Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Flower Drum Song

Go To

"A hundred million miracles are happening every day!"

A 1957 novel by C. Y. Lee which was adapted into a musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1958. A film adaptation of the musical came out in 1961.

The novel is about Wang Chi-yang, an aging Chinese immigrant to San Francisco, and his various difficulties assimilating into American culture. The Lighter and Softer musical shifts the focus to his son's search for a bride.

The musical begins with Mei Li and her father Dr. Li's illegal arrival to San Francisco. Mei is in an arranged marriage with Sammy Fong, but he is already going steady with a showgirl at his nightclub, Femme Fatale Linda Low. Linda has left Sammy because she is frustrated he won't marry her. Trying to get out of the marriage with Mei, Sammy introduces the new arrivals to Master Wang whose son Ta, a university student, is single. Mei quickly falls for Ta but Ta falls for Linda during a group date. Linda sets her sights on him as her future husband. But then there's a third love interest, Helen Chao, Linda's Girl Next Door friend who is also in love with Ta...

Although not among the better-known musicals by its songwriting duo, the stage and film productions are notable for having almost all-Asian casts (including Nancy Kwan, Miyoshi Umeki, James Shigeta, Jack Soo, and James Hong). Flower Drum Song also averts many of the negative tropes commonly associated with Asians in American media during the 1950s and '60s, such as Mighty Whitey, Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow (as seen in another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I), and Yellowface (although not all of the actors were Chinese or Chinese-American).

Tropes applicable to both the musical and film:

