“Flower Drum Song,” Whitewashing, and Operation Wetback: A Message from 1961




A BIG-BUDGET Hollywood film with a nearly all Asian American cast, set in Chinatown? With a plot that contains a veiled critique of racist immigration policies? It seems like a dream at a time when mainstream filmmakers regularly cast Caucasian actors to play Asian characters; a time when the Republican Party’s presidential nominee lauds one of the most infamous and inhumane deportation policies of the 20th century. But once there was such a film, a lighthearted, fluffy musical called Flower Drum Song.

Few Rodgers and Hammerstein fans, even the most die-hard, would call Flower Drum Song (Broadway 1958; film 1961) equal to South Pacific, The King and I, or Carousel. It is best remembered for a few comic numbers, “I Enjoy Being a Girl” and “Fan Tan Fannie,” performed by the strip-teasing female comic lead, Linda Low, played in the film by sex symbol Nancy Kwan. Flower Drum Song suffers from a cutesiness typical of Chinatown depictions in that period. Its characters are flat and the film showcases an obviously studio-built Chinatown. Yet the musical also showcased Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lifelong interests in issues of social and racial justice, especially regarding ties between the United States and Asia. Flower Drum Song was the first musical and one of the first films about Asian Americans, starring Asian Americans.

Currently, the film industry’s defense of “whitewashing” — a term that has replaced “yellowface” to describe the casting of white actors to play Asian (or other minority) roles — frequently involves pleas of practicality and realism. Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott said of the whitewashing in his Biblical epic Exodus, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” His dismissive comment was greeted with skepticism and withering critiques of his meekness in the face of systemic racism.

But in the late 1950s, public interest in Asian topics happily coincided with the willingness of powerful industry figures to buck the trend of yellowface casting. Flower Drum Song was one of five Asian-themed plays on Broadway in 1959, which despite the partial casting of white actors in yellowface, offered acting opportunities for Asian and Asian American actors never since equaled. (The other long-running plays were Rashomon, The World of Suzie Wong, and A Majority of One, along with a limited run of Kataki, starring the great Sessue Hayakawa.) The determination of Gene Kelly, who directed the Broadway production, to cast Asian actors led him to the Chinatown nightclubs, guided by C. Y. Lee, the author of the source novel The Flower Drum Song. There he found comic actor Jack Soo, whose career debut in Flower Drum Song led to a solid mainstream career. The notable instance of “yellowface” was the casting of African American actress Juanita Hall (most famous for playing Bloody Mary in South Pacific, and thus accustomed to her cross-racial casting) as a nagging aunt who, fittingly, sings a big paean to diversity called “Chop Suey.”

Underlying this progressive casting, which reflected a new awareness of Asia and Asian minorities within the United States, was the highly controversial issue of undocumented Chinese immigration. Although the politics of US immigration today focus on Latin American immigration and, more recently, Middle Eastern refugees, Chinese Communist infiltration was one of the most high-profile immigration issues in the early Cold War. In the late 1950s, Chinese immigration, which had been restricted since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, was under heavy scrutiny. Immigrants were subject to months of imprisonment on Angel Island and government-enforced paternity testing, in an effort to shut down the “paper son” system of immigration that had sprung up as a response to the racial and class-based restrictions on Asian immigration. These restrictions only allowed the immediate relatives of businessmen already in the United States to enter. We see the fruit of these policies today in the heated debate over the right to family reunions or the breaking up of families through partial deportation.

After the “fall of China” to Communism in 1949, all Chinese immigrants were viewed as potential Communist infiltrators. This only heightened scrutiny of Chinese immigrants, as did the US’s supposed reform of immigration laws in 1952, which still maintained minuscule quotas for those of Asian ethnicities. In 1956, the Immigration and Naturalization Service instituted the Chinese Confession Program, which held out the hope of citizenship and amnesty for anyone who was willing to come forward and confess their undocumented status and immigration methods. But the Confession Program obviously created an even more turbulent situation for the community as fear of scrutiny and informers continued to rise. 

