We all know the story of Cinderella: she is abused by her evil stepmother, she meets the prince at the ball, loses her glass slipper, yada yada yada, then she lives happily ever after with her charming prince. Miss Saigon takes a similar turn; Kim is orphaned as both her parents died, she meets Chris, they fall in love, yada yada yada, and they live happily ever after…. Wait no they don’t. Kim is an Asian woman. Miss Saigon, made in 1989 by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, was written in a way that represents the intersectionality of being an Asian woman by portraying Kim as an inferior character with limited amount of choices, while portraying Chris, a White man, as a superior character who has full control of his own life with the many choices he had. When such musicals are written this way, it makes it seem okay for society to adopt the many harmful stereotypes and beliefs embedded within, such as Asian fetishes (also called yellow fever). In this preference still practiced today, White men are greatly attracted to Asian women due to the physical attributes and characteristics stereotypically attached to them: helplessness and submissiveness. This causes Asian women to feel worthless because they are not loved for who they truly are. This is portrayed in the musical when the writers make Kim kill herself not only as a sacrifice to her son, but also as a way to show that her life was never meaningful in the first; it was especially not meaningful when Chris, a man of power and privilege, disappeared from the picture.
In society East Asian women are often labeled as these “China dolls” because of the suggestion that East Asian women are dehumanized to the level of a doll that is supposed to sit, look pretty and allow the White men to play and control them however they want. The idea of Asian fetisization is highlighted within the musical when Chris instantly “falls in love” with Kim because of her virginity but later leaves her for his White American wife, Ellen. The issue is that Chris did not actually love Kim, but lusted for her instead. They only knew each other for a few days and the initial attraction was due to the fact that she was a virgin, but the later attraction was due to the fact that he felt the need to protect her, after she portrayed herself as helpless and vulnerable. Chris confirms this in a later duet with his wife Ellen claiming, “so I wanted to save her, protect her Christ, I’m American, how could I fail to do good?” This further shows that the fetish he had for Kim was real because he felt like it was his job to protect and comfort her not only because he is an American (white savior), but also because it helps him feel better about himself, considering it enhances his masculinity and superiority.
This play begins with many Vietnamese ladies in a club wearing skimpy lingerie, performing sexual dances as GI soldiers touch them inappropriately. Then Kim, a virgin and orphan walks out wearing a white dress that covers her legs and shows nothing but her arms as a way to portray her purity, the stage lights then turn white and shine on her center stage. Eva Noblezada, the actress who plays Kim, was chosen for this role because at the time of release she was a 20 year old girl with a soprano voice. The producers purposefully chose a girl like Eva, with an angelic voice, rather than another girl with a raspy voice, to go along with Kim’s characteristics of being innocent, as innocence is a key part of her identity and it is what draws Chris’ eyes in the first place. After the performances are over and Miss Saigon is announced, the Engineer, an Asian man, viscously grabs her by the neck and arm so she can attract more men, then a random GI background character, a White man, attempts to rape her, and finally, Chris’ friend John, a Black man, inappropriately humps her. Here we see three races, Asian, White, and Black, take advantage of Kim all because they share a common power: being a man. In this musical, men are shown to be hypermasculine and able to get whatever girl they want, while Kim is a woman, portrayed as a weak girl that is not able to defend herself. That is why throughout the play Kim relies on Chris to improve her life, because she sees this White man as her only ticket out of helplessness and out of Vietnam. Examples of this are when she begs Chris to take her out of the club in the beginning or when she runs after him behind the gate of the embassy.
Kim’s femininity is not the only thing that paints her as inferior. A main factor and the reason why her story ends in a tragedy while Cinderella’s and Chris’ do not, is because she is Asian. The stereotype that East Asian women are helpless is what attracts the White American men is portrayed in the scene where Chris wants to leave Kim because he thinks she is like every other girl who just sleeps with soldiers to get a visa to America, but then Kim tells the sob story of when and how her parent were killed and how she is forced to work at a club to stay alive. She sings the phrase “I would rather die,” and this makes Chris feel empathy for her, so much so that his so-called “love” for her is enhanced and he asks her to live with him. Chris even kneels down and puts his head in her lap as a way to show his “deep love” for her. However, if we really think about it, it does not make sense for Chris to fall in love with someone in less than 24 hours. Instead, he lusts for Kim because she symbolizes innocence and purity and this will allow Chris to appear as a hero in her life who saved her from her terrible life in Vietnam. At this point in time the ball was in Chris’ court, he had all the power and all choices of how he could play or comfort his “doll.” The phrase “I would rather die,” was added by the producers to foreshadow her demise, but also to paint Vietnam in such a bad light that it alludes to the fact that America is superior to Vietnam, the same way Chris is superior to Kim.
