Behind the White Curtain: A Look into Racial Representation in Miss Saigon.

Dialogue between Gabe Robles-Nieles and George Zhu.

GZ: Today Gabe and I are going to be talking about one of the musicals that we watched in class titled Miss Saigon. The rendition that we watched was the 2014 West End Revival version which featured a more demographically appropriate casting of characters, addressing a few racist aspects of the original. In this discussion, we’re going to try and center our conversation around Miss Saigon’s depictions of how the framework of whiteness impacted the non-white characters in this musical. Before we begin, let’s both tell everybody a little bit about ourselves just so they can better understand the perspectives that we’ll be speaking from. To start, I am a Chinese American male who grew up in the States. So culturally, I’ve grown up in an environment shaped by American mass media which is predominantly shaped by white America. Having been indoctrinated into white society, there was definitely a disconnect in my mind when watching this musical. I saw and identified with certain tropes that Chris displayed but found it difficult to reconcile the other parts that painted Asians in a lesser light.

GRN: As for me, I am Latino, and I grew up here in the States, just a little out of Nashville, so I’ve got a pretty similar media upbringing in terms of a white standard with minorities set as others.

GZ: Now that we’ve taken a second to understand where we as individuals stand, let’s begin to explore some of racial tension within this musical. First and foremost, there is the relationship between American soldiers, representing a white society, and the native Vietnamese population. Immediately from the beginning of the musical, a sharp distinction is drawn between the portrayal of the American soldiers versus the Vietnamese “bar girls”. If we break down this opening scene a little, what we find is that the American soldiers are characterized as better than the overtly sexualized Vietnamese women working in Dreamland. Seemingly desperate for a way to get to America, these Vietnamese characters were never given a chance to be equally respected. Beyond this, while John, an African American soldier, wanted to engage sexually with these bar girls, Chris, the White American Soldier, seizes the moral high ground and refuses to get with Kim, a young innocent bar girl, perpetuating the idea that white morality is superior.

GRN: Yeah, exactly.  They’re treating them as though that’s what their purpose was in being there.  They’ve basically gone in and set themselves as the standard, and even though this is their country and their home, the soldiers treat the locals as though they are there to serve their desires and their wishes.

GZ: This really seems like the classic colonialist vision where white individuals go to a foreign space, do what they deem is right, and take what they feel like they deserve. Oftentimes like this musical portrays, after these individuals take action, they fail to take responsibility for those actions. We see in the Fall of Saigon, many Vietnamese people who were relying on American protection from the Vietcong get inhumanely left as US soldiers quickly retreated in the face of a defeat. Kim is also abandoned by Chris during this time but of course Chris does not leave without first placing a huge burden on Kim. Chris and Kim’s son, Tam, offers an avenue to continued explication of their relationship. Even though Chris left, Tam serves as a continual reminder of the impacts that one individual can make on another’s life.  

GRN: It’s almost as though, in writing this, they were trying to embody these consequences that we see after Chris leaving.  In the grander scheme of things, it’s as though Tam were personifying the foreign impact in Vietnam. Yeah, because Kim is there, and she raises Tam and is dealing with this every day.  On the other hand, Chris goes home and has no clue: it doesn’t cross his mind, and it doesn’t bother or matter to him.  And I think that this is very reminiscent of the position that we take as a foreign power—and when I say “we,” I mean the United States.  We go in, and we do what we decide is best, and then when the situation is not as beneficial for us, we pull out and leave the people that were already there to deal with whatever situation that we’ve just left them in. 

GZ: Yeah I think in positions like this, it’s especially interesting to consider the burden that’s placed on different races. I’m not saying Chris didn’t go through any hardships while fighting the Vietnam War. Chris definitely experienced trauma to a certain degree but it’s a stark contrast from the physical representations of burden that had been left to Kim. And because she had a child with Chris, her well-being became challenged by Thuy who wanted to kill her son and get with her, and also the Engineer who wanted to turn her over to Thuy.  While I’m unsure if I can say that Chris is responsible for all these bad things happening to Kim, the framework of whiteness allows for Chris to leave Kim in Vietnam with all these burdens. This kind of plot paints an image where white people are able to be detached from the consequences of their actions, but even when they attempt to remedy those consequences, this musical doesn’t distribute the repercussion in an equitable way. The musical was scripted in a way where Kim had to die at the end even though she didn’t do anything too wrong throughout the entire musical. She risked her life to save her son, she saw her parents get massacred, the tragedies and hardships that Kim had to endure were arguably greater than what Chris had to go through.

GRN: Even then, having gone through all of that, Kim doesn’t deflect her responsibility with Tam and with what we’ve sort of personified as the consequences of the situation; she remains a devoted mother all the way until the end.  On the other hand, we have Chris and Ellen, who are initially very interested in doing what’s best for Tam, until suddenly they realize that what’s best for Tam would require some sacrifice on their part, and so they slowly start to distance themselves from their responsibility to Tam.  Especially on Chris’s part, as he realizes what bringing Tam to the United States would entail and how it would involve Kim and the strain that this would put on their relationship; he creates all of these reasons why he can’t step up and accept his responsibility when in reality, it’s fully within his power to give them his support.

