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

David Mura Guest Columnist

David Mura
Guest Columnist

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, Madama 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 run 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.

About davidmura

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.

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

  1. Pingback: Miss Saigon With the Wind | RLM Art Studio

  2. Har
    February 28, 2014

    right on! as the Asian American wife of an Asian American guy, he was grumbling how there are no couples like us in commercials…in commercials, all the Asian wives are married to white guys. I thought maybe the advertisers were just trying to hit two market segments at once…but your essay points out a more disturbing, racist history and explanation.

    The portrayal of Asians in western media of all kinds, is so limited and hurtful. Thanks to streaming web technologies, we can now watch movies made in Korea or Asia and it is eye opening to see macho sexy Asian guys, Asian women who are wellrounded characters, and even Asian women who are strong, heroic and funny.

    One realizes how growing up Asian in America, can really harm your psyche and self-image in a deep, subtle way. Thanks for the thoughtful writing.

  3. Chris
    January 9, 2014

    The one other point I think that needs to be made, the people that are calling it racist completely miss the point of the play. They are misplacing the reason for their angry emotions they feel after seeing the play. It is not just a “sad” story that you just feel slightly unhappy but still see it as beautiful (ie. romeo and juliet). This is an epic over the top operatic tragedy. Since it’s a tragedy, you should leave feeling horrible, angry and disgusted, not simply unhappy or merely sad. If you leave feeling anything else other than wretched disgust for what happens then you miss the point of the play.

    I think many people who go in seeing the play don’t expect to feel those emotions, they were expecting to be “entertained” in the conventional sense. The play does provide entertainment, but by bringing out emotions in the audience that are not typically explored in most storylines.

    • davidmura
      March 18, 2014

      Chris, when you say to me, “you miss the point of the play,” you imply two things that are up to debate: First, as in John’s remark below, you imply that the play and its creators determine what the point of the play is. Both as a writer myself and as a literary critic, I’m aware that the art doesn’t work like that, and there’s a whole body of theory which certainly argues against this (c.f. “the death of the author”). Secondly, you imply that you know what the point of the play is, and I don’t. Now I do probably agree that your description of what the audience who see Miss Saigon may be approximately what the creators intended. But then I teach creative writing, and I see students come into class and describe the intentions of their piece in ways which match the intentions of Shakespeare or Sophocles or Emily Dickinson or Virginia Wolf. But that doesn’t mean the piece actually accomplishes or embodies this intention. I didn’t feel any of the emotions you describe, and the reasons why I believe I didn’t experience those emotions is because Miss Saigon is an inferior work of art, a work which has not accomplished what it intended, just as many of my students do not accomplish in their art what they intended. Certainly, my experience was not that I was overwhelmed by emotions that I didn’t expect when I saw the play. My response was a mixture of bemusement–as when the little boy looks at the Emperor and sees he has no clothes and the adults around him keep pretending that the Emperor is wearing clothes–and irritation and anger at another work which simply reinforces so many racial stereotypes of both white Americans and Asians.

      One additional point: My experience of the world is part of the reason for my responses to Miss Saigon. Those experiences are shaped by my particular experiences with the ways race works in our society. What the musical brought forth in part was a difference between the middle aged white woman weeping next to me in the balcony and my sense of “Really? I’m supposed to weeping at this crap?” Now it may very well be that the musical itself was intended for this middle-aged white woman and not for me, and I’ve explained in my essay why this is the case.

      I can imagine a work of art in which that middle aged white woman and I would both be overcome with emotion. But that work of art is not Miss Saigon.

  4. Chris
    January 9, 2014

    I know this is late, but would like to give my opinion after just watching Miss Saigon on youtube. I understand many of the points you make and agree with many of them. I agree that Asian American men are not represented enough in American arts and entertainment in strong dominant roles, and the stereotyping/fetishizing of asians does exist. I also agree that Miss Saigon is Eurocentric, but that does not in itself make it racist or bad. All cultures centralize themselves in their narrative. Watch a Bollywood film that is even set in New York, the Americans will be incredibly one dimensional, as the movie is focused from an Indian perspective. It will seem ludicrous to me, because I wasn’t raised in Indian culture. But that doesn’t make it racist towards America.

    When I watched Miss Saigon, I did not see it as celebrating America. I saw it as showing America as not being that ideal that it constantly sells to itself. I did not see the musical as celebrating the American soldiers they looked like louts. I did not see where Chris and Ellen came across as the “white” heroes. It’s a tragedy, it ends badly for everyone, everyone loses something. I also did not see the main character Kim as a passive asian stereotype. If she was a “passive asian girl” she would gone on with the arranged marriage to Thuy and not be falling in love with Chris. Kim stands up to Thuy and kills him, I fail to see how that is a weak and passive asian girl?

    It’s a tragedy wrapped in a typical broadway spectable. It will reduce many complex cultural subjects to cheap props. If people in the audience take away that this a complete portayl of vietnam or asian people it exposes their own prejudices, but does not make the musical itself a derogatory representation of Vietnam. That period of time was a dark time for both Vietnam and America, it would have seemed out of place and not informed the narrative to have say a happy wealthy sexually powerful vietnamese guy.

    This play could have easily been written with difference countries. It could have easily been a story between a Chinese soldier and a Korean prostitute during the Sino-Japanese war in late 1800′s over the Korean peninsula. Why wasn’t it originally written this way? Because it was originally written for a western theatre audience (that is overwhelming white). That doesn’t make it racist.

    But I would agree many Americans need a heavy dose of education in being able to enjoy the musical (by enjoy I mean they should feel sorrow for the tragedy), but not to take it as a complete picture of all asian women. But stereotypes exist in all cultures, I’ve travelled in China and Pakistan and now live in the UAE, and constantly dubunk many stereotypes of westerners – ie that we are all rich, unfriendly, superficial and only caring about money. I also have gotten fetishized by many poorer people in these countries as they are wanting to sleep with a white person because it’s exotic. And many people in these countries assume that white women are easily available for sex compared to their more conservative society. So stereotypes are based on some truths, and there is the danger of applying it to everyone.

