The Asian population in Kansas City is approximately 45,000 and growing. No one group can claim a 'Koreatown' or 'Chinatown' as found in San Francisco, Chicago or Boston. However, as a mid-size city, Kansas City is known as a destination point. The area’s diverse economy with its growing health sciences and high tech companies, coupled with its affordability and midwestern values, is a lure for many. (Source.)
When my family moved to Kansas City on a military transfer, and where my father would ultimately retire, my eyes opened to what cultural norms actually meant.
The influence of film was my first lesson in Asian-American culture
There aren't a lot of movies with its cast being mostly Asian-American. When Flower Drum Song was made in 1961, it became a big hit. It was already a hit on Broadway. It starred Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Miyoshi Umeki, Jack Soo, Benson Fong, and Juanita Hall.
Flower Drum Song's "A Hundred Million Miracles" sung by Miyoshi Umeki (pictured above) has followed me throughout my life. When my father died, I sang part of the chorus around a table with my brother and my son, although we were a bit inebriated from grief and alcohol. I know my father hoped for a miracle when my mother became ill, and I hoped for one when illness struck my father. I think we all reach for miracles. The song performed by Umeki's voice was sung so sweetly and sincerely, that it stayed with me for decades.
My mom was Japanese and I don't know if that's why the movie made such an impression on my young life. I was very young when I first saw the movie. With a father being in the Air Force and a family traveling with transfer orders, I don't think I understood how much the culture depicted in the movie impacted me until I became older. I never saw my mother as being different, I just always saw her as being my mom until I learned there were people in this world who actually hated different races.
The movie represented to me the sad things in life, and the funny things too. It also represented hopes and aspirations. For its time, it was a romantic comedy with some serious scenes. Of course, the musical numbers were good, but A Hundred Million Miracles stood out from the others. Maybe I imagined the young Miyoshi Umeki could have been my mother before she moved to California from Kauai.
Flower Drum Song was nominated for five Academy Awards and two Golden Globe Awards. There hasn't been another movie to have a majority Asian-American cast until 1993 when The Joy Luck Club was made. The film was based on the Oscar Hammerstein II 1958 musical which was based on the 1957 novel by C.Y. Lee.
The film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song is among the 25 films that Librarian of Congress James H. Billington has announced will be added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
The selected films are chosen not because they are deemed "best," but because they are "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant. (Source).
I saw the movie again on old reruns when I was a teenager. I still had the same reaction. In hindsight, I can see how my mother was aware of how some people would see her as being different, especially when you really don't see very many Asian-Americans in the midwest like Kansas City.
Singer and actress, Miyoshi Umeki
Singer and actress, Miyoshi Umeki, was Japanese and the first Asian woman to win an Academy Award for her acting in the 1957 movie, Sayonara. Umeki moved to the United States in 1955. She had already established herself as a singer and actress in Japan. As a regular on the old show, Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts, she got the attention of a director who cast her in the movie, Sayonara.
Umeki portrayed the character, Mei Li, in both the Broadway musical and the film, Flower Drum Song. For those who remember the series on television, The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969-1972) she portrayed Mrs. Livingston which earned her a Golden Globe nomination. After this series was over, she retired and moved to Missouri to be closer to her son and his family.
Umeki retires and moves to Missouri
After all these years, I was surprised to learn that Umeki had moved to the midwest. She died on August 28, 2007, in Licking, Missouri. She was 78.
According to her son, Umeki lived in Sherman Oaks for a number of years before moving to Licking, Missouri, to be near her son and his family, which included two grandchildren. She died at the age of 78 from cancer complications. (Source.)
When I look at the photo below when my mother sang in a quartet, I think about how she aspired for success when she left the islands. She, like most of us, had dreams of her own. She had also been judged by her appearance as being different once she moved to the states, especially where her culture was represented less. She spent the last three decades of her life in Missouri and passed away near Mother's Day in 2001.
I lift my cup to all Asian-Americans during this celebratory month who are inspired and driven to succeed and make a positive difference in the world.
Thank you for reading.
© Cathy Coombs, 2022