Miss Saigon: Put Simply, Why?

Miss Saigon is a classic musical that has not only inspired multigenerational adoration, but also millions of dollars in revenues. So why is it that Chloee Spore and Star Matthew hate it so much (and, perhaps, why should you too?)

Join us in conversation concerning why Miss Saigon was created, why it continues to be performed, and why neither of these things should be acceptable with full cognizance of the complexity of race.

The Musical Fetishization and Appropriation of Asian Cultures

In Western musical academia, we assign certain modes and scales to Asian music. We direct actors to use offensive accents, dress them in stereotypical costumes, makeup, compose derivative melodies, and thus continue to reinforce these racist standards in our musical consumption. Two extraordinarily popular musicals, Miss Saigon and The King and I, rely upon such stereotypes. Kim, from Miss Saigon, is sexually abused, prostituted, and beaten down, reduced to nothing more than a sex worker and eventual maternal figure. The titular King from The King and I spends the majority of the musical proving that he isn’t a barbarian in order to grow close to his white love interest. These two characters are relegated to stereotypes- the savage and oversexed non-Westerner, an objectified prop for white people to “save” or “improve.”

In order to discuss how Miss Saigon and The King and I heavily fetishize Asian culture, we first must understand the conception and origin of these two musicals. There is a long and established performance history of white people portraying different races, decades before American musical theater became the conglomerate it is today. The performance practices for both of these musicals rely heavily on cultural appropriation. Both musicals were originally performed with white performers in yellowface whose characters wear traditional Vietnamese and Thai costumes. Three popular operas- Madame Butterfly (upon which Miss Saigon is based), The Mikado, and Turandot– were originally performed with white singers in yellowface. Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical about an innocent Midwestern girl trying to make her way in New York City, features three Asian characters who are reduced to grotesque xenophobic stereotypes. The list of racist musicals is extraordinarily long, but Miss Saigon and The King and I are two of the most visible and relevant musicals. 

So why does the musical theater industry keep producing and performing these controversial musicals, when so much of the material is offensive? Recent professional revivals of these musicals have attempted to cast Asian people, but we still see white people in the majority of productions. High schools around the country perform Miss Saigon and place students in appropriative costumes and makeup. Is there a way to perform these musicals and be respectful of the cultures they use? 

Miss Saigon’s female lead Kim is a prime example of white fetishization. From the first downbeat of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical, viewers are assaulted with hypersexualized images of scantily clad Asian women. The lyrics in the first song, “The Heat Is On in Saigon,” reinforce this oversexed scene, referring to the women as “slits,” relegating them to walking vaginas and dehumanizing them. The Engineer, the resident pimp, does his best to sell the women to the American soldiers who frequent Dreamland. Kim, our sweet, virginal heroine, is traded and sold like a piece of prime meat at the market, offered to the highest bidder. Chris, our strapping American G.I., waltzes into the Dreamland brothel and sees Kim, coming to the realization that he has to “know her” (both biblically and platonically).  Kim’s character toes the line between innocent and slutty, and seemingly regains some of her feminine virtues when she assumes the proper role of mother to her son Tam. Miss Saigon is a white savior story that glorifies the sacrificial nature of motherhood and demonizes sex workers. Yet, without Kim, Gigi, Mimi, Yvette, and the other sex workers, we would have no plot. Miss Saigon has to fetishize these characters, or we have no one to save with our whiteness. 

On a similar note, The King and I also uses sex as a means to demote and divide the characters along racial lines. Anna, our white and widowed heroine, has one child and remains steadfast to her late husband for the majority of the musical. The King, conversely, has multiple wives and numerous children. During a conversation with the King’s head wife, Anna says that the King is a polygamist, but not a barbarian, hinting that Western marital standards are superior to those practiced in Siam. This perspective neglects the fact that polygamy is practiced in parts of the West: while it is certainly viewed as unorthodox, it is a far cry from being labeled as “barbaric.” The wives in The King and I function only as objects meant for sexual gratification and childbearing, just as the women in Miss Saigon are used. A prime example of such characterization is Tuptim, the gifted slave destined to become yet another wife to the King. We also see the forcing of Western culture onto the members of the King’s court. In the second act, the ladies of the court wear Western dresses, but neglect undergarments, so when Sir Edward raises his monocle to examine them, the ladies blush in embarrassment and fear and raise their undergarments over their heads, exposing themselves to the men. 

