The portrayal of Wang Ta by James Shigeta in Flower Drum Song subverted stereotypes for people of Asian descent largely as a result of his role as a leading man. Ta also speaks to a divergence from the norm of media’s portrayal of Asians and Asian Americans in terms of class. In a scene between Linda Low and Ta, it becomes clear that money is not a concern for Ta. Ta’s characterization as an affluent person unconcerned with working is significant in terms of past stereotypes describing Asians as “coolies” or part of the yellow peril all the way to more recent stereotypes characterizing Asians and Asian Americans as the “model minority”. Ta appears to fall somewhere in the middle of spectrum between deviance and idealization. Ta’s portrayal thus represents a rejection of American capitalistic values of pursuing constant productivity. Ta is not free, however, from hegemonic forces that epitomize wealth; he still enjoys the privileges of being upper class, but his value as a protagonist is not affected by his personal lack of interest in pursuing a career.
The rejection of productivity by a lead protagonist is a double-edged sword through which Ta is able to reject capitalism as the ultimate means for individual good, while also exercising his privilege as an upper class straight man who enjoys wealth. His lack of economic pursuits is important for audience perceptions of Asians and Asian Americans and their work ethic and socioeconomic status. Ta’s reluctance to work also is significant representation of societal values of institutions and ideologies that uphold hegemony via productivity. Ta simultaneously challenges and succumbs to hegemonic forces, leaving the viewer to decide how to interpret his character as a representation of Asian American identity.
While on a drive together, Linda asks Ta about his ambitions to which Ta responds, “Well I’ll be graduating from college pretty soon, then I guess I’ll study law ‘cause then I won’t have to look for a job for another three years” (Flower Drum Song, 40:26). It is clear that Ta would prefer to not pursue a career whatsoever. This is directly opposite to typical portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans that oftentimes put work ethic so clearly at the forefront so as to eliminate other aspects of a character’s personalities and interests (Taylor and Stern, 47). In this sense, Ta’s disinterest with work is a rejection of a central hegemonic value and stereotype, especially in the context of the typical immigrant narrative, through which immigrants and their descendants are oftentimes valued in terms of what they produce (such as through the “brain drain”).
The audience may react to Ta’s rejection of capitalistic values in a number of ways; the audience may condemn Ta’s lack of motivation and revert to stereotypes about deviance. However his ultimate success suggests that the audience is meant to cheer on as Ta finds his happiness. The film encourages the audience to ignore Ta’s immense privilege in the upper class, in favor of focusing on his male heterosexual pursuits. This managed to be groundbreaking in its racial depiction of a man, but still limiting in terms of “straightjacket sexualities” (Shimizu) and class.
While Ta’s lack of economic focus in some ways acts as a resistance to the ideological enforcement of capitalism as an ultimate good, there are definite limits to seeing the story of straight, heterosexual man who belongs to the upper class as radical. Ta’s portrayal endorses the idea that culture is not a sufficient explanation for the success of some people and not others, despite this oftentimes being suggested, such as through Confucian teachings (Zakaria, 39). The disconnect and simultaneous overlap between Ta and his father highlights the lack of cultural explanation for success. Ta describes his father as rich and only wanting grandchildren and marriage for his son. Linda responds, “your father sounds very Chinese,” thus distancing Ta from his father by implying that Master Wang’s desires differs from the two of them as Asian Americans, while also recognizing that Ta is content to only pursue his father’s wishes (Flower Drum Song, 40:43). Ta’s acceptance of his father’s wishes are further emphasized through his class privilege shown throughout the film through the spacious home he lives in and through his access to institutions such as university and fraternities. His conversation with Linda reveals that Ta does not reject the whole of capitalism, but enjoys of the ends of capitalism. Ta is thereby only partially removed from capitalistic values, and is not a wholly radical figure. In addition to his radical limits as a straight man, he is also limited in terms of his class and the associated privilege which he embraces.
Ta’s conversation about ambition with Linda demonstrates the complicated class dynamics that quietly take place in Flower Drum Song. Ta exemplifies a racialized relationship with class that can act as a means of resistance in some ways, but also uphold an ideology which endorses the fruits of capitalism, such as elite academic institutions, as a source of worth. Ta works as a protagonist in spite of his lack of work ethic, but also because of his immense privilege which makes him acceptable to the audience. The effect of his portrayal is important in further understanding media depictions of both marginalized identities and privileged identities within the specific context of class, which is seen through Ta challenging and accepting class privilege.