This essay explicates how Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) and Linda Low (Nancy Kwan), the Asian migrant and Asian American female leading characters in the film Flower Drum Song (dir. Henry Koster, US, 1961), oscillate between embodying the fantasies of American modernity and exposing the obscenities of US empire during the early Cold War period. While Linda embodies and enacts the pleasures of feminine spectacle, Mei Li offers an alternative, premodern method of looking that brings into relief the traumatic elements of national modernity. This study first provides an account of how technologies of feminine modernity act as technologies of empire, creating pleasurable affects by incorporating the world into the nation and self. It then demonstrates how the limits of the technological approach to fantasy and spectacle are epitomized by the breakdown of Linda's daydream sequence, an attempt to stage the satisfactions of marital bliss. Linda's fantasy of domestic modernity pointedly and spectacularly fails to cover over national histories of colonial violence and trauma. Meanwhile, Mei Li's premodern framework of animism enlivens these abject spirits otherwise buried by national and imperial modernity. The essay concludes with a consideration of how the film seems to screen such fantasies of racial modernity with its scenes of dancing, fashionable Asian Americans. But, the author asks, why does the exuberance generated by these set pieces feel so uncanny? How do these screen fantasies of racial incorporation also channel specters of empire? And how do these filmic apparitions render their audience also uncanny?
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Juliana Chang; I Dreamed I Was Wanted: Flower Drum Song and Specters of Modernity. Camera Obscura 1 December 2014; 29 (3 (87)): 149–183. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-2801551
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