    That being said, I do think second, third, etc. generation asian americans are stuck in a hard place. They don’t relate to their heritage culture anymore (so they cannot just go watch a Chinese/korean/japanese etc film to see a strong dominant role, because it is a foreign culture). But travelling the world I accept Hollywood for what it is for entertainment and its lens it sees thing through. If I want to see a Chinese central theme I go look for a chinese film (watch the movie “Switch”), or bollywood for good indian entertainment (watch the movie “Dhoom3″). I would not be looking to hollywood or expect the western entertainment industry to be doing that or know how to do it well.

    • davidmura
      January 9, 2014

      Chris, there are many points you make here, and I don’t have time to address them all. But I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comments. And I’m recognize that you do grant certain points I make in my article. That said, let me address your comment.

      Certainly, it’s true that stereotypes exist in all cultures and other cultures do stereotype Americans. Just because this happens elsewhere doesn’t make it correct. It doesn’t mean that the practice of stereotyping shouldn’t be criticized when it happens in our own culture and country.

      You talk rather blithely about Hollywood and entertainment as if the problems in the entertainment world aren’t both a cause of and reflective of the way American society is run or the various other ways racist practices continue in other areas of society. In Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark she examines various ways noted American white authors project their racial fears onto the presence of African Americans in this country. So it’s not just Hollywood that creates these stereotypes. And the effect of these stereotypes are played out in racial profiling, in systemic racial discrimination in terms of hiring or promotion, in terms of the distribution of resources and power in the society. There’s a relationship between cultural production and social practice when it comes to the issues of race, and that relationship is a complex one, but it’s complexity doesn’t mean the one doesn’t affect the other.

      The experience of white Americans who go abroad and experience stereotyping of white Americans is NOT equivalent to the experiences of Americans of color who experience stereotypes in OUR OWN COUNTRY. And when you say in your first paragraph that well, this country/culture is Eurocentric, what’s the problem with that? you’re missing part of what this larger argument is about. It is an argument about who is an American, who defines America, what American culture is. Why shouldn’t I expect American culture to reflect the diversity of America? Why shouldn’t I expect American culture to be more than Eurocentric? Why shouldn’t I expect American history to reflect the actual history of this country and the role race has played in that history? There’s a way your last paragraph seems to relegate me and other people of color to a secondary status as Americans. You seem to imply that we shouldn’t expect the culture to reflect who we are and the role of our people in this country’s history; we should simply expect that this culture is never going to reflect our lives or our presence in America. We should just simply continue to expect these racial stereotypes because this country and the audience is “overwhelming white.” But I refuse that premise, and so do many others. And in case you’re not aware, we’re coming to a point where the population of America will not be “overwhelming white”–we need to be at work creating a culture which reflects those changes rather than denies them.

      There are certain white Americans who do believe that if you are African American, Latino American, Asian American or Native American, you’re not really a true American. The acceptance of stereotyping is part of what bolsters these beliefs; the acceptance of distorted portrayals of our history–which is what Miss Saigon does–also bolster these beliefs. I see no reason to defend these practices nor the definition of a “real” or “true” or “real” or even “typical” American as excluding anyone who isn’t white.

      You also seem to be talking out of both sides of your mouth. At one point, you’re saying, Well, stereotypes are everywhere so why get all bothered about it. And then you say: “That period of time was a dark time for both Vietnam and America, it would have seemed out of place and not informed the narrative to have say a happy wealthy sexually powerful vietnamese guy.” So in one point, you say, who cares about historical accuracy, and in another you say, well, that’s not historically accurate. And beyond that, are you saying that we’ve never seen a disproportionate amount of roles or inaccurate portrayals of a happy wealthy sexually powerful white guy? But I suppose when it’s a white guy, that’s okay. It’s just when it’s a “vietnamese guy” that we need to say, Hey, that wouldn’t be an “informed” portrayal. One set of standards for one race; a different set of standards for another race.

      Finally, and this is also an answer to John below, did you know that the language the Vietnamese speak in the musical is actually gibberish? That the creators of the musical didn’t think it necessary to even take the small about of effort that would be required to use the actual Vietnamese language? And yet you still want to argue that this musical is somehow an “informed” work of art?

  5. John
    December 19, 2013

    I knew that this was going to be a very long comment and it didn’t disappoint. Sorry about the length. While I project that you probably wont agree with what I have to say, I hope that if you do choose to read this that you take something from it rather than just discarding it completely.

    While I will say that what you say, given your perspective of the play, isn’t wrong, I believe that there are other perspectives that most audiences look at before they look at the one Mr. Mura has presented.

    You see, first we must look at the message that the librettist and composer were trying to send to its audience. The message that I believe can plainly be seen is the importance of a person’s childhood and the impact it can make on someone’s life. This message is pasted on the backdrop of the prostitution scene in Saigon leading up to the fall of Saigon and its impact on this culture and on some American soldiers in the years after the war had ended.

    To really understand this musical, you need to understand why each character feels and does the things that they feel and do. I’m going to start with Chris.

    Chris:
    Chris works as a driver for the US embassy during the Vietnam war. This is his second deployment. When he went home after his first deployment, he is surprised to hear that no one at home understands his experience of the Vietnam War. We can only judge that most people at home only hear about the front lines. You could say that Chris has had it easy. He’s relatively safe in Saigon. This allows him to appreciate the city more than he does worry about the war. He gets to take in the cities beauty.

