The Problem(s) With Miss Saigon (or, how many stereotypes can you cram into one Broadway musical)

by DAVID MURA via Opine Season

I am writing this essay in response to the Ordway Theater’s decision to bring back Miss Saigon a third time to the Twin Cities. The Ordway Theater has taken this action despite numerous protests and criticism of the musical by the local Asian American community. The twenty-year history of the Ordway’s indifference and disrespect towards our community and its leading artistic and activist voices is perhaps without parallel in recent Minnesota cultural history.

The offensive and problematic nature of Miss Saigon stems from its plot and its characterization of both the American and Vietnamese characters. The Ordway and many white American audience members seem to have trouble seeing this. But for many Asian Americans, the egregious stereotypes in this musical are patently obvious.

First of all, the musical romanticizes and distorts the nature of prostitution and human trafficking. It would have us believe that in one night a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese prostitute falls in love with a white American adult G.I. It then uses this pairing to create a so-called tragic love story. That such a premise is ludicrous and, at best highly improbable, does not bother the creators of this musical nor the applauding audiences. Nor does it seem to trouble them that the white American G.I. is committing an act of statutory rape.

The real truth is: Prostitution is not a love story. But by focusing on this love story, Miss Saigon ignores or slights the dehumanization and exploitation of prostitution and instead tries to romanticize human trafficking. The musical ignores or slights the fact that this prostitution existed as a result of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam. It ignores or slights the fact the G.I. hero Chris and his fellow soldiers are exploiting and dehumanizing the Vietnamese women they take economic advantage of.

If a 17-year-old white Minnesota girl was forced into prostitution and then claimed she had fallen in love in one night with a john who was a soldier from any other country—Mexico, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Nigeria, take your pick—would your average white Minnesotan believe her? Would they look at this so-called love as romantic and tragically doomed? Or would they label it for what it is—the sexual, psychological and economic exploitation of a minor?

But according to Miss Saigon, when it is a white American G.I. and a seventeen year old Vietnamese girl forced into prostitution, what happens between them must be true love, must be a tragic romantic tale.

One of the ways racism works is that it creates a moral code where the questionable actions of one race are somehow justified but where any similar action by someone of another race are seen as morally questionable and an indication of that person’s moral reprehensibility. Miss Saigon traffics in just such a moral code.

As it romanticizes human trafficking, Miss Saigon reinforces the stereotype of the Asian woman as prostitute. One result of this stereotype is that Asian and Asian American women are constantly viewed as sexual objects in a way that affects directly how they are treated daily in American society. At a recent public forum on the issues surrounding Miss Saigon, at least ten Asian American women spoke of the ways they have been subjected to objectification and humiliating offensive behavior by American males who see these women as no different from the prostitutes in Miss Saigon. Just as the prostitutes in the brothel are there for the sexual delight of the G.I.’s and the titillation of the audience, so every Asian and Asian American woman in America is also there for the delight and titillation of any male who passes them by on the street or encounters them in public spaces.

Miss Saigon is another in a long line of racist sexist depictions of Asian women, and the audiences who delight in the musical have no more qualms about this practice than the G.I.’s who hoot and holler at the crowning of a Vietnamese prostitute as Miss Saigon. The musical offers no other substantial image of Asian women. In Miss Saigon, the essence of the Asian woman is the prostitute.

Miss Saigon also reinforces another racist tradition that comes out of the history of colonialism and imperialism. In this tradition, the white male members of the occupying forces are always seen as morally superior to and more sexually attractive than any of the native colonized men.

Chris, the white American G.I. has two women, one Vietnamese and one white American, who are love with him. Yes, he impregnates a seventeen-year-old prostitute. Yes, he abandons her (though in part because of circumstances beyond his control). Yes, he loves two women and could be said to be guilty of bigamy. But whatever his flaws, he is supposedly well-intentioned and full of love, and hey, he can’t be all that bad if both the Vietnamese Kim and the white American Ellen love him back.

