Brace Fellow Junah Jang ’20

The “Miss” in Miss Saigon:  Deconstructing a Fantasy of Asian Femininity

Screen Shot 2020-02-18 at 3.09.02 PMPower structure critiques often focus on fetishization and/or commodification, frameworks with both merits and significant limitations when applied to Asian diasporic women. Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism theory pushes beyond this lens, equating personhood with letting go of the ideal of agency and provoking a deeper conversation about Asiatic femininity’s intimate relationship to objecthood. In live theatre, where real bodies humanize and often host damaging representational constructs, this conceit radically reconceptualizes character, narrative, and ownership.

Junah Jang ’20 examines the history, making, and reinvention of Miss Saigon’s love story between a Vietnamese prostitute and an American GI. Within the show’s gendered dynamics, Jang deconstructs her deeply personal identification with heroine Kim and articulates how Miss Saigon blurs the meanings of fantasy and truth, creating an enthralling production blending yellow woman/ historical figure and character/actress. Ultimately, Jang aims to break down these entanglements and retrieve agency and humanity for those grappling with their own idolizations of fantasies.

Faculty Advisor:  John Bird, Instructor in English


 

VIDEO LING COMING SOON

 


INTRO/THESIS

My dad once joked that if I got cast in Miss Saigon, I could drop out of school. I laughed, but in all honesty, I have since spent hours imagining that alternate life. We had that conversation in 2016, and about three years had passed since I had last bowed alongside the cast of Annie on Broadway for my final performance of over 300—an opportunity that, as an Asian-American girl, I think I owe at least a little bit to the internationally acclaimed Miss Saigon. I remember holding the CD case for the show in my hands at eight years old, looking at the picture of Lea Salonga on the cover, and committing every one of her breaths and melodies to memory, and being able to see myself in her—to know that there was a powerful role for an Asian girl out there on a New York City stage—challenged my understanding of my own limitations. Since my pre-teen days, however, I’ve started to view Miss Saigon from a more critical lens, one that asks exactly what kind of character I had been aspiring to become when I was younger, and one that examines the peripheral messages I might have been receiving between the scenes. It is that tension—between my long-held love for Miss Saigon and the confusion and disgust I feel as I learned more about the show—that drew me to this project, and my own preoccupation with making space for more Asian females in theater that has kept me going.

Miss Saigon opens in 1975 in a bar in Vietnam, where Chris, an American G.I., and Kim, a young Vietnamese woman on her first day working as a prostitute, meet and fall ‘in love.’ The show follows Kim as she grows up in wartime—from an innocent ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ to an unwaveringly loyal wife separated from her husband to, finally, a mother willing to kill herself to give her son a better life.

Though the official website for Miss Saigon, which is currently touring the U.S., displays the words “THE EPIC LOVE STORY OF OUR TIME” across the home page, the production holds more weight than the average love story, as it takes place in the context of a gendered wartime ideology.[1] During the Vietnam War, a need to reinforce the link between military strength and masculine power informed U.S. policy towards Vietnam, a gendered anxiety heightened by the West’s Orientalist attitudes towards the East as inferior and in need of rescue. As such, understandings of racialized gender discrimination towards Asian women often consider colonization as a root of their experience of sexual-racial inequality.[2] Anne Anlin Cheng’s theory of Ornamentalism builds on these traditional power critiques, which typically focus on fetishization and commodification, crafting a feminist theory for the “yellow woman” that lets go of the ideal of agential personhood.[3] In so doing, Cheng provokes a deeper conversation about Asiatic femininity’s intimate relationship to objecthood.

Many mainstream critiques of Miss Saigon focus on its inauthentic representation of Vietnam or Vietnamese women, or identify ways in which to retrieve agency for the fictional Kim and prostitutes on stage. Though these critiques are legitimate, because there are no real guidelines for what authentic representation is, the show is perhaps more productively described as what Cheng terms “inorganic”— a wholly synthetic construction— as opposed to inauthentic.[4] The show’s imitations of its inspiration Madama Butterfly, an opera by Giacomo Puccini, demonstrate this inorganicity, both highlighting the ways in which Miss Saigon derives its authority from the fantasies that precede it and illustrating the transferable nature of the yellow woman through vessels of storytelling. The dominating influence of Miss Saigon frames understandings of what true stories about Asian women look like, and thus plays a role in creating its own disproportionate influence.

On stage, Kim’s character embodies both fantasies about Asian women in relationship to White men, and the feminized Vietnam in relationship to the deliberately performatively masculine America. The show’s unique influence comes about in part because of its theatrical medium, which necessitates and romanticizes the simplification in these representations, appealing to and reiterating understandings about Asian women reinforced by the Vietnam War. Though dehumanizing in this regard, Miss Saigon also counter-intuitively humanizes the yellow woman thing-person through a literal ‘human’ embodiment— the fantasy is evoked not just by ornaments (clothing, accessories) but by actresses in countless international reproductions of the show. Miss Saigon is largely successful in its ability to come across simultaneously as a simple love story, a critique of imperialism, and a ‘truthful’ work of art that needs to be spread.

Beneath the fantasy are real, working actresses, many for whom Miss Saigon is a life-changing opportunity. Critiques that treat fictional characters in the show as proxies for real women can delegitimize the experiences of Asian women who find alternative modes of survival and meaning-making within the roles they play. And though the works of Asian American actors and playwrights are hugely underrepresented on Broadway and off-Broadway stages, countless Asian American individuals, communities, and theaters are working to subvert inorganic narratives in theater for eager audiences hungry for stories that are beyond fantasy, or as one person I interviewed described, that find “universality that comes from specificity.”[5]

Looking for a clear-cut answer to the Miss Saigon question—should we stop reproducing the show?—is tempting. Are Kim and the Vietnamese women around her representations so inauthentic as to be damaging? Stepping outside of the story itself to look at its making helps refocus those questions in favor of ones intent on making more space for all Asian women involved in American theater—be they audience members watching, actresses employed by the show, little girls listening to the cast recording in the suburbs of the Midwest, or writers hoping to get their plays recognized. By reiterating and giving a body to existing Western fantasies about Asian women, Miss Saigon blurs the meanings of fantasy and truth, creating an inorganic yet enthralling production that erases the lines separating “yellow woman” with historical figure and even character with actress, and ensuring its place as an actively influential work in the minds of writers, actors, and audience members that will shape the future of Asian female representation in theater. The recognition of Kim and the prostitutes as myths, as opposed to flawed depictions of organic Asian women, can act as a tool for all real Asian diasporic women engaging with Miss Saigon to disentangle themselves from an identification with a Western fantasy and thus reclaim a sense of their own agency.

PART I :        HISTORY

“You are here like a mystery / I’m from a world that’s so different from all that you are / How in the light of one night did we come so far?”

“Sun and Moon,” Miss Saigon[6]

In 1962, about two years before the United States officially entered the Vietnam War, around three thousand Americans were situated in Saigon, a city quickly learning to cater to American interests.[7] In a special to The New York Times, war correspondent Homer Bigart reported on the threat of Communist assassins, for whom U.S. citizens in the area were “high priority targets.” Notably, Bigart frames his report with descriptions of local Vietnamese women as distractions: “American men relax… and watch the Vietnamese girls go by in their delightfully feminine national costume: …it swirls seductively around wispy pantaloons. Amid such visions one cannot always be mindful of peril.”[8] Such language captures a common American perception of the Vietnamese women affected by U.S. intervention, as bodies both sensual and dangerous, at once to be admired and to be cautious of.

U.S. policymakers and citizens were informed by contradictory images long associated with Asia by the Western world and viewed Vietnamese women and the land they belonged to through those gendered and racial lenses during the Vietnam War. America’s heavy military presence in countries such as Korea, Japan, and Thailand, combined with this long-standing understanding of Pacific Asia as feminine, made local Vietnamese women the troops’ symbolic other, a phenomenon underscored by soldiers’ concerns about the fragility of American military power and a related pressure to project heterosexual masculinity.[9] In other words, the constructed relationship between Vietnamese women and American GIs represented a larger relationship between the ‘East and West,’ one perceived as a meeting between two opposites or between two halves of a whole—the occupied and the occupier, the subordinate and dominant, the damsel in distress and the white savior.

These fantasies of the Oriental woman—which made Vietnamese women the intended recipients of both protection and domination—helped to create and were reinforced by an economy organized around prostitution and sex that developed in Vietnam beginning in 1965. In 1968, there were approximately 10,000 working prostitutes in Saigon alone, and by 1974, the figure reached 100,000.[10] In essence, though prostitution existed before the United States’ entrance into the Vietnam War in 1965, the industry was nonetheless hugely affected by the U.S. military’s presence. Not only could sex work bring a woman a higher income than her brothers and father, but the industry also helped individual soldiers reaffirm their heterosexual masculinity and American nationality through engagement with the Other.[11] And though the U.S. Army played no official part in providing sex workers to its soldiers, certain brothels were understood to be exclusively reserved for GIs.[12] As a result of the high level of sexual interaction between these men and women, when the U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, they left approximately 50,000 Amerasian children in Vietnam, outsiders to both Vietnamese and American culture who were often abandoned or put up for adoption.[13] Essentially, despite the huge role that Vietnamese prostitutes played in the culture of American soldier bases, the products of those blurred lines between sex and violence were secrets meant to be kept in Vietnam and far from America, where Congress and Second-wave feminists would not be sympathetic to the high levels of sexual activity and exploitation occurring overseas.[14][15]

Miss Saigon opens in this context in a bar in Saigon, where young Vietnamese women are servicing American GIs under the direction of “The Engineer,” a pimp. The year is 1975, the music is loud, and to quote the marines, “the tension is high… the end is so near.”[16] The prostitutes, dressed in bikinis, are outwardly seductive in an attempt to win the heart of soldiers whom they hope will take them to America, and just as hypersexuality seems intrinsic to these Vietnamese women, sexual perversion and corruption seems intrinsic to Vietnam from these very opening scenes. Against the backdrop of drunken men pawing at women in bikinis, Chris, a U.S. soldier who would rather leave, spots Kim. Kim is distinctly different from the girls who surround her—she is innocent, dressed more conservatively in virginal white, and on her first day working at the bar. These defining characteristics paint Kim from the start of the musical as not only more worthy of protection than her fellow bargirls, but also more worthy of being rescued from Vietnam (a “crazed” world, as described by Chris) and brought to America.[17] Meanwhile, Chris acts as the ideal U.S. soldier—both extremely resistant to participate in what he sees as exploitation, but ultimately naïve enough to pursue Kim in a supposedly ‘genuine’ and non-violent way.

