Once upon a time in 1995, the Niners won a historic Super Bowl against the San Diego Chargers. I remember that night very well. After Deion Sanders, Jerry Rice, and Steve Young did their victory dance, my family took me to the Ahmadson Theatre to see another spectacle – my first Broadway show – Miss Saigon. I was ten years old! I knew the songs by heart. My mother wanted me to play “Sun and Moon” on the piano on loop. I entered “The Movie In My Mind” in various piano competitions. Growing up Filipino American, Miss Saigon, is a staple to Filipino pop culture. Lea Salonga is just as much as saint as Santo Nino. In addition to providing voices to Disney heroines, Lea Salonga is still active today performing live when she’s not playing Bioshock.
When I attended college, I took some Asian American Studies classes to fulfill some GE requirements. I wanted to learn about my culture and I had some electives to get out of the way. I remember taking an Asian American Art class and one of the books we read had an article dismissing Miss Saigon. I also had a few professors and classmates citing Miss Saigon as promoting sexism, racism, misogyny, romanticizing sex work, white heroes, etc. When Miss Saigon opened on Broadway for the first time, it was met with heavy criticism from the Asian American community. Even recent regional productions have been met with the same criticism. When Miss Saigon would open up on Broadway again in 2017, given the fact that media critics like to nitpick everything they find offensive, I thought I’d counter several common criticisms against Miss Saigon.
- “Miss Saigon brings back Yellow Face!”
I would say this is a non-issue now. The origin of this stems from the time when Jonathan Pryce was cast as The Engineer in the original London and Broadway productions. The rationale was to cast a white person in a Eurasian role. Most major productions since then have cast the role of The Engineer to someone of Asian descent; the best Engineers I’ve seen happened to be of the Filipino variety. Even so, the Eurasian background is silently dropped and not played up as much in recent productions that one can believe that The Engineer is fully Vietnamese. The original London cast did cast white people in secondary roles (ie: bar girls and Thuy), but for the most past, major productions have cast Asians, particularly Filipinos, in the the main, supporting, and ensemble roles.
I cannot speak on behalf of high school and college productions that have adapted Miss Saigon. I do admit it is cringeworthy anytime I see college productions use Japanese kimonos in place of Vietnamese ao dai. I take more issue with that. However, most major productions have been sensitive to the culture.
2. “Miss Saigon romanticizes sex work!”
While the promotions and production photos show Vietnamese and Thai prostitutes in skimpy two pieces, prostitution in Miss Saigon is not glamorized. If anything, it’s a means to survival. This is most shown in “The Movie in My Mind” wherein Gigi sings about what is actually running through her thoughts anytime she has to be on the job. It’s quite painful to think about. She romanticizes what might be if a GI were to fall in love with her. Yet, in the end, despite winning the title, she doesn’t get the dream she wants. We see American GI’s being abusive in the Dreamland scenes. Depending on what production you get, yes, it’s downright sexist, but that’s the point; to create a world that is unkind so that these women can one day have a better life to themselves.
In the case of Kim, our main lead, she is “saved” by Chris out of prostitution for a few weeks with promises of returning with him to the states. However, Chris could not take her back to the states. For the next three years, her life is not sunshine and rainbows. It goes back to that theme for survival. She had to lay low with her Amerasian son and then escape to Bangkok after she murdered a high ranking Komissar. Kim’s story is one of survival and protecting those close to her to the death. Kim is often cited as being submissive and passive by critics. However, she goes out of her way to protect her son from being murdered and her choice towards the end is not an easy one.
3. “Miss Saigon enforces the white savior narrative!”
For those of you who have seen the show many a time, the running joke is that if you want that happy Kim and Chris ending, stop the show at “Last Night of the World” and just imagine them being happy together in some suburb of Atlanta. Recently, media like MTV and Buzzfeed cite that the Asian Female / White Male pairing in fiction promotes sexism and racism; an oppressed culture needs to be saved by the dominating culture from their circumstances. While there is some truth to this claim in other forms of media, this is not the case for Kim and Chris. Chris doesn’t completely “save” Kim. While he does prevent her from marrying her cousin, now reeducated by Communists, he cannot give Kim their happy ending.