GZ: A really interesting aspect here is that even though all these problems center around a white man’s decision, I really felt that the entire musical was still rooting for Chris. We saw that Kim wanted to get to America and find Chris throughout the entire musical, that John was a secondary character who was in support of Chris the entire time, and that Ellen was also supportive of Chris the entire time despite not knowing about Chris’ relationship with Kim. It seemed like whatever Chris did, regardless of the impact toward other people, the majority of the characters were always on the side of the main white character.

GRN: I think you have a really good point about how the avenue for the story is based around Chris’s decision and then ultimately his lack of follow through with the consequences.  Even the way that they portray him and Ellen, as opposed to Vietnamese majority that there is in the story: Chris and then Ellen are portrayed as the “saving grace.”  They approach these situations as though it’s their responsibility to make everything better.  Well, the way that I saw it, anyways, especially as we’re going through this last little bit of the musical where there is this meeting and this reckoning between Kim and Ellen, is that Americans and the white folk are meant to be seen as this “bastion of goodness,” as though they were sent into the world to do good and to save others and lift them up from their circumstances, and I thought this was really ironic, because if you look at the cast, Ellen and Chris are very much the minority in terms of race, and you would think that it would follow the standard for these majority versus minority situations, whereby within this binary we see the majority portrayed as the one to root for and as that bastion of goodness.  I thought it was really interesting to see that even with this role reversed, where Chris and Ellen are the minority, they’re still meant to be seen as better than or the purifying force.

GZ: Yeah I think that’s a really interesting observation. Despite the fact that white is the minority in this musical, white American culture is still definitely championed especially through the American Dream. Even among the Vietnamese characters, taking the Engineer as an example, the white way of life in America was his greatest dream.

GRN: Yes, and the whole song!  I, personally, thought it was a really funny song: it played to this idea of the “American Dream” and how great that it’s meant to be while at the same time satirizing the whole thing.  There was one line that really stuck with me as relates to this and I think it was “Cocaine, shotguns, and prayer: the American Dream!”  And he’s not wrong!

GZ: The aspect of having to pimp his own mother out definitely contributed to that satire-ization. While the song described the American dream perfectly, it also helped the audience to understand how twisted the outcome of the American Dream could turn out, you know? Not everything is as clean as glamorous as it appears and the things people have to do to achieve those dreams aren’t always the most wholesome either.

GRN: Also, I know that we discussed previously in the course, representation and the familiarity bias, and I thought that this was really important to discuss in terms of representations of race within Miss Saigon. If we think about it, the only two Vietnamese male characters that we see are the Engineer—who is clearly not meant to be a role model—and Thuy—who is the very traditional, very domineering male.  In terms of female representations, it consists almost entirely of the girls in the club—all competing for this spot of Miss Saigon, competing for the top spot.  They’re all meant to be objects of desire for the GIs, especially, and they are all meant to submit to the will of the men that surround them.  I thought that there was a major issue in terms of the fact that these are the only representations of the Vietnamese that we see, as opposed to a character like Chris, who is instantly meant to be viewed as the moral standpoint, especially in the beginning: he identifies an issue with what’s happening and their acceptance of the situation.  We later see a similar thing from Ellen, who claims that she wants the best for Tam, and, again, I thought it was very interesting to see this dynamic whereby this idea of majority/minority are flip-flopped to still fit the context of the American standpoint.

GZ: I definitely agree with that analysis. From what I saw, the white perspective was the right perspective. Despite having been put on this moral pedestal, ironically enough, Chris still gets with 17 year old Kim and actually impregnates her despite his “moral superiority.” Chris has sex with an underage girl and the entire remainder of the musical romanticizes this relationship. Ultimately, I think this musical can only serve as an artifact of a contribution to the dialogue of race. It really offers no comprehensive picture of how race should be understood and addressed. Because of this, it can only offer a glimpse of what past ideologies on race looked like and what decisions were made. It’s nice that producers aren’t using slant eye prosthetics anymore to depict Asian characters but this musical inherently contains a lot of themes and overall plot lines are racially problematic. I don’t think any amount of superficial change in costume or performer can rectify the backwards aspects of this musical.

GRN: 100%.  This storyline is just inherently problematic, like you said.  It’s good to be appreciated within the context of it being a product of its time and its viewpoints being antiquated, and definitely as a conversation-starter and as a means for discussing and learning and getting people to think about the way that their thought processes can harm and be harmful. 

GZ: That’s a really good point, I think if anything, this musical can serve as a good start point for dialogue and conversation is a tremendously important aspect for understanding each other.  

GRN: Exactly. It’s really important to have these conversations and to ask ourselves why we accepted this as the standard and why, even today, we allow this standard to pervade our media and our own views.  As a global community, we are definitely in the midst of sea change among public perception toward race. It’s because of these conversations that topics of race can be continually challenged and be made more just. Will Miss Saigon ever be revised again? And more importantly, can there be enough change in the musical to uphold contemporary ideals?