A nightmare on Saigon street: Orientalism and the American musical

Priya Sankaran

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. But what if life drops bombs from the sky instead? What if life is living in a war-torn country, where your people are murdered, your nation is plundered, and you can’t wake up from the eternal nightmare that is your reality? Making lemonade seems pretty absurd then. 

The backdrop of Schönberg and Boublil’s musical Miss Saigon is this very nightmare. Life is a rigged game for Kim and the Engineer, whose fates have been decided from the onset of the story. You see, when your existence as an Asian refugee of war is held up against frameworks of white supremacy and imperialism that has ravaged your country, there is no winning. Miss Saigon’s heavy usage of Orientalist tropes characterizes Kim and the Engineer as the racialized, inferior “other” whose freedoms are inextricably linked to the white man. On top of the racialization of Kim and the Engineer, there is an additional gendered difference between the two. An underlying layer of regressive, misogyny taints Miss Saigon, making Kim’s role as a helpless, sacrificing mother markedly distinct from the Engineer’s role of unbound male sleaziness. On the other hand, the Engineer’s character is still subject to emasculation as an Asian male, despite the overarching patriarchal structure of the musical. Ultimately, Miss Saigon reveals that Orientalism and notions of an exoticized East serve to maintain Western hegemony and domination. 

Schönberg and Boublil present Kim to the audience as a 17 year-old girl who, after losing her family to the Vietnam war, is forced to prostitute herself as a means of survival. She is taken in by the Engineer, a Eurasian pimp, and joins the nightclub “Dreamland.” “Dreamland” caters to American GIs, specifically drawing on their male sexual fantasies of the exotic Asian female. In the song “The Heat is on in Saigon”, bikini-clad prostitutes are groped, prodded and thrown around like meat. They are degraded to such a position because they have no choice: their objectification and prostitution could be the ticket to their freedom. Kim stands in stark contrast to these women. Eva Noblezada’s portrayal of Kim involves using soft, feminized body language such as looking down and displaying shy facial expressions. Noblezada also sports a bewildered, innocent face throughout the show. Noblezada does not sexualize her body by exaggerating movements of her hips or chest, as the other women do. This acting choice reflects Kim’s most “appealing” quality: she is virgin. Chris, the white American GI/savior, who is jaded by his frequent visits to “Dreamland”, sings “I used to love getting stoned/ Waking up with some whore/ I don’t know why I went dead/ It’s not fun anymore.” Yet, Kim’s virginal naivety draws him in like bewitchment. Kim is extremely desirable in the eyes of Chris because she is weak, pure, and so obviously in need of saving. Assuming a position of civility and responsibility, Chris takes it upon himself to “protect” Kim. 

Next, Kim’s character as an Asian female, in particular, exacerbates her lack of agency and individuality. Because of her intersecting identities, she is bound to the meek, submissive Asian stereotype in addition to the existing ideas of female inferiority. Kim’s various interactions with other characters in Miss Saigon always follow this pattern. She is either a sacrificing mother to Tam, devoted lover/wife to Chris, subservient “sister” to the Engineer, or forced to sell her body through prostitution to men. Kim’s existence as a female is securely attached to all the males in her life, even down to her son. The song “Sun and Moon” highlights Kim’s dependency and need for a male to make her complete. Lyrics like “You are sunlight and I moon/Joined here brightening the sky” reveals a binary metaphor of the Sun and Moon, which are opposing elements like the East and West. Notably, the East and West are not part of an equal relationship. Orientalism is rooted in European white perspectives of white superiority and civility. The West invariably patronizes the East and the Orient is defined as the contrasting image to the West. If the West is civilized, powerful, and dominant, then, by default, the East must be savage, powerless, and submissive. Kim and Chris take on the respective roles of East and West. Sure, it takes two to tango. But in tango, one person leads and the other follows. There is an inherent power imbalance, so Kim and Chris’s relationship is not as wholesome or fulfilling as the song “Sun and Moon” suggests. The caveat of invoking binary language is that the value of each individual person is only recognized when in conjunction with the other. As a female, Kim must be perpetually tied to Chris for her existence to have value. Chris is concurrently tied to Kim, as her savior and protector. The only scene in Miss Saigon in which Kim displays agency is when she decides to take her own life for her son. But was her suicide truly her own choice or was she coerced by unfortunate circumstances beyond her control?