Flower Drum Song addressed this issue by introducing and centralizing an illegal immigration plot line, forever cementing the issue of race-based immigration policies in their sunny, splashy vision of quaint Chinatown life. Rodgers, Hammerstein, and collaborator Joseph Fields, who co-wrote the book of the musical with Hammerstein, adapted and greatly shifted a 1957 novel about the Wangs, a San Francisco Chinatown family. The novel focused on a traditional Chinese father who shuns modernity and Western medicine, and his older son Wang Ta, who is being pursued by the unsuitable Linda but eventually falls for a little flower drum singer. Hammerstein and Fields’s musical transformed the singer, Mei Li, into a modest, traditional heroine, and heightened the dramatic and comedic tension by using two romantic pairings: Mei Li and Wang Ta, the traditional Chinese couple, and Sammy and Linda, the wisecracking, all-American pair. Mei Li and her father enter the United States illegally in order to find Sammy, her betrothed; the usual comedic hijinks and romantic interludes ensue, with a happy ending that pairs the four leads correctly. Her undocumented entry, which appears nowhere in the original novel, sets up a contradictory narrative trajectory in which their “illegal” entry (the word is used in the film) is softened and excused, though, admittedly, at the price of sentimentalizing it rather than examining its root causes.

The drafts of Flower Drum Song reveal the constant revision during the troubled tryout period in Boston, in which Hammerstein and Fields could not find an adequate resolution to the problems that they had raised by inserting illegal immigration into his plot. In its tone, the musical, which is quite splashy, does not take the issue of illegality particularly seriously. The film version plays the Lis’ covert entry for laughs, as they stow away in crates on a ship to San Francisco. Mei Li’s scream as her crate slides down a ramp is attributed by the befuddled Chinese dock workers to their own stomach problems. It is then almost entirely forgotten for the duration of the plot until the wedding, when the Lis’ immigration status becomes the point upon which the entire romantic dilemma hinges. It solves the incorrect pairings of both couples and ensures a happy ending. In its general respect, then, it is treated as a positive; the Lis are wonderful, virtuous additions to American society regardless of their manner of entry.

The earliest notes in Hammerstein’s papers show that he initially portrayed the Lis even more strongly than the novel did as refugees from Communist China who had barely been able to escape. This opening gestured to the public confusion surrounding refugees and illegal immigrants, the competing feelings of suspicion and goodwill directed toward those who wished to enter the United States. However, all references to Communism were ultimately excised from the musical. Hammerstein addressed this choice in a kind and surprisingly long letter to a very enthusiastic fan looking forward to his new musical. “We did not deal with political questions, and Communism is of course notmentioned [sic] at all since it is not an essential part of the book, — of the original book.” Hammerstein’s disclaimer of the need to treat Communism is, at best, somewhat inconsistent, considering that the musical departs so very far from the novel in many respects. Rather than depicting political refugees, who might enter as fully documented and even highly praised members of their new society, the musical shows an idealized, palatable form of illegal immigration impelled solely by romantic entanglements, a sentimental characterization of immigration divorced from political parties, economic hardship, or refuge from war.

Instead of referring to refugeeism, Hammerstein and Fields reached for a comparative racialization to convey the families’ foreignness and Americanization. Mei Li learns the term “wetback” while avidly watching a movie on television featuring a (presumably) Mexican female character. She then brilliantly deploys it at the wedding in order to make herself an unsuitable bride for Sammy. She Chinesifies the phrase in her charming broken English by saying that her “back is wet,” but Sammy’s fluently English-speaking mother is horrified and exclaims, “My son cannot marry a wetback!” maintaining legal immigration for the rest of the Chinatown community.

In 1954, the INS launched “Operation Wetback,” a program similar to the Chinese Confession Program that was devoted to combating undocumented migration. Operation Wetback ejected millions of Mexicans, often brutally, creating a vicious cycle in which the workers who had been imported through the federal Bracero program to supply cheap labor were then forced out. More recently, it has had a new lease on public consciousness after Donald Trump hailed it as precedent for mass deportation, “Mov[ing] ’em waaaay south.” For Hammerstein, the sheer number of Mexican migrants into the United States (estimated around one and a half million people yearly in the mid-1950s) seemed to reduce the suspected hundreds or thousands of Chinese undocumented immigrants to nothingness in the non-Communist world of the musical. Hammerstein could thus use the popular understanding of Mexican illegal immigration, which had come to the fore in the time between Chinatown Family and Flower Drum Song, to reinforce the Lis’ illegal entrant status.

“Wetback” was by far the most familiar slang (and pejorative) term referring to “illegal” or “smuggled” aliens (the standard journalism terms) in the 1950s, and in the language of the film, it becomes part of the torrent of American slang that comically confuses Master Wang, the traditional Chinese elder. Thus, Mei Li’s ability to learn and use it marks her successful attempt to cross into American culture at the same time she declares herself not part of it. The incorrect use of the slang mirrors the incorrect method of entry, once again making light of it. Hammerstein and Fields were reaching for another familiar and far less Communist-inflected form of illegal immigration, though that does not mean, of course, that it had a positive connotation.

