Miss Saigon was one of the few musicals I got the (dis)pleasure of watching live. I didn’t cry a single tear. I was too busy being furious. Highly acclaimed as it is in West End and Broadway, Miss Saigon reeks of colonialism and white savior complex, a white narrative from and for white colonialism. Kim and Chris are both set up to be different from the rest of the characters, but their Otherness had opposite roles in the narratives. Kim was othered not only from Asian characters – shone by the light of purity, innocence, and femininity – but also from the audience whose sympathy she was supposed to garner. Chris was othered from the characters – as one of the only white men in the show – but he was one and the same with the people who were watching him.
Kim is a virtuous character, but at the same time, she is a fallen woman. Her narrative ties neatly into the virgin–Madonna-whore complex, a complex born from the misogynistic idea that women can either be respected, tender, and completely non-sexual (the virgin and the Madonna) or be tainted and depraved by their own sexuality. At the beginning of the show, Kim was a young, innocent seventeen years old girl. She was then pushed into prostitution and consequentially was ruined. Her struggle, on the surface level, was the struggle to remain virtuous – as she transitioned from a virgin archetype to a Madonna/mother archetype while facing her trauma of being a prostitute, being “ruined” and depraved. Ultimately, her death was the resolution to these seemingly warring forces: to keep her virtue as a mother, she had to not be the “fallen” woman; and the only way to do that was to stop being alive at all. The Western audience can be enraged at this misogynistic narrative. They can sympathize with her tragedy as a woman in a world that was keen on punishing women for things outside of their control. However, the audience cannot see the true insidiousness of her story without relation to her race. Kim was not just a woman, she was an Asian woman among other Asian characters. She wasn’t written to represent her people, however. She was written to represent how the Western world sees her people: greedy, scheming brutes without virtues or pride who ultimately pushed a woman like Kim to ruin.
Since the beginning of her story, Kim had been a victim. A victim of war, as she had no family, no home: she was all alone in a big city. She had so little agency or knowledge of the city life that she could only look up to the sky fearfully during an attack, unable to protect herself. Until a man – because women were always supposed to be “saved” by men – gave her a hand to pull her up and brought her into his world. That man, the Engineer, was not there to save her. He was there to ruin her. In fact, all the Asian men who had a significant role in her story – namely the Engineer and her betrothed Thuy – were in the story to oppose and hurt her. She ran from Thuy to only fall into another insidious trap that led to her complete ruin. Throughout the show, Kim was constantly pushed around – physically – by both the Engineer and Thuy. Kim, a woman – a young girl – was helpless under the thumbs of the (Asian) men in her life. Even her son (a son, and not a daughter) was a tool to make her life more miserable. The Engineer used her son’s future to manipulate her into selling her body again, and Thuy was willing to kill the child in cold blood. It was one of the only moments we saw Kim stood taller than a man. But she stood for her son, not for herself. Kim’s story perpetuated the stereotype that Asian women are most submissive and cannot stand up for themselves, while Asian men exploit these characteristics. Kim’s racial and gender identity might not be that obvious among other Asian characters, but against a Western audience, it showed more than clearly what the West thinks about Vietnam and the East.
Furthermore, there was also a contrast between Kim and the other Asian women in the story. Kim was the example of the “not like other girls” trope – a common romance trope where the lead woman was set up to stand out from the common, boring women around her. In Miss Saigon, instead of only being misogynistic, this trope was also racist. Kim was pure and virtuous, and she was put against a backdrop of women who were not. For the majority of the show, Kim wore white – at first a cheongsam (which is a Chinese dress, showing the lack of research or respect for Vietnamese culture and Asian culture in general by the production team) and then her white wedding áo dài (which is not the color for wedding but for funerals or students, but I again doubt that the production team were aware of that). In her first night as a bargirl, Kim had her pants taken away, yet her modest top and shy demeanor – a contrast to the other girls who strutted on stage in their underwear – revealed that she hadn’t fallen into ruin yet. Her innocence was even more apparent in her duet with Gigi in “The movie in my mind” as they were put into comparison. Kim in her modest white clothes and traditional hairstyles and Gigi with her black lingerie and risqué appearance were in stark contrast. Even the lyrics they sang showed how different they were from each other. Gigi wished for an escape and materialistic wealth. Her wants were practical and monetary. Kim, innocent dreamer she was, wished for love and protection, not money. It was a slight contrast between two women seemingly in the same situation, but because Kim’s wish wasn’t as materialistic, it was her wish that came true, not Gigi’s.
Kim’s purity was obvious. What was also obvious but tended to be ignored was that: she was pure among impure Asian women, she was the perfect victim under brutish and scheming Asian men. She was moral and good, the other Asian people were not. Kim’s story was not a story about her being an Asian woman, her story was about how she was different from the Asian people who did not matter. That was why she was sympathetic. That was why she was “acceptable”. She was what a model minority should be. She was who Chris – the white man, the beacon of Western progress – chose.
