Miss Saigon: Asian Representation Manufactured by American Entertainment

A Dialogue between Tinah Le and Ella Smith:

TL (Tinah Le): In this conversation, we will be discussing the 2017 Revival of Miss Saigon, starring Eva Noblezada and Alistair Brammer as Kim and Chris. The show was originally written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. Mainly, we will focus on the representation of Vietnamese culture, or Asian cultures as a whole, and how these portrayals of race and ethnicity reinforce existing narratives.

TL: Before we dive into the musical, I want to give a brief background on my perspective. Both of my grandfathers fought in the Vietnam War. When the war ended, my grandpas were sent to concentration camps, because they allied with American troops– meaning that my parents grew up without their fathers for years. My family has always shared with me stories about the hardships they endured post-war. Additionally, I also grew up listening to a lot of songs about the war era. A tremendous amount of Vietnamese “entertainment” was inspired by the war.

ES (Ella Smith): I have personally not much knowledge in the Vietnam War. Going into Miss Saigon, I have less background knowledge than you which could explain differences of opinion in the play and how we notice different representations throughout the course of the play.  

TL: Right, I definitely think that our different perspectives will allow us to splice out where the gaps of representation are, and how something I view as harmful or inaccurate may not be to a different audience. I will say that going into Miss Saigon, I did have some biases. I was doubtful about how the musical’s authors, artists, and actors would showcase the struggles. I wondered if the production would have realistic grit or just there for entertainment value. 

TL: Ella, I know you said you did not have much knowledge about the Vietnam War, but did you have any expectations, regarding the storyline, the characters, or even about Asian culture?

ES: Prior to viewing Miss Saigon, I naturally had some preconceived notions of how the storyline may play out, and how conceptions of Asian culture might influence the way gender roles and ethnicity are depicted in the show. I assumed there would be notions of traditionalism regarding gender and sexuality, which was primarily a projection of a preconceived notion that I had of Asian culture being dominated by conservatism, modesty, and respect.

TL: Moving into the musical itself, I would like to touch upon the accuracy of the use of Vietnamese language. Several times throughout, there would be dialogues or lyrics in Vietnamese, however I could not clearly make out the words. In production, “The Wedding Ceremony,” the other women of the brothel are wishing Kim and Chris congratulations. Although there have been corrections to change the words to real Vietnamese in the revival, the intonations of the words are still off. 

ES:  I certainly think that Broadway is walking a tightrope any time it attempts to depict a specific culture, especially when the show is being performed for a predominantly white audience. That being said, language is a seemingly easy thing to depict accurately, so to know that the original producers would skimp on such a thing is disheartening.

TL: The other place where pronunciation bugged me was in the musical number “Bui Doi.” Although the translation was accurate– bụi đời means dust of life or life of dust– the whole entire song the words were pronounced incorrectly. Moreover, there were parts where Kim calls out Thuy’s name, and it would again be said wrong. To me, I feel strongly that a Broadway musical about the Vietnam War should strive to portray Vietnamese language, culture, etc as accurately as possible. 

ES:  I agree that Broadway should strive for accuracy when depicting Vietnamese language, especially in a show where Vietnamese culture is central to the narrative. As a critical observer analyzing the show, I think it’s natural to hone in on the less overt displays of cultural ignorance and feel as though they’re some monstrous exhibition of chauvinism. I’m not sure that condemning the producers for this misstep is worthwhile. Nonetheless, the revision of the language accuracy is worthy of celebration – as all progressive images on stage should be. 

TL: In the New York Times article we read for Miss Saigon, it says that a cast member named Christopher Vo helped with the revisions in the lyrics for “The Wedding Ceremony.” It makes me wonder why none of the original musical authors were Vietnamese, particularly why none of the writers and lyricists Vietnamese. 

ES: It’s a compelling question, for sure. My first thought as to why none of the original musical authors were Vietnamese would simply be that the theater industry in America, like most industries, was dominated by white writers and lyricists. This is part of a greater conversation of discrimination and prejudice in theater, that is a dialogue within itself. Our understanding, or at least mine, in this situation, is that the lack of Vietnamese contribution to this Vietnamese-centered performance is the result of a multitude of intersectional factors (primarily surrounding things like race and socioeconomic status) that deprived Vietnamese writers and lyricists a seat at the table. 

TL: I would argue that the disregard for an accurate portrayal stems from the fact that this is a production geared towards a white audience. In the 2018-2019 Broadway season, out of nearly 15 million attendees, only about 4 million were non-white (The Broadway League). The overwhelming majority of the audiences that come to the shows are not Vietnamese, so is there even worth in fiddling with the details? 

ES: Of course there is worth in fine tuning the details. As much as theater is an art form, and art inherently suggests subjectivity and blurred lines of normalcy, there are certain aspects of depicting culture where obscuring those lines is inappropriate and problematic. Regardless of the demographic of an audience, culture accuracies should be maintained in an effort to provide respect for the culture being performed, in addition to educating the audience members. 

TL: Broadway shows garner their success from their viewers. It makes sense that the musical’s authors would try to cater towards audiences. That being said, I think there is a huge concern about how much they cater to the audience. Speaking upon the history of Miss Saigon, the revival is the third or so version of the same story. We can look back to see that this musical was based on a play called Madama Butterfly, which was based on a story, which was based on another book! 