Both Miss Saigon and The King and I do a remarkable job of perpetuating the concept of the “white savior” – Chris is Kim’s hero, and Anna is the King’s better half. Both white characters must change the fates of their Asian counterparts. Costuming and makeup is a key part of both of these characters’ journeys. Kim from Miss Saigon is forced to wear revealing clothing as she works in Dreamland, clothing that is not Western; the other Dreamland prostitutes wear Western swimwear designed to flatter and show off the female body while barely covering genitals and breasts; the King and other court members wear costumes that mimic Thai traditional dress. Both the King and Kim were characters originally performed by white people (e.g.Yul Brynner). Pictures from the first production show Brynner with exaggerated eyeliner, clad in a robe, sash, and loose pants. 

If Kim is merely a sex worker, one iteration of a traditionally undervalued and belittled profession, then why do we continue to tell her story? And why do we tell the tale of the love story between the King of Siam and Anna? These tales echo relationships and situations found in our boring, everyday lives. Unrequited love, the loss of a parent- these traumatic archetypal events become almost easier to digest when pulped, processed, and seasoned with some cultural appropriation. It allows us, the viewers and white colonizers, to accept what we have done to a shocking portion of the world- we stripped it down and demeaned the indigenous populations, remaining unwilling to empathize with different cultures and using traditionally Christian morals as an excuse to obliterate thousands of years of history. Sex, love, and death act as catalysts for unity across cultural divides, but it doesn’t mean that we should have to boil down characters like Kim and the King in order to confront the consequences of colonialism. 

Kim’s tragic ending allows us to pretend that for a minute, we actually care about what Americans did during the Vietnam War, and allows us to repent for the sins of our forefathers. The ending of The King and I lets us escape to a fantasy world which lets us say, “We didn’t cause any harm to this culture!” But, we did, and we continue to mock survivors’ and descendents’ trauma by performing these musicals with white actors. While it is important to perform them, we must also be willing to discuss why exactly they are so problematic. We are compelled to sugarcoat the colonization and transform it into a peppy musical in order to assuage our white guilt and fragility. We are still absolving the sums of our collective guilt through the consumption of this art medium. Even though it is possible to continue to perform these musicals, they must be viewed not only as works of art, but as the imperialist propaganda they fundamentally are. 

Miss Saigon, Where Do We Go From Here?

When I found out that I would be watching the musicals Miss Saigon and The King and I for an academic class, I was more than excited to experience these productions. Not only had I not seen a production of these musicals before, but I was eager to see a minority culture represented on the Broadway stage. After some conversations surrounding representation and musical theatre with my own friends, I was made aware of the significance the show held for some of my Southeast Asian friends. I had assumed that Miss Saigon and The King and I were just as significant to my friends as Dreamgirls and The Color Purple are significant to me. And while Miss Saigon and The King and I do have some great storytelling aspects and stellar performers, the stereotypical sentiment towards Southeast Asians, specifically Southeast Asian women, continues to be portrayed in modern productions.

Miss Saigon transports audience members overseas and into 1970s Vietnam and Myanmar. Despite the foreign location, the production supplies spectators with a specific, Western-centric insight into the people and the culture inherent to these regions. Miss Saigon portrays a war-torn landscape where the native women are willing to do almost anything to escape their circumstances and pursue a better life in America, even if it means being whisked away by an American soldier whom they were pimped out to. When broken down analytically, the production itself offers intriguing commentary on the intersectional experience of being Asian and being a woman. However, most of these depictions draw upon negative stereotypes, and originate from an exclusively Western perspective. Kim, the lead character in Miss Saigon, is a prime example of a character whose femininity is accentuated to conform to the stereotype of the perfect, Asian woman. This notion becomes even more complicated as Kim’s expressed femininity comes into comparison with Ellen’s role as Chris’s American wife. The differences that exists between Kim and Ellen not only inform the gendered roles that they assume, but also lends itself to creating an intersectional crossroad of race and gender that specifically affects how Kim is depicted. As a result, Kim’s actions become a performance of otherness whenever juxtaposed with Ellen, a performance of whiteness.

