‘Miss Saigon’ protest draws hundreds


October 9, 2013

More than 200 protesters took over Rice Park Tuesday night to demonstrate against the opening of the musical “Miss Saigon” at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

“Miss Saigon” features a love story between an American soldier and a young Vietnamese girl working as a prostitute at the end of the Vietnam War. In the end she kills herself so her child can go live with his American father.

For close to 25 years, critics have complained the show is racist, perpetuating stereotypes of Asian men and women and romanticizing prostitution and international adoption.

Ordway President Patricia Mitchell has acknowledged people may be upset by “Miss Saigon,” but she says the work deserves to be shown.

Wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with “Miss Saigon Lies” in red letters, protesters chanted, “No more lies, no more pain — ‘Miss Saigon’ infects your brain.”

Others handed out flyers to well-dressed parties making their way to the Ordway for an evening’s entertainment.

Don from Golden Valley (he declined to give his last name) said this is his first time seeing the show, and he’s not quite sure what to make of the protest.

“I have no reason to think it’s racist because it’s about an Asian woman. I understand it’s a love story between a soldier and a prostitute, and prostitutes come in all shapes, sizes and colors, creeds and races. This just happens to be the Asian community … so I don’t see it as anything more than a story.”

Janice Portukalian said she sympathizes with the protesters after having read about their criticisms on the Internet.

“I wasn’t so familiar with the play, but I can understand their side of it. But it’s going to be performed, so we might as well go to it, anyway.”

Others took issue with the protest, including Thuy Smith. The daughter of a Vietnamese woman and an American Vietnam Vet, she says there are all too many truths in “Miss Saigon.”

“One of the arguments is they’re worried about how Vietnamese men were portrayed as being the villain. Well I’m sorry, but a lot of them were like that during the war, and capitalized on their own people, too. So they have been as guilty as anyone else.”

“Vietnamese people have no room to talk because guess who was just as discriminative against the Amerasians? Vietnamese people. Not just in Vietnam, but here in the United States. I personally experienced it, and I’m from Vietnam.”

Many protesters have acknowledged that while there may be truth to the story of “Miss Saigon,” it’s only one story, and it has dominated popular culture for 25 years. They say they wouldn’t need to protest Miss Saigon if other – more positive – stories about Asians were being told.

At one point in the protest, two of the actors in “Miss Saigon” came out to talk, but didn’t stay long after saying “we just want to have a conversation.”

Poet and actor David Mura, who has protested Miss Saigon all three times the Ordway brought it to town, says the time for conversation is over.

“The Ordway’s head talks about this as a conversation starter” Mura said into a megaphone while standing on a bench in Rice Park. “It’s not a conversation when one side is not listening. We Asian-Americans don’t need anything to start conversations about racist stereotypes – we’ve been living with those stereotypes in our culture our whole lives. We don’t need the Ordway to start a conversation about it – we need the Ordway to stop bringing in racist stereotypes.”

Protester Kim Park Nelson, an associate professor of American Multicultural Studies at Minnesota State University at Moorhead, says she feels the demonstration served to broadcast its message loud and clear. But she doesn’t get the impression the Ordway is listening.

“They have been very insistent that they have the right to stage the production – which of course they do – they have the right to do that – but they’ve also been very insistent that staging the production is somehow helpful to our communities. Even though we’ve pretty unequivocally said no, that’s not true, they have chosen to stick by their initial assessment that this is somehow helping us. It’s unfortunate that they’ve made the decisions that they’ve made.”

Park Nelson says the evening’s protest is just the first round in the latest battle.

“We’ve heard about a return of Miss Saigon to Broadway, we’ve heard about a touring show, and we’ve also heard about the potential for a movie. And so I think what’s happening here tonight is the first chapter in many painful chapters to come as “Miss Saigon” continues to be popular and successful.”

Juliana Hu Pegues, a protest organizer and post-doctorate fellow at Macalester College, is more optimistic. She says the protest, which featured poets, actors and even some dance moves, was a success.

“We did what we set out to do – to show not only are we a community unified in opposition to the damaging messages in Miss Saigon, but we’re also a community unified in telling our own stories.”

MPR State of the Arts. Marianne Combs has been reporting on the arts in Minnesota since 2000; she first joined MPR in 1993.