Miss Saigon Comes to My Hometown

A modified version of a letter I sent to my city’s local theatre company

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To Whom it May Concern,

I recently enjoyed a wonderful production of A Chorus Line, performed by the M Theatre. I found this musical to be emotive and particularly sensitive to the LGBT community. The scene in which Paul retells his parents essentially disowning him was handled with grace and definitely ignited a few tears in my eyes, as well as my fellow viewers. Because I enjoyed A Chorus Line so much, I looked in the playbill to see what shows were in the works and was deeply surprised to learn that M Theatre will be putting on a production of something as controversial as Miss Saigon.

While A Chorus Line was so respectful to the LGBT community, Miss Saigon is anything but respectful to the Asian/Pacific Islander community. Because your group has chosen to show Miss Saigon, I’m sure you’re well aware of the plot. Since this is a mostly white community, though, I’m not sure if M Theatre know how deeply offended many Asian Americans are by this production in particular.

Firstly, Miss Saigon romanticizes human sex trafficking. The whole plot glorifies prostitution as a “career” in which one can find their true love. I think I can arguably say that this line of work wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice unless they felt they didn’t have any other options. It is unfair to capitalize and romanticize people’s destitution. Sadly, during the Vietnam War women did prostitute themselves to soldiers (as a result of U.S. military presence), but this is a tragedy, not something to glorify through a musical. Additionally, it does not seem to faze Miss Saigon fans that Chris’ involvement with Kim is statutory rape.

Additionally, Miss Saigon has some horridly racist portrayals of Asian men and women. Asian women are often seen as sweet, passive, subservient, and demure while simultaneously being something of a sex-goddess in bed. This creates and promotes the Asian Fetish, in which men fantasize and exoticize Asian women. Asian fetishizers’ attraction (also called “The Madame Butterfly Effect,” the opera which Miss Saigon is based)  to Asian women is founded purely on the stereotypes of submissiveness and racialized sexiness.  For our very safety, my female Asian friends and I discuss encounters with men who fetishize Asians as a warning to each other. When walking down the street, I have been confronted by men of all ages who make risque comments about my race or whose unwanted stares appear to be undressing me with their eyes, projecting on my body all of their “oriental” fantasies. These uncomfortable and unnerving encounters are legitimatized by works like Miss Saigon that portray the Asian women as only sex toys to the American G.I.s. Having a stage full of nearly nude Asian women prancing about in a cheesy manner only promotes and encourages men to continue fetishizing Asian women.

While Asian women are often hyper-sexualized, Asian men are often desexualized in Western media, portrayed as being either a stern, scathing, undesirable misogynist or a short and effeminate nerd with a small penis. Miss Saigon fits these male stereotypes through this colonial storyline in which the white male members of the occupying forces are always seen as morally and sexually superior than the native men. Kim’s betrothed is prejudiced against her mixed-race child, tries to kill her son, and is a Communist soldier (the G.I.’s opponents), so he is naturally evil. The Engineer/pimp is made to be an obviously unlikeable character, and this leaves Chris as the most desirable male, never mind he impregnated a minor at a house of prostitution.

Moreover, Miss Saigon capitalizes on the pain and suffering of a minority group without their permission or benefit. Miss Saigon profits off of exploiting a painful time in Asian history. A comparable example would be if the M Theatre was putting on a production during the slave era U.S.A of a teen slave repeatedly raped by her plantation owner. In fact, there are stories like this, but unlike Miss Saigon, they are used to exhibit a horrible period of history for African Americans, and embarrassing time in larger U.S. history of overt and devastating racial injustice, not couched in the terms of a “love story” where the poor girl pines after her oppressor.

This play is also offensive to me as an adoptee. Though adoptees often times lose their home countries, first languages, first family ties, and first cultures, the positive gains in adoption are seen to outweigh all of these losses. Adoption is commonly discussed in the altruistic, charitable terms of saving or rescuing a child. This can be shown on the Tumblr page, You Should Be Grateful, in which adoptees share comments made by their family members including, “If we didn’t adopt you you’d probably be a prostitute or working in the rice fields,” “Your mom was probably a prostitute and your dad an American soldier,” and “If it wasn’t for us, where would you be? A prostitute? Living on the streets?” The role of Kim, the young orphan girl, in Miss Saigon exemplifies this characterization almost exactly and can be used as fodder to continue this problematic way of thinking about adoption and benevolence.

