Author Behind the First Asian American Hollywood Film Dies at 102

C.Y. Lee, the author of the bestselling novel “The Flower Drum Song,” passed away on Nov. 8 at his daughter’s home in Los Angeles, California.

The Chinese-born author died at the age of 102 following complications of kidney failure, his daughter Angela told the Washington Post.

 

Born on Dec. 23, 1915, Chin Yang Lee was the youngest of 11 children of a rice farmer in Hunan, southeastern China. At the age of 10, he moved with his family to Beijing.

Then, amid a brutal Japanese occupation, Lee left school and fled the country for Myanmar, where he worked as a secretary for a municipal chief. His job entailed writing English letters and entertaining the chief’s wife, including playing badminton with her every day.

The Lee brothers (C.Y. at leftmost).

After graduating from a university in Kunming, Lee’s oldest brother — “father of the Chinese phonetic alphabet” and a teacher of Mao Zedong — ordered him to leave a war-ravaged China for America. He fled to New York in 1943.

Lee enrolled at Columbia University to study comparative literature before heading to Yale University to study playwriting. He earned a master of fine arts degree from the university in 1947.

Image via YouTube / SinoTV – LA

Lee published “The Flower Drum Song,” his debut novel and best-known work, in 1957. He wrote the story while living on pork noodle soup in San Francisco’s Chinatown and working for a local Chinese-language newspaper.

The novel, which centered on a 63-year-old Chinese immigrant fleeing China’s communists, failed to sell at first, but Lee’s agent sent it to the publishing house of Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. The company then sent it to an elderly reader for evaluation.

The reader was reportedly found dead in bed, with Lee’s manuscript beside him and scribbled with the words “Read This.”

Farrar, Straus and Cudahy then published “The Flower Drum Song,” which immediately became a bestseller and was adapted into a musical (“Flower Drum Song,” 1958) and a movie (“The Flower Drum Song,” 1961), becoming the first Hollywood film to cast Asian Americans and be about Asian American culture.

Lee during a signing event. Image via Xinhua

But “The Flower Drum Song” had its own share of critics who slammed Lee for perpetuating the exotic to lure White readers. In the novel, characters — which included herbalists — ate “medicine pigtail soup,” “smoked duck feet steamed with pork” and “bitter melon.”

“I wrote that novel totally for an American audience,” Lee told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “They don’t want to read about things they know already.”

A memorial service for Lee in California. Image via YouTube / Amtv全美電視臺

Lee went on to write 10 more novels and several other short stories after “The Flower Drum Song.” Novels include “Lover’s Point” (1958), “The Sawbwa and His Secretary” (1959), “Madame Goldenflower” (1960), “Cripple Mah and the New Order” (1961) and “The Virgin Market” (1964).

He is survived by his daughter Angela and his son Jay.

Featured Images via YouTube / Amtv全美電視臺 (Left) and SinoTV – LA (Right)

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