Social hierarchies are usually examined based on economic status and race; however, the fact that a similar system exists within each racial group is often overlooked. It is important for members of society to recognize the existence of such social structures, as the acknowledgement may help overcome existing prejudice and false beliefs. In this paper, I will explore the social hierarchy within and outside of Asian American communities, as well as the assimilationist model for Chinese America, through characters in Flower Drum Song.
An adaptation of the 1958 Broadway musical, the film centers on the complicated love lives of two young Chinese, Mei Li and Wang Ta. In addition to the major storyline, it promotes assimilation into American society by hinting that one’s social status may depend on his or her level of “Whiteness.” Main characters, such as Mei Li, Mei Li’s father, Master Wang and Wang Ta, all represent different stages in the assimilation process.
Mei Li and her father occupy the lowest rung of the hierarchy, as they are fresh-off-the-boat Chinese immigrants. When they arrive in San Francisco, Mei Li asks a stranger for the directions to Sammy Fang’s home but is rejected because of language barriers. She and her father then talk about the importance of being invisible to the police and adapting to the new environment. Such conversations demonstrate their inferiority to the dominant culture, for the conversations reflect Mei Li and her father’s submissive nature and the numerous obstacles they encounter.
On the other hand, Wang Ta is one of those at the top of the hierarchy. As a second-generation Asian American, he is perfectly assimilated into American society. The film portrays him as handsome, rich, confident and willing to pursue his dreams regardless of his father’s will. His personality traits are the opposite of Mei Li’s, and it appears as if the film suggests that perfectly assimilated Asian Americans all live a content life like Wang Ta.
The one who lies somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy is Wang Ta’s father, Master Wang. He is a first-generation Asian American successful in his business. Although he has formal citizenship, he lacks cultural citizenship because he upholds Chinese customs and values over American ones. This results in his struggle to communicate with his two Americanized sons, especially the younger child. Overall, Master Wang does not appreciate the American culture as much as Wang Ta, and thus he lives a less content life.
While the portrayal of each character evidences the presence of a social hierarchical structure, the ending of the film suggests that this hierarchy can be overcome by both legal and cultural assimilation. The story ends with Mei Li finding herself a happy ending through formal citizenship and marriage. After putting effort into learning American culture and letting go part of her Chinese identity, she finally marries Wang Ta, the love of her life, and becomes a true American.
Flower Drum Song contains lots of entertainment values and is a rare visual work starring almost all Asian American actors. But its content overly praises the dominant culture and presents hegemonic expectations. The examination of main characters in the film has revealed two social structures: (1) the hierarchy with white Americans at the top and all minority groups at the bottom and (2) another hierarchy with perfectly assimilated Asian Americans at the top and fresh-off-the-boat Asians at the bottom. Both systems must not be ignored so that a better understanding of racial and cultural hegemony and be achieved.