C. Y. Lee (author)

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Chin Yang Lee (simplified Chinese: 黎锦扬; traditional Chinese: 黎錦揚; pinyin: Lí Jǐnyáng; born December 23, 1917[1] ) is a Chinese American author best known for his 1957 novel The Flower Drum Song, which inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song and writer for his 2006 film 10,000 Apologies with May Wang.


Lee was born 1917 in Hunan, China, into a family of artists and scholars. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Xi'nan University, then emigrated to the United States of America in 1943 and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting from Yale University in 1947. He was a contributor to Radio Free Asia. Lee was a journalist living in and working for two San Francisco Chinatown newspapers, Chinese World and Young China at the time, in the early 1950s, when he was writing Flower Drum Song, expanding it from a short story to a novel. He currently lives in Alhambra, California.[2]

The Flower Drum Song[edit]

By the 1950s, Lee was barely making a living writing short stories and working as a Chinese teacher, translator and journalist for San Francisco Chinatown newspapers.[3] He had hoped to break into playwriting, but instead wrote a novel about Chinatown, The Flower Drum Song (originally titled Grant Avenue). Lee initially had no success selling his novel, but his agent submitted it to the publishing house of Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. The firm sent the manuscript to an elderly reader for evaluation. The reader was found dead in bed, the manuscript beside him with the words "Read this" scrawled on it. The publishing house did so, and bought Lee's novel, which became a bestseller in 1957.[4][5]

The novel, about generational conflict within an Asian American family over an arranged marriage in San Francisco's Chinatown, was adapted into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, opening in 1958. The original production was the first Broadway show to feature Asian American players. The 1961 film jump-started the careers of the first generation of Asian American actors, including Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, and Jack Soo. Lee was interviewed on the 2006 DVD release of the movie.

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, in the first major theatrical production that had an all-Asian cast of actors and voices.[citation needed] Its initial run was extended, and after several months, the production moved to Broadway, where the reviews were less than stellar. Lee had worked with Hwang on the rewriting of the musical.[6]

Some observers felt that Lee's novel perpetuated Orientalist stereotypes of Asians.[citation needed] The novel was a New York Times bestseller, but quickly went out of print.[citation needed] The first ethnic studies programs in the late 1960s did not accept Lee's playful vision of mixing Chinese and American traditions.[citation needed] For many years the book was rejected by young Asian Americans as being "too white face" or "Uncle Tom".[citation needed] Lee was a Chinese immigrant and wrote of the society as he saw it at that time, perhaps an example of the very generation gap portrayed in the musical.[citation needed] While mainstream America had fueled Lee's initial success, the new Asian American movement's consciousness-raising had all but buried Lee's evocation of the Chinese experience in America.[citation needed]

More recently, however, interest in hybridization and diaspora studies has brought a new audience to Lee's work, which was clearly ahead of its time.

Works by C. Y. Lee[edit]

  • 10,000 Apologies (2006)


Short stories[edit]

Many of Lee's short stories were published by the New Yorker magazine after the success of his first novel:

  • "A Man of Habit"[7]
  • "Sawbwa Fang And The Communist" [8]
  • "Sawbwa's Domestic Quarrel"[9]
  • "Sawbwa Fang's Sense of Justice".[10]
  • "Sawbwa Fang, Dr. Streppone, And The Leeches"[11]


  • The Chronology of American Literature, edited by Daniel S. Burt. Copyright © 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.


  1. ^ "Howard Gotlieb Archive". Retrieved 2 August 2013. 
  2. ^ Gerson, Daniela (January 29, 2016). "Tales of a new Chinatown: The San Gabriel Valley stories from 'Flower Drum Song' author C.Y. Lee". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2 February 2016. 
  3. ^ Shin, Andrew. "'Forty Percent Is Luck': An Interview with C. Y. (Chin Yang) Lee". MELUS, vol. 29, no. 2, Elusive Illusions: Art and Reality (Summer, 2004), pp. 77–104, The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. Retrieved December 3, 2010 (subscription required)
  4. ^ "Show History". Flower Drum Song. R&H Theatricals. Retrieved October 29, 2010. 
  5. ^ Lewis, p. 28
  6. ^ C. Y. Lee, author of Flower Drum Song, to attend opening night performance | China Insight
  7. ^ 1958-03-30 The New Yorker p. 33
  8. ^ 1958-08-30 The New Yorker p. 69
  9. ^ 1958-09-20 The New Yorker p. 151
  10. ^ 1958-06-20 The New Yorker p. 209
  11. ^ 1958-12-20 The New Yorker p. 86

External links[edit]