Next, in examining the character of the Engineer, the casting choice of Jon Jon Briones is very telling. Physically, Briones is a small, scrawny Filipino man of short stature. Although the Engineer’s career as a pimp affords him power, his physical features are not traditionally masculine when viewed from a Western perspective, and thus it renders him as less capable and visible when compared to his American counterparts. Miss Saigon portrays the Engineer as a selfish, sordid man, neurotically obsessed with leaving his destitution for America. However, unlike Kim, the Engineer is not punished for it. In fact, Miss Saigon adds a charming, comedic quality to his character. 

The Engineer is introduced to us as a ruthless pimp and owner of the nightclub “Dreamland”. In the opening act, he assaults several prostitutes, physically and verbally abusing them. He slaps them, grabs their breasts, rips apart their clothing, and screams at them. The Engineer’s freedom depends on his selling of vulnerable women and he works viciously to achieve that. In terms of acting choices, Briones plays the Engineer with incredibly dynamic facial expressions, moving his eyes, eyebrows, and mouth to portray intense emotions of fear, lust, anger, and compulsion. The Engineer compensates for his lack of physical masculinity through the exaggerated, over the top acting, which can be understood as a defense mechanism. In addition, Briones’s diction when delivering the Engineer’s dialogues has a nonchalant, arrogant tone. These acting choices ultimately paint a picture of a lewd, egocentric man, going to any length to achieve the American Dream. He manipulates Kim, seeing her son as a tool to get a US visa. Clearly, the Engineer is not a good person. When compared to the angelic Kim, the Engineer certainly looks Satanic. Yet, his toxic masculinity is celebrated. Throughout Miss Saigon, we hear the audience laughing and applauding the Engineer, which implies that the writers glorified his toxic attributes in a way that appealed to the audience. Most importantly, the Engineer is able to express his agency and power as a man on several occasions, most notably through the song “The American Dream”.  

“The American Dream” reveals how the Engineer imagines his future life:  a life of luxury, grandeur, and riches. The song features showgirls adorned in shimmering costumes, flashy male dancers in bright blue suits, and an extravagant car. A giant golden head of the Statue of Liberty looms in the background as the Engineer envisions opulence, capitalism, and freedom ahead. As the song progresses, we see the Engineer getting more unhinged and consumed in his fantasy. At the end of the show, the audience is left to speculate on whether the Engineer ever achieved his American Dream. Unlike Kim, a self-sacrificing mother who chooses her death, the Engineer has an open ended conclusion. In the end, his privilege as a male protects him.  

To conclude, Miss Saigon’s juxtaposition of Kim and the Engineer makes two generalizations of the Asian male and female. The Asian male is a chauvinistic opportunist that exploits women. The Asian female is weak and subjugated under the Asian male. Therefore, both seek liberation from the civilized West. In this way, Miss Saigon justifies acts of imperialism and US intervention in global wars as necessary for the moral good of humanity. There is irony in that the perpetrators of war and sexual exploitation, like Chris and the Engineer, are left unscathed at the end, however. Ultimately, Miss Saigon reveals how power derived from gender, race, or sociopolitical conditions, affords privileged people the authority to exercise their will over others. Understanding the nature of power relations is integral in understanding the context of a story, particularly when examining who writes the narrative, and for whose benefit the narrative is created. 

Musical characters

5 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Hi Priya! 

    I LOVE your opening! It draws me in immediately. You painted such a vivid picture of the Vietnam war and its horror and I LOVE the word “absurd”! Yes exactly, this war is absurd, and so is this musical. I also love your casual way of writing: it felt like you are speaking directly to the readers, and you were telling a story as much as you were analysing a musical. 

    “Kim’s existence as a female is securely attached to all the males in her life, even down to her son.” This sentence is great! It really does show the stereotypes that Vietnamese women have to deal with. It also actually very close to a Vietnamese idiom that translate roughly to “At home, follow father; in marriage, follow husband; if husband dies, follow son”. It’s downright sexist, and while it’s a reality a lot of women still have to face, I don’t think it’s the place for colonists to capitalise on it and romanticise like Christ and the entire producing team of this musical. (I have Emotions about them). I also love that you criticise “Sun and Moon” because it’s possibly one of the most romanticised songs in the musical, and it served to make Chris into this romantic hero, a role that he completely does not deserve. And you are absolutely right that even her only action of agency (which was to die) was not really her choice. 

