Saturday, February 9, 2013

Flower Drum Song (and Chinese reflections)

Dear Muse,

When I was in college, I once took a class on Asian-American Literature. It opened my eyes to a lot of topics I'd only vaguely contemplated before, such as assimilation, adoption, choosing loyalties and, most of all, the relationships between first-generation and second-generation Asian-Americans. Of course, the fact that two of my cousins are adopted from China helped fuel my interest in the subject.

Anyway, all of these elements inspired me to learn more about Asian-Americans. One way I chose to learn was by reading books like The Language of Blood, Bamboo Among the Oaks, and Only What We Could Carry (I really urge you to peruse them - they're excellent reads). Another way was to listen to Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song.

Flower Drum Song
is a musical based on C.Y. Lee's 1957 novel about a group of Chinese-Americans living in and trying to assimilate into San Francisco's American culture. Needless to say, certain practices portrayed in the original 1958 Broadway show are outdated and stereotyped, so a new (more racially tolerant) version was written for the 2002 revival.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

As with many musicals I listen to, the story doesn't interest me so much as the character relationships and how they're described in the songs. In particular, I found "The Other Generation" and "The Other Generation (reprise)" fascinating. Both tunes revolve around this refrain:

What are we going to do about the other generation?
How will we ever communicate without communication?

One song is sung from the (first-generation) parents' point of view; the other from the (second-generation) kids' point of view. On one hand, the parents lament how incomprehensible and out-of-control their Americanized kids are. On the other hand, the kids sigh that however much they'd like to train their parents to see eye-to-eye with them, adults refuse to keep up with the times. I especially love this verse from the first version (sung by Juanita Hall and Keye Luke):

Hall: ....and when our out-of-hand sons
         Are bringing up our grandsons,
 I hope our grandsons give their fathers hell!

Luke: Can't wait to see it!

Hall/Luke: I hope our grandsons give their fathers hell!!


Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

The songs' refrain is ambiguous enough that you could apply it to any inter-generational conflict, irrespective of race. But wouldn't you agree that (since it's sung by Chinese-American kids and parents) it's best applied to The Joy Luck Club?

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Another song I like is "Grant Avenue," sung by Pat Suzuki of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" fame (also in Flower Drum Song). The lyrics remind me of Christmas Break, when I journeyed to New York City's Chinatown with my Chinese cousin Siena and my aunt and uncle. As we shuffled through the teeming streets, tucking our scarves and hats tighter around our heads and huddling close to one another to fend off the freezing wind, we saw very similar things to what the song describes:

A western street with eastern manners,
Tall pagodas and golden banners
Throw their shadows through the lantern glow.
You can shop for precious jade
Or teakwood tables or silk brocade
Or see a bold and brassy night club show,
On the most exciting thoroughfare I know.

(For the full song, see the music player attached to the bottom of this page.)

Actually, Siena and I did shop in places filled with these things. But when it comes to Chinatown commodities, she prefers animal dishes with loosely-interpreted-English logos to precious jade or teakwood tables. (Incidentally, she's also one of the few people I know who share my love for Sondheim musicals - something I'm extremely happy about.)

"Agony" (from Into the Woods). 

Enjoy the (hopefully not too racially insensitive) songs I've attached below!

                                                                              'Till next time,

P.S. I think it's funny that Pat Suzuki, who's Japanese-American, was cast in a Chinese-American role. How's that for racial insensitivity?

*Photo courtesy of Broadway: The American Musical (Don Hunstein/Sony Music Archives). New York: Compilation Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Universal Classics Group, A Division of UMG Recordings, Inc., 2004. Print.

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