In contrast, with the two major Vietnamese male characters, neither the Eurasian Engineer nor the North Vietnamese soldier Thuy are worthy of love. The Engineer is a venal, money hungry, soulless pimp, who clearly exploits women and takes advantage of Kim. Alain Boublil, who wrote the libretto for Miss Saigon, claimed that the character of the Engineer pimp was “an actual Vietnamese type that many French and English journalist have encountered.”

Really? What about shop keepers, soldiers, Buddhist monks and nuns, mothers, fathers, peasants, cooks, teachers, students, mechanics, dock workers, dress makers, artists, taxi drivers, rail workers, factory workers, news reporters, all the people and jobs that make any society possible? Did Boublil’s journalists ever encounter any of these people? Boublil’s remark says more about him and perhaps the French and English journalists he knew than it does anything about Vietnamese society.

Thuy, the other major Vietnamese male character, is a Communist and so, in the moral landscape of Miss Saigon, is inherently evil. Thuy also believes in arranged marriage, and so is evil (never mind that Chris visits a house of prostitution; this is merely an act he is bullied into by his fellow G.I.’s). Thuy hates Kim’s child, because Tam is part white American, and so Thuy must be a racist. Thuy tries to kill Tam, so he is a child murderer. Given all this, no wonder Kim doesn’t even consider loving him.

That all the major Vietnamese male characters are seen as thoroughly morally flawed and unattractive doesn’t trouble the creators of Miss Saigon nor many white audience members. Such characters merely affirm racist assumptions about the Vietnamese and other Orientals: The gooks are neither as human nor as moral nor as sexually attractive as we white Americans. The male gooks are particularly inferior, especially sexually. The only good gooks are the women, and they are good because they are capable of loving and seeing the good of white American males and how inferior their male countrymen are when compared with the great white American male. These gook girls are also really hot—they “love you long time”–though in the end, not quite as hot as white American women.

Another questionable racist equation in Miss Saigon undergirds the musical’s final scene: In order for her bi-racial son Tam to live in America, and perhaps also because Chris has married a white American woman, Kim kills herself. The musical—and the audiences who adore it—see this a tragic act of self-sacrifice, a cause for weeping (when I saw the musical the middle-aged white woman next to me was bawling her eyes out while I was experiencing a mixture of disgust and laughter at the absurd farce sweeping across the stage).

What is racist about the way the musical frames Kim’s act of suicide?

First, it plays on a long held assumption in the West that those in the East do not value life in the way sane Westerners do.* Suicide is just an Oriental thing, you know, like that Jap harry-kirry (never mind that Japanese and Vietnam possess completely different cultures and histories; in the minds of racists, all Orientals not only look alike, they think and act alike).

You can see this assumption in the opera that Miss Saigon is based on, Madame Butterfly, a work by Puccini which charts a similar plot around a British sailor and a fifteen year old Japanese girl. After the British sailor abandons her, after years of pining after him, she commits suicide in that work’s “tragic” ending. The creators of Miss Saigon clearly had no second thoughts about transposing the plot from a work about a Japanese girl to one about a Vietnamese girl. Thus, a tradition of Orientalism and racism is handed down without critical thought as if the “truth” about the Orient and Orientals were merely self-evident.

Secondly, Kim’s suicide assumes that of course life will be better for Tam in America with his white G.I. father and his white wife than in Vietnam with his Vietnamese mother. In this reasoning, it goes without saying that life in America is superior not just economically to that in Vietnam, but in all the ways that really matter, whatever they may be. As evidenced by Thuy, the Vietnamese will be prejudiced against Tam’s bi-racial heritage while as a bi-racial Asian American, Tam will find himself accepted and cherished by all he comes into contact with in America; there Tam will never ever experience any racism like the kind he is already subject to in Vietnam (after all, Thuy, the symbol of the typical Vietnamese male, wants to kill him). Many white Americans actually believe this assumption.

Of course, Asian Americans who have experienced the racism of white America have a very different take on the matter. Similarly, many Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese transnational/transracial adoptees would also question the scales which see life as an adoptee in America as far superior to what life might have been like if they had grown up in Korea, China or Vietnam.

