C.Y. Lee wrote best-selling novel The Flower Drum Song

WASHINGTON • C.Y. Lee, a China-born American author whose best-selling 1957 novel The Flower Drum Song explored conflict among first-and second-generation immigrants in San Francisco's Chinatown, provided the source material for two Broadway productions 43 years apart and sparked a cultural debate about Asian stereotypes, died on Nov 8 at his daughter's home in Los Angeles. He was 102.

The cause was complications from kidney failure, said his daughter Angela Lee. The family did not publicly announce the death.

Over a career spanning seven decades, Lee, whose full name is Lee Chin Yang, wrote nearly a dozen volumes of historical fiction, but his best-known work was his debut novel, The Flower Drum Song, which brought instant literary stardom upon its release.

He was called an overnight sensation, but he had in fact spent years toiling in obscurity after having arrived in the United States from China on a student visa during World War II.

He wrote The Flower Drum Song while renting a room above a Filipino nightclub in San Francisco's Chinatown and working as an editor and columnist for one of the city's Chinese-language newspapers.

The book concerned Wang Chi-yang, a first-generation Chinese immigrant struggling to accept the cultural and generational gap he had with his American-raised son Wang Ta, particularly in matters of love and marriage.

Lee's agent was turned down by nearly every major publisher in New York and was about to give up after a year when Farrar, Straus and Cudahy made a bid. Lee said the book's salvation came from an elderly man who had been paid by the publisher to screen manuscripts and had scrawled two words on the book before dying: "Read This."

In a review for The New York Times, novelist Idwal Jones said Lee "writes with no omission of slang and sex and every regard for the popular taste".

The book shot up the bestseller list and caught the attention of screenwriter Joseph Fields, who persuaded the Broadway team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to adapt it for the stage.

The trio simplified Lee's narrative and the musical comedy Flower Drum Song had a two-year run on Broadway starting in 1958.

The musical, which Lee said was "funny and more commercial" than his book, was directed by Gene Kelly and received several Tony Award nominations. It was the first mainstream play about Asians featuring a mostly Asian cast.

After The Flower Drum Song, Lee published 10 other novels and a collection of short stories, many of which were translated into Chinese from English. They include Lover's Point (1958), about a Japanese-American woman's love affairs in San Francisco; and China Saga (1987), a multi-generational family drama.

In playwright David Henry Hwang's foreword to the 2002 reissue of The Flower Drum Song, he called the novel an "Asian American classic". But Lee said in an interview with literary scholar Andrew Shin: "I never thought of it that way. I was just delighted if I could sell anything."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2019, with the headline 'C.Y. Lee wrote best-selling novel The Flower Drum Song'. Subscribe