    When we actually get to meeting Chris in the Musical when he first enters the “Dreamland Brothel”, he is depressed. He sees the war is coming to a close. The side that the US is fighting for is losing and he comes to the realization that he is going to be shipped back home within the next month or so and he is never going to return to Saigon. At such a young age, Chris is never going to see anything as Beautiful as Saigon ever again. Then he meets Kim. He hasn’t necessarily fallen in love with Kim though. He has fallen in love with Saigon and he sees in this beautiful young woman a chance to have a part of Vietnam for the rest of his life. That is why he is so quick to marry her and urges her to leave with him. He knows he can’t stay in Vietnam because of commitments back home so Kim is the next best thing.

    Kim:
    Kim’s story before you meet her is one of tragedy. She has a relatively good life with a mother and father and a marriage that has been arranged for her, which she probably doesn’t mind at all. Not until her suitor, who is a soldier for the one (US) side of the war changes to Ho Chi Minh’s side and then her village was destroyed by Ho Chi Minh’s army, who also killed her family in the raid. She managed to get away.

    From there, we could assume she went a while trying to figure out how to survive until she resorted to prostitution. This is when we meet her. From here, we discover she is still virginal (which is usually a hot seller in brothels). Because of what I described, Kim sees Chris as the only person who has really cared for her since her family was killed. She takes this as love and so she marries Chris. Then the fall of Saigon happens. It is very obvious that Chris wants to get Kim, but in a tragedy of circumstance, he is unable to. Next time we see Kim (after he kills Thuy trying to protect her child), she is with the Engineer trying to make it to america, using her child with Chris to get a visa. Her life hasn’t changed. Kim still lives a rather deplorable life. She probably longs for her old life with her family and she longs to be with Chris.

    When Chris comes and takes Tam. She comes to a realization. She has nothing left to live for. She has given up her child to so he can live the american dream (something that will be discussed later in my explanation), she has given up Chris for a second time so that he can raise his child and she has lost her mother and father. Her life for the past three years can be described as hell. She is a prostitute who has nothing left to love or hold onto. Of course she kills herself. It isn’t because she’s Asian or anything. I can probably say that I would kill myself too if I was put into her situation.

    In the end, Kim’s death is all about a tragedy of errors as can be described in Ellen’s story.

    Ellen:
    Ellen is Chris’ wife, who he met when he went back home. She discovers that Chris has not only a lover, but also a child in Vietnam, which she knows that he still thinks about (Chris yells her name in his dreams while they sleep). She takes it like any sane human would, but after meeting Kim completely by chance and after a rough explanation by Chris (a slight reprise of Why God, Why?) of exactly why he felt the feeling for Kim and how it all went down, she comes to a conclusion. She realizes that Kim is in a rough spot and she understands as a woman what materialism is. She decides that her and Chris must stay with Kim and help her raise her child. Of course, Ellen realizes that Tam can’t go without a father as much as he can’t go without a mother, making this the best compromise for them all. In the end, Kim only thinks that when Tam is taken away that she will never see him again. She doesn’t know that Ellen has decided that they will stay. This is where the errors in this tragedy comes.

    The Engineer:
    He is the most important character in this entire story. He is the foil to Tam. He was born to a French father and an Asian mother (who, we can assume, just because of how foils work, is a prostitute). The reason this happened is because the French colonized parts of Asia from 1887-1954 which is known as French Indo-China. During this time, there were rebellions in Vietnam and other such places which France had colonized.

    So given what we know about this, the Engineer lived a life where the French father left and his mother was the only one to raise him. Because of this, he lived a childhood only knowing the world of prostitution. He probably had a pimp as a father figure. He just took up the family business. The Engineer is just showing us what Tam might end up being if he is raised by Kim and the engineer instead of Kim and his real family.

    Then we must talk of the American dream. There is a whole song about this concept, sung by the Engineer himself. You see, back in the 70′s (the time that this play takes place in) there was this notion around the world that America was where dreams came true. People from around the world would strive to find a way to get to this country. It was the untouchable military power, the economic superpower and overall, had a pretty strong civil rights movement especially during this time. The Engineer had heard about this dream and all he strives for is to get his paws on it throughout the show. It isn’t racist. It is just a world view that was prevalent among many immigrants coming into the country and many people who wished they could immigrate into the county. And then, you can’t tell me that the Engineer hasn’t talked to Kim about what he sings about in the American Dream. I bet whenever Kim had doubts, which I’m sure she did, the Engineer would speak to her about this. This is what kept them going and this is what makes Kim believe that America is a better place for her than where she is now (and being a prostitute, it is probably true anyways).

    ———————————–

    Now, we must talk about the true tragedy of the play. What makes this play tragic is not the end of a love story between Kim and Chris. The real tragedy in the play is supposed to be Tam’s lost mother. Sadly, the music doesn’t reflect this point very well so it must be demonstrated through the blocking. I’ve only seen the National Tour on youtube. Based on that, I can say that I believe that the way the very final moments of the musical was blocked, with Tam holding the Engineer’s leg, Chris holding onto Kim’s limp body while Ellen tries to comfort Tam really works well to reflect the true tragedy of the play.

    In the end, the point that needs to be made is that this type of story is real. There probably exists stories like this or similar to this which have occurred in real life to real people. There exists people in this world who are prostitutes because they have no other perceived choice and usually soldiers will take advantage of these situations. People can seemingly fall in love with prostitutes. Everything about this play seems accurate and honestly, if it took place in WW2 Germany, or in Iraq today, I would see no reason to change anything except maybe names and other minor details (the only real problem here would be that the music would seem out of place as it uses tonal structures that are more traditionally prevalent in Asian cultures).