In Miss Saigon’s equation between a life for Tam with white American father Chris and his white wife or life with Vietnamese mother Kim, clearly it is more important and it will be more beneficial for Tam to be with his white father. Indeed, it will be so filled with benefits that life with his white father Chris in America will still be superior even if Tam’s Vietnamese mother kills herself. In other words, being separated from his white American father Chris would be a far more significant lack than having his Vietnamese mother die. After all, how much could her life be worth? She’s Vietnamese. How important could having a live mother be? She’s Vietnamese. Yes, it’s a tragic loss, but isn’t it noble of Kim to recognize how superior life in America is to life in Vietnam, how America is a place without racism in comparison to the racist Vietnam, how important a white American father is in comparison to a Vietnamese mother?

It’s this recognition of white superiority that makes her a tragic heroine. It’s this recognition that makes her so much better and more noble than the Vietnamese around her. It’s this recognition on her part that makes white American audiences weep for her death, which, though sad, is clearly necessary.

But why is it necessary? As Brecht instructed, let’s reverse the dialectic: Kim’s suicide is necessary for the white American audiences so that they can weep over her death. Clearly, it is far better that white American audiences have a good cry than that Kim continues to live and be a mother to Tam. It’s a small cost. She’s Vietnamese. In the end, she’s just a gook whore. And the fact that we white audience members actually cry for a gook whore? Well, that just shows what large hearts we have. How we’ve obviously transcended racism.

A good cry and a pat on the back and an absolution from racism—what more could a white audience member ask for?

The original production of Miss Saigon became infamous for the yellow face casting of the white British actor Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian Engineer pimp. That the Engineer was Eurasian was part of the justification for this casting. The fact that no Asian or Asian American actors were allowed to try out for the part was justified by Pryce’s star status (so much for the open competition of the arts and art as a democracy of the imagination).

In subsequent productions, the use of yellow face casting was abandoned. But it should be noted that the creators of Miss Saigon clearly had no problems with using such casting in their original production. And for many Asian American actors, that says a lot about how little the creators cared about, or were even aware of, the issues involved with the representation of Asians and Asian Americans on stage and in media.

Today, any use of black faced casting—the playing of black characters by white actors—would not permitted. If such casting did occur, the uproar from both blacks and whites would be enormous.

And yet, as seen recently in The Last Airbender and in Cloud Atlas, it is still okay to use yellow face casting in major motion pictures. The powers that be in the arts do not fear the reaction against this egregious practice when it comes to Asians and Asian Americans, just as the powers that be in the arts tolerate the continuation of stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans in ways that would not dare commit to in the representation of African Americans (which is not to say that stereotypes of blacks don’t continue to appear. I’m not suggesting African Americans don’t experience stereotyping or racism, or that Asians have it worse; I am suggesting that white people fear reactions and outspokenness from the Black community, and expect compliance and submissiveness from Asians).

The Ordway Theater would argue that articles like the one I’m writing here represent calls to censorship. In doing so, they fail to acknowledge that an organization makes choices all the time not to produce certain works; they make these choices because the works are not deemed popular enough or of sufficient aesthetic quality or because they are simply reprehensible.

The Ordway would never put on a musical where all the black slaves were unintelligent, immoral and in love with their masters or where all the characters were Jewish bankers and businessmen who were venal, money hungry and soulless or where the British colonial soldiers are depicted as far more moral and sexually attractive than the American colonists.

The Ordway would not present a musical based on W.D. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation or some thirties Nazi film with stereotypes of Jews. It would brand such works as artistically inferior, as lies not art, as dated and outmoded. It would not call its refusal to put on such works censorship. It would say not producing such works was simply the right thing to do.

Apparently, though, the same rules don’t apply when it comes to works depicting stereotypes of Asians. And that, folks, is racism, plain and simple–on the part of the creators of Miss Saigon and on the part of organizations like the Ordway Theater who produce this abomination.

Further background notes on Miss Saigon and the imperialistic tradition of racist Orientalist cultural productions:

One defense that the Ordway Theater has proffered is this: By presenting Miss Saigon, the Ordway is simply performing the function of any producer of art—to spark a conversation about serious issues.

