Together Again © Rafu Shimpo, 22 October 2004

Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta, together again
There's something to envy about the lighthearted banter between James Shigeta and Nancy Kwan as they chatted away in their East West Players dressing room last Friday upon the eve of their performance of A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters." Over 40 years have passed since they last worked together on the set of "Flower Drum Song" and though some reunions may come with a bit of trepidation, the fact that these two have stayed close friends throughout the years shows just by the way they seemed to complete each other's sentences. The following is an excerpt of their thoughts of years past and their view of Asian Americans in Hollywood today:

RAFU: Many of our Rafu readers are fans of your movie, "Flower Drum Song." So you'll have to indulge me with your memories of it.

SHIGETA: It was so long ago...

KWAN: Well, it was the first Asian mainstream film with an all-Asian cast so it was a big thing. I got a lot of free Chinese meals after the film came out.

RAFU: How did you get your roles?

SHIGETA: I was singing in Las Vegas, and a producer had just seen "Bridge to the Sun," my favorite film. Ross (Hunter) had seen it and came to Las Vegas to see if I could really sing. I was doing a show with Shirley MacLaine. Immediately, he came backstage and asked if I could do it.

KWAN: I had just done "Suzie Wong." I was at a Hollywood party and Ross Hunter was there. "You're perfect for Linda! Perfect for Linda Low," he said, and explained that [he] was doing a musical for "Flower Drum Song." It's just being at the right place at the right time.

RAFU: What were your favorite songs in the movie?

SHIGETA: Actually it was the one that the seamstress sang, "Love Look Away," the most beautiful ballad in the movie.

KWAN: Oh, yes it was beautiful.

RAFU: I don't quite remember that one.

KWAN: She stood at the window and then they had this dance number. It was beautiful.

SHIGETA: Love look away... Love look away from me... (singing)

RAFU: You still have it James.

SHIGETA: No, I don't. (laughs) This is (Miyoshi Umeki's)[sic] song. She goes into this fantasy scene and she's in love with me and I ignore her...

KWAN: Well, he's drunk.

SHIGETA: But it was a beautiful ballad. Too bad they cut out the song in the newest version of "Flower Drum Song." It's like cutting out the "Sound of Music" from "The Sound of Music." I was so sad for it. I'm sure David (Henry Hwang) had a reason for it, though.

RAFU: I think the song that many people loved was, "I Enjoy Being a Girl."

KWAN: Oh, every Asian actress knows that song, from little ones to big girls.

RAFU: It was a great routine with the mirrors...

SHIGETA: Plus she had gorgeous legs.

KWAN: There he goes again.

RAFU: I'm sure after "Flower Drum Song" came out, you were thought of as idols by many.

SHIGETA: I don't think "idol" comes to mind. We were popular though.

KWAN: Especially among Asians. They felt very good that there was a film they could identify with the characters.

SHIGETA: And again, it being the first Asian musical, a lot of people became very attached to it. And it was not a typical Chinese film at the time. They were good reputable families living in beautiful homes. They didn't falsify anything.

KWAN: They showed educated families.

RAFU: What sort of impact do you think the movie made in Asian American cinema?

SHIGETA: I think it spurred a lot of young moviemakers to make all-Asian films.

RAFU: Did you see "Better Luck Tomorrow"?

KWAN: Yes, I really liked it. Films have changed a lot since then. I thought it was a great try for this young group of filmmakers. It's encouraging. And especially today, it's so much easier to go out with digital and make films. We didn't have it. We had 35mm and 16mm to work with. Now everyone has a digital camera. I think it's great... A lot of people ask us, "Is it better now for Asian Americans?" I don't know about better. I think there are more Asians working in the industry now. But I don't think they're making that many more films than what we were making.

SHIGETA: I don't think our image has been elevated that much since... In some strange ways, it seems to have regressed. The last role that I got, my agent and I kinda laughed about. It was a sex slave trader of some sort. I didn't take it of course.

KWAN: You know what we really need are Asians on the other side of the camera, like producers, executive producers, writers and directors who will develop films for Asian Americans. That's really what we need.

RAFU: Do you still keep in touch with the other actors in "Flower Drum Song"?

SHIGETA: I see Pat (Adiarte) occasionally. And Pat Suzuki... Miyoshi is a mystery. We were good buddies too. I've called, I've written. I don't know what happenned.

KWAN: I guess she didn't want to be in the business anymore.

--Audrey Shiomi