ES: In this sense, we have to understand Broadway’s commercial aspect as just another function of capitalism. The product of the show caters towards the audiences because that’s what will bring Broadway the most money. As disappointing as it is, Broadway is not immune to the ills of capitalism and this guise that productivity exceeds quality. 

TL: American entertainment has recycled this tragic love story between a sorry Asian woman/girl and a white man many times, and for whatever reason this trope is still popular and successful. Not only do we have the white savior trope, we also have this whole sexualization and submission stereotyping of Asian women. 

ES: I think plenty of spectators see Kim as powerless throughout the show. I think that Kim has power, though she exhibits it in subtle ways. What Kim truly falls victim to is helplessness and the fact that she doesn’t understand the value of her being or feel a sense of self-worth. To that end, what was the “worth” of a woman in 1975 Saigon? It’s fitting that Kim felt an absence of self worth. How else was she to feel? This is not the story of a liberated woman. It is certainly not the story of a feminist. Even in “The Last Night of the World”  Chris sings to her “On the other side of the earth. There’s a place where life still has worth. I will take you.” The entire song appeared to me as Kim submitting to Chris as he performed as a kind of white savior to her misfortune.

TL: Just taking a look at the first couple of scenes, the costumes alone signal to us a distinction between Kim and Chris, the East and the West. While Kim wears traditional Vietnamese clothing (the Áo dài), Chris dresses neatly in his uniform. Whether the musical’s production artists (wardrobe designers) meant for this to be intentional or not, the clothing sends a message. We already know that Chris represents the masculine West and Kim the feminine East. However, this takes it a step further, reminding us that Kim is the uncivilized East, while Chris is the civilized West. 

ES:  Costuming is one of the most overt depictions of culture and gender in the show. Considering the meticulous thought that I assume goes into costume design, it shocks me that so few people were able to recognize the dissonance here. Then again, it’s very possible that this depiction was intentional – to suggest (like you said) the uncivilized nature of the East versus the civilized nature of the West. It may not be an intentional racist depiction; it’s possible that they’re simply using these characters and their appearance as a suggestion of the relationship between the United States and Vietnam during the war.

TL: I really think it’s important to consider what kind of representation is shown in the musicals. I’m not just referring to the minute details of getting the language or the body movements in the ceremonies right. I am talking about the overarching stereotypes pushed across, the hypersexualization that occurs during the brothel scenes, the submissiveness of Kim, the feminization of Asian men (the Engineer). 

ES: I agree, wholeheartedly. As much as I think that there is room for error in theater, there is a certain sense of urgency when it comes to rejecting stereotypes. Miss Saigon ultimately does a very poor job of rejecting said stereotypes, and I think that’s what makes the show so problematic. Where there were chances to squash ill notions of Asian culture, the show decided to play into them instead to enhance the dramatic narrative. 

TL: One could argue that Miss Saigon does not completely perpetuate these narratives, and that Kim is a force of change. Even in devastating circumstances, Noblezada embodies Kim with fierce determination. There is emotion and strength in her eyes, her movements, and her voice. However, I would counter that one strong, independent Asian woman in the musical does not erase the sexualization of the bargirls– more generally Asian women. 

ES: Kim absolutely has moments of power in the show. They’re not conventional moments of power, and they’re not so much afforded to her by the producers as they are by critical viewers like ourselves. The greatest moment of power she has comes as she makes the decision to take her own life, her power being the ability to save the life of her child. Generally, though, the women in the show are characterized by objectification and submissiveness. This moment of power for Kim becomes almost meaningless among the show’s general theme of sexism. 

TL: In the musical production, “The Heat is on in Saigon,” all of the women are scantily clad. The lights are dimmed to this reddish, purple haze. The choreography is initially aggressive but slows down as the men settle with their ladies. It is impossible to not notice how every aspect of the scene enhances the sensuality and sexuality of the women or how these poor desperate women will do anything to come to the United States.

ES: “The Heat is on in Saigon,” as a viewer, is a jarring opening. It’s chaotic and intimidating, which feels accurate to what the conditions were probably like for the women involved in the sex-working industry in Saigon. The choreography, paired with the echoing of the lyrics and the numerous tones, reflects this chaos and aids the general disorientation that viewers feel when they see the situation on stage. Ultimately, I think that this serves to alienate the image of saigon itself in the eyes of a predominantly white audience. It makes Saigon seem like a lawless place – one Americans wouldn’t recognize and could easily condemn as being “uncivilized.” 

TL: Even though I am not satisfied with the portrayal of Vietnamese culture, I would like to prioritize addressing the harmful stereotypes of Asians first. On one hand, we have musical authors and production artists who care about the enjoyment of their audiences. On the other hand, we have viewers who may not even be aware of what they are consuming. There is a disconnect between these two parties and who is supposed to be represented on stage. It seems ironic that the ethnicity displayed is not even represented by its own people.

ES: Overall, I think that there is both value to be drawn from viewing Miss Saigon, as are there immense revisions that need to be made to the original show. The bottom line remains: the show is problematic due to its inaccurate representation of Vietnamese culture, and its crude performances of gender and sexuality. It’s not a show that needs to be scrapped entirely, however there needs to be far more cultural awareness employed. Broadway must grapple with the fact that accuracy should not be compromised for profit or dramatization; while they’re performing art, they’re also performing history, and to misrepresent a history that was immensely painful for Vietnamese people and women in particular, is to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. In doing so, the producers run the risk of having white audiences with preconceived notions of minority populations further internalize racist stereotypes of Asian culture. 

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