed books in the unselfconscious way that sports fans bicker about prospects for an upcoming World Series. As fiction's constituency dwindled over recent decades, American publishers pared down their backlists. The Flower Drum Song fell victim to that purge and came to be remembered, if at all, as the source of the 1961 celluloid extravaganza in which Nancy Kwan sings "I Enjoy Being a Girl." The novel's identity merged, as it were, with the charming, rowdy and -- to some minds -- politically objectionable movie.

Pat Suzuki and Larry Blynden in
the original Broadway production of
Flower Drum Song
The Flower Drum Song takes place in San Francisco's Chinatown almost half a century ago when, as a result of federal immigration quotas, Asian men far outnumbered Asian women. Lee portrays intergenerational conflict in the household of an elderly widower, Wang Chi-yang, who has immigrated with a fortune in cash, two sons, and a couple of household retainers. Old Master Wang's goal is to replicate the domestic conditions he enjoyed back home in Hunan Province and to inculcate traditional Chinese values in his sons. He has tried to shelter the boys from the ways of the west, putting them through the paces of Confucian education, and plans to mate them to brides of his choosing. In planning the future of his family, Wang hasn't accounted for the wayward, insistent libido of his elder son, Ta.

The novel's protagonist, Ta is an Asian-American Candide living in a tradition-bound community where eligible women are few and far between. The course of his love life lends structure to the book, which Lee has divided into two sections. In Part One, Wang Ta becomes involved with two women who are a study in contrasts. The first, Linda Tung, claims to be a cabaret singer but is, in fact, what used to be called a playgirl -- comparable in some ways to another figure from 1950s fiction, Holly Golightly. Ta is titillated by the brash, thoroughly assimilated Linda. She, in turn, is amused by his naïveté and old-fashioned views. Eventually, she alienates him with her deceptive nature and sexual adventuring. The other woman, Helen Chao, is an earnest seamstress disfigured by childhood smallpox. In contrast to Linda, Helen inspires empathy in Ta but no ardor. He enjoys a comradely relationship with her until, one drunken evening, he succumbs to her blandishments, waking the next morning to find himself enmeshed in a physical affair too satisfying to break off and too intimate to tolerate.

In the second, longer part of the novel, Ta discovers love in the person of May Li, a 19-year-old refugee from Communist China. Bright, poised, and an unabashed conservative, May Li plays the traditional flower drum and sings the song of the title. Her conservatism, however, doesn't prevent her being adaptable; she is the novel's most effective catalyst for change, discouraging Ta from wholesale rejection of his father's old-world culture and influencing Old Master Wang to temper his resistance to Western innovations. Because of May Li's appearance on the scene, the old patriarch comes to accept -- however grudgingly -- that Western institutions such as banks and hospitals are not evil and can, at times, be beneficial. By the end of the book, Old Master Wang, like his sons, has developed a new identity as a Chinese-American.

Lee depicts the styles and customs of 1950s Chinatown, from the quotidian to the festal, in colorful and vigorous detail. But The Flower Drum Song can't be dismissed as a period piece. Lee's real accomplishment in the book is his portrayal of immigrant men and women at different stages of adjustment to the West -- the curmudgeonly Old Master Wang; his wily, socially ambitious sister-in-law, Madame Tang; Ta's pragmatic friend, Chang, who marries outside the Chinese community; May Li's father, a political refugee from Maoist China; and, most of all, the women in Ta's life, with their varied attitudes to the old ways of China and the new ways of their adopted home. Lee's grasp of the psychology of his characters ensures that the novel's appeal is fresh and timeless.

José Llana and Lea Salonga in
the revisal of Flower Drum Song
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
If characterization is Lee's strength, plot is his Achilles heel. The book goes off course when, from time to time, the author turns his hand to melodrama. In a long sequence near the end of Part Two, for instance, Old Master Wang's housekeeper undertakes an elaborate frame-up to disgrace May Li by making it appear that she has stolen a Wang family heirloom. In episodes such as this one, Lee's plotting is as creaky and far-fetched as John Colton's 1926 melodrama The Shanghai Gesture. Be that as it may, the occasional hokey stratagem is amply counterbalanced by the novelist's capacity to plumb extreme mental states, such as Ta's sexual frustration or Old Man Wang's fierce vexation in the face of change. Lee is at his most vivid and compelling in the book's heartbreakingly believable portrait of Helen Chao, who so desperately wants to marry Ta that she offers herself on any terms he'll accept, even slipping out of town for a sandpaper treatment to eradicate the pockmarks on her skin in hopes of enhancing her allure.

With The Flower Drum Song back in print, Lee's niche in American letters is up for reassessment. No one is likely to place him in the country's cultural firmament, near Hawthorne, Melville, and Papa Hemingway. His position is earthbound, among distinguished yeomen who have broken ground without truly altering the lay of the literary landscape. It's easy to think of enduring novels that have far less depth and psychological insight than The Flower Drum Song and of celebrated novelists whose writing lacks the melody and vivacity of Lee's prose. Here's hoping the novel's reappearance will permit Lee to emerge from the shadow of Rodgers and Hammerstein and be recognized again for his own merit and achievement.

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