[THEATER] The Work & Influence of C.Y. Lee
- "Forty percent is luck": an interview with C. Y. Lee
On October 2, 2001, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles premiered
David Henry Hwang's adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower
Drum Song to glowing reviews. Its initial run was extended, and after
several months, the production moved to Broadway.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, which opened at the St. James
Theater in December 1958, is itself adapted from C. Y. Lee's novel
The Flower Drum Song published in 1957. Rodgers and Hammerstein's
original production was the first Broadway show to feature Asian
American players, and the film version, released in 1961, inaugurated
the careers of the first generation of Asian American actors,
including Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, and Jack Soo.
C. Y. Lee's work and career, however, have been largely overlooked
because of the reception of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum
Song, which many observers felt perpetuated Orientalist stereotypes
of Asians. Although Lee's novel was a New York Times bestseller, it
quickly went out of print and rarely appeared on university reading
Ironically, the inception of the nation's first ethnic studies
programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which aimed to overhaul a
curriculum focusing on a received canon of predominantly white,
European, and EuroAmerican writers, proved inimical to Lee's playful
vision of the mixing of Chinese and American traditions in Chinese
American life. The very identity politics and cultural nationalism
that fueled ethnic consciousness-raising refused Lee's evocation of
the Chinese experience in America.
Hwang's musical, Flower Drum Song, meditates on its own process of
artistic renewal, restaging, in a contemporary idiom, Lee 'S analyses
of cultural and generational conflict as a struggle between Old
Master Wang's desire to sustain Chinese traditions in the form of a
run-down Chinese opera house and the Americanborn son Wang Ta's
desire to transform the opera house into a Western-style nightclub.
Significantly, Hwang's adaptation draws attention to Lee's modernity:
the novel's representation of cultural conflict and the invention of
new traditions in immigrant life is timeless and remains as relevant
for contemporary audiences as it was in 1957. Indeed, Lee's depiction
of life in San Francisco's Chinatown is undergoing a renaissance due
in large part to Hwang's intervention: the musical, reinterpreted by
Hwang, is once again on Broadway; in 2002, forty-five years after its
initial publication, Penguin Books reissued Lee "s novel.
Also in 2002, the Enlightening Noah Publishing Company of Santa
Clara, CA published four of Lee's works in Chinese: The Flower Drum
Song. Lover's Point, Corner of Heaven, and a collection of short
stories, Changsan Girl. Traditional Magazine of Taiwan is currently
publishing Lee's memoirs in Chinese, with the English version
C. Y. Lee's life offers a window to the historical and political
upheavals of the time. He was born on December 23, 1917, in Hunan
Province, China, and his family moved to Beijing when he was ten.
Shortly after Lee enrolled at Jinan's Shandong University, Japan
invaded China, forcing him to flee to Yunnan where he completed his
bachelor's degree at Southwest Associated University in Kunming,
Yunnan Province, in 1942.
That same year, driven by the continued turbulence in China, he
traveled to the United States and enrolled in a graduate comparative
literature program at Columbia University. After less than a year, he
transferred to Yale University to study drama with Walter Pritchard
Eaton, Eugene 0 'Neill's mentor, graduating with an M.F.A. in 1947.
After completing his studies, Lee worked as a journalist, editing a
Chinese-language newspaper, and wrote a daily column for Chinese
World, a newspaper published in San Francisco's Chinatown; he also
taught Chinese at the Monterey Army Language School. Lee is fond of
telling the story of how he managed to stay in the United States and
continue his writing career: in 1949 he won a Reader's Digest-
sponsored contest for "Forbidden Dollar," a short story anthologized
in Best Original Short Stories later that year.
The award encouraged and enabled Lee to gain permanent residency, and
in 1949 he became a United States citizen. Although the quota on
Chinese immigration was not repealed until 1965, the politics of
World War Il promoted in the United States a relatively more tolerant
attitude toward China and hostility toward Japan (reversing the
traditional historical record), likely facilitating Lee's induction
as an American citizen. The fall of Chiang Kaishek's Nationalist
government and the advent of Mao's Communist People's Republic in
1949 made a return to China untenable.
C. Y. Lee is the author of eleven novels and a collection of short
stories, many of which have been translated into several languages.
He is first and foremost a superb storyteller, a raconteur with a
keen eye for detail and the vagaries of human behavior: his stories
are informed by wit, humor, and a canny knowledge of Chinese and
On a more serious level, Lee's work analyzes the effects of history
on the lives of individuals and families, a dimension perhaps best
exemplified in Cripple Mah and the New Order, The Second Son of
Heaven, China Saga, and Gate of Rage. Significantly, especially for a
writer who has called the United States home for most of his life,
many of Lee's novels are set in his ancestral homeland, China. Lee
enjoys an international readership and his interest in the Chinese
diaspora suggests his thoroughgoing cosmopolitanism, a sensibility
ahead of his time and very much in syne with ours.