Another noted element of this play is the White Savior Complex everywhere. The power imbalance between Chris and Kim cannot be any greater considering the age difference, race difference, and financial difference.  The American G.I. represents a first world power with first world resources and privileges who colonizes or rescues the Asian female, who comes from a place of poverty, weakness, and everything else often associated with the “third world.” The White Savior Complex is again depicted in the last scene when Kim kills herself as a sacrifice to her son, so that he may live with his white father in America (the superior country to Vietnam) where mixed race people don’t experience racism. This half Asian woman writes on how people of color learn to internalize racism against themselves as a norm.

Lastly, this play romanticizes suicide. Though not Asian specific, this is a seriously problematic element of the play. As a young adult, I have already lost two classmates to suicide. I have many other friends who are diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety disorders, or other mental illnesses, and I know firsthand that these are serious issues. The loss of life to suicide is yet another tragedy that Miss Saigon glorifies.

Out of curiosity, I was wondering how M Theatre is planning to combat the issues of cultural appropriation and yellowface. Since our city is not full of Asian constituents let alone Asian actors and actresses, were you planning on casting white people in the Asian roles or bringing in Asian actors from another city? One of the first productions of Miss Saigon in 1990 received much criticism, calling “the casting of Mr. Pryce as a Eurasian to be especially insensitive and an affront to the Asian community.” Yellowface has recently been committed by some big names including Katy Perry at the AMAs, Natasha Bedingfield in her music video “I Bruise Easily,” and the cast of the popular show How I Met Your Mother with definite backlash by the Asian American community. It is unfathomable to me that people don’t seem to realize that yellowface is just as offensive and demeaning as blackface. In the 21st century, we seem to have a common understanding that blackface in theater, in art, in daily dressing is unacceptable. It is time to give Asian Americans the same courtesy.

Unfortunately, even when Asians are willing to act in these degrading roles, it is often times because there are so few roles Asians are typically cast in, and they need to work. It is NOT because they identify with these characters or even want to personify them.

Last fall, when the Ordway Fine Arts Center in Minnesota put on Miss Saigon, there were protests and pickets in front of the theater. After learning about the controversy, one ticket holder said, “I don’t think my desire to see a show trumps a community saying ‘we’re hurt by this production.” In actuality, Asian Americans have been protesting Miss Saigon since it first hit broadway over 20 years ago, and we have been discussing racism against Asians and Asian Americans long before Miss Saigon. Our voices have been compiled at the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon tumblr page and on Facebook at Miss Saigon Lies. Our voices collectively make a much stronger impact than my individual plea can make, so I encourage you to open these links and read honest Asian American narratives that are nothing like the one-dimensional Asian characters reflected in Miss Saigon.

I understand that Miss Saigon has reached the level of “a classic” in theater. I believe, however, when a classic glorifies a painful piece of history and belittles a whole race of people as passive, sexual objects for white men’s pleasure, it’s time to rethink what constitutes a classic and decide if that’s the message our community wants to perpetuate. By putting on this show, M Theatre is showing that there is a demand for as well as potential profitability off of deeply racist, imperialistic, and degrading plays.

By now, you probably already bought the rights to put on the play and rented the costumes necessary. An action the M Theatre could to take to slightly remedy this mistake would be to do somewhat of a role reversal by casting Asians in the dominant and empowered group and white actors in the culturally insensitive roles. This tactic would of course turn the “romantic” drama into more of a political comedy, and could be used to highlight to the mostly white audience why Miss Saigon is so terribly offensive.

Although I love local theater, I am going to have to skip Miss Saigon and tell everyone I know to boycott this production, as well. I hope M Theatre can use this as a learning opportunity to be respectful to the Asian Americans in our community the same way you were to the LGBT community in A Chorus Line. I look forward to your futures plays that support telling honest Asian stories.

Sincerely,
RTB

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8 responses to “Miss Saigon Comes to My Hometown

  1. It’s a brilliant letter, and I’m not surprised, given your posts. I completely agree with some of your points, not so much with a couple, and one point is missing. The one that is missing is that Miss Saigon is one of the VERY few shows for Asian actors and singers, so by boycotting this show it hurts the livelihood of the MOST marginalized group of actors in this country.

    • I do briefly touch upon that in my letter when I say, “Unfortunately, even when Asians are willing to act in these degrading roles, it is often times because there are so few roles Asians are typically cast in, and they need to work. It is NOT because they identify with these characters or even want to personify them.”

      I think instead of promoting Miss Saigon as one of the few shows with Asian roles, we should support independent playwrights and theaters and shows that tell honest Asian stories. Have you heard of Mu Performing Arts? It’s an Asian American theater based in Minneapolis. I’ve been able to attend a couple of their shows.

  2. Pingback: Miss Saigon Lies; The Theatre Denies | Red Thread Broken·

  3. Pingback: KAAN 2015: Intersections | Red Thread Broken·

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