Chin Yang Lee, dean of Chinese American authors, and author of the novel, Flower Drum Song, is coming to the Twin Cities to attend a local production of the 2002 Broadway revival of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical based on his novel. Rewritten by David Henry Hwang, this 2002 Broadway play has been updated to a very different world than the one in which the original musical was created. Mu Performing Arts is presenting this new production at the McKnight Theatre at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul from June 27 to July 12. This production will contain new choreography by Cui Tianjiang, artistic director of the Minnesota Chinese Dance Theatre. Chin Yang Lee, dean of Chinese American authors, and author of the novel, Flower Drum Song, is coming to the Twin Cities to attend a local production of the 2002 Broadway revival of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical based on his novel. Rewritten by David Henry Hwang, this 2002 Broadway play has been updated to a very different world than the one in which the original musical was created. Mu Performing Arts is presenting this new production at the McKnight Theatre at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul from June 27 to July 12. This production will contain new choreography by Cui Tianjiang, artistic director of the Minnesota Chinese Dance Theatre.
C. Y. Lee has had an illustrious career in the book and theatre worlds both here and in Asia. Many of his books and plays, originally written in English, have been translated into Chinese and frequently are best sellers in Asia. He is revered as the pioneer artist who broke through many barriers in U. S. entertainment in the 1950s. He is, to this day, the only Chinese novelist whose work has graced a Broadway musical stage. Flower Drum Song was the first and is still the only Broadway musical about Chinese Americans living in the United States. The Rogers and Hammerstein premiere production on December 1, 1958, featured a virtually all-Asian cast, another first and revolutionary move at the time. Gene Kelly, in his first outing as a director on Broadway, was director.
Born into a distinguished artistic and literary family in Hunan Province and the youngest of 11 children, Lee had an idyllic childhood. One older brother was a well-known composer and another was a University professor. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 ended Lee’s peaceful world. He left college, where he had been studying western literature, and sought refuge at the home of a Chinese ‘maharajah’ at the southern China-Burma border. Translating letters for the maharajah and meeting his English-Burmese wife awakened in Lee a new perception on life. This East-meets-West perspective would become a recurring theme in all his fiction to come. By 1943, with the war in China intensifying, Lee’s oldest brother decided to send him abroad. He sailed for New York quickly and never saw his parents again.
Following graduation in playwriting from Yale University in 1947, Lee moved to California. Spurred on by one of his professors who had advised him ‘to write his story’, he began writing about the lives of Chinese immigrants in this country, in order to “open a window into Chinese life.” Working as a translator by day and writing his novels/short stories at night, he finished Flower Drum Song in 1956. The rest, as they say, is history.
The successes of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical and the subsequent movie have raised conflicting emotions among Chinese Americans today. The plot, with some of the dark moments in the original novel removed, seemed too saccharine, sexist and too full of outdated stereotypes. In stepped playwright David Henry Hwang. Following the Broadway triumphs of his play, M Butterfly, he was looking for other stories dealing with assimilation. In revisiting Flower Drum Song he came to realize that Rogers and Hammerstein, at their time, were actually trying to push Chinese Americans into America, not isolate them. With the approval of Lee and the estates of Rogers and Hammerstein, Hwang proceeded to rewrite the play, setting it at a later time, focusing more intensely on the theme of East-meets-West, and updating it to be more in line with contemporary sensibilities on assimilation and immigration. He said, "I tried to write the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written if he were Asian-American."
Lee attended the 2002 opening of Hwang’s play on Broadway and pronounced himself pleased. He is pleased that his East-meets-West story is now speaking to a new generation of theatergoers and Chinese Americans. He is also pleased that there are more Chinese actors today. Promoting them continues to be a top priority for him. In recent years he has written several new plays and has been staging them in Hollywood and New York, featuring all-Chinese casts. He calls these plays, such as The Body and Soul of a Chinese Woman, Fan Tan King, Mama from China, and House Guest from Xing Jiang, “American stories with Chinese characters.”
Lee is a longtime personal friend of Ming Tchou, founder and president of the Chinese Heritage Foundation. At 93, Lee continues to be full of life and optimism for the future. He is easy going, loves a good joke, and enjoys ballroom dancing in particular. He has accepted an invitation from Tchou to attend the opening performance of Flower Drum Song on June 27. The Chinese Heritage Foundation and China Insight have negotiated a group discounted ticket price of US$22/ticket (regular price is US$27) for this performance. To obtain this discounted price mention code MU5 when you call the Ordway ticket office: 651-224-4222. And hurry because the offer expires on June 15. Plan on staying for the reception afterwards to meet Lee. He has agreed to sign his books that will be available for purchase. There will be a dinner and dance gala in honor of Lee on June 28, co-hosted by Chinese Heritage Foundation, China Insight and Chinese American Ballroom Dance Association. Please log onto www.chinainsight.info or
www.chineseheritagefoundation.org for more information.