  • Actor Allusion:
    • Nancy Kwan makes up a story about herself having an overprotective family member to her love interest - to disguise her less-than-honorable job that involves being ogled by men? She did the same in The World of Suzie Wong, her breakout role.
    • Minor example. During "Chop Suey", the film changes the lyrics to reference Bobby Darrin. BJ Baker, who dubs Linda's singing, had worked with Bobby Darrin.
    • One that was intended for Madam Liang's original actress. In the film she says "I am happy to be both Chinese and American" - Anna May Wong in her life had preferred to call herself "Americanized-Chinese".
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Helen Chao is a dowdy Shrinking Violet in the book. She's just as gorgeous as Mei Li and Linda in the adaptations.
  • Adaptational Context Change:
    • "The Other Generation" is given different context in the film than the stage version. In the stage version, it's sung after Ta presents Linda as a possible bride. The film has it happening before Linda has even met his parents.
    • The discovery of Ta at Helen Chao's place is Lighter and Softer compared to the book. Helen intentionally gets Ta drunk and sleeps with him, making it more Can't Get Away with Nuthin'. In the musical, Ta just passes out on Helen's bed and it's more Not What It Looks Like.
    • "You Are Beautiful" happens at the beginning of the stage version, sung by Ta to Madame Liang. In the film it happens much later, and Ta sings it to Mei Li.
    • Linda's striptease was played for laughs in the stage version - because her actress Pat Suzuki admitted she had no dancing ability. In the film she is now played by Nancy Kwan - who was a trained ballerina - so her dancing is now much sexier.
  • Adaptational Comic Relief:
    • Master Wang is much less serious in the musical, with his refusal to accept his new home being played for comedy. In the book he only responds with 'yes' or 'no' and refuses to speak English otherwise.
    • Mei Li gets several moments where the Culture Clash is played for laughs.
  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • In the novel Mei Li and her father sing street songs to support themselves, which gets expanded into the first number of the musical.
    • In the film, Mei Li and her father are introduced in the first scene and followed for the first act - when the stage musical follows Ta first.
    • Linda and Ta are already on a blind date in the former's first scene in the musical. The film adds in a scene where Ta calls her up to ask her out.
  • Adaptational Heroism: In the novel Helen gets Ta drunk and sleeps with him, essentially making her a date rapist. In the musical and film she just goes out drinking with him and he falls asleep on her bed (but nothing happens).
  • Adaptation Personality Change: Helen Chao is considerably less needy and desperate than she is in the book. She also realises Ta won't return her feelings, as opposed to being Spurned into Suicide like she was in the book.
  • Adaptation Name Change: From book to musical - Linda Tung becomes Linda Low, Madam Tung becomes Madam Liang and May Li becomes Mei Li.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Helen pines for Ta and he doesn't feel the same way.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: invoked Nancy Kwan confirmed that the concept of picture brides did indeed happen, though it was something the older generations did.
  • Animal Motifs: Horses for Linda. In "I Enjoy Being A Girl" she compares herself to "a filly who is ready for the race", and later compares herself to a horse to Sammy. She was apparently born in the year of the horse.
  • Anti-Love Song: Sammy sings "Don't Marry Me" to Mei Li to convince her to...well not marry him.
  • Arc Words: "A hundred million miracles..."
  • Arranged Marriage: Why Mei and her father are in America.
  • The Artifact: Master Wang coughs shortly before "The Other Generation" and there is mention of his health. This is left over from the book, where his cough was a minor plot point; he refused to get proper medical treatment for it, and doing so at a Chinese-owned pharmacy is a symbol of character growth.
  • Audience Participation: During "A Hundred Million Miracles", the crowd sometimes supplies back-up for Mei Li.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Linda and Sammy, often.
  • Betty and Veronica: Mei or Helen (Betty) and Linda (Veronica) to Ta.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Sammy has another bride in mind aside from Mei Li, his initial intended, but he does look out for Mei Li when circumstances call for it. For example, when Mei Li steals a bowl of rice his immediate instinct is to give her and her father a big meal. "Don't Marry Me" is arguably his way of sparing her from a marriage he knows they both don't want.
  • Black Comedy: Master Wang being mugged outside his own home is played for comedy, and Madam Liang just gives him an "I told you so" about putting his money in the bank.
  • But Liquor Is Quicker: In the novel Helen gets Ta drunk and sleeps with him.
  • Canon Foreigner: Sammy Fong doesn't exist in the book - where Mei Li is found performing on the street by Ta.
  • Chekhov's Gag: Mei Li is shown watching American movies, which is where she gets the idea that her being an illegal immigrant nullifies her marriage contract with Sammy.
  • Chinese Launderer: The emcee at Sammy's club jokes about being one.
  • Citizenship Marriage: Ta marries Mei Li at the end to allow her to stay in the country.
  • Cool Aunt: Madam Liang - who both upholds her culture's traditions and embraces her American lifestyle too.
  • Crowd Song: "Chop Suey" evolves into the entire party singing along and dancing.
  • Culture Clash: Master Wang gradually becomes more open to the mainstream American lifestyle most of his family members already accept. "The Other Generation" is about the generation gap.
  • Culture Equals Costume: When the family attends dinner at Sammy's restaurant, a tacky floor show trots out various girls of different 'nationalities'. They're all Chinese girls dressed up as Spanish, French, Irish etc.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ta's little brother San is guaranteed to say something snarky whenever he's on screen.
  • Disposable FiancÚ: Sammy arranging for his initial intended to be promised to Ta kicks off the plot. Circumstances also nearly force Sammy and Mei Li together and Mei Li does persuade herself she could be interested in Sammy.
  • Dragon Lady: Linda is a tamer version than most. She has a manipulative side, pitting Ta and Sammy against each other, and she sure is vampy. Her introduction number "Fan Tan Fannie" almost parodies this.
  • Dream Ballet: Helen dances with Ta in one.
  • Driven to Suicide: Helen in the novel.
  • Drunken Song: Ta sings "Gliding Through my Memories" after drowning his sorrows.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Linda wears her hair up a lot more after her relationship with Ta is sabotaged and she and Sammy finally get together.
  • French Maid: Linda performs wearing this outfit in her dance.
  • Girl Next Door: Helen in the musical and movie.
  • Good Bad Girl: Although Linda is juggling two men and is something of a vamp, she's not portrayed as an antagonist. She is in fact happy to marry Sammy at the end.
