I’ve thought about the terms “Asian Canadian” and “Asian American” quite a bit for a number of years now. What I find especially interesting is how when I look at the motherlands, I see strained relations and a very tense environment fuelled by border disputes, arguments about history, and conflict over resources. On the other hand, all around me in Vancouver, I encounter Asians with roots from the same motherlands grouped together under the umbrella phrase “Asian Canadian.” And through this phrase, people have found solidarity, strength, comfort, and belonging owing in large part to a shared immigrant history. I have seen this both in Canada and in the US, and I am confident something similar exists in other areas of the world like England, Australia, and France.
James Shigeta was an Asian-American actor born in Honolulu who despite not knowing a word of Japanese for much his life launched a wildly successful singing career in Japan. He starred in Flower Drum Song, a 1961 film adaptation of a musical based on a novel by C. Y. Lee.
The story is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and when I first saw the film when I was maybe 16, I assumed Shigeta was Chinese. I had no idea he was ethnically Japanese, but had I known, this would not have mattered to me, anyway. What was interesting for me was that he looked like me (or at least a relative of mine). In addition, I found the story relatable enough to touch me on a personal level and fictitious enough that I had fun in this fantasy world. It felt nice, a nice I would not feel again until 6 years later when I saw Justin Lin‘s groundbreaking Better Luck Tomorrow. After seeing these two films, I gained a deeper understanding of escapism and a deeper appreciation for film as a form of entertainment.
Flower Drum Song is one of the best early examples of Asian diaspora film collaboration. Although the characters were all meant to be Chinese, 3 of the 6 principle characters were actually of Japanese ancestry, two were of Chinese descent, and one was mixed. Flower Drum Song is an inspiration to any filmmaker or fan of film who takes (or doesn’t take) an interest in inter-Asian relations. We have James Shigeta to thank in large part for that. He will be forever remembered as a role-model and father of Asian American Cinema to me. James Shigeta was 85.
Photo Credit: variety.com (top image), rovinginformant.blogspot.ca (bottom image)Tags: Asian American, Asian Canadian, asian diaspora stories, Better Luck Tomorrow, Flower Drum Song, game changer, icons, inter-asian relations, Inter-Asian Relations in Film, James Shigeta, Justin Lin, role models