(tho it’s funny that pad thai isn’t a vietnamese dish)
Ejew: This is Ejew Kim and I’m here with Megan Lin and Sally Kim to talk about race and ethnicity in the 2014 West End production of Miss Saigon directed by Laurence Connor and starring Eva Noblezaga as Kim and Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer. Based on the original production by writers and composers Schönberg and Alain Boublil, Miss Saigon (2014) illustrates the life of Kim, a Vietnamese orphan girl trying to reunite with her American boyfriend Chris who had fled to the US after Saigon’s fall, whom she met as the Engineer’s employee. Through the musical, we can see the tribulations the Asian characters go through due to racial disparities and how in light of these troubles, they show aspiration and power by fighting for themselves.
Ejew: Here’s my first question. In Miss Saigon (2014) which Asian characters stood out to you? For me, the Engineer really stood out. As a half-French, half-Vietnamese man, he owns the steady Saigon strip club, “Dreamland.” Already, from how he names his business, you can sense that he is a man full of aspiration. In fact, after Saigon falls, every action, every speech coming out of him is dedicated to achieving his “American Dream” of great wealth, fame, and authority. After Saigon’s failure, he receives no opportunities to achieve the wealth and fame that he wants because he is Vietnamese instead of American. Yet, he persists on trying to achieve his desires as he names his dream the “American Dream,” showing internal power in the form of persisting aspiration, standing strong against a helpless reality.
Megan: I think that the Engineer is interesting, especially with his determination to pursue the American dream, but I think that Kim is the character that really stood out. Firstly, I think that being a woman makes her life comparatively harder than the Engineer. Especially a woman with no family left in a war ridden country, Kim’s life is bound to be difficult. As the main character, Kim has more spotlight on her, which allows the musical to more thoroughly develop aspects of her character. Being a Vietnamese woman, Kim is surrounded by an environment where women are objectified and controlled by men. She has to conform to Vietnamese societal rules, never having the power to break free. However, she is still able to recognize and execute her inner power to fight for what she loves in this restricted environment. Kim’s life is full of tragedy, but she shows resilience and strength even in the face of despair.
Sally: I was also able to notice how the Engineer and Kim are able to push through and fight for what they aspire despite all of the ups and downs they have been through in their life. In my opinion, they were the ones who have been through the most tribulations and experienced the most helplessness due to their race. However, they are able to find the strength to get past them.
Ejew: To bring the focus more on the acting, how do the actors’ movements portray power? Do they show helplessness in any way? Aspirations? I think the Engineer’s power comes from his sly, rather joyful—and sexual—body movements. His number “The American Dream” really emphasizes this: He seems to be really enjoying the vision, flying his hands up to the sky so many times and striking his head back to laugh hilariously at his fancy stipper ladies and showering money. At one point he grinds on “his” fancy white car, and this seems to be conveyed as his best, true-to-self expression of joy about his “American Dream”—all his life he’s been working with prostitution…how else could he have expressed pleasure? This level of joy he seems to show is quite amazing, especially to think about how much of a depressing time he is spending post-Saigon, earning merely 10 cents an hour under a boss—definitely something that a born-to-be-ceo, money-lover man would have a hard time with, and something other characters seem to not be able to show. And it’s this ability to keep dreaming—with positivity—in a devastating reality represents the Engineer’s internal power.
Megan: Kim is very different from the optimistic Engineer. She is naive, innocent, and doesn’t have the same playfulness that the Engineer has. Yet she shows her own internal power in several musical numbers, such as ‘The Heat is on in Saigon” and “This is the Hour”. She’s only a 17 year old girl, yet she’s able to stand in front of all these people (the prostitutes and the American soldiers alike) and present herself to make a living. Just imagine witnessing the horrifying deaths of your family and your next best option is being a prostitute. Really just shows how helpless Vietnamese women were during this time period. So Kim having that amount of determination and strength after this tragedy, just shows so much about her character. The way that she holds herself and her straight posture shows that she has an internal power that is incomparable. Instead of cowering, acting submissive, or holding her head down, Kim looks ahead fearlessly. In “This is the Hour” her inner power manifests and fully emerges. She is willing to stand in front of her son, Tam, when Thuy is holding a knife to try to kill him. Then the scene that really took the cake was the scene where Kim actually holds a gun to fight against Thuy and she holds Tam right behind her. This scene was really powerful because it showed how she was willing to stand up against her cousin, someone who is her family, for her own son. She could have agreed to marry him and had an easier life as a housewife, but instead she decides to fight against him. Her determination and strength in the face of tragedy just go to show her inner power.
Ejew: How do the songs and lyrics from the musical’s authors show the characters’ emotions? How does this contribute to the three factors of our discussion: aspiration, power, and helplessness?
Sally: Kim holds a lot of power internally and in the musical number “This is the Hour,” she is finally able to emit this power and use it to give herself a voice. Kim is willing to do anything for Tam. When he is in danger, Kim knows how to emerge from this internal power in order to save him. Kim’s strong vocals while singing, “You will not touch him” towards Thuy adds on to the demands that she is putting on him. Instead of potentially saying, “Please don’t touch him,” shouting “You will not touch him” has a stronger and demanding tone. Continuing on, she sings, “I’m warning you, for him I’ll kill” while holding a gun towards Thuy and before pulling the trigger she adds on, “You will not take my child.” In this number, the lyrics fully portray Kim’s fearlessness against powers who try to take control of her. The lyrics are way more adamant and relentless. In addition, the way she sings these lyrics by slightly belting and putting as much controlled power as she can shows how Kim is now able to go against those who have taken control of her in the past. I was so glad to see Kim portraying her inner power and not using any words that allow room for Thuy to manipulate and control her.