From there on, the show blooms into tragedy. The couple go through a marriage ritual and stay together for a few days, and are found by Thuy, a man once betrothed to Kim who vows to take her with him as his wife, whose obsessive and patronizing nature fits into the wartime narrative that women of color needed to be saved from men of color by white men. Though Chris files for marriage documents that will allow Kim to accompany him to America, the couple is unexpectedly torn apart when Saigon falls. Chris is taken back to the states with the U.S. embassy, and in their three years apart, Kim gives birth to a son Chris does not know exists, while Chris ends up marrying an American woman named Ellen. Meanwhile, Chris’s friend John, who was first depicted as a drunk and carefree soldier, is now the head of a post at the American Embassy, where he aims to help orphaned Amerasians. When he learns that Kim has had a son, he tells Chris, and along with Ellen, the three track down Kim in Bangkok, where she has turned to prostitution to help feed her child and is living near the Engineer. When Kim happens to meets Ellen alone and figures out that her husband is not returning to reunite with her, like he promised all those years ago, she kills herself as Chris arrives to meet her, hoping to leave her son with Chris and Ellen in a ‘better life’ in America.

On stage, Kim’s character embodies a contemporary adaptation of fantasies about Asian women in relationship to White men, and the feminized Vietnam in relationship to the deliberately performatively masculine America. There are only two named Vietnamese men in Miss Saigon— Thuy, the man who wants to marry Kim against her will, and the Engineer, the greasy man whose willingness to embrace corruption lies at the heart of his personality. Imperialism has long been seen as a “manly duty to ‘destroy and uplift’ lesser, primitive men… for their own good and the good of civilization”—a responsibility illustrated by a poem written in 1899 titled “The White Man’s Burden,” which conveyed a racial and gendered understanding of imperialism that figureheads such as Theodore Roosevelt embraced.[18] Chris, despite not being traditionally hypermasculine, fits the role of the white man here– the man who saves Kim, a willingly subjugate woman of color, from the ‘lesser, primitive’ men of color around her.

The show’s unique influence comes about in part because of its theatrical medium, which necessitates and romanticizes the simplification in these representations, appealing to and reiterating understandings about Asian women reinforced by the Vietnam War. Playwrights have long been drawn to narratives that center around star-crossed lovers or the reconciliation of vastly different cultures or individuals—think West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet—but the interactions between Miss Saigon’s Kim and Chris are additionally complex because they act as projections of two countries at war. Author Karen Shimakawa equates that simplification with re-positioning, arguing that the play’s logic is essentially to “abject the ‘Asian = feminine = female = not-American’ equation in order to consolidate the ‘white = male = masculine = American’ constellation.”[19] In this way, Miss Saigon actively interacts with the remnants of the gendered tensions of the Vietnam War era, answering to American anxiety about its projection of masculinity following its loss overseas. Shimakawa refers to the resulting plotline as “an archetypal template,” in which an Asian woman’s love for a Western man results in her self-denial or self-destruction.[20] Additionally, in simplifying America’s role in the Vietnam conflict, Miss Saigon is able to both address America’s guilt towards its involvement in Vietnam through Chris’s guilt about leaving Kim and brush over the West’s role in the construction of, for example, the prostitution shops that continue to center around American military bases all over Pacific Asia today by establishing that Vietnam (or Kim) was a doomed tragedy to begin with.

PART II :       THEORY

“Do you want one more tale of a Vietnam girl?”

“This Money’s Yours,” Miss Saigon.[21]

In 1993, eighteen years after the end of the Vietnam War, The New York Times published a nine-page spread on “the romance of Vietnam,” as seen from the perspective of Western travelers, photographers, and designers, in an article titled “The Perfume Off Mist River.”[22] The investigative, which features several full-page photographs of Vietnamese women and scenery, includes detailed descriptions of the ao dai, a traditional form of Vietnamese dress, as well as characterizations of “Eastern dress” as “subtly sexy… the slit on the side or up the back, the little mandarin collar and the frog closures are like erotic flash points.”[23] These descriptions of clothing, the ao dai in particular, are perhaps best personified by the image of the local Oriental woman herself—a girl both modest and sensual, naïve and knowing, simultaneously in need of protection and a danger to Western interests.

Figure 1: A comic book penned during the Vietnam War

The ao dai can be seen as a symbol of clashing tensions around American attempts to nation-build during the Vietnam War. As more and more women began wearing miniskirts to cater to U.S. soldiers and workforces, the Vietnamese elite upheld the ao dai as a representation of cultural independence in contrast to the miniskirt, which was seen as a symbol of “debauchery” or violent American intervention.[24] And though the U.S. itself brought miniskirts to Vietnam, it recognized the ao dai as a testament to not only the ‘romantic’ side of Vietnam, but their own benevolent and non-intrusive efforts at modernization. Descriptions of the dress in U.S. training models “idealized an innocent femininity in line with American domesticity and thus worthy of protection,” for example.[25] On ground, the ao dai was also feminine, but not always ‘innocent’— Sorry ’Bout That, a book penned by two soldiers under the pseudonym of “Ken Melvin,” gives insight into the common perception of Vietnamese women by GIs as calculating and provocative. On the cover, a drawing of a Vietnamese woman depicts her in a tight fitting ao dai without pants, so her legs are bare to her hips. On the back, the printed text reads, “THE ARTIST: Okay, Fenwick, if you tell me the ao dai is really not that revealing, all I can say is : “Sorry ’bout that!” ”[26] The highly sexualized illustration of the Vietnamese woman, whose clothing almost acts like a second skin, speaks to not only the crude and naive understanding of Vietnamese women held by some GIs, but also the intimate relationship between the cultural Other and the sexualized object, as well as the realities of U.S. soldier / Vietnamese women relations beyond what was publicized by the U.S. government.

Critical analysis of these representations commonly refer to Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, defined as the West’s (or Occident’s) otherization of the East (or Oriental), which often characterizes the Other as being backwards or inferior, and thus serves as rationale for its economic, cultural, social, and political domination.[27] In his book Orientalism, Said analyzes Western texts that are based upon an acceptance of a distinction between the East and West, and defines an understanding of the ‘Orient’ as a subject that has been systematically managed and produced by European culture, “politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively.”[28] Contemporary Asian feminists have built upon this foundation of Orientalism to establish theories such as author Sunny Woan’s white sexual imperialism, which aims to increase recognition of the theory that “the concurrent operation and interactive mutual dependency between race, sexuality, and dimensions of colonialism expound on [diasporic Asian women’s] subordination”—in other words, to identify colonization as the core root of the intersection between racial and gendered oppression towards Asian and diasporic Asian women’s lives.[29]

The U.S.’s fixation on the ao dai can easily be interpreted as yet another symptom of Orientalism or white sexual imperialism— the West projects what it does not want to admit about itself onto the Other, in this case, sexual fantasies; the Melvin illustration casts Vietnamese women as naturally and intentionally hypersexual, which merits domestication or change in a morally superior (Western) direction; these images invite white men especially to treat Oriental women as sexual playthings; etc. An article titled “Fashion Inspired by the Vietnamese,” published in the Times in 1967, narrates the story of a young couple who started selling ao dais as a means of showing their fellow Americans “that the Vietnamese people are living, breathing humans,” using Japanese and Chinese employees to make and model an object they first saw on the evening news— details that fit comfortably under the umbrella of fetishization.[30] But perhaps above all, the ao dai showcases the deep entanglement between the material and the Oriental woman. The Times article ‘The Mist Off Perfume River’ begins with a description of the ao dai as hiding both “everything, because it is a full-length, high-neck tunic… nothing, because it is so close-fitting that it leaves little to the imagination.”[31] Anne Anlin Cheng, professor and author, interprets this ornament as not only a tool to objectify Vietnamese women but as the very flesh for diasporic Asian female personhood, which she writes is made appealing to the West not by its naked flesh but its decorative sameness to the ornaments— “silk, damask, mahogany, and ceramics,” in her example— alongside which it is seen.[32]

In her article Ornamentalism, which extends the understandings established by Said’s Orientalism, Cheng writes that dominant critical paradigms do not ask “the harder question of what being is at the interface of ontology and objectness”— in other words, that instead of questioning the nature of the subject behind the act of objectification, one must first attend to Asiatic femininity’s a priori relationship with objecthood.[33] While Orientalism interrogates how persons are made into things, Ornamentalism flips this thinking, instead wondering how things are made into persons. Cheng refers to this object/thing, who “denotes a person but connotes a style … simultaneously consecrated and desecrated as an inherently aesthetic object,” as the “yellow woman.”[34] The stakes of accepting Ornamentalism as a foundation for critical analysis are high, because the theory asks readers to leave behind the ideal of an agential personhood “from which the yellow woman is already always foreclosed.”[35] But in emphasizing that her focus is on the fantasy of the real diasporic Asian woman in Euro-American culture (the yellow woman), as opposed to real woman herself, Cheng avoids confusing fictional representations for real persons, instead treating them as ghosts which the yellow woman occupies.

This is both helpful and yet complicated in application to Miss Saigon, where the yellow woman is itself given a real embodiment through the medium of live theater. Plays work when audiences forget that there are actors behind characters and believe that the characters themselves are figures with agency whose decisions further the plot, and Miss Saigon’s success is testament to its effectiveness in counterintuitively humanizing a fantasy through dehumanization— both conflating yellow woman with real woman and addressing anxieties about objecthood by legitimizing Kim’s dreams, decisions, and pain.