Prior to Miss Saigon’s original Broadway debut, the terms “geisha girl” and “china doll” were grossly utilized to define characteristics that were expected of Southeast Asian women. These terms perpetuated the idea that these women were the epitome of submission and docility, more so than white women. These submissive and docile characteristics were molded to fit the Western, male-centered expectations of femininity. Subsequently, these stereotypes were subtly, and purposefully, integrated into Miss Saigon’s plot, characters, and the other storytelling elements. From the very beginning of the musical, Kim is depicted as a mere object of the existence that surrounds her. She almost always exclusively operates as a passive recipient, arguably only fulfilling the role of a direct decision maker during the final moments of the performance. From the very beginning of the production, Kim is lead away from her homeland and thrusted into the frenzied backstage of a strip club. When instructed to be the sexually desired object of a group of American soldiers, Kim meekly follows the Engineer’s commands as the men chant “the heat is on in Saigon, the girls are ready to screw.” These two contrasting images corroborate the submissive stereotype that have been inflicted upon women of Southeast Asian descent. The brash chants of the soldiers vocally assert a dominance over the women in the bar. Their forceful tone matches their physicality as they move their muscular bodies across the stage and lunge after the prostitutes that inhabit the bar. As the men intentionally graze up against her, grab and caress her arms, and lead her by the hips, Kim continues to be an object of their desires. It isn’t until Chris, one of the American soldiers, intervenes on Kim’s “behalf” that this behavior comes to a halt. The show itself doesn’t provide Kim with any agency of her own to redeem herself from this unsettling and overtly male dominated situation. Instead a white, American soldier must rescue Kim from her circumstance, suggesting that Kim alone does not have the power to advocate for herself. Even while she resides in her own country, it takes the authority and masculinity of a foreigner from the Western world to ease her struggle. In other words, Miss Saigon insinuates that the only way out for Kim and the other Vietnamese women working for the Engineer is to be submissive to an ideal, mostly white, American man.

The implications of race and gender in Miss Saigon continue when the audience is introduced to Ellen, Chris’s wife whom he marries several years after leaving Vietnam. Her first appearance during “I Still Believe” seamlessly intertwines Kim’s and Ellen’s individual storylines despite the characters not having any direct interaction at this point. While both women sing about Chris, Ellen is positioned lying in bed next to him wearing a simple, seemingly silken nightgown with a marriage band fastened her left ring finger. Conversely, Kim kneels on the ground below in soiled clothing with dirt smudged across her face, clutching the only remnant of Chris that she has. Kim’s circumstance, depicted by filth and squalor, warrants sympathy from the audience. Ellen’s condition, however, cements her status as Chris’s legitimate wife, almost refuting the establishment of Kim and Chris’s prior relationship. Complete with a marriage ring and a marriage bed, Ellen represents the traditional woman that awaits an American soldier once he returns from war: blonde, white, and ready to get hitched. Ellen even expresses her spousal commitment to Chris as she closes the song singing, “I’m your wife now for life until we die.” Kim mirrors Ellen’s final words, instead singing “I’m yours until we die.” Once again, the simultaneous comparison of Kim’s and Ellen’s inner thoughts aim to create sympathy for Kim. While Kim fantasizes about rekindling her relationship with Chris, Ellen lives out this fantasy in reality. Kim’s inability to acquire any of the physical signifiers of traditional marriage, unlike Kim, delegitimizes her relationship with Chris. This feeds into the concept of Eastern exoticism as Kim, previously desired and feminized to the upmost degree, becomes replaced for a more traditional, American woman.