Let me inform the Ordway Theater: Asian Americans have been having a discussion about racism in America long before Miss Saigon. We have been experiencing racism in America long before Miss Saigon, and we didn’t need Miss Saigon to remind us that racism, imperialism, the romanticization of human trafficking existed in works of art about Asia and Asian America. It’s insulting that the Ordway presumes we need a work like Miss Saigon to discuss these issues—or that Asian American artists and writers have not been sparking such conversations for decades.

What the Ordway is doing is like coming to a community which has a long history of dealing with environmental problems and then sprinkling more pollution on the community and then saying, “Hey, you should thank us. We’re sparking a conversation about pollution.”

In contrast to most whites, many Asian Americans are painfully aware of the continued stereotypical portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans in the media. I grew up with figures of ridicule and buffoons—Peter the cranky houseboy in Bachelor Father, Hop Sing the cook in Bonanza, the yellow-faced Mickey Rooney as a buck-toothed Japanese photographer fruitlessly yelling at Audrey Hepburn and her practice of ringing his doorbell when she forgot her key (and yet he is clearly sexually aroused when she dangles the chance of his taking her picture). There was the evil genius, Dr. Fu Manchu, the slimy Ming the Merciless, leering after Dale Arden in the old Flash Gordon movies.

The Asian women who appeared films were often prostitutes, geisha, bar dancers, figures of exotic and sensual and mysterious sexuality, hyper-feminine, giggly, and subservient. The World of Suzie Wong, The Sand Pebbles, Sayonara, Full Metal Jacket. By the end of the film many of these women came to adore the white men—often military men—who swept into their lives and romanced them and proved far more attractive and kind and generous and three-dimensional than any of the wooden, sullen, sexist, often violent Asian men the Asian women were trying to escape.

None of this taught me that art or America was a democracy free of racism. When Warner Oland played Charlie Chan in yellow face, mumbling faux bits of Oriental wisdom and solving cases, while Keye Luke played his bumbling, knock-kneed, cowardly No. 1 son, even I at eight understood the hierarchy: The lead role, the hero, would always be a white guy. The Asian guy would be his second, his assistant, would be there for comic relief.

Is it any surprise that such stereotypes, such racial hierarchies, affected the way I saw myself? That such casting and portrayals made me want to disassociate myself from my ethnic Japanese background and my identity as an Asian American? That I came to identify with the white gunslinger Paladin and not the Chinese messenger with his pigtail bouncing as he ran through the hotel lobby shouting, “Terragram! Terragram for Mista Parradin.” If you’re Asian, you can’t be the hero, you can’t be the good guy. You can be sexy, you can’t get the girl if you’re an Asian guy. Why don’t you just admit that’s the way things are? Why don’t you just accept your inferior, secondary status? We’ll all get along better that way.

You might say that the times have changed, but really they haven’t. 9 out of 10 interracial Asian-White couples in television, commercials and films will be a white man and an Asian woman. Just like Miss Saigon.

I’m a third generation Japanese American. Both my parents families were imprisoned in internment camps in World War II in desolate out of the way areas of the American western interior and the South. They were kept behind barbed wire fences under rifle towers with armed guards. Not one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were interned were ever convicted of any act of espionage. Many, like my father and mother, were teenagers, or children. The Japanese American families struggled to keep their community together, to keep their dignity, to continue to believe in American and the rights guaranteed in the Constitution, to see themselves as Americans. That to me would seem to be the issues and the story of the internment camps.

But Come See the Paradise and Snow Falling On Cedars, the two major motion pictures based on the internment camps, both center their plots around a romantic relationship—a white American man and a Japanese American women.* When the Japanese American playwright Philip Gotanda was asked by the director of Come See the Paradise to work on the film script, Philip refused because of the stereotypical romantic coupling of a white man and an Asian woman and because historically very few of my parents’ generation married interracially. They were forbidden by law from doing so. But Parker kept replying that this romantic pairing was simply the story he wanted to tell. He was merely exercising artistic freedom.

Parker likes to talk about himself as a working class bloke. He’s not like the upper class directors like Sir Richard Attenborough, he says. So Philip said to Parker, “Listen, Alan, suppose I wanted to do a film about working class England in the thirties, during the Depression. It will be a gritty film about working class life. And I’ll have a white English actress play your mother and a white English boy actor play you. But for you’re father, I’m going to have a Japanese guy. Because, well, that’s the story I want to tell.”