    • davidmura
      December 19, 2013

      John–There’s a lot to unpack in your reply and for various reasons I don’t have a lot of free time right now. I do appreciate the thought and care you put into your analysis. One point I would take issue with is your defense that “the story is real.” First, given the various improbabilities of the plot–it is after all a melodrama–I do wonder how you can rest a defense of the musical as being “real.” The number of coincidences that take place in the second act strain credulity–whatever your take about the racial questions in the musical. Secondly, please ask anyone who works with prostitutes about how likely or probable love stories between prostitutes and johns are. Ask them if the perpetuation of such lover stories contributes to or harms the understanding of what goes on in prostitution. Third, you misunderstand the nature of stereotypes. Are there people of color who commit crimes? Yes. But does that justify the constant portrayal of criminals on television as people of color? No. To say something is a stereotype is to place it against the context of representations of all people that take place in a given culture. If a criminal on a television series happens to be white, that portrayal takes places against a wide variety of representations of white people–and this includes the fact that there are always always always “good guys” or “good women” who are white to balance the white criminal. This doesn’t happen with the portrayals of people of color to anywhere near the same extent. Were there Vietnamese prostitutes? Yes. But when the portrayals of Vietnamese women–and Asian women–are overwhelmingly dominated by prostitutes and sexual sirens, that is indeed a stereotype. And that stereotype takes place against a backdrop where there are virtually no other depictions of Vietnamese women nor depictions which are three-dimensional characters or heroines. Finally, to say that US soldiers are interacting with prostitutes today as they have in the past sheds no light on the lens through which we might view those interactions. I suspect that the lens through which you view those actions in terms of the politics or the history or cultural or racial issues is quite different from the lens through which I view those actions. You seem to believe that you can speak of what is real without considering your lens or where it derives from or how it might differ from mine. But I believe the differences in our lenses are crucial and I believe your lens may perhaps keep you from seeing certain aspects of reality and how our society functions. Do I understand that certain audience members viewing Miss Saigon see it as great entertainment? Yes. But I believe that is because they have no or little knowledge or understanding of the critique I am making in my article. Most of them have never encountered an argument like the one I’m making or that other Asian American critics are making. Most have never encountered a critique of the lens through which they view the musical. And if you’re going to investigate childhoods, why not start with the ways our culture has taught white people to view people of color? And how those ways differ so greatly from the way people of color view themselves?

  6. Blue
    December 7, 2013

    Good essay, and the points it made were great. However…the author seems to forget that many Asians themselves perpetuate the stereotypes.

    For example, in his essay the author says how in films/etc the interracial couple is White male/Asian female almost all the time. True.

    Well, in real life however, the same is almost always true. Asian females (a lot of them, NOT all of course) ARE attracted to white guys, and many of these girls in today’s society consider them to be “better” than their own Asian guy. In other countries, white guys are looked at as desirable. When Asians in others countries either joke/casually speak/seriously speak about being in a relationship with a foreigner, they always mean a white male. When it is an Asian male taking about the subject, he speaks of a white female.

    When you see an interracial couple in real life, how much more often is it white guy/Asian girl than the reverse?

    And let’s be honest – how many Asians would like to see themselves paired with a non-white (aka, black) significant other in films/etc? Even in real life, whites are the ones held up in terms of interracial marriage/etc, and blacks (especially) are put down.

    Your points are valid, but Asians themselves (many) put up whites as being better than others. It’s sad but true. They themselves say how they prefer the features/colouring/etc. I don’t need to lie about this – just look around you.

    The stereotypes are there of course…But so is the actual thing.

    Racism comes from everyone, and is directed to everyone. Don’t forget that.

  7. MissK
    December 4, 2013

    Excellent article, it hits home deeply for me as I’m a black American woman married to a very sexy, handsome and intelligent Taiwanese man. I’m a nurse and have been told by professional white males, ‘if you were going to date out why didn’t you get a white guy?’ They’re truly curious as to why little old minority me could actually think my husband is hotter then 30 brad pits and whatever other famous white actors. This thinking of the superior white male has been ingrained into the American culture and it sickens me. I read the synopsis to Miss Siagon prior and was offended without even knowing about the protests. Woman are not whores to be used and tossed aside at the hand of a privileged few.

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  9. kathy fountain
    November 22, 2013

    Thank you so much for this essay. As the adoptive Caucasian parent of a 7 year old Vietnamese boy, this really helped me flesh out some of my thinking about racism against Asians. Keep fighting the good fight!

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  11. Jackie B
    October 11, 2013

    I understand your concerns about the stereotypes depicted in Miss Saigon and I agree that they are harmful, but I also believe that the theater is an incredible avenue for bringing forth discussion and awareness of issues like these. I’m no expert, but since I have just read Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus for a literary and cultural theory class, along with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I think that this situation is relatable to much of the discussion we’ve been having. Heart of Darkness and Venus both contain some very perjorative and horrifying stereotypes and attitudes based on race and gender, but the value of these works of art is in the fact that they call attention to such socially constructed viewpoints and challenge them through creating awareness. Even the fact that this lengthy discussion is able to take place is as a result of the controversy stirred by the production of Miss Saigon, and without it we might not be currently entertaining it as a topic of discourse. I know that it may be upsetting to see the stereotypical portrayal afforded to Asians in this musical, but at the same time, doesn’t it cause a sense of anxiety in us that makes us feel the injustice and inspires in us a desire to work for change?