Labeling characters such as Kim as wholly inorganic fantasies as opposed to inauthentic representations of real Asian women can help identify and relieve this phenomenon. The aestheticism and rich detail of Miss Saigon—auditory, in melody and orchestra, and visual, in lights, bodies, and textures of costumes— is enthralling, and renders traditional critiques that focus on commodification or fetishization ineffective in understanding why this show works.[36] To recognize Kim and the prostitutes around her as things/beings made of the inorganic and ornamental is to deconstruct Miss Saigon’s fusion of the real Asian American woman with a colonial-era fantasy of Asiatic femininity.

PART III :     FANTASY

Miss Saigon opened in New York City in 1991 to a whirlwind of controversy and protest. It had finished a successful run in London’s West End, but when the news broke that Jonathan Pryce, a white actor, would be playing the Eurasian Engineer with eye prosthetics, activist groups and prominent Asian American members of the theater industry spoke out. Those protests led to a temporary cancellation of the show’s production, but the show ultimately opened to more attention than it might have otherwise received and record-breaking advance ticket sales, given its unexpected exposure to publicity.[37] Critical responses to Miss Saigon were largely positive, or “tearfully appreciative,” but “divided sharply along political lines, as the show reproduces the antiwar line of the 1960’s,” as wrote one reviewer for The New York Times.[38] Though critics such as William Saffire labeled the idea that “the Vietnam War was an unjustified intervention by the West in the world of the East” as a myth Miss Saigon contributed to, American audiences in the present day seem more at ease with criticizing American intervention at large (especially in Vietnam).[39] Since then, also, large productions of Miss Saigon have avoided using “yellowface”— the practice of using makeup to alter the face of a white actor into that of an East Asian character—suggesting, perhaps, that the show has largely moved past its era of controversy. Miss Saigon revived on Broadway for a limited engagement in 2017, which transitioned into a national tour still traveling today.

Though the show’s recent revival certainly did not come under the fire that its original production did, critiques and protests against local productions of Miss Saigon nationally are still active. For example, author Eleanor Ty writes, “The Asian women in Miss Saigon have no political agency or subjectivity aside from their sexual identity, whereas in actuality many Vietnamese women were involved in the day-to-day struggles of the war”; emphasizing the show’s inauthenticity by highlighting the agency that real-life Vietnamese women possessed during the war but don’t possess within the show is a theme that echoes throughout negative reviews of Miss Saigon.[40] Pun Bandhu, an actor active with the AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition) says in a New York Times interview, “In many ways, “Miss Saigon” is a colonial story, where none of the Asian characters are portrayed in a positive light — yes, they are victims of a war, but they are also characterized as opportunists, villainous, and, at the center of the story, Kim is written to be very weak,”[41] and Tim Teeman, reviewer at The Daily Beast, shares this opinion, highlighting the “relentless victimhood” of Kim.[42] These criticisms go beyond finding fault in the show’s narrative, largely concluding that cultural depictions of Asian women without agency bleed into real life understandings of Asian women, and thus have consequences on their mobility and sense of personhood.

In a lot of ways, the show perfectly plays the part of an Orientalist fantasy: Kim is innocent and pure while the women behind her are naked, though all are available for consumption by American G.I.s; all the prostitutes dream of a life in America, where living is kinder and orderly in a way that Vietnam will never be; the show itself borrows from existing myths about Asian women, giving into the stereotype that ‘all Asians look/are the same’; in the original production, what were meant to be Vietnamese lyrics were just gibberish, highlighting an insensitivity to ethnic specificity.[43] However, the Orientalist framework has significant limitations in critiquing Miss Saigon, as the show attempts to excuse itself from the burden of representing Asian women as persons with agency by insisting it represents a truthful reality of the suffering of Vietnam.

For its revival on Broadway in 2014, the production team behind Miss Saigon poured a lot of energy into publicizing the show’s emphasis on truthfulness and authenticity, going as far to release an ‘educational guide’ along common core standards on the show’s background and historical context, activities and handouts included, presumably for teachers or parents to use Miss Saigon as a means of helping students learn about the Vietnam War.[44] In the handout, director Laurence Connor is quoted as saying, “Because this powerful love story is set against the traumatic backdrop of the Vietnamese conflict, we’ve been able to focus the story in a very truthful way. The number of relationships, families and soldiers whose lives have been affected by this war had a strong impact on how I wanted to tell the story.”[45] Based on the rest of the 61 page guide, the adjective ‘truthful’ not only seems to be in application to the facts and details of the war itself, but to the realism of the characters within the show. This insistence is again emphasized by pieces such as “How This ‘Miss Saigon’ Honors the Vietnamese Perspective,” an article published on Playbill, a news site for all updates On/Off-Broadway, which covered the revival team’s efforts to “bring a more authentic story to the stage.”[46] And a Times piece interviews Lea Salonga, the now famous face behind the original production of Miss Saigon, on the show’s controversy, where she offers two main justifications for the validity of Miss Saigon—the first being that representations of Asian women as prostitutes are marginal to the show itself, and the second being that the show depicts a reality that audiences should be exposed to.

“…you do realize the whole prostitution thing lasts 15 minutes, and the show is 2½ hours long? And you can rally and rail against Asian women as prostitutes, but you can’t erase history… it still happens…. Go to any red-light district, and that’s what you see: a girl with desperation in her eyes, wanting to not be doing this, and another girl who is dead on the inside. I don’t know of too many shows that allow the audience to see that reality. It’s very eye-opening, and can be quite jarring.”[47]

In Part II, I argued that focusing on Miss Saigon’s inorganicity as opposed to its inauthenticity is a more productive critique of the show. This approach is also effective in pushing back against Miss Saigon’s recusal from accusations of Orientalism and objectifying representations, as it shifts our attention from whether or not the characters within the show are realistic (which provokes the difficult question ‘what do authentic representations look like’) to the production and narrative arc of the show’s story.

a.  Kim, the Butterfly

In truth, the Miss Saigon narrative did not begin when its creators sat down to tell a story set in Vietnam; rather, Vietnam was the secondary component in crafting the show’s narrative arc. Before there was Miss Saigon, there was Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an opera first showcased in 1904 about a relationship between a Japanese geisha named Cio-Cio San and a Western military man named Pinkerton who she is willing to do anything (die) for. As in Miss Saigon, this melodrama treats its main characters as proxies for larger conflicting interests, weaving together a tale that “romanticiz[es] power and the ‘right’ to possess and colonize women and countries,” in the words of author Natalie Porter.[48] Though the characters in Miss Saigon are reflective of a different era—the Western man is decidedly more likeable, the Oriental woman supposedly possesses more ‘strength’—the two productions are narratively almost identical, so much so that nearly every song in Miss Saigon can be directly projected onto a scene in Madama Butterfly. And though Butterfly started gaining popularity in the mid 20th century, its myth dates back even further: to Puccini’s inspiration, an American one-act play in 1900 titled Madame Butterfly; to its inspiration of the same name in 1887, a story published in Century Magazine; to, finally, the myth’s original inspiration in 1887, a novel titled ‘Madame Chrysantheme’ that was written by a naval officer after his contract marriage in Japan.[49] Hollywood films based on Madama Butterfly, as well as countless reproductions and video recordings of Puccini’s opera—these works continue to circulate a myth well over a century old, forming a network of works that directly informs Miss Saigon.

It was “perhaps unavoidable—that, in wanting to tell any love story involving an Asian woman and a white man, [Alain] Boublil and [Claude-Michel] Schönberg were reminded of Puccini’s heroine,” according to theorist Karen Shimakawa.[50] The origin story of Miss Saigon, as narrated by the two creators, corroborates this assertion. According to Schonberg, the composer of Miss Saigon, he was first struck by inspiration upon finding a photograph of a Vietnamese mother sending her Amerasian daughter away to America to live with her ex-GI father in 1975. In 1995, Schonberg wrote:

Figure 2: Original inspiration photo for Miss Saigon

“The silence of this woman stunned by her grief was a shout of pain louder than any of the earth’s laments. The child’s tears were the final condemnation of all wars which shatter people who love each other.

She knew, as only a mother could that beyond this departure gate there was both a new life for her daughter and no life at all for her, and that she had willed it. I was so appalled by the image of this deliberate ripping apart that I had to sit down and catch my breath. I suffered for the mother as though I might see my own little boy leaving me forever and I suffered for the child as though in my early youth I had been forcibly removed from my parents. Was that not the most moving, the most staggering example of ‘The Ultimate Sacrifice’, as undergone by Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly, giving her life for her child?”[51]

Schonberg recalls that he immediately contacted Boublil, and the two imagined the story of ‘Butterfly’ happening at the end of the Vietnam War, where “the misunderstanding between two people reflected the misunderstanding between two countries.”[52] This raises an important question: what realities are we shedding light on when our understanding of their narrative precedes the realities themselves? Arguably, the construction of Kim’s story cannot be ‘truthful’ to Vietnam, given that the narrative destiny of her character predates even the Vietnam War.

That destiny, of course, is death. In Madama Butterfly, Cio-Cio’s death marks the end of a life portrayed as decidedly tragic— at fifteen years old, her father has committed suicide, she regards her beauty as a thing that is quickly fading, and in the show, she is betrayed and abandoned by the man she considers to be the love of her life. Throughout the opera, Cio-Cio expresses desires to physically and emotionally leave behind ‘Japan,’ insisting on being referred to as Mrs. Pinkerton and even telling Pinkerton, “I want to adopt a new religion to go with my new life.”[53] Ultimately, it is both Butterfly’s separation from Pinkerton and her understanding that her dream to belong to the West will never come true that drives her to commit suicide—what Schonberg refers to as “the ultimate sacrifice.” And perhaps in part because of that narrative precedent, Schonberg and Boublil could not help but see in their photograph not only a woman being separated from her child, but a Vietnamese woman born a tragedy, destined to never reach the ultimate ‘dream’ —a life in America or a life at all, as Schonberg implies.

