The Flower Drum Song by C.Y. Lee. The generation gap, the age-old story of the battle between the old generation and the new. In this case, it is San Francisco’s Chinese population during the late 1940s and early ‘50s. The House of Wang is headed by Old Man Wang and his sister-in-law, Madame Tang. They believe in the old ways, but Wang’s sons are learning the new ways of America, and the two generations crash. To make matters worse, the older son, Wang Ta is troubled by sexual desires, and searching for a girl to marry, while his father and Madame Tang plan an arranged marriage between families. Things come to a head when a father and daughter team of street musicians land on the doorstep. May Li and her songs capture Wang Ta’s heart, but it goes against the arranged plans of his elders.
The first half of this 244-page novel was slow and boring, but picks up interest in the second half, when May Li and her father enter the story. The novel has received much praise from the Asian community, as it gives a picture of the times by a Chinese-American author in 1957. To be honest, a decade earlier, 1947, Emily Hahn, a Chinese-American woman who achieved success in the early days of 1900s, by obtaining an engineering degree, as well as becoming a professional writer and independent woman of the period, wrote a more powerful story. “Miss Ann of Shanghai” tells the story of a more turbulent time in Chinese history. Other novels, although not written by Asians, yet tell their story in a more powerful setting: “Sayonara” by James Michener, whose Japanese-American wife, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa actually did the research for the book. She had been put in a California internment camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor, yet eventually completed her education, achieving much success as a Japanese-American woman before she and Michener married. “The World of Susie Wong” by Richard Mason, about a Chinese prostitute in Hong Kong is also a powerful tale about a Chinese woman. There have been many others that, in my opinion, are far better novels than “The Flower Drum Song”. Nor can I imagine the Wang family as the typical Chinese immigrant. Most likely a millionaire when he arrived, his children are treated to the best life money can offer them. Wang Ta, the eldest son, unable to find work befitting his status, goes back to college for another 8 years to become a doctor. He already has one degree. I was more sympathetic to the street musicians, May Li and her father, who earned seven dollars from May Li’s singing and dancing, to pay for a dollar’s room in a bedbug infested room. The average immigrant probably arrived in America with a dream, a skill, and the clothes on their back, not a million dollars. But, again, the second half of the novel saves the book from a failing rating. All the first half does is show the reader the difference between generations at the time, which seems to be played out in every generation, and I didn’t find very entertaining.