The emphasis on Kim’s otherness reaches a peak during “Room 317,” the number where Kim meets Ellen for the first time. When Kim enters the hotel room, Ellen immediately dismisses her as cleaning personnel. In this brief moment, Ellen doesn’t consider Kim to be a person of significance. Even given the situation that brought her and Chris to Bangkok, Ellen never stops to consider if Kim is the woman Chris is looking for. Although this comment may have been made unconsciously, it calls Ellen’s reaction seeing a Southeast Asian woman entering her room into question. Her split-second reaction to Kim’s race and gender immediately labels Kim as just another person on her trip to Bangkok, someone who is there to merely turn the Ellen’s bedsheets for her convenience. If Kim had been a Southeast Asian man or a white woman, Ellen’s reaction would not have had the same effect. It is the combination of both Kim’s race and gender that this small comment carries as much consequence and insight as it does. 

As the conversation between Kim and Ellen continues, Ellen makes several, short comments and behaves in a way that reads as attempt to distance herself from Kim. When Kim implores Ellen to take her son, Tam, back to America with her and Chris, Ellen remains in her chair while Kim begs from the floor. Ellen is physically situated above Kim, affording Ellen more physical presence as well as control over the exchange. This dynamic leaves Kim depicted as the woman without any influence on the conversation. Given she has the upper hand, Ellen is visibly opposed to the idea and concisely remarks, “Chris is married to me, we want kids of our own.” Ellen’s remarks make it clear that she is married to Chris and the family she imagines does not and will not consist of Chris and Kim’s son. Ellen drives this point even further exclaiming, “He’s your child, he’s not mine!” This is Ellen’s most blatant attempt at otherizing Kim and Tam. In this moment, Ellen unconsciously reveals that Tam has no place in her American-born family despite being Chris’s biological son. Sending off a little money here and there is enough to meet Tam’s needs in Ellen’s mind, fueling her own white saviorism from the comfort of her homestead.

Both during its debut and its return to Broadway, Miss Saigon has been able to attract massive audiences, and it isn’t hard to imagine why this is. Eva Noblezada’s performance as Kim during the West End revival is more than good reason to invest in watching Miss Saigon. Her and the energy her other castmates bring to the stage, particularly Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer and Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi, makes watching the musical an immersive experience. However, this doesn’t negate the harmful ideas and images that the musical itself perpetuates. Displays of toxic masculinity, white saviorism, and Asian exoticism run rampant throughout the show, and it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge how these topics are rooted in real-world viewpoints and have real-word consequences. The ways in which Kim is treated throughout the show reflect how society has and continues to view minority women. The relationship between Kim and Ellen creates a dichotomy that explains how whiteness and non-whiteness, or otherness, have been defined historically. As troubling as these concepts may be, their subject matter can be used to foster productive discussion. These conversations can help inform future decisions concerning honest representations of not only Southeast Asian people, but all minorities across the musical theatre medium.

The Silence of White Violence: Racialized Perceptions of Masculine Aggression in Miss Saigon

By Maya P.

“Sir, is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see her?” For Miss Saigon characters Chris and Thuy, I am disappointed to say that the answer is both. The 2017 Broadway revival of Miss Saigon, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil and directed by Laurence Connor (all of whom are white men), is a story of an ill-fated romance between Kim, a young Vietnamese orphan, and Chris, a white American GI during the Vietnam War. In the show, Kim and Chris fall in love before he abandons her, and we watch their separate stories progress until their tragic reunion at the story’s conclusion. During Kim and Chris’ whirlwind romance, Thuy, a cousin to whom Kim was promised by their parents in their youth, is identified as an interfering force in their romance as he constantly tries to track Kim down and claim her as his own. In pursuing Kim romantically, Chris and Thuy similarly threaten and enact physical and emotional violence against Kim – but because Chris is white and Thuy is not, this violence makes Thuy a villain while Chris gets to remain a protagonist. 

In order to understand the way in which Chris and Thuy enact violence against Kim, we first need to understand Kim’s situation. Kim, played by then 20-year-old Eva Noblezada, is a poor, seventeen year old Vietnamese girl whose parents are recent casualties of the Vietnam War. In order to get by, she turns to prostitution in a brothel. There, Chris’ friend John purchases a night with Kim for him, and from the first time they dance, it is clear that their love is written in the stars. They predictably fall in love, they get married, he abandons her when the Americans leave Vietnam, and she is left to care for their child in the ruins of Saigon while being actively pursued by Thuy, who is now a high-ranking Vietnamese army officer. Basically, Kim has every single odd stacked against her – she is young, she is orphaned, she is Vietnamese (i.e. not white), she is a mother, she is poor, she is a woman – and because of that, all of her actions stem from who she is, so she never has any agency and is treated as an object rather than a subject.