The best way I can describe Chris and Kim’s dynamic is to view them as metaphors for America (Chris) and Vietnam (Kim) relations after the Vietnam War. Chris comes back to America with regret that he could have done better, he could have saved her because that was the American thing to do. It was the right thing to do. Guilt lives inside his head, but he had to get over it somehow, someway. Kim is representative of Vietnam in the sense that she is surviving, yet has to deal with what the Americans could not save. She is left with a half white child in a world that’s been taken over by people who want both of them dead.
Additionally, we have other characters who represent the America / Vietnam relations during post-war. John, who later dedicates his life to rescuing Amerasian children, is the epitome of “no good deed goes unpunished.” John wants to do right, but like Chris, also has to live with the guilt. He had good intentions of reuniting Tam with his father, but it did not go as planned. When you get down to it, Miss Saigon is a study of American / Vietnam relations and how complicated it really was. To write of Miss Saigon as a love story misses the point of it completely. “A living reminder of all the good we failed to do,” as the Act 2 opener (“Bui Doi”) says.
4. “Yes, Miss Saigon has opened up roles for Asians, but it still perpetuates stereotypes!”
As mentioned in my other points above, one has to look at the greater context of Miss Saigon before passing judgement. Yes, Asian women in the ensemble play Vietnamese and Thai prostitutes. However, it is not glamorized. Yes, they are objectified, but they also tell their side of the story in “The Movie in My Mind.” Yes, Asian men in the ensemble play the Viet Cong, but at the same time, you can’t have a production about the Vietnam War without them. Yes, Asian people in the ensemble play peasants affected by the war and wanting to get out, but you still see their plight and tragedy in “Kim’s Nightmare.” What makes Miss Saigon one of my all time favorite shows is the complexity within a simple story about how one relies on love to survive.
The Engineer oftentimes gets the most heat for being the most offensive and stereotypical Asian on set calling him the “sneaking Oriental.” The Engineer is a lovable supporting character. He has his own agenda and whether or not he is taking advantage of Kim is up for debate. The Engineer symbolizes the thirst and the hustle to get to America, not for the same reasons as Kim wants to seek better welfare for herself and her child, but his own personal gain and hedonism as seen in “The American Dream.” Whether or not this is a stereotype is up for debate.
5. “So, the Asian woman has to kill herself for white savior. Ok then!”
Even as a 10 year old, there’s a lot to unpack about this scene. What’s tragic is not Kim’s death, it’s the question of whether or not Chris and his new wife Ellen will accept Tam into their lives. When I see people utilize this criticism, they are coming in from a Western perspective. One of Miss Saigon’s themes is not quite getting two cultures coexisting at the same time and place (ie: Chris in “Why God Why”). Suicide is seen differently in Asian cultures. Miss Saigon is a loose adaptation of “Madame Butterfly” wherein the geisha takes her life towards the end. It’s better to die by your hands than the hands of the enemy or by the means you cannot control.
In the case of Kim, she was devastated when Ellen rejected the notion of handing Tam to her. As an American, Ellen could not fathom this idea. Kim saw what the solution was to have Tam to have a better future in America. Considering that Kim and Tam had to flee Vietnam and Kim had to work as a bar girl in Bangkok so that they may survive, having Tam being sponsored to attend American schools in Bangkok wasn’t enough. Tam had to be sent to the US by any means necessary. From her perspective, this is a noble and an ultimate sacrifice. And when Kim dies in Chris’ arms, Chris still doesn’t understand why she took her life. They know they come from different worlds (“Sun and Moon”). If anything, Tam is going to need some serious therapy because he’s seen a lot…and he’s not even 5!
Miss Saigon has been met with controversy ever since its early West End days. The production team has acknowledged and respected protests from the Asian American community, considering this is a community that often times is not known for protesting. However, I do think that Miss Saigon is still relevant in 2017. When you get passed the advertisements of Chris and Kim in each others arms ala “The Last Night of the World,” it really is a story about survival and sacrifice. The love story is only a part of a greater whole. Miss Saigon’s themes of what happens after war, particularly one that was lost, is still relevant today as it was when it was released in the 80s and 90s when there were exoduses of South Asian refugees coming into the US. This is a story that has greater meaning beyond what critics perceive as a “white savior” narrative. I’m looking forward to seeing Miss Saigon’s Broadway return and supporting it when it goes on the road. Until then, I’m gonna rock that red sportscoat and belt out “The American Dream” anytime I see a pink cadillac.