Chin Yang Lee

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Chin Yang Lee
Lee in c. 1957
PronunciationLí Jǐnyáng
Born(1915-12-23)December 23, 1915
DiedNovember 8, 2018(2018-11-08) (aged 102)
EducationMaster of Fine Arts
Bachelor of Arts
Alma materYale University
National Southwestern Associated University
Known forThe Flower Drum Song
Joyce Lackey
(m. 1963; died 1997)
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese黎錦揚
Simplified Chinese黎锦扬
Signature (Chinese)
黎錦揚, Lee's signature in Chinese, from a copy of the 1957 novel The Flower Drum Song

Chin Yang Lee (Chinese: 黎錦揚; pinyin: Lí Jǐnyáng; December 23, 1915 – November 8, 2018) was 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 the eponymous 1961 film which was nominated for five Academy Awards.

Early life[edit]

The eight Li brothers in Beijing, 1930. C.Y. Lee (left) was the youngest.

Chin Yang Lee (Li Jinyang) was born in 1915 into a scholarly family in Xiangtan, Hunan, China, the youngest of the eight Li brothers who all achieved national or international fame. His eldest brother, Li Jinxi, was the "father of the Chinese phonetic alphabet" and teacher of Mao Zedong. The second oldest, Li Jinhui, was a pioneering musician considered the "father of Chinese popular music".[1]

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from National Southwestern Associated University in 1942.[2] After working as a secretary for chiefdom of Mangshi at the China–Burma border, Lee emigrated to the United States in 1943, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.[2][3] After briefly attending Columbia University, Lee earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting from Yale University in 1947.[2][3] 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.[4][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.[5] 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.[6][7]

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.[8]

Personal life[edit]

Lee married Joyce Lackey, an American writer, in 1963. They had two children, Angela and Jay. Joyce died in 1997.[2] In his later life Lee lived in Alhambra, California.[4] On November 8, 2018, he died of kidney failure in Los Angeles, at the age of 102.[2][1]


  • 10,000 Apologies (2006)


  • The Flower Drum Song (1957)
  • Lover's Point (1958)
  • The Sawbwa and His Secretary (1959)
  • Madame Goldenflower (1960), Farrar Straus & Cudahy
  • Cripple Mah and the New Order (1961)
  • The Virgin Market (1964)
  • The Land of the Golden Mountain (1967)
  • The Days of the Tong Wars (1974)
  • China Saga (1987), Grove Press, ISBN 1-55584-056-6
  • The Second Son of Heaven (1990), William Morrow, ISBN 0-688-05140-5
  • Gate of Rage: A Novel of One Family Trapped by the Events at Tiananmen Square (1991), William Morrow, ISBN 0-688-09764-2

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"[9]
  • "Sawbwa Fang And The Communist"[10]
  • "Sawbwa's Domestic Quarrel"[11]
  • "Sawbwa Fang's Sense of Justice"[12]
  • "Sawbwa Fang, Dr. Streppone, And The Leeches"[13]


  • Mama From China (2004)[14]


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


  1. ^ a b Ming, Fengying (2018-11-24). "纪念|黎锦扬:美国华人英文写作开拓者,好莱坞的打油郎". The Paper. Retrieved 2018-11-25.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Seelye, Katharine Q. (2019-02-11). "C.Y. Lee, 'Flower Drum Song' Author, Is Dead at 102". The New York Times. Retrieved 2019-02-12.
  3. ^ a b Benson, Heidi (September 18, 2002). "C.Y. Lee: Fortunate son". San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on January 21, 2004. Retrieved May 25, 2019.
  4. ^ a b 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.
  5. ^ 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)
  6. ^ "Show History". Flower Drum Song. R&H Theatricals. Retrieved October 29, 2010.[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ Lewis, p. 28
  8. ^ "C. Y. Lee, author of Flower Drum Song, to attend opening night performance - China Insight". Retrieved 19 September 2017.
  9. ^ Lee, C. Y. (23 March 1957). "A Man of Habit". The New Yorker. Retrieved 19 September 2017 – via
  10. ^ Lee, C. Y. (23 August 1958). "Sawbwa Fang And The Communist". The New Yorker. Retrieved 19 September 2017 – via
  11. ^ Lee, C. Y. (13 September 1958). "The Sawbwa's Domestic Quarrel". The New Yorker. Retrieved 19 September 2017 – via
  12. ^ Lee, C. Y. (29 November 1958). "Sawbwa Fang's Sense of Justice". The New Yorker. Retrieved 19 September 2017 – via
  13. ^ Lee, C. Y. (13 December 1958). "Sawbwa Fang, Dr. Streppone, And The Leeches". The New Yorker. Retrieved 19 September 2017 – via
  14. ^ Mama From China

External links[edit]