Thursday, February 23, 2006

Flower Drum Song by C.Y. Lee (one of the first Chinese-American novels)

"What is the first thing you think of when I say "Chinatown", San Francisco"? I asked some of my friends yesterday. Some of them said the Chinese New Year festivities, for others it was Chopsuey, but for me, it is and always has been the Roger Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song". I remember being as young as three when I first saw the movie on an old video recorder of my father's, after which I was hooked, watching it nearly everyday and singing along to the wonderful songs, "A 100 Thousand Miracles", "I Love Being a Girl" and so on. So imagine my delight when I discovered that Penguin had a recent edition of the book by C.Y. Lee (the Broadway show was based on this book). I bought it without hesitation and it has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while, but seeing a review at Suzan Abram's blog stirred the nostalgia in me and I took it off the shelf, dusted it lovingly and didn't come out of my room until I had devoured it completely (OK, you know I have a penchant for exaggeration), but it did keep me engrossed, amused, delighted, charmed and enthralled for two full days while I read it.

"Flower Drum Song" is a story set in San Fransisco's Chinatown in the late forties and revolves around 30-year old Wang Ta's family who immigrated from mainland China when Wang Ta was a young boy. Old Master Wang (Wang Ta's father) comes across as an absolutely loveable character despite his curmudgeonly countenance and his old-fashioned ways. He is a product of the old days and cannot get used to the American way of life, nor does he wish to try. He's never bothered to learn English and nor will he give up his beloved Chinese silk robe for a Western suit. He employs only Chinese servants in his house and fulminates when either of his sons adopt Americanisms like playing baseball or eating a ham sandwich. He doesn't trust a bank (he considers it an unsafe and newfangled idea to keep one's money with strangers) instead he keeps all his life's savings in a steel trunk and is fond of declaring "All white men look alike". Like all good patriarchs Old Master Wang wants to control his sons' lives (demanding his eldest son Wang Ta marry an imported "picture bride") believing in his old-fashioned and sometimes misguided way that parents always know more than their children. But like all normal young men the sons rebel against most everything their father stands for (and that includes the Chinese way of life and all the Confucian ideals he has tried to impose on them), instead, they strive to take on the culture of their adopted country.

While "Flower Drum Song" is a humorous, warm and endearing read of an older generation trying to make sense of modern times, it is also a touching portrayal of immigration - and although it was written in 1957 the immigrant's balancing act of holding on to tradition while giving in to the natural desire to assimilate is pertinent even today. This book should sit right up there with "Funny in Farsi", the much-loved and highly acclaimed memoir by Iranian writer Firoozah Dumas.

While I loved the book from start to finish my favorite image has to be of Old Master Wang mistakenly walking into a strip joint on one of his first walking exursions outside Chinatown:

"...When he was waiting for the traffic light to change at the intersection, a heavily made-up woman winked at him and said something he didn't understand. He ignored her, and the woman snorted, then walked across the street without further waiting, swinging her hips. Suddenly Wang Chi-yang felt bad about it. She might be a nice woman asking directions. He had acted rudely and put a black mark on the friendship maintained between Chinatown and the foreign territory. He followed the woman, hoping he could catch up with her and offer her an apology. The woman entered into the International Settlement and disappeared. Wang Chi-yang walked into the settlement and was amazed by the strangeness of the street. It was full of bars and clubs, with pictures of nude foreign women hanging outside the doors like poetic banners posted outside the Chinese stores during the New Year..."

Will stop here for I certainly don't wish to spoil the fun for those of you who might want to read the book.