From Flower Drum Song to Come Fly with Me – ‘Products of their Time’ and How to Address Them

By Jerome Chappell-Tay.

The pairing of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, an acclaimed writing and composing duo, has produced some of the world’s most beloved musicals, such as Oklahoma!, South Pacific and Flower Drum Song. More recently, the comedy duo of Matt Lucas and David Walliams have come under fire for insensitive portrayals of racial minorities (and the use of blackface and yellowface) in their shows Little Britain and Come Fly with Me. Recently, the effects of systematic racism have been brought to public consciousness after the horrific killing of George Floyd, a black man at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. The depiction of racial minorities in media, from classic films like Gone with the Wind (1939) to the much more recent shows of Walliams and Lucas, has resulted in some of these films and shows being pulled from streaming services. This has opened up a discussion on how we reflect and deal with media and entertainment that does not reflect modern values; should they be left as they are? Should they be released with disclaimers? Or should they be erased completely? Furthermore, is it acceptable to still find humour in these shows in light of the increased awareness about racial inequality? Terms like ‘a product of its time’ and ‘aging poorly’ are often used to describe these media, and Walliams and Lucas have apologised for their insensitive depictions; Lucas has said in an interview “I wouldn’t make that show now”. However, these depictions are a result of a much larger long-standing inequality in arts and entertainment which must be addressed.

Upon re-evaluation of both bodies of work, it is easy to point out characters or moments that may cause offence. Flower Drum Song plays into racial stereotypes of Asian women (the two female leads, Mei Li, and Linda Low, are a demure ‘picture bride’ and a sexually provocative ‘dragon lady’ respectively). Flower Drum Song and South Pacific have African American actress Juanita Hill playing a Chinese woman and a woman from a non-specified Pacific island. Walliams and Lucas take it upon themselves to play all major characters in their series, including a lazy religious Jamaican woman called Precious, and two Japanese schoolgirls Asuka and Nanako, who are obsessed with their idol Martin Clunes. Lucas and Walliams arguably parody white characters equally, including a racist immigration officer Ian Foot. 

Come Fly with Me appears to try and make a mockery out of everyone equally but it does so without an understanding of the racial implications of white actors playing non-white characters – blackface and yellowface have often been used to mock people of Asian and African descent. Furthermore, it has often been used as an alternative to casting black and Asian actors in films; Chinese American actress Anna May Wong was famously denied the chance to portray the lead role of a Chinese woman called O-Lan in The Good Earth (1937) as her love interest was played by a white actor in yellowface; the Hays Code prevented interracial relationships from being depicted. Luise Rainer, the white actress cast instead went on to win an Academy Award for her role and to date, only one Asian actress has ever won an Academy Award for acting, Miyoshi Umeki in Sayonara (1957), who also played the leading role in Flower Drum Song, both the original Broadway musical and the 1961 film. Thus, Walliams and Lucas may not have made a show that specifically targeted racial minorities, but instead were not fully aware about the long history of discrimination and lack of opportunities for non-white actors. Lucas suggests this himself in an interview with The Big Issue: “There was no bad intent there – the only thing you could accuse us of was greed. We just wanted to show off about what a diverse bunch of people we could play. Now I think it’s lazy for white people to get a laugh just by playing black characters”. Does this mean that it would be acceptable for a black woman to have portrayed Precious exactly as Lucas did? Opinions will differ on this as ultimately, comedy is subjective, and one person’s endorsement does not invalidate the opinion of someone who still finds the portrayal of a racial stereotype unfunny.

Ultimately, art and culture should be viewed with context.

This leads onto the issue of stories of racial minorities being told by people from outside that group. Rodgers and Hammerstein make clear statements against racism in South Pacific through the protagonist Nellie coming to terms with her own prejudice and the famous song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught“. Flower Drum Song deals with themes of immigration and the clash between American and Chinese culture, and The King and I deals with the complications of the imposition of the values of a Western colonial power on the King of Siam and his family. While the musicals and their film adaptations still depict some racial stereotypes more easily recognised in modern times, this does not take away from the admirable attempt to take a stand against racism. However, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation allowed David Henry Hwang to bring Flower Drum Song back to Broadway in 2002 with a reworked plot and an all Asian cast which was met to mixed reviews. Ultimately, art and culture should be viewed with context. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote phenomenal music but still were not fully aware about their problematic depictions of racial minorities. Flower Drum Song provided flawed representation of Chinese Americans, but still tried to showcase their stories. Gone with the Wind may have perpetuated the dangerous ‘Mammie’ stereotype of the content slave woman, but that does not take away from the incredible performance of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award. Come Fly with Me can make us both laugh and wince at the variety of characters they portray. As systematic racism is addressed, a more diverse selection of stories will be depicted in our entertainment, but it is of equal importance to have the diversity of our society reflected behind the camera, as well as in front.

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