  12. Kenny V.
    October 8, 2013

    There undoubtedly is a lot of damage and pain being done with this musical. I may not be Vietnamese, but I am of Asian descent. The reason why many of us non-Vietnamese people are protesting this musical is because this musical perpetuates ALL of the racist and stereotypical ideals about Asians in general. Yes, it can be argued that it is a strong or even beautiful piece of art, but that is what makes it even more dangerous. It’s sneaky in how it buries the racism and prejudice into people. It covers itself in an innocent shell of beauty and art, then buries itself in deep, just like a good piece of art should do. Those who enjoyed it can ONLY enjoy it by seeing the racism as “truths.” Not all stereotypes have a basis in truth. They start getting defensive when others attack it for being racist because how can it be racist when it was so well done and beautiful and made them cry? They then do the most dangerous of all things that can be done with a powerful piece of artwork… they turn it into an object of mere entertainment. They start thinking, “it was just a good entertaining musical. It didn’t really mean anything.” Because it didn’t mean anything more than entertainment to them, they ignore the cries of pain and anger from those it DID hurt. They begin to ignore THEM because Asians are expected to just accept it… This happens over and over again in popular media and eventually, an entire race of people is labeled. This is a particularly big problem for the AAPI communities. Do you know who is the first to die in the movies? If you thought “the black guy,” you’re wrong. It’s the Asian guy that no one even noticed. That’s how far back we are placed on the scale in the media. We aren’t even noticed. And it’s not that we are a weaker race and logically we would be the first to get killed, but it’s that mainstream has been taught to think that way through the perpetuation of lies and racism in media and the arts.
    Would this musical have been the same if it was called “Miss Berlin” Or “Miss London?” I think not. Deep rooted racism is a huge significant part of this and many other plays, movies, TV shows and it is expected that Asians just accept it.

    • danielle
      October 15, 2013

      FINALLY someone has said it. It’s funny how we’re barely acknowledged, looked down upon and branded a minority when we make up 61% of the worlds population and that practically everything we buy has “Made in (insert South East Asian country)” printed on the label. The music in Miss Saigon is great and I’m a big fan of Les Miserables, but it is yet another contributing factor to “Dude, Asians chicks are so hot and SO good in bed” and “Oh my god Asian guys are like, total dorks”.

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  17. Phil in Vancouver BC
    September 25, 2013

    Your article is one of the most convincing, reasoned arguments why Miss Saigon is a racist, eurocentric, orientalist, colonial play. If certain people can’t see this perspective, their blindspot and privilege are showing.

  18. Poppoholi
    September 20, 2013

    The original protest was that the Engineer, whose character was Eurasian, was played by a white guy (Jonathan Pryce). Now it is to remove the play altogether (the Engineer now is Asian). While this dated play does have cheap and ridiculous sentimentality, it should not be censored just because some people don’t like it. The comment about the Japanese in Japan is relevent because it shows that there is not one agreed up interpretation of the intent/ message of this play . I personally have no interest in seeing this as I perceive it as an overpriced cheesy and garish spectacle.

    • davidmura
      September 24, 2013

      This isn’t about censorship. It’s about boycotting a musical that lies about human trafficking and Asians. I find it telling that I never hear the same cries of censorship when work by and about people of color is not published or produced; when, as happened recently to an award winning Black playwright, someone tells the playwright, Your work is great but it’s too Black (and so we can’t produce it).

      • Poppoholi
        September 25, 2013

        It is your opinion that this musical lies about Asians and human trafficking in such a way as to be harmful. As you admitted, not everyone holds that opinion, and many people have just said that they used to love this play. That makes me suspicious of the “harmful” interpretation necessarily being the only valid one.

        If Japanese people in Japan don’t have blindspots about Vietnam as “this (bias) probably wouldn’t include the Vietnam war ” , that makes it fine in your opinion for them to stage the play, with Asian actors? So you are assuming that racist intent on the part of all the mostly white audience (plus a racist “system of power” that doesn’t promote positive depictions of Asians here) makes it justifiable to try to stop the production of the play here, but not in Japan because it is not the work itself that is the problem, or if it is, then it is a minor problem there and a major one here. The Japanese are entitled to see this play and the racist white Americans aren’t. Fine.

        Why doesn’t the playwright put the play on kickstarter or something similar, have people promote it, and see if with that visibility they can get someone with money who cares about real art to sponsor it. Corporatists always get to do what they want unless money is withheld. I am just suspicious of anyone saying that they hold the definitive interpretation of anything if they hold such strong biases as you and the corporatist media do.

      • davidmura
        September 25, 2013

        I understand that other people hold a different opinion of the musical. People loved Birth of a Nation too, but that still didn’t mean it wasn’t a racist film. Just because there are two sides to a debate doesn’t mean the proper well-thought out position is, as you imply, always in the middle. Or that just because a position is strongly held that it’s inherently wrong.

        At the same time, it’s much more likely that those people who love Miss Saigon have never heard any of the critiques of the musical by Asian Americans and others. You’ve heard my argument and you’re not convinced, that’s fine. But the playing field of the debate is not level. Miss Saigon’s side of the debate is heard far more often and is backed by far greater resources. The people putting on Miss Saigon side profit enormously from having their view prevail; this isn’t the case for those arguing against the musical. Your seemingly even-handed skepticism overlooks these differences.

        My arguments about the harm of the musical and other works like it isn’t simply based on my own experience. Perhaps you don’t see a connection between works stereotyping Asian women as prostitutes and the ways Asian American women are treated as sexual objects in their every day life but many Asian American women do. I’m not simply drawing my arguments from my own head but what I’ve heard from numerous Asian American women.

        As for the Japanese, I was just explaining why the Japanese reaction to the musical is different from that of many Asian Americans. To be clear, I don’t want the Japanese to see this musical. Racist stereotypes don’t do anyone any good.

        As for your solution for the Black playwright, it doesn’t really address the systemic and institutional racism which has a very real effect on whether works of art by artists of color are published or produced (e.g., for example, the Guthrie’s last season). I do wish you had a bit more skepticism towards white protestations that such racism doesn’t exist and applied a similar lens to their arguments.

      • Biga Mann
        October 1, 2013

        You don’t mention the fact that the 1st hand-held gun powder weapon was invented in early 14th century during the war between the Hussites and the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Subsequently, RCC declared an Imperialist conquest campaign. Unless this is what you meant by “more masculine, and this is why they were able to defeat and rule over these Asian countries …” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hussite_Wars

  19. MsSaigone
    September 17, 2013

    Somebody tell America they lost the Vietnam War.