Additionally, while Kim acts as a reflection of Vietnam, it is also her character in relationship to the Vietnamese women around her that attracts Chris to her within the story and deems her a narrative tragedy. In contrast to the prostitutes at Dreamland, Kim is young, new, hopeful, innocent, and clings to her dignity— while the other women explicitly advertise their bodies to soldiers, Kim says she has “a heart like the sea, a million dreams are in me.”[54] The show paints Kim’s modesty as a positive characteristic, and in so doing, disqualifies the other prostitutes on stage from Chris’s love. Chris later sings that though “Saigon was crazed… [Kim] was real,” reiterating the paradoxical idea that though Kim is Vietnam, she also must possess a “real”-ness that Vietnam lacks.[55] At a certain point, Kim can no longer be Chris’s escape from Vietnam; instead, she is a reminder of Chris’s past, necessitating her death as a means for Chris to move on with Ellen. In other words, the success of the tragedy of Miss Saigon relies on an understanding of Vietnam as a toxic environment to which death is preferable— the tragedy here is that Kim, a fantasy, is just ‘Western’ enough to capture Chris’s attention, getting a taste of this ‘better life,’ but too ‘Eastern’ to make it to America. Justifying that framework, one clearly influenced by Orientalist thinking, is easier because of precedents like Madama Butterfly, in which Cio-Cio’s willingness to renounce Japanese culture is framed not as internalized self-hatred or a projection of Orientalism, but as an indication of the purity and dedication of her love. Further, the reality that Kim and Butterfly are both minors in desperate situations is not a huge concern in the two productions, though Miss Saigon’s heroine is notably two years older than the fifteen-year old Cio-Cio San. The women’s love for their men is portrayed as uncomplicated and true despite their circumstances, and both buy into the notion that American prosperity “equates with a cultural and morale superiority.”[56] In other words, sentiments that might seem hollow on stage were they to be newly introduced today are taken for granted as valid in Miss Saigon, not because they could be true, but because they fit within a cultural fabric that has been trained to ignore, or even celebrate, the power dynamics driving a romance that blossoms between an Asian woman and a white man.

Figure 3: Matthew Murphy, for Playbill.[57]

Further, promotional materials for Madama Butterfly often feature Cio-Cio San alone, surrounded by rose petals, cherry trees, butterflies, flowers, or other soft objects perhaps meant to evoke a sense of traditional femininity or stereotypical Oriental imagery. On Puccini’s original cover, Cio-Cio is faced away from the viewer, and many promotional materials today similarly showcase Butterfly with her eyes turned downwards, her face turned to the side, or her back facing the viewer. Cheng analyzes images such as these in Ornamentalism, where Asian American women (or non-Asian women playing Asian women) are framed by objects like fans, cherry trees, and jewelry—items that, in Cheng’s words, showcase “that opulence and sensuality are the signature components of Asiatic character; that Asia is always ancient, excessive, feminine, available, and decadent”.[58] Similar analysis can apply to promotional posters such as the one above. There is less so a woman sitting amongst rose petals on the poster, but an idea— a costume, a figure, a white face—which presents to us not flesh but ornament. Cio-Cio San’s downcast eyes and solitude are at once alluring and isolating, and it is clear it/she shares a sort of sameness the environment and pieces that decorate it/her.

Does the same apply to Miss Saigon, where the poverty of Kim’s character dictates costume design as much less than “excessive” and “decadent”? Though Kim wears less extravagant clothing than her Butterfly counterpart, both women die in their wedding dresses, intending to meet Chris and Pinkerton while using their wedding day dresses to evoke a sense of the people they once were— the younger women their lovers had respectively once ‘been in love’ with. I interpret this similarity as an indication of the gendered preoccupation with the Oriental underlying the creation and production of these two works of art. Though both Madama Butterfly and Miss Saigon might, at first glance, seem to be stories told by their respective heroines, both are ultimately tales about the consequences of U.S. involvement or engagement with exotic lands by the West, displacing Asian diasporic individuals from their central role in their own stories.

These power structures illustrate not only the way in which stories like Miss Saigon derive their authority from the fantasies that precede them, but also the fluidity of the yellow woman fantasy across history and medium and body. In both musical and opera, Kim and Cio-Cio are frequently described as being like the moon; in the song “Sun and Moon,” this metaphor is given little explanation except when Chris sings, “you are here like a mystery… your moon still floats on high.”[59] This comparison between Asian woman and moon was able to transfer from opera to musical despite their difference of ninety years and in nationality, on the basis that Asian women were both astrologically dependent on white men (the sun) and like moons in their mystery and thingliness.[60] Kim the character is not a perversion of a real Vietnamese woman but rather a host for a ghost, a fantasy whose inorganic Asiatic femininity exists on stage in perpetual relationship to its white lover, and a fantasy which then gets mapped onto real Asian American women.

The repetitive glorification of these power dynamics is fundamental to the exploitation of young Asian women by white men occurring today, as Western imperialism underlines these inequities. The stereotype of Asian diasporic women as submissive and feminine helps explain the overrepresentation of Asian American women in pornography (especially in videos depicting their desire to be dominated), the racially charged and sexually explicit messages Asian American women receive on, for example, dating apps, the nature and influence of sex tourism industries in countries such as Korea, Thailand, and the Phillipines, and thus the lived experiences of Asian women everywhere. In South Korea, for example, decades of sexual slavery to the Japanese army and highly controlling systems of prostitution for the U.S. military has left its impact— according to some estimates, prostitution makes up a bigger percentage of the GDP than fishing and agriculture combined, and one out of five women between the ages of 15 and 29 is estimated to have worked in the prostitution industry.[61] This generational and systematic monitoring of Korean women’s bodies was sustained by soldiers from the Vietnam War during the late 21st century, and its effects continue to result in both the sex trafficking of Korean women abroad as well as the sex trafficking of predominantly Southeast Asian and Filipina women into Korea.[62]

b.  Kim, the Mother.

Though Madama Butterfly is a central part of the making of Miss Saigon, the 2014 revival educational guide for the show actively distances itself from its original inspiration story. In a specific section devoted to the similarities and differences between the two productions, the guide quotes another resource guide from a different production of Miss Saigon, which acknowledges the stereotypes presented by the show but soon after states,

“[I]n many ways, characters in Miss Saigon complicate and defy racial and gender stereotypes that are seen in many versions of the Butterfly stories. Like other ‘butterflies’, Kim initially appears as a naïve, submissive girl. At the same time, she is also a strong mother figure who would do anything for her son. Chris is far from a Pinkerton, (a cruel American white man who brutally abandons his Asian mistress), and his loyalty to Kim and inner conflicts make his actions credible and redeeming.”[63]

Eunha Na, Ph. D. and Bomi Yoon, Ph. D. Taken from the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts resource guide, Miss Saigon: A Cultural Conversation.

Essentially, it is clear that professional productions of Miss Saigon have become increasingly self-aware of the problematic or targetable content presented within the show, and are taking steps to differentiate and prepare themselves from and for claims made by critics. Though it is true that Pinkerton is “crueler” than Chris or less in love with Butterfly, many critiques take issue with the Miss Saigon’s underlying impact—to relieve colonial guilt through the presentation of a willingly subjugated Oriental female figure—on which a more likable white man has questionable impact. The show’s main justification to being a subversive production that “defies racial and gender stereotypes,” then, is that Kim is really a character with agency, whose dedication to her son establishes her as a “strong mother figure.”

Kim’s role as a mother is shown through her interactions with the characters Thuy and Ellen. Thuy, Kim’s cousin, is the man betrothed to Kim by her parents at an earlier age, before her parents died and Thuy switches his allegiance from South Vietnam to the Communist government. The audience first meets Thuy when he bursts into the bar and announces to Kim that he intends to marry her, to which she responds, “I’m not a prize you can claim.”[64] The scene ultimately ends in Chris comforting Kim and promising to take her to America, where “on the other side of the earth, there’s a place your life will have worth.”[65]

Thuy finds Kim in hiding three years later, well after Chris has left to America, and now holds a high-ranking position as a Commissar within the military. He once again asserts that she should marry him, an act that will “end all this shame,”[66] and calls in soldiers to shame her into changing her mind. Those soldiers beat her while singing things such as, “you must be shown what we do to a leach / see how we teach an American’s whore.”[67] In an effort to persuade Thuy to have sympathy for her, Kim decides to reveal to the audience and to Thuy her child, Tam, who she says reminds her of Chris and thus keeps her alive. Thuy flies into another rage, screaming “you whored to make this kid… this child cannot live!”[68] while wielding a knife, intending to kill Tam. As Kim sings, “what I must do, I will,” she shoots Thuy, killing him instead.[69] The result of these two scenes is a clear portrait of Kim as a victim among cruel and angry Vietnamese men, the only escape to which is death or a life with American Chris, a man who, despite hurriedly marrying and impregnating Kim, at least insists that Kim is not a whore. When advertisements for Miss Saigon market Kim as a strong, devoted mother, these are a few of the scenes they refer to (most notably, of course, would be her suicide).

Another is her willingness to give up Tam in order to send him to America, where he won’t have to “live all his life in the streets like a rat.”[70] She begs Ellen, Chris’s wife, to at least take Tam to America when she finds Ellen alone in a Bangkok hotel and learns of Chris’s remarriage. At the end of the song, Kim storms out, leaving Ellen distraught about what to do.

KIM. “Then you must take Tam with you.”

            ELLEN. “Take a child from his mother? Impossible, Kim.”

            KIM. “You will take Tam with you / then he’ll get what I wanted for him!”

ELLEN. “But Kim, your child needs you / Chris is married to me, we want kids of our own.”

           

KIM. “If you’re saying that because you made him change his mind / Chris must go away and leave me and his son behind / If you’re saying that because my husband has another wife / My child has no future, like the dust of life.”[71]

“Room 317,” Miss Saigon.