If Kim is a package with a “FRAGILE” label on it, the leading men in this musical are postmen who simply have no concept of the phrase “handle with care.” Thuy (played by Devin Ilaw) in particular inflicts overt physical violence onto Kim. When he barges into Kim and Chris’ wedding ceremony, he touches her face and smiles when he speaks to her, but when Chris makes himself (and his “claim” to Kim) known, Thuy seemingly turns in an instant. His face drops, he tenses, he hurls insults at the other women in the brothel. But upon closer examination, Thuy has had this violence within him from the start. He initially grabs Kim by the wrists and aggressively pulls her to him, and he’s simply allowed his violent “nature” to shine through when presented with a competitor. At one point, Thuy draws a gun on Chris, and Kim positions herself in front of the barrel to protect him. Though Thuy does not shoot, he holds the gun there for far too long to have not been thinking about it. He leaves as Chris “saves” Kim by chasing Thuy out at gunpoint.

There is already so much to unpack here. Thuy, a Vietnamese man (more on that later), is positioned immediately as an antagonist in Kim and Chris’ love story who is willing to use violent and even lethal force to get Kim, his “prize [he] can win,” because he thinks he has a right to “have” her. And then he comes back for more. Three years later, Thuy is an official in Vietnam’s communist regime, and with the help of the Engineer, he finds Kim hiding as she waits for Chris to return. He asks her again to marry him, and when she refuses, he orders his troops who had been waiting outside the door to tie her up and take her to a re-education camp, showing us that again, he is willing to kill her if she will not give him what he wants (what he wants being her). Kim is once again trapped with no options, so she reveals the son she had with Chris to Thuy, who once again threatens murder as he holds Tam at knifepoint, and Kim, because she is a mother, has no choice but to shoot Thuy with Chris’ gun. Thuy is shown as a relentless brute who will kill a white man, will think about killing a teenage girl, and will kill an actual toddler in order to get his way and preserve his pride and cultural ideas. His brutality and the way he gets in between Kim and Chris’ star-crossed love makes it such that the audience might even feel that he deserves his death, and even if they feel bad for him, they will hardly consider it a tragedy. 

Thuy also commits emotional violence against her. Even when he is not putting his hands on Kim in their initial encounter,  he invalidates her feelings for Chris, basically telling her that she “belongs” to him, and then dredges up the past trauma of her parents’ death in order to make her feel guilty about not wanting to marry him. And three years later, he forces her to watch as he holds her child hostage and almost kills him. Although it was Kim who pulled the trigger on Thuy, the fact that she had to choose between the death of her child and committing murder is an emotionally violent act in itself. Either way, she will be held responsible for the death of a family member. His entire character is based on a cycle of telling Kim he loves her and then threatening her with death, so, you know, a real stand-up guy.

And then we have Chris, played by Alistair Brammer. On the surface, he is the romantic lead! He is chivalrous, he is Western, he loves Kim and wants to rescue her from her tragic life in Vietnam. But he has the potential to be just as violent as Thuy; we’re just not supposed to think that he is, or at least, we’re not supposed to care. First of all, throughout Act I, he’s either in his army uniform or half-naked (read: having sex with Kim), meaning he’s either a symbol of war and American imperialism or sexually dominant at all times. Secondly, he’s also not particularly gentle around Kim when they first meet, either. Although he never lays a rough hand on her, he’s constantly using excessive force against other men who come near her, such as the other soldier who tries to assalt her or the Engineer, and he also doesn’t try to stop John’s sexual harassment against her, either. Though at first he pays her to leave the brothel, he eventually gives in to the pressures of toxic masculinity when John and the Engineer accuse him of not being interested in her – he takes her back to her room where he takes advantage of her naivete and proceeds to rape her (yes, she allowed him to, but as the musical makes both excessively clear through Noblezada’s portrayal yet also wants us to forget, she is a child). There are also multiple instances later on in the musical where he is an all-around violent guy, such as his pulling a gun on a man asking to use the phone, or spending his entire Big Emotional Solo pushing men asking him for help away from him. Even in moments where he was onstage with Thuy while Thuy was being actively violent, Chris was being violent as well! Remember, he chased Thuy out of the brothel at gunpoint after holding a gun to Thuy’s forehead over Kim’s cowering body. And before Chris leaves, he gives her his gun thinking he is protecting her, but as we later learn, she ended up using this gun to kill herself to ensure Chris took her son with him back to the States. Though he never physically lays a violent hand on Kim, the threat is constantly there. 

