Miss Saigon opens to flury of protest

by THE AAP STAFF via Asian American Press

October 13, 2013

ST. PAUL — The opening of Miss Saigon at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 8, 2013 was met with protests, support, and protests of the support. Several Asian community members have stepped up in opposition to the divisive production in the hopes that there will not need be another protest after another decade passes.

The opening night event included a protest at nearby Rice Park where peaceful opposition included pamphlet handouts to Ordway patrons. The information included their concerns with the Miss Saigon production as a sexist and racist subject matter that is degrading to women and Asian Americans.

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Stephen Young

Stephen Young is a lecturer on Vietnam at the University of Minnesota, and former Dean of Hamline University School of Law; former Assistant Dean at Harvard Law School, and author of “The Tradition of Human Rights in China and Vietnam”. He is also the husband of Hoa Young, a Vietnamese American woman who led the first protest against the Ordway production of Miss Saigon back in the 1990s.

“Miss Saigon thrives on the corrupting Orientalism that is no longer culturally permissible among people of taste and good will,” Young said. “It is cultural trash that demeans both Vietnamese and Americans. It overflows with the quasi-racial condescension that cruelly stereotyped Vietnamese nationalists as moral midgets. It is an insult to all those who fought and died for freedom and justice for the people of South Vietnam.”

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Hoa Young

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman issued a statement saying that while he is built strong friendships within the Asian American community of Saint Paul, he could not come out against the Miss Saigon performances.

“From time to time, issues regarding artistic content come up from constituents, visitors, and even close friends,” Coleman stated. “Each time my response is the same. I simply can’t involve myself in choosing or directing the content, message, or presentation within these great Saint Paul institutions. That kind of direct involvement would not produce good results for the organizations or the city.”

Other Ordway Board Members who are prominent DFL leaders who are considered progressives and friends of the APIA community include former Mayor George Latimer, State Sen. Dick Cohen, State Rep. Alice Hausman, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernadeia Johnson, and St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva.

Both Johnson and Silva issued statements that they expressed opposition to the production with Board President Patricia Mitchell. When the production went forward Silva said SPPS would not support the performances or violate their district’s recently adopted Racial Equity Policy.

“I have asked my staff to ensure that our schools do not in any organized way take part in the Miss Saigon performances,” Silva said. “Since the show is only performed in the evening during the school week and on the weekend, it is not possible for it to be part of a classroom activity. I have also asked staff to contact the Ordway to ensure that the district and its teachers are not offered donated tickets.”

Johnson’s office replied that as a person who grew up in the Civil Rights movement in Selma, Alabama, she understands the sense of pain, distress and cultural misperceptions that stereotypes can have on people and especially women of color.

Minneapolis Public Schools will not endorse or support the negative stereotyping portrayed in Miss Saigon and is also acting to discourage students and staff attending.

State Rep. Sheldon Johnson (DFL-67B) said the issues are raised about how the play can negatively impact tolerance and inclusion. He contacted Patricia Mitchell and expressed them directly.

“I can understand the concerns about the depiction of Asian women in this play, especially as it relates to the portrayal of these characters as demeaning and stereotypes,” Johnson said.

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Ramsey County Attorney John Choi

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi sent a written message to the group in support. He wrote that his top priority is to combat the effects of trafficking and sex trafficking of young children and that part of this effort is a constant battle against attempts to minimize this crime or blame the victim.

“To the extent that this production glamorizes the trafficking of teenage girls, or sends a message to men that buying sex from girls is ok, or serves in any way to perpetuate negative cultural stereotypes, it is counterproductive and undermines our efforts to call the selling of our children what it is: modern day slavery,” Choi said.

State DFL Secretary Jacob Grippen said art is often controversial, but when it perpetuates stereotypes is can do little to advance our understanding of the actual culture and experiences of the Asian Community.

“Miss Saigon is rash with racism and sexism, and performances of the show have a detrimental effect on all communities by teaching viewers misguided, harmful information,” Grippen said. “Conversations to educate have happened before, but they seem to have fallen on the Ordway’s deaf ears. We must continue to have these conversations until people in power understand the negative effect these performances have on the Asian community, and the communities of our state, country, and world.”

Former State Sen. and Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins said the musical should be “relegated to the same scrap heap as other productions that denigrated and stereotyped African Americans and others.”

Peggy Flanagan, Nonprofit leader and former Minneapolis school board member, said the community should step up in support of “our Asian American brothers and sisters and speak out against racist stereotypes.”

Hmong American candidates also spoke out against the performance.

Blong Yang, Minneapolis City Council Ward 5 Candidate, said the stereotypes perpetuated by Miss Saigon are old and still harmful and racist. He asked that people who care about racial equality in America not attend.

St. Paul Public School Board candidate Chue Vue said that he is disappointed that the diverse City of Saint Paul would showcase a play that promotes demeaning stereotypes of Asians in the heart of the largest Asian American concentration in the Midwest.

“This is the third time Miss Saigon will come to the area, each time drawing protests and cries from the Asian community,” Vue said. “…We don’t need that in our city where 76 percent of the students in our public schools are students of color and the largest student population is Asians.”

State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-59) said the Ordway contributes very much to the Arts in our community, and said she took the concerns surrounding Miss Saigon seriously.

“I think the questions you have raised should be asked next time the Ordway comes to the legislature for money,” Champion said.

Community organizations coming out against Miss Saigon include Stonewall DFL, The LGBT Caucus of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party. The group claims a shared history that is in step with the traditions of standing up to persecution, harassment and oppressive forces back to the civil rights movement.

Stonewall DFL describes Miss. Saigon as “erroneously depicting people of color in stereotypical tropes, promotes human trafficking as love, and blatantly showcases the myth of white moral superiority.”

“Stonewall DFL officially joins the protest of the Ordway’s performance of Miss Saigon due to its perpetuating negative stereotypes of women and persons of color and its romanticizing of human trafficking.

Community Action Against Racism (CAAR), an organization that founded to publicly address issues of racism, miss-information and backlash, issued a statement of solidarity with the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon Coalition.

“CAAR’s mission is to hold institutions accountable for spreading negative ethnic and racial stereotypes. Supporting the Coalition aligns with CAAR’s work around racial justice and activating community voices.”

The Don’t Buy Miss Saigon coalition web site is at www.dontbuymiss-saigon.com.