In the original production of the show, this scene is followed by a song that highlights Ellen’s dedication to “fighting” for Chris, but in later reproductions, that song has been replaced by one called ‘Maybe,’ where Ellen instead wonders if Chris & Kim share a “true love” that she and Chris do not. In a YouTube interview with WhatsOnStage, Schonberg says he and Boublil chose to rewrite the song to “give some fragility to Ellen… the fact that she’s doubting the situation makes her a bit more pleasant or sympathetic to see and that was the problem we had with the character—that she was only a troublemaker.”[72]

Both of these variations of Ellen in relationship to Kim raise interesting questions about motherhood. The show’s original Ellen, who is less fragile according to the playwrights’ words,  perhaps better illustrates the ways in which rivalries are formed between marginalized classes (Kim, Ellen) to appeal to the dominant class (Chris), a process that only helps to reinforce the superiority of said dominant class.[73] The second lets audiences feel more sympathy for Ellen, who, in declaring that she would have to leave Chris behind to let him be with who he wants, paints herself as more of a victim in this tragic scenario than she seemed before (no longer a “troublemaker,” so to speak). Additionally, she backs the ‘legitimacy’ of Chris and Kim’s love story. But in both, Ellen is wrapped up in Chris’s story without a real arc of her own, loyal to him in a way that feels healthy for Chris and possessing a stability that Kim cannot access—mirroring a colonialist understanding of white women as moral and domestic in the presence of the Other, but ultimately accessory to white men. To Chris, she sings of Kim, “It’s like she’s gone insane / she tried to give away her own child,” and Chris responds that his love for Kim happened “back when I was a different man / back when I didn’t have a clue who I am,” affirming Ellen as his ‘real,’ sane, grown-up wife/mother.[74] In essence, Ellen embodies a sort of fantasy herself— regardless of whether or not she is set on fighting for Chris’s love or heartbroken to let him go, Ellen is the loyal and resolute American wife waiting back home for Chris, who returns him to a sense of normalcy.

The show culminates in Kim shooting herself behind a curtain, where Chris finds her in her final breaths and mourns. This scene is prefaced by a song Kim sings to her son, in which she says, “I alone can tell now what the end must be / They think they’ll decide your life. No, it will be me.”[75] These interactions help characterize Kim as a mother who rises above her country’s economic and social crisis through motherhood. The finale of Miss Saigon “celebrates… the fantasy of perfect mother, forever frozen in the tableau of the primal bond,” according to Eleanor Ty.[76] All of Kim’s conflicts, American intervention in the Vietnam War, abandoned Amerasian children, criticism of prostitution— these ideas are all simplified and soothed by the power and struggle of familial love, which, embodied by Kim, is “sentimentally constructed as the refuge from all political disorder, chaos, injustice, pain, and change.”[77] This analysis makes clear the unattainable nature of the motherhood ideal presented in Miss Saigon, which requires Kim to possess both a strong, independent will along with a dependent love on a frankly undeserving man, be in a desperate circumstance and hold an unwavering optimism, and embody the perfect combination of innocence and jadedness (or instinct for self-preservation). This perfect image comes at the cost of other Vietnamese women, and Thuy’s role as a catalyst in Kim’s journey comes at the cost of Vietnamese men. Finally, Ellen is notably the woman who end up as Tam’s mother, a wife defined by her “stabilizing influence,”[78] according to the educational guide’s character descriptions; this is an implication to the show’s ending that perhaps undercuts Miss Saigon’s advertising of Kim as the ultimate mother figure.

Kim’s very identity highlights for the audience her emotionality, will, and humanity, traits often associated with motherhood. In other words, these scenes leave audiences with more trouble recognizing Kim as a representational construct— as a fantasy— because of her excess of humanity. It is precisely this excess of motherhood/womanhood that allows Miss Saigon to evoke personhood from Kim, the yellow woman person/thing. Her powerfully delivered and explicit declaration of agency before committing suicide helps to make this person-object distinction seamless.

c.  CLOSE READINGS

Despite its protestors, Miss Saigon plays on, which is to say that colonial-era stories about Asian females remain popular in America, and in Miss Saigon’s case, are often seen as beautiful and/or necessary. As Natalie Porter, author of the article ‘The Butterfly Dilemma: Asian Women, Whiteness, and Heterosexual Relationships’ writes, “We allow ourselves to believe that we love the love story but hate the racism, justifying its imperialistic message as from a different era.”[79] Here, I close-read a couple of moments in Miss Saigon that make the show seem more progressive, and thus more valuable, than its relationship to the Butterfly narrative suggests.

“Bui Doi”

Act II of Miss Saigon opens in the United States, three years after the Fall of Saigon where Act I left off. John, last seen in Dreamland as Chris’s cruder and more aggressive friend, gives a speech for his foundation, which is committed to tracking down and providing aid for the estimated 50,000 Amerasian children born during the war. In the revival production, his song “Bui Doi” is performed in front of a video depicting the hardships of these children, many of whom were abandoned because of the stigma assigned to them. And while “Bui Doi” does reflect real American efforts to address the plight of these “casualties of war,” the song itself is laced with attitudes of white saviorism. The chorus repeats:

“Conceived in hell and born in strife

They are the living reminder of all the good we failed to do.

That’s why we know, deep in our hearts, that they are all our children too.”[80]

“Bui Doi,” Miss Saigon.

The wording “all the good we failed to do” feels like a deliberate evasion of more direct phrasing: ‘all the harm we did.’ Positioning the American man as a well-intentioned figure erases room for analysis of the power dynamic between so many American soldiers and Vietnamese women (and between the U.S. and Vietnam). This line is also evoked by another— later in the show, in his confrontation with Ellen, Chris sings, “So I wanted to save and protect [Kim]— Christ, I’m an American! How could I fail to do good?”[81] This sentiment, along with John’s turnaround from vulgar soldier to moral-driven leader, reinforces a characterization of American soldiers as naive but ultimately good at heart. Further, the line “we owe them fathers, and a family, a loving home they never knew” makes “Bui Doi” perhaps the show’s number most riddled with an “us vs. them” mindset. The conflation of “we” and “loving home,” glorifications of white supremacy, paints Kim and Vietnam as things already broken, not things whose brokenness might have been contributed to by American forces.

“The American Dream”

Near the end of Act II marks Miss Saigon’s archetypal showstopper of a number— a glitzy, humorous manifestation of the Engineer’s personal fantasy about America that provides a reprieve for the audience from the bleakness of the rest of the show. The Engineer starts the song against a black background, describing his past and career, and ends the song stretched out on a car, with a kickline of men in suits and women dressed in Rockette-esque fashion around him. In the Broadway revival production, a new set piece is added, however—a huge, dark, haunting metal interpretation of Lady Liberty’s face, which rises throughout the second half of the song, revealing a wide, gaping mouth like that of a horror mask. As a result of this striking addition, while the original seems more like a depiction of the unrealistic, sexist, and naïve fantasies of the Engineer, the revival feels like an indictment of the American Dream itself.

Figure 4: Screenshot of Miss Saigon‘s performance at the 1991 Tony Awards

Figure 5: Photograph by Michael Le Poer Trench and Matthew Murphy in the 2014 Revival Production of Miss Saigon

This is further illustrated by the song’s lyric changes:[82]

Original:          Come everyone, come and share (the American Dream)

                        Name what you want and it’s there (the American Dream)

                       

                        What other place can compare? (the American Dream)

                        Come and get more than your share (the American Dream)

 

Revised:          Live as you haven’t a care (the American Dream)

                        Take even more than is fair (the American Dream)

                       

                        Spend when the cupboard is bare (the American Dream)

                        Just sell your soul and you gain (the American Dream)

In the revival production, the song ends with the chorus yelling, “Dream! Dream! Dream!,” like a mob getting closer with their chant. “Just sell your soul and you gain the American Dream” is a decidedly harsh lyric that fits this menacing impression, describing the cost of achieving the American dream where the original only vaguely described the product being returned. And while “come and get more than your share” is somewhat synonymous with “take even more than is fair,” the latter portrays America as definitively more active in its exploitation of corruption. Further, a new line about “making America great again” gets “the biggest roar of the night,”[83] according to a reviewer who saw the show, an insert that pretty blatantly mocks the American dream, capitalizing on a presumably mostly liberal audience’s bitterness towards Trump’s America.

Despite this cynical and humorous display of the American dream, however, the musical number’s intended impact gets lost within the narrative arc of the show, in which the emotional potency of Kim’s suicide relies on an acknowledgement of the validity of the American dream. The Daily Beast reviewer Teeman writes, “If this is meant an elaborate feminist fable, a searing indictment of racism and exploitation, it was lost in the scenes of men f*cking and buying women in the Saigon bar scenes.”[84] These two ideas share a similar sentiment— Miss Saigon might aim to depict harsh realities, but whether or not the show’s modifications can answer to the damages of the underlying Butterfly story is unclear. “The American Dream” number then, feels more like a tool able to deflect criticism of the show’s imperialistic messages than a legitimate subversion or questioning of those gendered messages themselves.

PART IV : INDUSTRY

‘Run as fast as you can from here– she has other options, we don’t.’ These are the words my mother remembers being told by a couple of my fellow cast members, she tells me. To a nine-year old girl who had always dreamed of being on Broadway, my mom deemed these words a little too harsh (she told me years later), but that was not the only time I received messages about the more valuable lifestyles I could and should be pursuing. I remember being told that I should go run for president by adults, or “go back and study” by another kid my age—sentiments I was sometimes flattered by, other times hurt by. Ultimately, when I left Annie in 2013, my justifications for going back to school centered around a desire to do something more accessible or more impactful. In other words, the opportunities for meaning-making seemed limited to me within the theatrical industry. I never stopped loving theater, however, and though I did “go back and study,” I found myself years later returning to performance as a method of meaning-making. In this section, I explore the work of actors, playwrights, and protestors in their conflicting engagement with and effort to make meaning from Miss Saigon. 

