C.Y. Lee, ‘Flower Drum Song’ Author, Is Dead at 102 | Modern Society of USA

C.Y. Lee, ‘Flower Drum Song’ Author, Is Dead at 102

C.Y. Lee, ‘Flower Drum Song’ Author, Is Dead at 102

The manuscript had been rejected by more than a dozen publishing houses. Finally, an elderly man who was screening new books for what was then Farrar, Straus & Cudahy read it and liked it.

Too ill to write a full critique, he just scrawled, “Read this.” And then he died, the manuscript beside him on his bed.

“Without those two words, the novel would have never been published,” C. Y. Lee, the manuscript’s author, told The Associated Press in 2002.

The novel was “The Flower Drum Song,” a story of generational and cultural conflict among newly arrived Asians in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was published in 1957 and became a best seller. It was adapted as a Broadway musical, which received six Tony nominations, and then as a movie, which was nominated for five Academy Awards.

With “The Flower Drum Song,” Mr. Lee, who died on Nov. 8 at 102, became one of the first Asian novelists to find commercial success in the United States.

Mr. Lee’s daughter, Angela Lee, said he died from complications of kidney failure under hospice care at her home in Los Angeles. Word of his death appeared at the time in Chinese-language newspapers; Ms. Lee said the family did not think to reach out to the English-language news media. The Washington Post recently learned of the death and became the first English-language news outlet to report it.

Mr. Lee, who was born in China, wrote other books, including “China Saga” (1987) and “Gate of Rage” (1991), about the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square. But none achieved the fame of “The Flower Drum Song,” which Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II turned into a musical, directed by Gene Kelly.

The first big Broadway show with Asian-American actors in leading roles, “Flower Drum Song,” as the adaptation was known, ran from 1958 to 1960. The next year it became a movie, with a cast that included Nancy Kwan, Miyoshi Umeki (who also starred in the stage version), Jack Soo and James Shigeta. It was among the first major Hollywood productions with a mostly Asian-American cast.

But for all the commercial success of the play and the movie, and the pride felt by many Asian-Americans at seeing Asian actors, the reviews were mixed. Critics complained that the story line — more nuanced in the novel — was simplistic and dated in the adaptations, and that all three versions perpetuated stereotypes about Chinese immigrants. As time went on, the story was also seen as sexist. And some dismissed the music as second-tier Rodgers, not on a par with “South Pacific” or “The King and I.”

“C. Y. brought complexity and humanity to Chinese-American characters and stories during a period when American culture portrayed Asians as caricatures: oversexualized women and men to be ridiculed or killed in battle,” Mr. Hwang said in an email.

After opening successfully in Los Angeles, the revival moved to Broadway in 2002, where reviews were mixed. It received three Tony nominations and ran for 169 performances.

Chin Yang Lee was born on Dec. 23, 1915, in Hunan Province, the youngest in a family of eight boys and three girls. Ms. Lee and her brother, Jay, said that his father was essentially a feudal lord.

“The family called our grandfather a ‘philosopher king’ because he never worked,” Jay Lee said. “He walked around the property writing poetry and contemplating nature.” The family was well off until the Communist revolution in 1949, when they lost everything.

C. Y. Lee, who had enrolled at Shandong University in Jinan, was often on the run from military clashes that took place during the second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45. He graduated from National Southwestern Associated University, in Kunming, in 1942.

He worked for a time as a secretary for a maharajah on the border between China and Burma, now Myanmar. He said in the interview published in 2004 that this was the best year of his life. In China, he said, “I was a refugee all the time,” escaping bombing, war, bandits and famine, but on the border, “life was so relaxed, the countryside so beautiful.”

Mr. Lee struggled as a writer for many years in San Francisco, working for Chinese-language newspapers and barely making a living when he began “The Flower Drum Song.”

When no one would publish it, his agent suggested he try another profession. And, as the often-recounted story has it, his career as a writer might have ended then, if not for the unnamed man who read the manuscript on his death bed.

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