  20. LJC
    September 16, 2013

    What an incredible article, Mr. Mura. Encapsulates race, gender, history, and the arts in all one fluid motion.

    I also enjoyed your book, “Where the Body Meets Memory.”

  21. Milagros Llauger
    September 16, 2013

    David….Thank you for your incisive and clear understanding of what Asian and Asian American women have dealt with for decades, it’s also a woman of color dilemma. To be objectified and treated as a piece….. I’m amazed at the fact that so much theatre, dance, music and film comes out of Asia and most Americans are completely ignorant of the fact. Living in Los Angeles I consider myself lucky that I have access to many things Asian…..Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Thai district, Chinatown, etc.,etc. As for Miss Saigon, it’s about the dollar…. If they we not making money they would not show it…because after everything is said and done they don’t care about diversity or what is right. They’ve got themselves a little money maker. They just don’t get it!

    • danielle
      October 15, 2013

      I know! Producers and directors of films don’t care about Asian characters or the Asian actors the cast, because they now that Asia’s economy is booming and as long as they have an Asian face, the money will come rolling in. *coughIRONMANcough

  22. Tokyoite
    September 15, 2013

    As a matter of interest, MISS SAIGON is one of the biggest musical hits ever here in Japan. A new Japanese-language production played in Tokyo last year, and a revival of that version is set for next year: http://www.tohostage.com/miss_saigon/. The Caucasian characters are all being played by Japanese actors.

    Similarly, MADAME BUTTERFLY, the opera on which SAIGON is based, is also extremely popular and frequently performed. The Japanese, at least, don’t seem to have the same hangups as Americans about Western portrayals of Asia or their own country.

    • davidmura
      September 16, 2013

      There are so many differences between Japan, the Japanese, and Japanese culture on the one hand, and America and the place of Asians and Asian Americans in American culture that the comparison really tells us very little. The Japanese have their own nationalistic and ethnic/racial blind spots, and this probably wouldn’t include the Vietnam war but it would include any number of events during their invasion and occupation of the other countries of Asia during World War II. (Note Japanese textbooks make no reference to a Japanese invasion; it’s called an “incursion.”) Ask Koreans in Japan or in Korea what they think of the Japanese portrayals of the Japanese history with Korea and Koreans. What the Japanese would have a hangup with would be a portrayal of the Philippine or Korean or Chinese side of World War II. On a completely different note, the Japanese do see other portraits of Japanese in their media where the women are something other than prostitutes, the men are not all villains, and the heroine doesn’t end up killing herself over a white man, and where romance actually happens between two Japanese people. On a further note, the failure to distinguish between Asians/Japanese vs. Asian Americans and Japanese Americans is one of the ongoing aspects of the history of race in America. My parents were American born citizens but that didn’t matter to the government during World War II. To the government and in the news and popular rhetoric of the time, my parents weren’t Americans or Japanese Americans but Japs.

    • MsSaigone
      September 17, 2013

      That’s because Asians (from the home countries) aren’t aware of how they’re stereotyped in the West.

  23. Mai
    September 14, 2013

    While I don’t disagree with everything you have written, I give you reason number 1 possibly why some may have believed sending a Bui-Doi to America was considered to be the best option for them:

    Yes. In America, these mixed children would wind up facing racial prejudice and many identity issues most mixed and minority children face in the States even today. But you know, there would still be an ounce of opportunity for them. I don’t know. I’m a product of this war, and I’m quite glad my parents left that place when they did. Being discriminated against in a first world country certainly sounds better than being discriminated in a third world country. And really, these Bui-Doi are treated, even today as the scum of the Vietnamese population. It’s no myth that the poor in third world countries dream of America as this place where the streets are paved with gold. When your life is so wretched, what can you do but make up wild stories of this fantastical American Dream? (And no, I’m not naive enough to say I believe that exists or ever did).

    I mean, then again, I kind of view Vietnam to be a shit-hole for the most part. Oops did I offend you for saying that? I must be a self-hating Asian then. Nope, whenever my parents visit Vietnam and come back, 75% of the comments they make of their trip is despite how things are improving there, they think it’s awful there. Can’t one love one’s culture at the same time as not having an ounce of pride of what their country’s current condition is in?

    And to argue that the time frame that certain plot points happen is unrealistic is just a way to spin the article towards your claim that Miss Saigon is wholly and utterly racist. I’m sorry. This is a musical of operatic proportions. I’m not speaking of Madame Butterfly’s influence on the musical, but just that it’s just an epic through-sung musical that falls under the genre of a pop-opera. In such fantastical stories, things don’t normally happen in realistic time frames. Does anyone argue at the ludicrousness of Cosette and Marius falling in love in an instant? O, but you know they’re white and the only time one dimensional characters are not controversial are when they’re white. O! And it’s based off of Victor Hugo’s classic! So no one’s going to complain. Miss Saigon has a historical setting, but it has elements of existing in a realm outside of the real. In opera, people tend to fall in love the way Kim and Chris do. Actually, theatrically, it just saves time for people to fall in love this quickly sometimes. I thought this was common knowledge?

    Every single time I’ve heard someone make an argument about how terrible Miss Saigon is, they just seem to keep hitting the same idea that it just presents negative asian stereotypes over and over again and all of these characters are one-dimensional. You know some of them are, but no one ever bothers to examine the complexity of the protagonist. Sure. She is an example of the a specific stereotype, but she grows beyond it. And yada yada yada, she kills herself. “how Asian of her.” How about how maternal of her? I’m serious. I’d like to imagine that all the sane mothers out there would be willing to take a bullet for their child. If not, then this sounds like a fucked up world where adults don’t want to fend for their young. Boublil and Schoenberg brought you Les Mis. Isn’t there a mother who prostitutes herself and drives herself to death for the sake of her child in that too? Ding ding ding! Sure the writers may have been influenced by Madame Butterfly, but couldn’t their previous blockbuster played a little part in deciding to turn the main character into a martyr? And it’s just so more damn dramatic. I don’t want to see Romeo and Juliet where they live. How utterly boring. I mean, sure we could have killed Chris or Ellen, but you know having the hero die is just more gratifying, regardless if they’re White or Asian. Regardless if it’s so the privileged white can sit and be proud of their pity for other the non-whites in this world.