On October 8, 2013, the opening night of Minnesota’s Ordway Theatre production of Miss Saigon, around 200 people gathered in front of the theater in protest of the show. According to a Playbill article, the ‘Don’t Buy Miss Saigon’ coalition included speakers, poets, and local politicians, as well as a crowd chanting “No more lies/No more pain/Miss Saigon infects your brain.”[85] That chanting lasted through the night, loud enough for audience members within the theater to hear, and continued on online forums such as the ‘Don’t Buy Miss Saigon’ tumblr page,[86] which has now collected hundreds of posts from sympathetic people around the world who advocate for the show’s end. Their objections typically concern the show’s depiction of Asian women as sexually submissive and weak, its romanticization of human trafficking, or its characterization of Asian men as greasy and morally inferior to the American soldiers. The posts all feature people holding up signs reading, “Miss Saigon lies,” followed by personal statements, such as:

“MISS SAIGON LIES ABOUT ASIAN SEX WORKERS LIKE ME: ….i am alive and it is because of sex work. sex work allowed me to take care of and support myself when i had few other options. sex work was not a bleak reality for me, it was my choice and it was the right choice for me at that time. sex work was not an effort to gain a rich, male, white savior to protect me from the world – it was the action i took to save myself….”[87]

“MISS SAIGON LIES ABOUT CHILD SEX TRAFFICKING: …. Miss Saigon is grounded in the silencing of so many voices – layers and layers of people whose experiences are re-imagined to be more palatable for society’s consumption. Most child sex-trafficking survivors are never heard from, silenced by shame or self-medication, suicide or murder – but here I am. This play offends my truth. Anyone who sees this play is choosing to wrap the utter horror of sex trafficking in a pretty box, pretending it’s just a story, it’s just a play, it’s just a love story. This musical isn’t just…”[88]

“MISS SAIGON LIES ABOUT ASIAN EVERYTHING: …. a horrific moment in history used as the backdrop for a manufactured and inappropriate love story…. Any Asian American actor who chooses to be in this production is contributing to this travesty.”[89]

The diversity of the opinions and experiences of the individuals represented on the ‘Don’t Buy Miss Saigon’ page cannot be represented through excerpts—some posts are incredibly personal retellings of familial history, others reflections on an old love of the show, and one a list of things to do instead of watching Miss Saigon, including “8. Rock out to an album by the kickass Thao and the Get Down Stay Down” and “3. Explore the narrative-driven artwork of Binh Danh.[90] The three excerpted examples, though, speak specifically to Miss Saigon’s depiction of sex work / trafficking and the consequences of real world engagement with the show. The first operates on an interpretation of Miss Saigon’s characterization of prostitution as a “genocidal vision of sex work as a clear path to death,” while the second emphasizes the show’s romanticization and palatable presentation of sex-trafficking. Both the second and third quotations regard audiences members / actors of Miss Saigon as active contributors to a problem that silences voices.

These posts, among countless others, are extremely compelling and effective in showcasing the far-from-homogenous hurt being taken away from Miss Saigon. The Ordway case, however, also cast light on those concerned with silencing voices, but in a different direction. Erin Quill, an actor, wrote a blog post on the protests, commenting:

“Let me tell you something- and this is as straight as I can say it — Asian American Actors can take ANY part they choose. Period. The End. Asian American Actors are under NO obligation to make Asian America ‘comfortable’ with their personal choices. We do not stand over your shoulder at your job and tell you that you cannot do it, merely because it is our opinion that it should not be done…. Asian American Actors can use accents. Asian American Actors can play Pimps, Doctors, Prostitutes, Deli Owners, Thieves, Kings, and whatever else there is out there. We audition and people hire us. And if we can perform, on Broadway, or on a Television show, or in a Feature film, where it is so competitive even to get a callback — then YOU, Mr. Joe Protestor, are not allowed to rob us of our right to do it to the highest possible level we can. THAT is what Equality means TO US. That our choices are unlimited.”

Erin Quill[91]

All of this is to say that in the midst of Miss Saigon backlash, the voices of participating Asian female actors get lost or even critiqued as part of the problem. What results is a tension between those concerned about the commodification of Asian women, and the Asian actresses who, quite literally, need to ‘sell’ themselves in an industry in order to work. Filmmaker and scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu interviewed a couple of those actresses for her research, which explored Asian female sexuality in Miss Saigon. Shimizu argues for a framework that moves past a “one-dimensional understanding” of representations of sexual promiscuity as damaging, and determines that “a kind of ‘productive perversity’ emerges from the performance and consumption of Asian female hypersexuality.”[92] Her analysis emphasizes that positioning white male sex as normative may “condemn Asian female hypersexuality prematurely,” shedding a new light on critiques of Miss Saigon, which often describe the show’s representation of Vietnamese prostitutes as perverse and non-normative.[93]

Shimizu writes that the first time she saw Miss Saigon, she could see both Kim as an image bonded to her (“the possibility of my being misidentified for her”) and Kim as a representational construct— a fantasy she was able to rename as such and refuse.[94] Unlike Shimizu, however, I was eight when I first listened to this show, and I lacked that awareness. The word “whore” sounded to me like a strange pronunciation of “whole,” and I had no idea that the show concerned prostitution at all— only that Kim looked like me. Those circumstances might be unique to me, but they make clear that my relationship to Kim has always been more than a recognition, but an intimate identification with a fantasy that I did not become conscious of until recently. I bring up this more personal angle to introduce my interview with J. Elaine Marcos, an actress who performed in the original Broadway production of Miss Saigon, and who was interviewed for Shimizu’s article back in 2000. I first met J. Elaine when I was ten, when we worked together in Annie in 2012. She has now worked in both the Broadway and film industry for 20 years, but Miss Saigon was her Broadway debut, where she played the role of a prostitute named Yvonne. Of Yvonne’s line “I’ll show you my special trophy of war,” which the character sings while grabbing her crotch, Shimizu writes:

“While the crotch-grabbing act seems to submit to the myth of the hyper sexual Asian woman, it also authorizes a certain kind of sexuality deployed by the specific actor in her role…. [Marcos] plays, or uses her body to perform, the prostitute as refusing to be left behind…. Her own subjectivity as a raced actress is also captured in her creative choice to play sexuality with ‘strength’… It is here that the Asian woman can be seen as a triangulation of actor, woman, and role, refuting the idea of simply re-presenting original identities in the performance of such roles.”[95]

I asked Marcos, nearly 20 years later, about that interview and her emphatic use of the word ‘strength’ to describe her performance. Though she agreed that the part did require a bold actress, she also expressed a disconnect from the person she was during her debut.

“I never even thought about the fact that I was playing a whore, prostitute, and that I’m grabbing my crotch— I didn’t even think about it…. As a dancer, I’m just used to using my body and it just never hit me in my brain that that’s what I was doing. It’s so crazy. I feel so naive, but I was like, ‘people want to do this, and I’m on Broadway’…. Maybe this is not the story to tell, but it was an opportunity. It was THE opportunity. I have a really hard time really connecting back to the very beginning of my Broadway career because everything was just ‘yes, this is awesome’.… I almost feel brainwashed.”[96]

These two interviews don’t necessarily contradict each other, as actors are always applying their own creative choices to their roles but may or may not also be “completely wrapped up in the music and the smoke and mirrors,” in Marcos’s words.[97] These interviews do, however, prompt us to widen the context Asian actresses in Miss Saigon are viewed and analyzed in— from actors within a show to actors within an industry.

Many of the Asian American women employed as actors by Miss Saigon are young, given that the prostitutes they play are cast to look around their early to mid-twenties. And for many, the show is their debut—“the open door to dreamland itself… a much welcomed opportunity to break into the arts world,”[98] or in Marcos’s words, “the opportunity.” Underscoring all of this is that the show continues to be one of, if not the, most central representations of Asian females on Broadway. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition observed that in the 2016-2017 season, 6.7% of all Broadway roles went to Asian American actors—up from 4% the year before; the Miss Saigon revival opened during the 2016-2017 season, which highlights the approximate impact that the show has had on quantitative measures of representation.[99] In other words, though the Asian women cast in Miss Saigon will grow, some into theatrical careers and some not, some revisiting the show through a critical lens or, like Marcos, eventually laughing at “a joke of what I did on Broadway,”[100] the show is less flexible— continuing to make up a huge percentage of the faces put forward for the Asian diaspora on Broadway (those faces being young, bright-eyed, and that of Vietnamese prostitute characters).

Further, it is significant to note that 95% of all plays and musicals produced on Broadway during that season were authored by white playwrights—Latinx and Asian American playwrights combined registered at 0%.[101] There are a world of Asian female characters that have yet to be written or nationally recognized, characters perhaps more conscious of the Butterfly myth, whose roles might give actors even more space to engage the audience in a dialogue about normative sexuality. Theatres such as the East West Players (EWP), the longest still running theatre of color in the nation, specifically target that need, among others. Director of Production and Casting for EWP Andy Lowe wrote of the company’s mission in an email interview, “[1.] Legitimizing AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) artists and their ability to tackle works of the western canon… [2.] AAPI stories and creators as having as much validity to be included in the western canon … and [3.] creating a contemporary space where eastern theatrical tradition and canonical influences can be felt as no less valid to western ones.”[102]

These goals translate well to applications of ‘organicity,’ which could include striving to create as much space for Asian American actors and writers as possible through the production of stories constructed around . Miss Saigon holds an interesting place within that framework, acting both as a colonialist fantasy that limits what western audiences might expect or desire from Asian female characters, but also as a show with a real-world impact on working Asian female actresses. Lowe writes, “Miss Saigon has employed more AAPI actors on professional contracts, put more AAPI actors in to Union membership status, given AAPI actors more Broadway and national tour legitimacy than any other contemporary musical.”[103] In part for this reason, Marcos expressed hesitance to explicitly critique Miss Saigon in her interview, stating that she didn’t want to “judge the opportunity.” She also worried, however, that Miss Saigon is sometimes used as a goal metric for Asian female actresses, or in her words, that people might think “for you, this is good, because you’re doing great for your type of shows.”[104] In both these conversations— with Lowe and Marcos— Miss Saigon sounds like a stepping stone to something better; if actors make it to Miss Saigon, they might be gaining the credentials or legitimacy to graduate to more well-rounded roles. It is worth asking, then, what those roles are.