In the duet “Last Night of the World,” Chris sings the lyrics “there’s a place your life will have worth, I will take you” then Kim replies with “ I will go with you.” These lyrics were added by the producers of the play to imply Chris’ superiority over Kim. It reiterates the idea that Kim, because of her Eastern culture and identity, does not have a meaningful life, but when she goes to America, even though she is still East Asian, her life will magically have worth. The play is written in way that insinuates that America is such a great place for any race that lives there, when in reality being a person of color in America comes with facing discrimination and not being given the same privileges and opportunities as other White people. They purposefully write Chris to be blind to the negative situations other races experience in America because his whiteness allows him to live a good life. Unfortunately, Kim’s ignorance adds to the perpetuating false belief of America’s superiority over Vietnam. She does not know that America has its own problems that she would also have to face, especially because she is a woman of color. The authors made Kim oblivious because it parallels with how many immigrants who long for the American dream, have a false notion that America is the land of milk and honey, when in reality that is only the case for native born White Americans. We see Chris exemplify this “White male dominance” again on the day Saigon fell; Kim says that she wants to go with him but he makes the final decision that he thinks it is best if she stays and waits for him to come back. The fact that Kim never makes it to America and dies at the end of the story ingeminates the idea that Kim was worthless from the very beginning and was only awaiting her demise, solely because Asian women are, and will always be, inferior to White men.
Throughout the musical Kim has portrayed her inferiority through her Vietnamese identity, but in the musical number “This is the Hour,” it is the first time Kim shows her strength and power which lies in the love she has for her son. She makes it clear that her son is what brings her joy and she will do anything to protect him and give him a better life than the one she has. Kim’s power is illustrated in the music as well, because when she is duetting with Thuy, the baseline of the accompaniment along with her pitch, gets higher and higher and eventually overshadows Thuy’s voice. Again, in the lyrics she shows her dominance when Thuy proclaims she is not a killer but she responds back with the words, “what I must do I will,” and then five seconds later she actually kills him, knowing the consequences. Her words and actions reveals her heightened power over Thuy and the sacrifice she is willing to make for her son. The only reason why Kim was able to overpower Thuy by killing him and face no repercussions, is because Thuy is also Vienamese. If she had gone toe to toe with any other White male like Chris, she would have failed. This is because the authors of the musical wanted to portray Thuy as the villain and Chris as the hero. It goes back to the idea that having white skin and western cultures is a more dominant and appreciated feature than being East Asian. However we must keep in mind that just because Kim was able to dominate over Thuy in that specific moment, does not make the portrayal of East Asian women, generally in this play, dominant. The fact that she has to make certain sacrifices in the first place, like killing other people or even killing herself, shows that she never gets to control how her own life plays out and she must always depend on the power of others to protect herself.
The musical’s portrayal of the two main characters Kim and Chris serves to normalize and validate the stereotypical characteristics of submissiveness and helplessness in East Asian women along with the power and privilege in White men. The main way Kim demonstrates this stereotype is by constantly relying on Chris to take her and her son Tam to America, when she waits three years for Chris and when she kills herself. Chris, on the other hand, exhibits his dominance by fetishizing for Kim’s purity and vulnerability, which in turn makes him feel like the savior and enhances his masculinity. In order to end the stigmatization that men are superior to women and White people are superior to people of color, musicals must be written in a way that diminishes those harmful stereotypes. They need to portray a certain character’s dominance, not through their skin color, but solely through their actions and thoughts. If and when this occurs, there would be an alternate ending to this tragic musical. Kim would be Cinderella. Kim would not have to sacrifice her life for her son to live in America. Kim would get to live with her prince charming, Chris, along with her son Tam, in Vietnam.