    And one final question to pose. Yes, Asians and minorities for that matter shouldn’t be depicted just in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes, that we too deserve to tell the stories of people far more complex than the stereotypes that define them, but honestly, aren’t their truths behind most stereotypes? There are people like that. Asian prostitutes existed during that war. Are we to censor anything that depicts it just because some people think it’s sexist and glorifies human trafficking? Let’s just do away with anything that shows women being objectified–Cabaret, Gypsy even. Let’s not show it cause, o the horror, it means we’re glorifying it! No one complains about the constant depiction of curvacious blonde women as ditzy bimbos. It’s a much less negative stereotype, but it’s one nonetheless that limits and defines a person by their physical traits. Yes yes yes, but there are plenty of roles that present bombshell blondes as complex strong women. So shouldn’t the argument be, rather than just doing away with the negative stereotypes, we should just be pushing for opportunities to show Asians and minorities in roles that challenge them as well? Hey man, the Engineer isn’t too off of what I think of when I imagine a Vietnamese business owner. 90% of the business owners I encounter in Little Saigon in Westminster, CA are terrible at doing business because they’re “money hungry” and will cut as many corners as possible to make more profit. Doesn’t mean that I stop being a client…I just think they suck at doing business and have no respect for the customer.

    O but maybe this backlash is just rooted in the insecurities Asian American children faced growing up with no Asian American role models beyond the stereotypes in television. But why is the media always the one to blame for childhood trauma…I thought it was up to parents, not media to raise kids to be independent and self-confident? But then again, who knows. I didn’t grow up in the Midwest. Yea, this place would suck to be a minority in. That’s why I’ve accepted that I should move soon and never come back.

    Case in point. I’m tired of all these Asian American activists speaking out for the community as if we all believe the same thing. That it is as black and white as you paint it. That if I don’t feel this way I should be ashamed and am un-worthy of being yellow. I’m particularly miffed by all you non-Vietnamese Asian Americans speaking out as if you think we all agree with you because you know we’re Vietnamese and Asian and because we all have almond eyes we think and feel the same thing. But isn’t that a bit racist now?

    You big Asian American names have your voice. Now calm down and remember that you can’t always speak for the rest of us.

    • slapensk
      September 14, 2013

      I appreciate your perspective and have often had similar thoughts regarding Les Mis, Romeo and Juliet, stereotypes, and Asian Americans in the United States. This forum is a bit like “preaching to the choir” because we get the issues and the various facets of Asian American experiences in America. We’ve lived it.

      My family is originally from Hawaii. Having lived there during high school and returning there every few years, I realize why my kids like being there so much. You don’t have to constantly encounter being Asian American because Asian families of all groups are on to fourth, fifth, sixth generations of being American. We don’t have to define ourselves as Korean American, Japanese American, Filipino American, or whatever. In fact, many families are “chop suey,” mixed versions of one, two, multiple ethnic blends…lots of brown. You’re just American like everyone else.

      My parents raised me to be independent and self-confident. I graduated from a Midwest college and have had a successful career in the airlines and education. But, I started noticing things like being on the news close-up anytime Northwest Orient (camera zooms in on me at the airport!) had a pending strike or some flair up that the media created. When I finally realized I would often be treated “differently” because I am an Asian face in America and I grasped the sacrifice one makes for assimilating into being American, it was sad. My “identity crisis” happened at the time I was discovering how beautiful Korea is and how much I loved the Korean people, my family, I understood how forcefully I had shunned a part of myself growing up so that I could be a success in white society, It hurt…a lot! I wondered how much my great grandparents comprehended at the time and grieved for what would be lost in the future as well as in their time. White families experience the same thing with Irish, German, French cultures as well. The difference is they aren’t treated or seen as fresh off the boat (FOB) from the old country

      In Minnesota, or the Midwest, you are constantly encountering people who think you are FOB. My kids get it all the time in school, and that’s a city school! Do you speak Asian? We get asked, “Where are you from?” Minnesota. “I mean where are you REALLY from?” Um, I was born in Texas. “Well, where did you grow up?” Montana, Alabama, Germany…I was an Air Force brat. “Oh, no wonder your English is so good!” It just gets old and irritating! Come on people, this is America, we are not all white and haven’t been for some time now. Get over it!

    • No one looks at Les Mis or R&J and thinks “Suicide is so white of them” because there are thousands of white pieces of fiction in which the straight white couple gets a happy ending. Yet the two most prominent plays (Saigon and Butterfly) with Asian female leads end in suicides. If we had more Asians in film and theater, we wouldn’t be so worried about a few that are depicted as prostitutes and/or suicidally obsessed with white men. The problem is imbalance.

      There are a million other ways the lead could have helped her kid escape the “shit hole” that is Vietnam. She could have gotten on a boat and gone to America using the financial support she would have gotten from her white baby-daddy. She could have married a good Vietnamese man (which does in fact exist) and gone to the country with him.

      Finally, you seem to be under the strange impression that parents can and should be the sole influence upon the development of children’s attitudes. Common sense should explain how ridiculous that is. We spend only part of our childhoods with our parents. The rest we spend around other kids at school. This changes even more when we leave home for college and work. If you don’t care how Asians are depicted in the media, fine. But don’t think that it can’t affect you.