Parker reacted indignantly, “That’s not what I’m doing. That’s not what I’m doing at all.”

I’ve generally found that those who like to use stereotypes and racist tropes always find it reprehensible when someone else suggests the same for the community or ethnic or racial group those artists belong to. But then racism always works with a double standard. The racist doesn’t believe that standard is racist. To him or her, that’s just the way the world is. It’s just the story they want to tell.

In its defense of Miss Saigon, the Ordway Theater has used just this reasoning: It’s just the story they want to tell. The story can’t be racist because they don’t see the racism in it. The Asian Americans who are protesting the musical simply can’t see the world as it is, can’t see the truth of this great work of art.

But again, that’s another way that racism works. One group, whites, ultimately hold the power and make the decision for the way things are run. They believe they are in a position of power not because of an unjust and unequal system but because they simply know better. The Ordway Theater has acted in a way that is in keeping with the imperialist history which undergirds Miss Saigon: Let the great white fathers and mothers decide things. The good natives support us. The bad natives, who don’t see our wisdom and truth, don’t support us. But really, they don’t count. After all, they’re the bad natives.

One might ask where this emphasis on the white European/American male and the Asian woman as a romantic coupling comes from? This nearly total inability on the part of white artists to imagine the reverse of this coupling—a European/American woman and an Asian man? One might also ask why a coupling of an Asian woman and an Asian man might not also be equally compelling?

As many scholars and as David Henry Hwang points out in his introduction to M. Butterfly, this stereotype of the white European/American male and the Asian woman stems from the history of imperialism. In the ideology of imperialism, it was assumed that the Europeans—and later the Americans—had a right colonize countries in Asia. This right stemmed from the superiority of Europeans—and later Americans—a superiority which was not just political or military, but also cultural and religious. In keeping with the sexism of the time, Europe—and later the Americans—were viewed as the superior male to the inherently feminine, and thus inferior, female Orient.

Thus, the symbol of the Orient–and later Asian—was the woman, and in this equation the Asian male was also seen as feminine or effeminate and, by sexist and racist logic, as inferior. This whole racist, sexist ideology became part of the political, economic, cultural and sexual lens through which Europeans—and later the Americans—came to view their dealings with the countries of Asian and their inhabitants.

Fuel for this racist, sexist ideology came from the military occupation of the countries of Asian by European countries—and later America. Europeans—and later Americans—were more powerful and more masculine, and this is why they were able to defeat and rule over these Asian countries and their inhabitants. The military of the European nations—and later America—was the instrument and symbol of this masculine racial superiority. At the same time, since European military forces—and later American forces—were stationed as occupying armies in Asia, the soldiers required prostitutes to satisfy their sexual needs.

Thus, the prime interaction between the European—and later American—forces and the local population took place in brothels and with native prostitutes. This was the lens through which the European military forces—and later the American forces—came to view the countries they occupied and the populations within those countries.

Given the sexist, racist, and imperialistic history of this coupling of the white European/American male—a member of the military personnel—and an Asian female—a woman forced into prostitution by economic and political circumstances—is it any wonder many Asians and Asian Americans find this stereotype objectionable? It’s a perpetuation of a sexist, racist and imperialistic ideology whose evils we should all recognize by now.

Except, well, it’s really romantic, isn’t it? And hey, Asian chicks are really hot!

Miss Saigon and The Ordway ought to be ashamed of what they’re promoting. But they don’t see the egregious nature of what they’re doing. They’re still trapped in a sexist, racist and imperialistic ideology. They’re still trapped within their own sexist, racist and imperialistic history. And they don’t want to let go.

David Mura has written two memoirs, Turning Japanese (a New York Times Notable Book) and Where the Body Meets Memory. He has also written a novel, three books of poetry, and an upcoming volume of poetry, The Last Incantations. His book of criticism is Song for Uncle Tom, Tonto & Mr. Moto: Poetry & Identity. He teaches at the Stonecoast MFA Program and the VONA Writers’ Conference.