Long thought of only as a stage and screen musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lee's tale of cultural and generational conflict in San Francisco's Chinatown was a best seller in 1957 before falling out of print and into obscurity.
Now, with a new version of the show on Broadway, "The Flower Drum Song" has reappeared, brought back in a new Penguin paperback edition that could enhance its reputation as a precursor of things to come.
"It is the first real Chinese-American novel," says playwright David Henry Hwang, who has radically revised the musical's book for the current New York production. "This is where it all began.
"I felt like I was meeting a literary parent," Hwang says when he sought Lee's blessing for the redo - and the older man gave it enthusiastically.
"The Flower Drum Song" was born, according to Lee, in his little apartment above a Filipino nightclub on Kearny Street in San Francisco.
Lee lived there in the mid-1950s while writing a column for a Chinese-language newspaper, translating into Chinese what he calls "social stories" to entertain the paper's elderly readers. The dissension between older Chinese and their more Americanized offspring caught his attention.
"In Chinatown, I knew everything that was going on," he says. "Out of that I created characters, using everybody including my own family and my friends, plus a lot of invention from the air."
The novel's plot concerns Old Master Wang and the difficulties he has in dealing with his modern, more Americanized son, Wang Ta, a young man who has gotten involved with several, very different women.
The 1958 musical, which simplified the title to "Flower Drum Song," had a book by Joseph Fields and Oscar Hammerstein II and deviated quite a bit from the novel.
"They put a lot of jokes in the musical, but you had to turn it into something that would be entertaining to American audiences," Lee says in explaining changes that later on, many say, stereotyped Asian-Americans.
Lee, who will be 85 on Dec. 23, relaxes on a sofa in his daughter's East Village living room. He's a diminutive man, dressed nattily in a navy blue shirt and casual slacks. A sly smile crosses his lips as he explains how "The Flower Drum Song" finally found a publisher.
It took Lee a year and a half to write the novel - and then his agent had trouble interesting a publishing house. After more than a dozen rejections, she advised, "If it's turned down again, you might think of another profession."
"But then the novel landed at the sick bed of an 80-year-old gentleman, who was a reader for a highbrow publishing house," Lee says. "He was quite ill, but he read it. He didn't have the energy to write a two- or three-page critique. He wrote only two words - `Read this' - and died.
"Without those two words, the novel would have never been published," Lee says with a laugh.
Hwang had never read the novel until he started doing research on revising the story of the musical. Even then, he couldn't find it, finally tracking down a copy from a Seattle rare-book dealer who specializes in Asian writers.
"I thought, 'Oh, it's such a shame this author and this book have been lost, particularly the bittersweet tone of the novel, which I would love to be able to capture in a new libretto,"' says Hwang, author of "M. Butterfly."
That the novel went out of print was surprising. It received positive reviews, particularly in The New York Times, which helped propel it onto its list of best sellers. And Broadway and Hollywood expressed interest.
Two were considered: A $50,000 offer from a movie producer and a $3,000 proposition from Fields, a veteran Broadway writer of such hits as "My Sister Eileen" and "Wonderful Town." There was one big difference. The Hollywood producer would retain all rights; Fields would hold just the stage rights.
Lee couldn't make up his mind. He went downstairs to that Filipino nightclub, bought a couple of bottles of beer and got drunk. The next day, his agent telephoned and said, "Congratulations. You made the right choice." Lee couldn't remember making the call.
Fields first wanted to make "The Flower Drum Song" into a play and then, perhaps, a movie. Edward G. Robinson admired the novel and even wanted to portray the patriarch Master Wang. But Fields had another idea. He mentioned the novel to his friends, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Rodgers, in his autobiography, "Musical Stages," wrote that he and Hammerstein were charmed by the book. A deal was quickly made.
Lee attended rehearsals and even went to Boston for the show's out-of-town tryout. He remembers watching and learning from these musical-theater masters. Hammerstein never looked at the stage, but instead would sit with his eyes closed, apparently listening for squeaky theater seats. If there were too many squeaks, he knew the audience was losing interest, according to Lee.
After one particularly noisy performance, Hammerstein went home and wrote a new lyric. The next day, he gave it to Rodgers, who went into the ladies' room at the Shubert Theatre, where there was a piano, and, in 30 minutes, came back with a new melody. That night, "Don't Marry Me" went into the show and brought down the house.
Did Rodgers and Hammerstein ask for suggestions?
"Hardly," Lee says with a laugh. "I was a young kid. I was like a country bumpkin and quite ignorant of the theater."
Born in China, the youngest of 11 children, Lee came to the United States in 1943. He ended up at Columbia University, then Yale University, before heading west to start his writing career, first in Los Angeles and then San Francisco. "The Flower Drum Song" was his first book. There are 10 more.
"Past novels, especially those written by American writers, did deal in stereotypes," Lee says. "You got the impression that Chinese people walked with their hands in their sleeves, bowed all the time and were hatchet men."
Not so in Lee's novels, and, particularly, "The Flower Drum Song," even though it is more than 40 years old.
"C.Y.'s book is complicated in terms of texture about what it means to be an American - the things you gain and the things you lose - but it ultimately affirms the value of this social experience," Hwang says. "And that's what I wanted this new 'Flower Drum Song' to be able to do."
By Michael Kuchwara