    • Kenny V.
      October 8, 2013

      I’m sorry, but many of us speak out for the community because we are labelled together. Therefore, the racism hits US ALL, not just Vietnamese.

  24. Regie Cabico
    September 13, 2013

    thank you david, there is a production of miss saigon in washington, dc ihave great colleagues and talented friends in the cast. lets hope asian men can be hot and sexy like us in the future of asian american musicals

  25. Pingback: Miss Saigon With the Wind | asians art museum's samurai blog

  26. slapensk
    September 12, 2013

    This is why I read your writing, David! White privilege surrounds us and as a fourth-generation Korean American I appreciate your ability to eloquently express thoughts that tumble through my mind when I try to figure out what disturbs me most after seeing a show like Miss Saigon – the gunshot I heard on the stage or the subtle pin pricks of white privilege that gnaw at us daily. That’s how we learn to be a banana – yellow on the outside and white on the inside…I never really liked bananas much.

  27. Don't We Look Alike?
    September 12, 2013

    Another problem is that for Asian American musical theatre performers (like my daughter) there are very few shows that they tend to be cast in. So they line up en masse to audition for Miss Saigon because it’s their chance to shine. Yes, my daughter has been in Miss Saigon and has written a blog post about it (last year, I think). I also wrote a blog post about it from my own non-Asian non-performer adoptive-mother-of-an-Asian-daughter perspective. Last year the LaJolla Playhouse did a panel discussion (video available online) about the plight (and I use that term specifically) of Asian American actors in theatre today in response to an outcry against casting in a show at that theatre. It’s a volatile situation–and not “just” about the way Asians and specifically Asian women are portrayed on stage, but about jobs for Asian American actors too. So there is a tension between Asian actors wanting desperately to get cast in a show that many other Asians want to go away. If Miss Saigon goes away, it’s that many more Asian actors who don’t get to work in the field of their choice. What a terrible and sad dilemma.

  28. Carol I.
    September 12, 2013

    Thank you, David, for your sharp comments on the mark. Isn’t it amazing that this is the THIRD production of Miss Saigon, despite protests of both of the prior showings? Isn’t anyone at the Ordway listening? (Rhetorical)

  29. Dipankar Mukherjee
    September 11, 2013

    DAVID
    an amazing nuanced critique of another racist act by another racist “pre-eminent” corporation of art! A reporter was downright upset when i refused to participate in conversations regarding “miss saigon”…i did say that i refuse because this “community conversation” is a hoax..as a producer i know how shows are curated..the show has been booked more than a year ago…the production team has been put in place..subscribers have already bought their tickets…and the show will be produced to hundreds of audiences in the Twin Cities and they will get a brilliant review!!! these have been decided a year ago! They are NOT discussing WHETHER the show should happen…WHY does this hurt and insult the sentiments of Asian Americans and other progressive community! They are not inviting responses at the beginning of the process of choosing this racist work!..
    so what is the authentic genuine reason for this farce of community discussions? will they cancel their show ? NO NEVER ..TOO MUCH MONEY HAS ALREADY BEEN INVESTED IN IT!! This is a trend for these large corporate shops of art to have “community liaison persons “..who are generally people of color…to host disingenuous farces! For me this pathetic “show’ of concern is getting so old..recently Goodman Theater did “Jungle Book”….and regardless of outcry from many progressive arab-americans and asians..they did the show and made record sales!
    We are lucky to have you David in the community..at moments when cynicism looms in the world..we need to read your fearless clear sharp edge critique !!
    you make us proud.
    thanks
    dipankar mukherjee
    artistic director
    pangea world theater

  30. K. Hines
    September 11, 2013

    Thank you David! Once again on point…. Sitting right smack dab in the middle of truth! And unfortunately, audiences yearning for and embracing anything that tells the stories of when “those people knew their place”—and big theaters making big money off the lies, well no wonder they can’t handle the truth! They don’t want to. It’s so American!

  31. LW
    September 11, 2013

    I have long wished someone would start to exress the inner aches of racism that are so subtle against Asians but overlooked by the ever-dominant white male across American society. Thank you. Please let us know how to keep Miss Saigon and other media exploits such as the late Wolverine motion picture out of public consumption.

  32. baophiBao
    September 11, 2013

    This is great.

  33. Lem
    September 11, 2013

    David,

    As a person of mixed heritage (Mom: German/Irish; Father: Nigerian), I appreciated the message–sometimes nuanced, sometimes blatant–that you shared. It was an excellent reminder of plights faced by the Asian American community. The essay also served as a challenge to me (and hopefully other Americans) to question our oft times unquestioned stereotypes of other people. A practice that I utilize in my daily interactions (regrettably, not used enough) is to ask myself, “How am I objectifying this person? How is this objectification affecting this my interaction with this person?”

    Thanks for drawing attention to this issue in such an eloquent manner.

    Best,

    Lem

  34. Sharline
    September 11, 2013

    Powerful, important essay. Thank you, Mr. Mura. We have come a long way as a country, but we still have so far to go.

  35. Kevin O'Rourke
    September 11, 2013

    This is a great essay, I come from a mixed family – Choctaw/Chickasaw-Wampanoag-Gaelic-Jewish-Nigerian- Afro American- Hanoi North Vietnamese (Communist and proud). All of my people have been subjected to atrocity and survived. Your essay brings to mind how white Americans accepted BIRTH OF A NATION as a great movie and great social statement. Racism isn’t invisible to the racist, as the utter denial of racist behavior underscores the indictment. Thank you for your work. I am proud to have met you, and proud to share your thinking.

    In Minnesota there are many anti-racist workshops that are safe places for people to examine and confront their values. These are safe and loving workshops. Once people see what they are doing they tend to be so appalled by their behavior that they may need compassionate help to continue that work.

    -Kevin O’Rourke-

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