Labeling the impossibly adorable Mei Li a “wetback” acts as an implicit plea for leniency about her covert immigration. The incongruity of popular Miyoshi Umeki as a wetback serves to soften the conception of Chinese illegal immigration at that time. She also benefited from the then-current sentimental depictions of suffering Japanese women, so many of which Umeki played onstage and in film (and for which she won an Oscar), shaping public sentiment in favor of a recuperated postwar Japan as the strongest line of defense against Communist China. Even the actress’s image could work against the stigma of illegal immigration.

The issue continued to grow in importance over the course of the Flower Drum Song’s development, as Hammerstein and Fields, who were also both distracted by illness, constantly changed the ending of the musical to find a way to block the marriage of Sammy and Mei Li. Drafts reveal that they experimented with a highly confrontational final scene which probably was in place for some days during the tryout period. In these drafts, Wang Ta seizes control of the situation by threatening to inform:

Ta: I will inform the Immigration Department that Dr. Li and his daughter have entered the country illegally.
Sammy (Coming back to Ta): Look, kid, this involves me. I might be deported with them!
Madam Fong: Deported!
Fong: What nonsense you talk, boy. Thousands of Chinese are in San Francisco illegally. No one ever informs and no one does anything.
Ta: In this case someone will.
[…]
Fong: I will teach you, you cannot go on tickling the tiger’s nose with a straw. You are facing the most powerful family in San Francisco!
Ta: And you are facing the Immigration Department!
Fong: I cannot believe you wish to bring disgrace on us all.
Ta: That may not be necessary! If I marry Mei Li, she will be the wife of an American citizen. Sammy will not be deported and he can marry his girl.

What Ta proposes here is a method to resolve the issue of illegality completely. His blackmail of the Fongs, however, was perhaps too revealing. It might have jarred the middlebrow sensibilities of the Rodgers and Hammerstein faithful by too bluntly stating that thousands of Chinese, such as those that they had watched sing and dance happily for two hours, were in the United States illegally.

Though this ending was retained for some period of time, it eventually vanished in favor of Mei Li’s much more acceptable confession. Her confession assured viewers that the Chinese Confession Program would work, and for the cutest, most all-American love match motives, at that. Though relatively few participated in the Program, it provided a cover, a means of quieting paranoia and legitimizing the Chinese American population. As Mei Li Americanizes, then, she becomes more willing to confess. (Hammerstein’s son James suggested in an interview that it also had to do with dissatisfaction with the actor playing Wang Ta [see Stephen Citron’s book The Wordsmiths], but even the preference for Umeki is indubitably affected by gendered images in this era.)

But regardless of Mei Li’s newfound Americanness, the threat of deportation never leaves her. The finale of Flower Drum Song offers a punitive solution based on immigration status. Rather than keeping everyone in the United States, the happy ending requires that Ta be willing to sacrifice his citizenship, saying, “I am happy to marry [Mei Li] even if we are both deported!” It is a shockingly blithe thing for him to say and certainly not wholly convincing.

What is more, the film adds an explicit happy ending for Sammy and Linda that is predicated on their shared citizenship as well as their shared nightclub habitat, strengthening the impression of Ta and Mei Li’s foreignness and possible deportation. As Anne Cheng has noted, the concept of citizenship by birth is normalized by Sammy’s final declaration as he presents Linda as a suitable bride to his mother: “She came into this country the regular way — through her mother.” Linda’s citizenship redeems her lack of virtue, and Madam Fong embraces her instantly, both physically and literally.

Despite Mei Li and Wang Ta’s unknown fate, Flower Drum Song marks a major public surfacing, in a positive light, of the dialogue about Chinese immigration and kinship as inherently illegitimate or dangerous. If Donald Trump has taught us nothing else, we know that the decades of racially based views of immigration and draconian deportation policies are still with us, and that negative racial stereotypes will always provide fodder for their support. Nor can we discount the cultural acquiescence to the status quo that results in whitewashing. As Jesse L. Williams’s powerful BET Awards speech about African-American experience reminds us, appropriation, whitewashing, and more violent forms of social silencing are all part of the same social pattern. Though it is often written off as corny, stereotyped, or patronizing, Flower Drum Song’s quiet struggle to portray minority issues for a mainstream audience offers us a model from an equally fraught past for resistance and compassion.

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Materials from the Oscar Hammerstein II Collection at the Library of Congress used by Permission of Rodgers & Hammerstein: an Imagem Company. All Rights Reserved. Special thanks to Ted Chapin of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization and the staff of the Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

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Heidi Kim is an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @HeidiKKim.


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