Christine Toy Johnson, an actor and board member of the AAPCA wrote to me, “I really just want to play characters that are 3-dimensional, have dreams, wounds, hopes, plans, triumphs, failures, strategies, heartache, love and more. I would love it if the Asian/Asian American characters I am asked to play could have the same qualities that the non-Asian-specific characters I am asked to play have – and vice versa.”[105] Johnson, who has played both characters with a specific cultural background and those that are non-culturally specific, writes that as a sixth-generation Asian American, she’s often felt more represented by characters “whose race/cultural background/presence… are not germane to the character.”[106] Her desire to play 3-dimensional characters makes sense, but the fact that those characteristics often lie in roles originated by or written with white actresses in mind is perhaps indicative of a need for new stories, in addition to inclusive casting efforts. As the mission statement of EWP recognizes, it is important not only to recognize Asian female actresses as legitimate candidates for shows from the “western canon,” but also to recognize works that come from Asian American writers. More organic and ‘truthful’ representations will rise and are rising from the ground up, but Miss Saigon’s dominating presence in the theater world might be a factor as to why stories about Asian females that clash with the Butterfly myth have trouble reaching the Broadway stage.[107] This is not to say, however, that these works do not exist.

Author Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, a critically acclaimed and nationally produced play which follows two Vietnamese refugees who fall in love in America after the fall of Saigon, serves as one such example of the power of organic writing to challenge the Butterfly narrative. In the show’s world, mothers are outspoken, men are sexually active and depicted as attractive, women describe themselves as “bitchy,” husbands are softhearted, and all the characters curse— characterizations that are universal because of their specificity and yet underrepresented on the Broadway stage. Unexpectedly, all the white characters in Vietgone are the ones with accents, only able to say things like, “Yee-haw! Get’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!”[108] This detail calls to mind media depictions of Asian American immigrants who seem less capable or weaker because of their inability to communicate as ‘fluently’ as their white counterparts, and is effective in reversing those roles, establishing the Vietnamese main characters as witty, independent, and whole. At the very end of the play, an epilogue is set in 2015, where main character Quang (now much older, now played with a Vietnamese accent) sits with his son ‘Playwright.’ While the Playwright tries to get Quang to talk about the Vietnam War, Quang’s mind is on other things— his son’s childhood, his wife’s old boyfriend, events outside of the eight years that he fought.

QUANG. Why do you care so much about Vietnam War?

PLAYWRIGHT. Because I want to write something about you.

PLAYWRIGHT. Jesus, Dad, because it’s a foregone conclusion by everyone that Vietnam was one of the biggest military mistakes in all of history. America should have never gotten involved. We had no right to be there.

QUANG. …When I first come to America, that’s all I hear. Very nice, very “smart” young people apologizing for “America’s interference.” I tell you before “America’s interference,” we were getting slaughtered. And now, forty years later, all I hear is politicians using Vietnam as a symbol for a mistake. “If the President not careful, this will be another Vietnam.” This is not how any Vietnamese wants Vietnam to be remembered. Son, if you wanting to know about Vietnam then I will tell you about Vietnam. If you wanting to know about Vietnamese people, then let me tell you about its people. But if you only wanting to know about war, then go rent a movie.[109]

Yellowface, Qui Nguyen.

These pieces of the Playwright’s exchange with his father are striking, and a sizable amount of audience members at Miss Saigon would likely not expect to see a Vietnamese character acknowledging that though “there were very many mistakes,” he also felt “hope” from the American presence in Vietnam. Is this an “authentic” representation of the perspective Vietnamese men or fathers? That’s a difficult, and perhaps unproductive, question to answer. But it certainly is organic, and this real tension between a Vietnamese American man and his Vietnamese father offers insight that complicates the simplistic and therefore more palatable representation of Vietnamese people in Miss Saigon, perhaps more effectively than any protest. Within the Butterfly fantasy, the Asian male falls default to the role of an undesirable aggressor or reason as to why the Asian female must want to escape to a Western world with a white man. Plays like Vietgone inherently challenge those ideas by centering their narratives around Vietnamese understandings, as opposed to Western understandings, of Vietnam.

Ultimately, in returning to the case of the Ordway Theatre protests, it is helpful to remember that despite their criticisms of each other, protestors, actors, audience members, writers, and companies of the Asian diaspora are all more or less united by a desire to move past the uncomfortable yellow woman fantasy. An intimate relationship to objecthood is a style that Asian women might often recognize in themselves, and disentangling ourselves from that identification— be it through playwriting, or refusing to see Kim as weak in the audience, or asking a theatre to shut down a production of Miss Saigon, or playing a prostitute on Broadway with “strength”, or auditioning for a part such as Little Mermaid’s Ariel or Mean Girls’ Gretchen Weiners—is a shared goal. Granted, those efforts might not always translate to the largely white institutions, audiences, directors, etc. that make up Broadway’s industry, but the reality that those conversations are happening gives me hope.

CONCLUSION

In an interview, lyricist Boublil says of himself and composer Schonberg that, “we are not external to the story…I can be Kim or I can be Chris… we are completely involved and identified with the characters we are trying to describe.”[110] A year ago, I might have characterized this expression as empathetic and beautiful, but now, I wonder whether such a thing is possible, or if the writers’ projections of themselves onto Kim acts as a subconscious means to assert themselves as rightful narrators to this story.

An understanding of Asia as feminine is both critical to Western justifications for imperialism and deeply embedded into Western understandings of the East. Miss Saigon is not a Vietnamese story, but a Western one, and the West’s gendered understanding of Vietnam/broader Pacific Asia bleed into Miss Saigon’s expressions of contemporary Western guilt, which reinforce good Western intentions while apologizing for things that went ‘wrong.’ Ultimately, I think that Miss Saigon’s ability to harness a fantasy and present it as truth is perhaps its greatest selling point. One of the show’s television advertisements reads “You will never forget her story,”[111] and though this message conveniently glosses over the reality that the existence of Kim’s narrative arc precedes her character, the message sticks— ‘Kim’s pain is real, this Vietnam exists, this history is tragedy.’

That entanglement between reality and fantasy is not only soothing to, for example, white audiences subconsciously looking to relieve colonial guilt through ironic depictions of America and the death of a willingly subjugate pure-hearted woman— Miss Saigon was also always quite soothing to me, an Asian American woman, until it occurred to me that Kim was not as three-dimensional and revolutionary as I had pegged her to be at eight years old. Kim transformed before my eyes from an empowering figure I had always aspired to be like into a character I wanted to resent. Who was I if, knowing how ‘problematic’ Miss Saigon was, I would still drop almost anything to play Kim on a Broadway stage?

Ornamentalism was hugely impactful in changing my view of Miss Saigon; because I was consciously training myself to see wholly synthetic fantasy instead of perverted truth, I no longer felt as though I had to correct a truth that the production got wrong. I decided, and as of now believe, that I should not have to position myself in relationship to the Kim character—nor in relation to any other fictional Asian woman in media— just as white males in any audience are unlikely to take every white male character as a representation of themselves. That Miss Saigon demands more engagement from Asian women is testament to an absence of organic Asian female characters on the Broadway stage.

It should be clear by now that organic alternatives to the Butterfly myth should receive more recognition and support, but that is a hard solution to put into a practice as a person who (currently) does not intend on becoming a playwright. Instead, here is a message to my fellow Asian American women-identifying friends: I know how it feels to both shame the parts of myself that are “too Asian,” “too feminine,” “too masculine,” and “too Western,” without even understanding what those terms mean. I know how it feels to, on some days, aspire to be that ornamental Western fantasy– non-fleshly, unproblematic, desirable. I might not be able to stop some of those behaviors right now, but I want to commit myself to celebrating the diversity within each one of us—your art, your words, your interests, and your means of self-expression— as opposed to getting caught up on our similarities. It might be time to, as a modification of David Henry Hwang’s words in his play yellow face, take terms like “Asian girl” and “mess them up so bad no one has any idea what they even mean anymore,”[112] all the while deconstructing the fantasy that ties us together and limits our perceptions of our own capabilities.

Above all, I want to remind myself that each of us are on an individual journey to grappling with the fantasy that follows us. I once loved my yellow woman shadow in the form of Kim—my dream was once to play her. It is not my place or intention to criticize any of the many talented actresses working in productions of Miss Saigon internationally, who themselves are in the process of working to make meaning wherever they are, or any of the countless Asian American women-identifying folks who might claim this show as their favorite. I only hope that someday, there is more space for all of us to witness or be a part of that meaning-making process on stage, and that organic and thus inevitably diverse representations of Asian women are understood to be just as valuable and beautiful as the real Asian women I have had the privilege to call my friends.

 

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Cameron Mackintosh, Miss Saigon Official Website.

[2] Sunny Woan, “White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence” (Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, 2008) pg. 275.

[3] Anne Anlin Cheng, “Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman” (University of Chicago, 2018) pg. 429.

[4] Anne A. Cheng, “Ornamentalism,” 428.

[5] Email interview with Andy Lowe (2019).

[6] Lyrics from “Sun and Moon,” Miss Saigon.

[7] https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1962/01/08/91659658.html?pageNumber=3

[8] https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1962/01/08/91659658.html?pageNumber=3

[9] Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge University Press, 2011) pg. 40.

[10] Jeffrey Hayes, “Prostitutes and Prostitution in Vietnam” (2008).

[11] Heather Stur, Beyond Combat, pg. 58.

[12] Jeffrey Hayes, “Prostitutes and Prostitution in Vietnam” (2008).

[13] Jeffrey Hayes, “Prostitutes and Prostitution in Vietnam” (2008).

[14] In fact, the mail order bride industry in East Asia flourished during the 1970s in part because conservative, White American men sought out wives who were less “radical and career-oriented” than the white women partaking in the Second-wave American feminist movement. Woan writes that where the White feminist woman “actively resisted subjugation, the Asian woman was portrayed as enjoying it,” an idea reflected through Kim’s suicide and willing deferral to Chris’s wishes.

