By Timothy Yu
What brings you to Miss Saigon tonight?
Maybe you’re a longtime fan of the show. Maybe you’re new to the audience, and you’ve been drawn in for a show that calls itself “the epic love story of our time.” Whatever the case, you’re not alone: Miss Saigon is one of the most popular and successful musicals of all time.
But did you know that since its debut in 1989, Miss Saigon has also been the target of repeated protests? Did you know that its original London production involved the use of yellowface–a white actor made up to look Asian? Did you know that Asian American activists, artists, and scholars have frequently objected to its promotion of stereotypes, from its sexualized, self-sacrificing Asian women to its villainous Asian men? And did you know that in places like the Twin Cities, Asian Americans have fought to keep Miss Saigon from returning–and won?
If you don’t know this history, perhaps you should. If you are watching Miss Saigon today, whether for the first or the tenth time, perhaps you can try to see and hear it differently. Perhaps you can consider the perspectives of Asian Americans and particularly of Vietnamese Americans, many of whom have felt for decades that Miss Saigon distorts their history and glamorizes their traumas. And perhaps you can ask yourself why, in an era when rich and complex representations of Asian Americans are increasingly mainstream, Miss Saigon continues to be staged and celebrated–and whether its time has passed.
The trouble with Miss Saigon begins with its story, which transposes Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and its central romance between a British sailor and a young Japanese girl, to the U.S. war in Vietnam. It continues a tradition that views the Asian woman as a sexual object to be conquered by the white hero–a stereotype highlighted by the fact that the Vietnamese women in Miss Saigon are all prostitutes. They are, as scholar Karen Shimakawa puts it, “either hypersexualized Dragon Ladies in string bikinis or Kim, the single Lotus Blossom—shy, passive, virginal in an ersatz Vietnamese wedding gown.” Asian men, in contrast, are portrayed in a sharply negative light. As the poet David Mura has noted, “all the major Vietnamese male characters are seen as thoroughly morally flawed and unattractive…neither as human nor as moral nor as sexually attractive as…white Americans.” Mura goes on to observe that these are not isolated stereotypes, but continuous with the stereotypes of Asians that continue to prevail in American popular culture. “Is it any surprise,” Mura asks, “that such stereotypes, such racial hierarchies, affected the way I saw myself?”
Some of the most powerful responses to Miss Saigon have come from Vietnamese Americans. In her review of the current revival of Miss Saigon in American Theatre, Diep Tran asks several prominent Vietnamese American writers for their views of the musical. Viet Thanh Nguyen, a professor at the University of Southern California and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer, told Tran that when he first saw Miss Saigon, “I thought it was terrible, fulfilling every Orientalist trope that I had studied and was opposed to…It fits perfectly into the way that Americans, and Europeans, have imagined the Vietnam War as a racial and sexual fantasy that negates the war’s political significance and Vietnamese subjectivity and agency.” Playwright Qui Nguyen, author of the widely produced Vietgone, put it even more bluntly: “It’s melodramatic white-savior fantasia claptrap that’s barely more than a modern-day Mikado.”
What Tran herself sees on stage is a jarring, damaging injustice to the real stories of her community. “If the show was trying to tell the story of Vietnamese people,” she writes, “we did not recognize ourselves or our parents in any of the faces we were seeing on that stage. Instead, all we could see were desperate, pathetic victims—people who were completely different from the resilient, courageous, multifaceted men and women of Little Saigon.” Ultimately, for Tran, as for many other Asian American viewers, Miss Saigon cannot escape being a white fantasy: “In Miss Saigon, Vietnam is a place not worth saving, and America is a holy grail worth killing and dying for…Is it any wonder that I, and so many other Vietnamese people, hate Miss Saigon?”
There are, of course, many Asian Americans who are fans of Miss Saigon, and many Asian American performers for whom Miss Saigon offers one of the few opportunities for prominent roles on a Broadway stage. Perhaps that’s because however grating its stereotypes, Miss Saigon was, for too long, one of the few representations of Asians at all on the American stage. But Asian Americans have been writing their own responses to stereotypes since before Miss Saigon was ever written. David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, a critical twist on the same story Miss Saigon updates and extends, premiered in 1988. Works by Hwang and, more recently, Young Jean Lee have made it to Broadway stages. Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone has been produced across the country, including in the Twin Cities and in Glencoe, Illinois. The Milwaukee Rep staged Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady this spring.
It’s time for Madison theatergoers to ask: why can’t we do the same here? Why can’t stages like Overture’s feature Asian American voices telling Asian American stories, with rich, complex roles for Asian American actors, instead of rehashing tired stereotypes? Don’t we deserve to see performances that reflect and speak to the real experiences of Madison’s own Asian American communities? Who is Miss Saigon for, anyway, and who does it leave out?
Ask yourself these questions as you watch tonight’s performance. If they make you a bit more uncomfortable with the characters, storylines, and songs you witness tonight, all the better. Perhaps you’ll feel compelled to learn more about the real stories of Asian Americans and of Asian American theatre. And perhaps you’ll ask yourself if Madison can do better than bringing back Miss Saigon again.
David Mura, “The Problem With Miss Saigon (or how many stereotypes can you cram into one Broadway musical).” https://blog.davidmura.com/2013/09/11/the-problem-with-miss-saigon-or-how-many-stereotypes-can-you-cram-into-one-broadway-musical/
Karen Shimakawa, National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage (Duke University Press, 2002).
Diep Tran, “I Am Miss Saigon, and I Hate It.” American Theatre, 13 April 2017. https://www.americantheatre.org/2017/04/13/i-am-miss-saigon-and-i-hate-it/