The United States is comprised of people of different ethnicities, cultures and races all blended together like the ingredients, like cheese, in a melting pot. A melting pot where we all live together as one in perfect harmony, where race no longer exists and everyone wanted to be a part of it. Assimilating into this American melting pot would appear to make life easier, but for some, it would come at a cost. In Flower Drum Song we see intergenerational clashes of traditional Chinese values and the new values of the Asian American. We see the second generation, children of Asian immigrants, who have assimilated into American culture clashing with the traditional cultural values of their Asian immigrant parents. Moreover, Flower Drum Song displays some benefits and consequences of not assimilating into the American melting pot.
Robert Lee discusses how Asian Americans were successful at assimilating and why they were upheld as the model minority. Unlike the African Americans who demanded equality, desegregation and political power and were rioting in Watts during 1964, Asian Americans were the opposite. Asian Americans were revered as a successful minority because they were seen as self-reliant, hard-working and had strong tight knit nuclear families (Lee 1999). Asian Americans were seen as self-reliant because of they accounted for very little of welfare recipients. In New York, 15% of Chinese families lived below the federal poverty line but only 3.4% enrolled to receive services (Lee, 1999). Moreover, their social and political silence made it easier for them to assimilate.
In Flower Drum Song, Mei Li and her father, who are Chinese immigrants who come over in a cargo box in a ship, arrive in America to take up Sammy Fong on his promise to marry Mei Li, which was an arranged marriage. Sammy Fong is already involved with Linda Lo is not interested in marrying Mei Li, so he pawns her off on Master Wang who is actively looking for a wife for his son, Wang Tao. Wang Tao objects to the arranged marriage arranged by his father. He feels it is un-American for him to marry someone his father chooses and wants to choose himself. Linda Low also informs him in the car scene that arranged marriages are un-American and that he should be able to choose his own wife. Although Wang Tao acknowledges his Chinese side, we see that he has assimilated into this American melting pot by rejecting old Chinese traditional arranged marriages in exchange for the American way of choosing his own wife and being allowed to follow his heart and his own desires. Here we see how this Chinese tradition is portrayed as confining and causes unhappiness, a lure to the melting pot, for Wang Tao, the Asian American. It is un-American to force someone into a marriage. Although Want Tao ends up marrying Mei Li, it is at his own will and now his father’s.
Another character who has assimilated into the melting pot is Linda Low. In comparison to Mei Li, she is the modern American woman. She is not only independent and assertive but she is comfortable in her sexuality and not afraid to show it. Mei Li, who is praised for her traditional Chinese appearance and demeanor is soft spoken and docile. She is covered from head to toe and is very shy. Linda Low is a dancer who shows legs, arms back and chest not only to Wang Tao but to her audience. Mei Li also as a subtle innocence to her that Linda Low totally lacks. In Linda Low’s song “I Enjoy Being a Girl” she describes what it means to be a girl in America. Dresses made of lace, receiving flowers, going on multiple dates, and the freedom to choose whom she will date or marry. She takes great pride in her appearance.
Now Auntie Liang’s “Chop Suey” scene is the most obvious scene where we see this melting pot glorified. But just before I get into that, I want to show the contrasting relationship between Auntie Liang and Master Wang and the consequences bestowed on him for not assimilating. In the beginning of the film we see Aunite Liang constantly trying to persuade Master Wang to put his money in a bank and not under his bed. Master Wang’s initial refusal to put the money in a bank results in him being robbed on his way home from having the currency converted. Also, the constant disconnect between Master Wang and his children are further consequences of non-assimilation which results in further conflict. His traditional dress also makes him a potential prey for crime. Auntie Liang makes an attempt to have him fitted for a suit which he ultimately destroys. Now, Auntie Liang is the ultimate representation, to me, of assimilation. Wang Tao’s graduation ceremony is also a celebration for Auntie Liang’s new citizenship status and she is now officially an American. As she professes her happiness for being Chinese and American, Master Wang refers to her as chop suey, a dished created in San Francisco which is a combination of ingredients served in Chinese restaurants. In this serenade, Auntie Liang goes down a list of American symbolisms from Jaja Gabore, hula hoops and even nuclear war. Wang Tao joins the song singing of detective stories, potato chips and men working in laboratories. “Good or bad it doesn’t matter…” they take the good with the bad because being both Asian and American is important even though, they abandon most Chinese traditions for Americans ones.
This film is produced by those of the dominant and high culture for the mass culture in order to portray the Chinese in a positive light and inclusion. This film is used to depict the Chinese American experience. Although most of the actors were of Asian descent, I feel like it does not give Asian Americans agency since the film is not a first person account of being Asian American but it is a scripted work of Hollywood. Furthermore, it only attempts to depict one particular group of Asian Americans the experience is not the same for all.
1. Lee, Robert G. Orientals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. Print