Flower Drum Song (1961) | Mechanics' Institute

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Flower Drum Song (1961)
CinemaLit March 2023: – Chinatown in the Movies

Friday, March 24 - Flower Drum Song, 1961, 133 minutes, directed by Henry Koster, starring Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, and Miyoshi Umeki

Flower Drum Song is an important piece of film history disguised as an old fashioned musical. In transferring the Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1958 Broadway hit to the screen, producer Ross Hunter cast predominately Asian-American actors, thus defying the insidious Hollywood tradition of hiring white actors for Asian roles. And true to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the lilting score and smooth production belie rather serious themes. Romantic cross-purposes, an arranged marriage, assimilation, and the conflicts between immigrants and their Americanized children are played out against terrific dance numbers and a fine score that includes "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and "Grant Avenue." (Image used with permission of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media, will introduce and co-host Flower Drum Song.

CinemaLit March 2023: Chinatown in the Movies

The Mechanics' Institute Library has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts "Big Read" grant to support community reading programs. The grant showcases a single book through a range of tours, discussions, seminars, and screenings. The honored book is Charles Yu's Interior Chinatown (2020), a remarkable novel exploring immigration and the limitations of Chinese identity in modern America. It's funny and sad, and creatively written to read like a screenplay.

In the spirit of Interior Chinatown, the month of March at CinemaLit will feature "Chinatown in the Movies." Four of our offerings, The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939), Phantom of Chinatown (1940), and -- on zoom -- Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1938), feature characters, by turns nefarious, clever, and heroic, from popular movie serials. Ancient curses, international intrigue, and viral terrorism highlight the twisty plots. These short feature films (except the later and more lavish Face of Fu Manchu), some barely more than an hour in length, were Saturday matinee entertainment on double bills, complete with cartoons, previews, and newsreels. Today they're fascinating glimpses of past social values as reflected in American pop culture, where entertainment, racism, and pluralism intersect.


NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.

El proyecto NEA Big Read es una iniciativa del National Endowment for the Arts (el Fondo Nacional para las Artes de Estados Unidos) en cooperación con Arts Midwest.

Cosponsored by the Chinese Historical Society of America

Stephen Gong is the Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), a public media and cultural non-profit organization located in San Francisco.media and cultural non-profit organization located in San Francisco. Stephen has served as CAAM’s Executive Director since 2006. His previous positions in arts administration include: Deputy Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the University of California, Berkeley, Program Officer in the Media Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, and Associate Director of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute. He has also been a lecturer in the Asian American Studies program at UC Berkeley, where he developed and taught a course on the history of Asian American media. He is the Board Chair of the Chinatown Media and Arts Collaborative; Board Chair of the Center for Rural Strategies; Board member of the Ninth Street Independent Film Center, and serves on the Advisory Board of the San Francisco Silent Film Society.


Matthew Kennedy, CinemaLit’s curator, has written biographies of Marie Dressler, Joan Blondell, and Edmund Goulding. His book Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, was the basis of a film series on Turner Classic Movies.

I don't have a favorite film,” Matthew says. "I find that my relationships to films, actors, genres, and directors change as I change over the years. Some don't hold up. Some look more profound, as though I've caught up with their artistry. I feel that way about Garbo, Cary Grant, director John Cassavetes, and others."

Classic films have historical context, something only time can provide,” Matt observes. “They become these great cultural artifacts, so revealing of tastes, attitudes, and assumptions.”


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