On the opposite spectrum from Kim on the “being different in Miss Saigon” scale was Chris, the example of the white savior complex, a prince charming who would rescue the princess from the hands of the evil, horrible people in her life. In fact, Chris’ first appearance and interaction with Kim was him “saving” her from another soldier. He was sweet and polite, the true gentleman. He wanted Kim to leave the brothel and was intercepted by the Engineer. Already, Chris was different from both the other soldiers and the Vietnamese Engineer. He was the perfect guy for Kim to meet: “a man who will not kill, who’ll fight for me instead”. While Chris had probably killed before, to Kim he was a hero, a savior from her dreams. This, interestingly, was also what Western colonizers thought of themselves when they invaded other countries – subsequently bringing destruction and death to many cultures. Like the system that he served, Chris directly caused Kim her tragedy. As a White Man, Chris was so painfully unaware of his role in the narrative and the power he held due to both being White and being a Man. In all fairness, we can only partially blame him because the creators – colonialism apologists they were – were probably also unaware of the role of America and Western colonialism and imperialism in the Vietnam war.
Chris, as a white man, was put into contrast with the Asian men in Miss Saigon, just as Kim was put into contrast with the Asian women. And like Kim, this contrast provided a vision of the “typical” Vietnamese person (uncivilized, greedy, violent) and the white man (polite, gentle, giving). Instead of using Kim to earn money like the Engineer, he wanted to give her money for a free life. Instead of threatening Kim with violence like Thuy, Chris used violence only to protect Kim. He was different. This difference, inherently because he was a white man written by white men as a symbol of white power – gave him power and agency. Chris had choices. He might be a “minority” on stage, race-wise, but his position was still on top of the societal ladder. Chris had choices: of which girl to fall in love with, of which girl to protect. He chose Kim.
He chose Kim, and that choice – the power of that choice – led to the entire tragedy. Chris might later seem like he didn’t have any agency in the consequence of his action, but it cannot be denied that his initial choice and inherent power played a major part in the story. His lack of choice in the later part of the story stemmed the lack of self-awareness and responsibility of one’s action. This was distinctly a Western, colonialism-apologist perspective, of which Chris was the manifestation. This lack of self-awareness was evident in his song “Why God Why”. “When I went home before, no one talked of the war. What they knew from tv didn’t have a thing to do with me”: Chris and the Western world viewed the Vietnam war as something fictional, unreal. They removed themselves from the guilt of what colonialism did to an Asian country and are unaware of their own benefits from colonialism. Chris talked about Vietnam the same way Americans talk about Vietnam now, as if it was not a real place, as if the Vietnam war was separate from the US. “I like my memory as they were”, he sang. Chris liked his memory of a Vietnam devoid of all humanizing traits, of Vietnamese people who weren’t the people he cared about. He liked his memory guilt-free and his conscience clean. He would have been content with that lack of awareness if Kim hadn’t appeared. Kim, again, became the example of the model minority: her difference wasn’t used to counter the racial stereotype of Asian people, her difference was used to further dehumanize other Vietnamese people. She was different from the other Asian people – men and women – around her, and therefore she was the only one who deserved to be seen as “human” by the white man.
Miss Saigon was at best, an apologist narrative for colonialism and, at worst, a pro-colonial narrative. It romanticized the Vietnam war, glossed over the violence and damage Western imperialism the US inflicted upon Vietnam, and reeked of hypocritical white guilt and performative sympathy. The story was incredibly insidious not only because it showed racist and misogynistic stereotypes of Vietnamese people and Asian people in general, but also proposed and reinforced a social hierarchy of acceptability and model minority between Asian people under the eyes of the white Western world.
By Rose Nguyen.
2 thoughts on “The art of being different in Miss Saigon: There is one acceptable way to be a woman of color under colonialism. Except she died.”
This essay is an extremely engaging look into the inherent racism of Miss Saigon! I found myself saying “TEA” aloud to myself at least once per paragraph. Your opening immediately hooked me in because of your personal connection to what you were writing about and you were clear on your emotional stance on the issue right from the getgo, which raised the stakes of the entire essay – and it paid off! I particularly appreciated your points about how the creative team position Kim’s persona in opposition to the other Vietnamese characters in order to villainize them and how the media Chris consumed allowed him to perpetuate the dehumanization of Vietnamese people during the war and not notice the dire consequences of his colonialist actions. All of this was punctuated by some hard-hitting one-liners, like “[Chris] was one and the same with the people who were watching him” and the invocation of the “not like other girls” trope. You drew a lot of important distinctions and intersections between sexism and racism for a nuanced take on Miss Saigon and how Chris and Kim are treated by the creative team (Kim poorly – YIKES on that fact about the cheongsam – and Chris well) and perceived by the audience.
Rose, this is such a phenomenal essay! While your thesis is rooted in the fairly obvious conclusion we’ve all come to about this musical, the depth and additional analysis you discussed were so unique. I thought the paragraph about Kim’s clothing was very interesting, especially since I also wrote about her costuming. I had no idea that the production got so many cultural details wrong. As we discussed with The King and I, theatre has a problem with grouping minorities together as one, further evidenced with Kim wearing a cheongsam instead of Vietnamese clothing. It’s interesting that Kim wore white, a color meant for funerals, to her wedding. Because of the cheongsam error earlier in the musical, it seems like you’ve concluded this was another careless mistake from the production team. However, I wonder if this was an intentional choice for two reasons. The first reason is that white is commonly associated with marriage in Western culture, and therefore Kim wearing white to her wedding signals to the audience that she is willing to rid herself of her Asian identity in order to embrace American culture. The other possibility is that the production used Kim’s wedding costuming to foreshadow her fate. Kim’s funeral began from the very moment she fell in love with Chris, and the spiraling downfall of events that occur after the wedding scene corners Kim into realizing her only option is to take her own life.