Sunny Woan, “White Sexual Imperialism,” pg. 294.

[16] Lyrics from “The Heat is On,” Miss Saigon.

[17] Lyrics from “The Confrontation,” Miss Saigon.

[18] Sunny Woan, “White Sexual Imperialism,” pg. 282.

[19] Karen Shimakawa, National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage (Duke University Press, 2002) pg. 27.

[20] Karen Shimakawa, National Abjection (2002) pg. 26.

[21] Lyrics from “This Money’s Yours,” Miss Saigon.

[22] Shenon, Philip. “The Mist of Perfume River.” The New York Times [New York City].

[23]Shenon, Philip. “The Mist of Perfume River.” The New York Times [New York City].

[24] Heather Stur, Beyond Combat, pg. 54.

[25] Heather Stur, Beyond Combat, pg. 40.

[26] Ken Melvin, Sorry ’Bout That: Cartoons, Limericks, and Other Diversions of GI Vietnam (Tokyo: The Wayward Press, 1966) .

[27] Edward Said, Orientalism (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1978).

[28] Edward Said, Orientalism (1978) pg. 11.

[29] Sunny Woan, “White Sexual Imperialism,” pg. 287.

[30]

[31] Shenon, Philip. “The Mist of Perfume River.” The New York Times [New York City].

[32] Anne A. Cheng, “Ornamentalism,” pg. 416.

[33] Anne A. Cheng, “Ornamentalism,” pg. 432.

[34] Anne A. Cheng, “Ornamentalism,” pg. 415.

[35] Anne A. Cheng, “Ornamentalism,” pg. 430.

[36] Anne A. Cheng, “Ornamentalism,” pg. 427.

[37] Karen Shimakawa, National Abjection (2002) pg. 25.

[38] Craig Whitney, “America’s Vietnam Trauma Is the Stuff of British Musical,” (New York City: Times, 1989) p. 11.

[39] William Safire, “Some Enchanted Saigon” (New York City: Times, 1989) p. 19.

[40] Eleanor Ty. “‘Welcome to Dreamland’: Power, Gender, and Post-Colonial Politics in Miss Saigon” (1994).

[41] Michael Paulson, “The Battle of ‘Miss Saigon’: Yellowface, Art and Opportunity” (Times, 2017).

[42] Tim Teeman, “Sexism, Race and the Mess of ‘Miss Saigon’ on Broadway” (The

Daily Beast, 2017).

[43] Adam Hetrick, “How This ‘Miss Saigon’ Honors the Vietnamese Perspective” (2017).

[44] Of the 17 members featured in the educational guide’s Creative Team section, two are women, and zero are Asian American. Regardless of their credentials and expertise, an absence of Asian American women and individuals within the creative team defines the culture of a Broadway production.

Rod Christensen, Miss Saigon: Official Show Guide (SouthGate Education, 2017).

 

[45] Rod Christensen, Miss Saigon: Official Show Guide (2017) pg. 21.

[46] Adam Hetrick, “How This ‘Miss Saigon’ Honors the Vietnamese Perspective” (Playbill, 2017).

[47] Michael Paulson, “The Battle of ‘Miss Saigon’” (2017).

[48] Natalie Porter, “The Butterfly Dilemma: Asian Women, Whiteness, and Heterosexual

Relationships” (Routledge, 2015) pg. 209.

[49] Maria Degabriele, “From Madame Butterfly to Miss Saigon: One hundred years of

popular orientalism” (Critical Arts: A South-North Journal of Cultural & Media Studies, 1996).

[50] Karen Shimakawa, National Abjection (2002) pg. 26.

[51] Claude-Michel Schönberg, “This Photograph was for Alain and I the start of everything…” (1995).

[52] Michael Paulson, “The Battle of ‘Miss Saigon’” (2017).

[53] “Madama Butterfly.” (The Metropolitan Opera, 1994).

[54] Lyrics from “The Movie in my Mind,” Miss Saigon.

[55] Lyrics from “The Confrontation,” Miss Saigon.

[56] Natalie Porter, “The Butterfly Dilemma” (2015) pg. 210.

[57] Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera House. https://www.eclairplay.com/en_GBR/movies/madama-butterfly-royal-opera-house

Matthew Murphy. http://www.playbill.com/article/enter-for-your-chance-to-see-miss-saigons-last-performance-on-broadway

[58] Anne A. Cheng, “Ornamentalism,” pg. 425.

[59] Chris also describes Kim as “like the April moon” to John in the song “Asking for Leave,” while Cio-Cio San sings “I am like the goddess of the moon” in “Bimba Dagli Occhi Act 1 Scene 14” of Madama Butterfly.

Lyrics from “Sun and Moon,” Miss Saigon.

[60] Anne A. Cheng, “Ornamentalism,” pg. 433.

[61] K. J. Noh, “Semantic Warfare: Words as Guided Missiles,” CounterPunch, last modified May 8, 2015.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Rod Christensen, Miss Saigon: Official Show Guide (2017) pg. 33.

[64] Lyrics from “Thuy’s Intervention,” Miss Saigon.

[65] Lyrics from “Last Night of the World,” Miss Saigon.

[66] Lyrics from “Coo-Coo Princess,” Miss Saigon.

[67] Lyrics from “Coo-Coo Princess,” Miss Saigon.

[68] Lyrics from “You Will Not Touch Him,” Miss Saigon.

[69] Lyrics from “You Will Not Touch Him,” Miss Saigon.

[70] Lyrics from “Room 317,” Miss Saigon.

[71] Lyrics from “Room 317,” Miss Saigon.

[72] WhatsOnStage. “An interview with Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil.” YouTube video, 23:23. Posted [May. 2014]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpt0bYi9iYI

[73] Sunny Woan, “White Sexual Imperialism,” pg. 279.

[74] Lyrics from “The Confrontation,” Miss Saigon.

[75] Lyrics from “Little God of My Heart,” Miss Saigon.

[76] Eleanor Ty. “‘Welcome to Dreamland’: Power, Gender, and Post-Colonial Politics in Miss Saigon” (1994).

[77] Eleanor Ty. “‘Welcome to Dreamland’: Power, Gender, and Post-Colonial Politics in Miss Saigon” (1994).

[78] Rod Christensen, Miss Saigon: Official Show Guide (2017) pg. 28.

[79] Natalie Porter, “The Butterfly Dilemma” (2015) pg. 217.

[80] Lyrics from “Bui Doi,” Miss Saigon.

[81] Lyrics from “The Confrontation,” Miss Saigon.

[82] Lyrics from “The American Dream,” Miss Saigon (1991 & 2014).

[83] Tim Teeman, “Sexism, Race and the Mess of ‘Miss Saigon’ on Broadway” (2017).

[84] Tim Teeman, “Sexism, Race and the Mess of ‘Miss Saigon’ on Broadway” (2017).

[85] Carey Purcell, “‘This Is the Hour’ — a Protestor, Cast Member and Blogger Weigh in on Boycott of Miss Saigon” (Playbill, 2013).

[86] “Don’t Buy Miss Saigon: Our Truth Project.” https://dontbuymiss-saigon.tumblr.com/

[87] Ibid. : “Miss Saigon Lies About Asian Sex Workers Like Me”

[88] Ibid. : “Miss Saigon Lies About Child Sex Trafficking”

[89] Ibid. : “Miss Saigon Lies About Asian Everything”

[90] These, in my opinion, are great examples of organic alternatives to the Butterfly myth. Every item on the list is a work of art or media that has been produced by or involves Asian American and Vietnamese individuals as an act of self-expression—in other words, a representation of Asian Americans constructed around something other than fantasy.

Ibid. : “Miss Saigon Lies About Asian Stories.”

[91] Carey Purcell, “‘This Is the Hour’ — a Protestor, Cast Member and Blogger Weigh in on Boycott of Miss Saigon” (2013).

[92] Celine Parreñas Shimizu, “The Bind of Representation: Performing and Consuming

Hypersexuality in ‘Miss Saigon’” (Theatre Journal, 2005) pg. 248.

[93] Celine Parreñas Shimizu, “The Bind of Representation” (2005) pg. 252.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Celine Parreñas Shimizu, “The Bind of Representation” (2005) pg. 256.

[96] Videoconference Interview with J. Elaine Marcos (2019).

[97] Interview with J. Elaine Marcos (2019).

[98] Eleanor Ty. “‘Welcome to Dreamland’: Power, Gender, and Post-Colonial Politics in Miss Saigon” (1994).

[99] Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages 2016-2017. (New York: The Asian American Performers Action Coalition, 2019).

[100] Interview with J. Elaine Marcos (2019).

[101] Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages 2016-2017 (2019).

[102]  In my interview with Lowe, Lowe noted that “the fact that we can tout being ‘the longest still running theatre of color in the nation’ is a dubious honor, in that it presupposes the many great theatres of color that came before us, only to succumb to the lack of funding and financial support theatres of color face.” Theatres of color such as EWP are at competition with predominantly white institutions, that can receive larger grants for smaller diversity initiatives.

Interview with Andy Lowe (2019).

[103] Ibid.

[104] Interview with J. Elaine Marcos (2019).

[105] Email interview with Christine Toy Johnson (2019).

[106] Ibid.

[107] A notable exception is Allegiance The Musical, which made it to Broadway with a largely Asian American cast absent a colonial narrative. That said, the lead in the production was Lea Salonga, who is arguably the most well-known Asian American Broadway actor/actress because of Miss Saigon.

[108] Nguyen Qui, Vietgone (Samuel French, 2017) pg. 10.

[109] Nguyen Qui, Vietgone (Samuel French, 2017) pgs. 96 – 98.

[110] Interestingly, Chris repeats a similar strain of thought in Act II, singing, “And through [Kim’s] eyes, I suffered too.”

[111] Eleanor Ty. “‘Welcome to Dreamland’: Power, Gender, and Post-Colonial Politics in Miss Saigon” (1994).

[112] David Henry Hwang, yellow face (New York : Theatre Communications Group, 2009) pg. 68.