  • Graceful Ladies Like Purple: Mei Li, delicate and very feminine, wears a lilac western gown for Madam Liang and Ta's graduation party.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Helen pines for Ta even though she has no chance. Ta is one for Linda in a sense.
  • "I Am" Song: "I Enjoy Being a Girl" - Linda proudly saying she enjoys dolling herself up and meeting boys.
  • The Illegal: Mei and Dr. Li get smuggled in on a ship.
  • The Ingenue: Mei Li, helped by the fact that she's a foreigner.
  • Isn't It Ironic?: "Grant Avenue" is about celebrating Chinese New Year, but is choreographed entirely in a western Broadway style dance.
  • Lady in Red: Helen in her Qipao during the New Year's celebration, though she doesn't fulfill the Femme Fatale role in the film and musical.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: The only time Helen's hair is down is when she has her Dream Ballet with Ta.
  • Lighter and Softer: The musical to the novel. Notably the musical leaves out Master Wang's backstory - that he fled China to escape Communists - and softens his character; in the novel he refuses to speak English beyond the words 'yes' and 'no'. There's also a subplot involving Mei Li being suspected of stealing from them, which is changed to a Third-Act Misunderstanding in the musical. The musical also softens Helen's character from the novel where she's a date rapist who gets Spurned into Suicide. The musical overall emphasises the romance and plays the culture clash for laughs.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Mei Li is promised to Ta in marriage, who wants to marry Linda. She is using him to make Sammy jealous. Meanwhile Helen also has a thing for Ta. Sammy also has a marriage contract with Mei Li.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: Pure and wholesome Mei Li is contrasted with vampy Linda. Helen meanwhile is a Madonna but in her Dream Ballet she seems to wish she could be a Whore like Linda.
  • Modesty Towel: Linda during "I Enjoy Being a Girl" in the movie.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Linda spends most of her screen time in skimpy stage costumes or else done up to the nines.
  • Naked in Mink: Evoked in the movie version of "I Enjoy Being A Girl."
  • No Sympathy: When Master Wang is robbed on his own doorstep, Madame Liang gives him an "I told you so" about keeping his money in a bank.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Miyoshi Umeki plays the most Japanese-sounding Hong Konger ever dedicated to film.
  • Oh, Crap!: Linda has a big one when she realises Ta is in the crowd for her dance. She tries to continue her routine while covering her face.
  • Only Sane Man: Madame Liang spends most of her time delivering firm-hearted truth, or rolling her eyes at the silliness of everyone else.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Played with. Mei Li is initially promised to Sammy, though circumstances has the latter organize her to be courted by the eldest Wang son Ta. Ta and Mei-Li fall in love for real and get married at the end.
  • Retool: The 2002 revival utilized a new libretto, in which Mei Li emigrates to America to escape Communism, and joins a theater troupe run by Master Wong. This version didn't last on Broadway very long.
  • Relationship Sabotage: Sammy puts a stop to Linda and Ta's potential engagement by inviting the Wang family to the Celestial Garden, where they discover that Linda is a dancer there. Sammy bluntly says to Master Wang that going there will prevent Ta from marrying Linda.
  • Self-Deprecation: Sammy Fong sings about his flaws to Mei Li in "Don't Marry Me".
  • Setting Update: Inverted. The book was set in the 50s when it was written, and the musical and film were set in the present day. The 2002 revival moved the setting back to the 40s where Mei Li escapes Communism in China (which was what happened to the book's author C.Y. Lee).
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Mei Li dons a western evening gown for a party and gets this reaction from Ta.
  • Solo Duet: In the movie, Linda sings "I Enjoy Being a Girl" along with reflections of herself in a three-way mirror, who come to life and try on different clothes.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Helen Chao is spared in the musical and film due to Rogers & Hammerstein finding the original fate too depressing.
  • Stylistic Suck:
    • The costumes in "Gliding Through my Memoree."
    • Also the song that precedes it, "Fan Tan Fannie," which deliberately uses every quasi-Asian musical cliché that the rest of the score avoids.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Helen Chao, the girl next door, is a seamstress.
  • The Three Faces of Eve: Mei Li is the Child - her naivety about America endearing her and making her innocent. Helen Chao is the Wife - a down-to-earth girl next door type. Linda Low is the Seductress - the vampiest and most manipulative of the women.
  • Triumphant Reprise: At the double wedding in the finale, Mei Li and Linda sing a reprise of "A Hundred Million Miracles".
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Master Wang ripping his suit coat just to be difficult. Mei Li takes the coat to Helen Chao to be mended - discovering Ta has spent the night there and setting up a Third-Act Misunderstanding.
  • Why Waste a Wedding?: At Sammy's apparent wedding to Mei Li, she reveals that since she entered the United States illegally, any marriage contracts are null and void. Thus Linda marries Sammy instead. And Ta volunteers to marry Mei Li to make her legal, thus turning it into a double wedding.
  • Women's Mysteries: Both Master Wang and Dr Li wonder about the practicality of a western evening gown padding out the breasts. The latter suggests to repel people in crowds.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Mei Li of course. Far from being completely demure, when she discovers that Ta has spent the night with Helen, she calmly tells him she doesn't love him anymore - and still conveys so much pain as she does so.
  • You Can Leave Your Hat On: One of Linda's acts is a strip tease. Which the Wang family witnesses.

Tropes applicable to the film:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Minor example. Linda is a terrible dancer in the stage version, but played by an accomplished dancer in the film.
  • Disney Acid Sequence: "Sunday" became one in the movie. It becomes really bizarre - involving a cowboy and Indian coming out of the TV to chase everyone around the set.
  • Token White: The only Caucasian character in the whole movie is a man who mugs Master Wang.
  • Unexplained Accent: Linda has an odd, vaguely British-sounding lilt to her voice that isn't shared by anyone in the cast, and isn't very fitting of a native San Franciscan. Her actress, Nancy Kwan, was born and raised in Hong Kong and later educated in London.
  • Visual Pun:
    • During Linda's introduction song "Fan Tan Fannie", she's the only dancer wearing a gold dress. Symbolising how she's a Gold Digger.
    • During "The Other Generation", the children make the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil gestures.
  • Yellowface: Despite having a mostly Asian cast, the film features the Afro-American Juanita Hall in Yellowface to play Madame Liang.