    On the Engineer, I think his extravagance can also be seen as a way to emasculate him: typically, “respectable” men are stoic (hello toxic masculinity), and the Engineer was anything but that. He was campy, colorful, exaggerated, etc. He was a joke and a comic relief, and you are absolutely right that his comical characterisation was a way to glorify his toxicity. 

    You pointed out the irony of the ending, and that shows how unselfconscious this musical and the men behind it are. I also really love how you concluded with a question about “who writes the narrative, and for whose benefit the narrative is created.” It is an excellent point and I’d really like to see more discussion about it! 

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  2. Priya, I love the beginning of your essay! And the title!! It sucked me in, it was the first one I clicked on out of all of the posts because I had to know what your argument was going to be, and then your first paragraph kept me reading. Great engagement. Your descriptions of Dreamland and the “stark” comparison of Kim was well written, I could picture it! I loved your word choice and the way you described the choices Noblezada made in characterizing Kim. I also enjoyed reading your paragraph about “Sun and Moon.” You did a great job discussing the multiple meanings that could have, both as them needing one another to be complete, and the contrast and unique combination of the two, just like East and West. Your conclusion did a great job of not only summing up your argument, but also causing the reader to think about the implications beyond your argument of just Kim and the Engineer. Regardless of what the identity, it all comes back to who has power over whom, and I loved that you recognized that in your essay.

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  3. Wow, your essay did a really great job drawing me in! What I found most compelling about your analysis was your breakdown of the Engineer. Something I hadn’t considered as a part of my analysis of Miss Saigon was casting, and your explanation of Jon Jon Briones in the role is spot on makes total sense. I had never considered how Briones’s physical stature relates to conceptions of Westernized masculinity and how his acting choices compensate for the lack thereof. Many of the prior conversations I had concerning Miss Saigon often focused on how the production does a disservice to the female characters involved, which it does without a doubt. But hardly ever have I been engaged in a discussion that considers the consequences of having a character like an Engineer that exists at the crossroads of being a man and Asian. You do a great job explaining the ties between the portrayal of Kim and Orientalism, and the comparisons you draw between Kim and the Engineer create a strong dichotomy that highlights differences in gender portrayal specifically within racial boundaries. I am eager to hear about how you break down the other characters of Miss Saigon since you do a great job with Kim and the Engineer in your essay!

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  4. Priya, I really enjoyed your essay! I thought you really captured the essence of the awful stereotypes projected onto the characters of both Kim and the Engineer. One thing that I thought about while reading this was how you see the Engineer and Chris side-by-side and yet, their similarities are forgotten as the audience is ultimately supposed to see Chris as “better” than the Engineer. However, both men take advantage of women, make decisions that impact others for selfish reasons, and, most importantly, make Kim’s life hell. I love how your essay pointed out that the Engineer was supposed to be hated and, at the same timed, entertaining to the audience despite these similarities I noted between him and Chris, who is seen as the swoony, hero-like figure of the story. At the end of the day, I think your essay helps show why these stereotypes against different groups are harmful and how this stereotype of Asians is still, somewhat, socially accepted today.

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  5. The introduction to your essay is amazing—it drew me in immediately. The chaos of the war and the scene of the movie is easily interpreted through your description and analysis. The line “making lemonade seems pretty absurd then” really provided me with a clear connection to your hook. I also really liked your description of Kim’s “most appealing quality.” In your essay, you did a good job of vividly describing her movements and explaining how the way she presents herself is an acting choice Kim uses to present herself as a virgin. The use of song lyrics to support the statement that Kim is more desirable to Chris because she is a virgin provided evidence to the reader as well. Before reading your essay, I knew that Kim’s role as a female creates an attachment to different men in her life, but I had not thought about the fact that this included her son as well. Again, I really like the use of song lyrics to back up your arguments. Another well written line was “sure, it takes two to tango. But in tango, one person leads and the other follows.” This line really put everything into perspective for me and provided a vivid description of the roles played between Kim and Chris. Finally, your conclusion did a wonderful job of wrapping everything up and tying everything together. 

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