By Kacy J
She’s your (manic pixie) dream girl: hot, young, innocent, full of deep trauma, the physical embodiment of moonlight and warmth, in dire need of protection, unconditionally in love with you despite your many flaws, and across the sea, making her easy to leave once she’s served her purpose of helping you realize you’re capable of feelings. And, sadly, your love is doomed. That should have been obvious from the start for Miss Saigon’s protagonist Chris Scott and his love for seventeen year old Kim. After all, he is a sensible white American GI and she is a mysterious Vietnamese teenager he could never possibly hope to understand. In this tragic “love story,” musical writers Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby Jr make it clear that since Chris cannot save Kim with his Western influence, she is condemned to spend the rest of her life in Asia alone, rendering her life worthless.
Chris first sees Kim in a house full of prostitutes, but while the other women are experienced and older, Kim is only seventeen and a virgin. Her untouched virtue and wary eyes prompt Chris to want to protect her from being corrupted by The Engineer and the other more morally bankrupt GIs. Every sex worker in the club wants to escape Vietnam through marrying one of the soldiers, but the direction of Miss Saigon shows us that every woman except for Kim is already a firmly rooted stereotype of the East – sensual in a way American girls can never be. These women could never leave Vietnam, as they are too far gone to be assimilated to Western culture. Kim, on the other hand, is innocent and untouched, leagues separated from the women around her. She wears a long dress that is ripped without her consent, but, in Eva Noblezada’s interpretation of the character, holds herself tightly guarded even after, as if she longs to become invisible. She is not a paradigm of Asian stereotypes, like the others, though she is also not just an American character with a Vietnamese face. Kim still is a representative of some stereotypes as her youth plays into the way the West infantilizes Asia. She is only seventeen, how could she know what is good for her without an older mentor showing her the ropes? Since the women around her are all hopeless and the Asian men are heartless and unfeeling, wanting her to be more like the others in the club, good guy Chris is all Kim has. If Chris is a representation of the West, Kim is “the ideal” East – not overtly sexual, but still subservient and in need of protection.
Chris is clearly a good man because he is an American who is able to love a Vietnamese girl. He falls in love with her under completely normal circumstances – by having a friend pay so that Chris can take her virginity because he can’t stand to see someone else do it and then discovering Kim’s inner worth when he finds out she is an orphan (as her village was burned in the unnecessary war he is fighting) and therefore more of an “April moon” than a whore. Kim is not unlike the other sex-workers at the club who have had equally hard lives, but her virginity (pre-Chris) paired with her willingness to speak on her pain makes her easy for Chris to save. He is an American, how could he fail to do good? But just as America couldn’t “save” Vietnam, Chris cannot save Kim, so he chooses to leave her and move on with his life.
While Saigon was “a place full of mystery that [Chris] never once understood,” America is the one place where Chris thinks things make sense. Asia is a land of mystery with mysterious women, like Kim, but once Chris starts treating Kim like a human with a history and an inner life beyond her prostitution, he realizes there is more than he has been told. Chris sings that Vietnam is bearable “just as long as you don’t believe anything,” but that through her suffering, he learned to believe in her. This knowledge that Saigon contained at least one real human being in the form of Kim sticks with Chris and tortures his soul when he is back in America. He does not understand, even three years later, how an indescribable place could hold someone so authentic. Instead of working on humanizing the others he met in his head or going back to find Kim, Chris chooses to forget her and move on. He marries Ellen, a blonde white woman who makes complete sense because of her American citizenship. He thinks that with Ellen his life will make sense and he will avoid having to answer the questions of his past. Questions like: Were the Vietnamese actually human? Do their lives have worth? And although Chris never grapples with these, the musical sure makes their answers known.
Kim, still in love with Chris after three years, does not want to raise her son Tam alone for many reasons. However, when it becomes clear that she cannot have the happy family with Chris that she dreamed of, Kim decides that having a white American father in her son’s life is more important than having a mother. Although Chris tells Ellen they can send Tam to American schools in Bangkok and support him from afar, this is not the Western influence Kim wants for her son. After all, with racist men like Thuy who despise the white genetics of her son, what is there for him in Asia? Rather, he should go to America where no one is racist and his life can have worth. The promise of America is so big and bright and beautiful that is supersedes the influence Kim could have as the boy’s mother. The musical makes no attempt to hide its distaste for Vietnam and Bangkok. No opportunities can lie there and it is such a terrible place that growing up there would be worse than seeing your mother kill herself in front of your eyes and being forced to live with a father who was ready to abandon you just a song earlier. Even Kim, the representation of the ideal East, is nothing when compared to Chris’s American machismo.
The ending, though, is not a tragedy because she feels her life is so worthless that her only course of action is to kill herself. Rather, the audience is meant to cry because of how worthy she was of being saved by Chris and the American Dream. She was pure and only worked as a bargirl and dancer because she had to, unlike the other women who obviously were sex-workers for fun. Kim possessed a strong motherly instinct, just as we hear Ellen does. Kim is also the only Asian character to have any semblance of backstory or feelings beyond being upset about living in Vietnam. She feels love and is something special in the eyes of the Americans. Thus, she should have had worth. Kim could have had worth, if only she had been taken to America to be more fully assimilated. We as the audience are meant to cry because she was a hopeless case solely because she was born in Vietnam. If she had been American, she would have been a perfect woman without a tragic end. But it ends with her death, a sure sign that the East and West can never truly blend, except in this child Tam, though he will only be okay if he is fully Americanized.
The plot of Miss Saigon is not the racist idea that someone from Asia and someone from America can fall in love but perhaps are ill-fated from the start. Rather, by ending the musical with Tam going to join Chris in America, the musical is suggesting that love between an Asian woman and an American man can work, but only if the Asian woman becomes fully subservient to the man and the ideals of the Western nation. It’s important to note, however, that this cannot happen with just any Asian woman. She has to have pain incomprehensible to any man and yet still has to be naïve and not world-weary. She cannot turn to her sexuality willingly and must be tender to men who treat her like an object to pay for. The man, also, cannot be any man. He must be willing to see her as a human being. That is about the end of the list for the man, as long as he is a white American who knows that his job as an American is to “do good” by protecting those poor Asians who need to be saved. Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr want you to know by watching Miss Saigon that some lives have immense worth and perhaps more lives should be more valued, though it’s a shame these authentic human beings were not born in America.