Chris also inflicts emotional violence on Kim from the moment he decides to pursue her. Not only does he take advantage of her youth and inexperience in having sex with her, he continues to pursue this relationship with a girl he knows is all kinds of disadvantaged. She is seventeen years old, she is traumatized (she tells him about how her parents were civilian casualties in Chris’ war and how she literally saw their faceless dead bodies, to which he replies, “Can I see you tonight?” and I proceed to vomit a little in my mouth), and she is a prostitute because she cannot afford to eat otherwise. I cannot imagine that anything but good old white American male entitlement could have made him think this was a relationship he could pursue while keeping her emotional stability intact. Although he supposedly loves her, he capitalizes off of her for personal gain (“I saw a world I never knew/ and through her eyes I suffered too/ In spite of all the things that were / I started to believe in her”), which in itself is violent by turning her into nothing more than a stepping stone for Chris’ personal growth. There is an image that I think about a lot when considering the relationship between Kim and Chris: they are alone, center stage, kissing passionately while bathed in an almost heavenly light – but the first thing you notice is Chris’ gun on his hip. Maybe it’s my recent viewing of Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means To Me” talking, but all I can think about while watching this interaction is how easy it would be for him to grab his gun and shoot her in this moment, if only he had wanted to. 

Both Chris and Thuy lord their ability to inflict physical harm over Kim’s head constantly and leave the lingering threat of violence in their wake wherever they go. They both treat her like property. They both use her as a stepping stone for fulfillment of their personal narratives. And yet, why do we hate Thuy and sympathize with Chris? The answer is..you guessed it, Racism! Thuy is introduced as Kim’s suitor via arranged marriage (bonus points: he’s her cousin), and believes he is entitled to Kim because of it. Kim states that “I am not a prize you can win” (yay women empowerment?), then turns to Chris and explains to him that they were promised to each other four years ago (to which Chris nods sagely and understandingly, as if to say “ah yes, your oppressive culture, I know of it”). Thuy is painted as an embodiment of Vietnamese culture and attitudes towards women, which are represented as repressive and primitive. Meanwhile, Chris in his army uniform represents American chivalry and progressive Western values (which we American women know to be true because we definitely do not have to worry about walking home alone in the dark. All I am saying is that you can tell this production was directed by a white man). The Western audience wants to believe that Chris is the good guy, that his violence is acceptable because he is a soldier, because he loves Kim, and maybe, just maybe, because we’re just so used to white male violence that we are blind to how it pervades our American culture and we (women) have to ignore and forget about it just to get through our day. 

Chris and Thuy are so similar. They play tug-of-war with this poor girl’s life, and in the end it tears her apart – she dies via Chris’ gun in Chris’ arms, and the tragedy of her death is overshadowed by Chris’ grief about it. In comparing the way these two men inflict physical and emotional violence onto this vulnerable woman, we are forced to confront how pervasive masculine violence is in our lives and how racism impacts how we see it. All men are capable of violence, but our white supremacist culture allows us brush it off or justify it when a woman is a casualty of fighting a culture perceived to be uncivilized, repressive, or just flat out wrong. Our perception of violence as something perpetrated by non-Western cultures, by men of color, lets us ignore the more sinister forms of violence enacted upon women (women of color in particular) by white men – violence that isn’t even subtle. It’s right in front of us, the gun is on their hip, and white supremacist narratives like this one convince us that it’s just not that big a deal. And pulling the trigger gets easier.