Megan: I think that the Engineer also really shows the three factors of our discussion. He has an entire song dedicated to his American dream (coincidentally named “The American Dream”), where he conveys his aspirations and shows his desperation to get to his goal. Many lyrics in “The American Dream” show the engineer’s dreams in America. One of the lines is: “In the states I’ll have a club that’s four-starred/ Men like me there have things easy/ They have a lawyer and a bodyguard/ To the Johns there I’ll sell blondes there”. I feel it that these lines really show his ambition and his belief in his own power to pursue his dream. This is especially because he doesn’t try to cover up anything and is very explicit with the lyrics that he uses. He also portrays his frustrations with his current living which is another he shows his aspiration and struggle for power. This is seen in certain lyrics such as: “I’m fed up with small-time hustles/ I’m too good to waste my talent for greed”. In these lines it once again shows his confidence in himself, while at the same time showing how the Engineer felt limited by the boundaries and helpless in Vietnam. He even asks why he had to be born as a citizen of Vietnam and that America was where he truly belonged.
Ejew: Last but not least, how do you think the set and costume design emphasize aspirations and power—against helplessness—in the characters?
Sally: I want to focus on the Engineer. Throughout the musical, the Engineer is seen wearing flashy costumes and also dresses in rags. As stated before, his number “The American Dream” highlights the power he holds and his aspiration for this ideal life. In this number, the set is decked out in flashy diamonds, with the ensemble dressed up in sparkly suits and bodysuits. The background is of a golden Statue of Liberty with gold pillars surrounding it. Most importantly, the Engineer is riding the convertible in a sparkly red suit with a deep v-neck blouse while the spotlight is shining on him. The design and costume in this number accurately depicts the American Dream, which is filled with overflowing wealth, authority, and fame. The shining lights, the sparkly outfits, the gold embellishments across the stage, and the bright and contrasting colors really brings this dream to life and you can’t deny the joy and pleasure it brings to the Engineer. The difference between this setting and his usual life emphasizes the struggles he goes through, but the Engineer’s ability to keep on dreaming and imagining this life despite them shows the Engineer’s internal power.
Ejew: Same!–the contrasts in artistic design that the directors implemented definitely caught my attention. The most interesting one for me was for the number “I Still Believe” by Kim and Ellen. This left a strong impression on me because of how the stage was constructed to contrast the two characters: Kim is literally on the lowest stage ground with dark and green lighting while Ellen is on a higher leveled stage under bright yellow lights—explicitly portrays how Kim is of a lower status than Ellen. In fact, Kim stays under a rusty shack, wearing torn clothes and half-sitting on her knees, while Ellen is on a silky bed with Chris, wearing flowery clothing and having city lights on her background. This difference in style highlights their financial gap, and suggests Kim as weaker than Ellen, and to be helpless about reaching her goal of reuniting with her love Chris—which means taking him back from Ellen. However, I think eventually Kim demonstrates agency. We can see this by the clothes she pick for her son and herself right before she commits suicide in meeting Chris. She puts her son in a bright-red Mickey Mouse sweater and white cargo shorts—very noticeably different, very American—while she herself styles herself the exact way she did when she first met Chris. It strongly represents how she wants her son to have a better future in the US, while she remains in the past, in Vietnam.
Megan: Yeah. Overall, I think we all agree that Miss Saigon, through their Vietnamese characters, demonstrates aspirations, and both helplessness and power of the Asian race as a minority victimized under discrimination. The helplessness emphasizes the burdens that minorities—specifically people of the Asian race—face even today, but also gives encouragement to fight against racial injustice and help shape a world of better equity.
Ejew and Sally, synchronized: Yes! (Ejew thinks this is funny)
2 thoughts on “Miss Saigon Shows More Power in the Form of a Broadway Musical than Pad Thai”
I am not going to lie – the title is what initially caused me to click on this dialogue, but I thought it was an extremely interesting and even novel analysis of this musical! You guys chose to view Miss Saigon in a more positive light, one we did not really discuss as a larger class, and you really did the legwork for it by drawing from so many specific musical numbers and all different elements of the production, including lyrics, choreography, costuming, and even lighting in one of my favorite moments where you dissect “I Still Believe.” I do disagree with a few points here and there, such as when it comes to Kim’s agency and the portrayal of Vietnam and America as countries/identities (as I view those representations as problematic), but that is totally okay! In fact, it is kind of the whole point! Thank you for a great read!
Dang, I clicked on this getting ready to note how pad thai isn’t vietnamese but I guess you beat me to it. I also did this essay on Miss Saigon and I have to say, you nailed the racial dynamic between west and east. I thought it was great how you also focused on the important aspect of the aspirations of the vietnamese characters rather than focusing on their helplessness. It was also really cool how you tied this in to talk about the racial injustices seen in the modern day!