Nancy Kwan recalls that the 1961 film version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “Flower Drum Song” was such a big hit with audiences, “I used to go to Chinese restaurants and get Chinese for free all the time! It was very well-received. We were very proud because it was an all-Asian cast and it made money.”
Kwan, a vivacious 62, played Linda Low, a beautiful and ambitious performer in a Chinatown nightclub in San Francisco. Although her singing was dubbed, Kwan had several memorable dance numbers including “I Enjoy Being a Girl” and “Grant Avenue.”
“Flower Drum Song” was Kwan’s second film. The native of Hong Kong had received a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a drama and received a Globe for best female newcomer for her first film, 1960’s “The World of Susie Wong,” with William Holden. Besides Kwan, “Flower Drum Song” also starred Oscar-winner Miyoshi Umeki of “Sayonara,” James Shigeta and Jack Soo.
“I was very happy about it because I am a dancer,” she says. “I went to school in England and I was with the Royal Ballet for quite a few years.”
Producer Ross Hunter met Kwan at a party. “I was just in the right place at the right time,” she says. “He had seen ‘Susie Wong” I guess and he said I would be perfect” for Linda Low.
“Flower Drum Song,” she says, was a groundbreaking Hollywood film. “It was the first time there was an all Asian cast in an mainstream film,” she says. One of her highlights was working with choreographer Hermes Pan, who worked with Fred Astaire on the majority of the legendary dancer’s films. “We had six weeks of rehearsals,” she recalls. “When you work with somebody like Hermes Pan--he was a terrific man and great to work with. Fred Astaire used to come down once in a while and watch us dance. All the dancers got a big thrill out of it.”
But over the years, Kwan acknowledges, Asians felt the musical and the movie presented stereotypical images of Asians. Chinese Americans, Kwan says, were also upset that several actors in the film including Shigeta and Umeki were Japanese.
People said to her “‘How can a Japanese be playing a Chinese?’ You can’t win. They should be happy it was an all-Asian cast regardless of Japanese and Chinese.”