Miss Saigon: A Celebration of American Ideals Portrayed By Asian Characters

A dialogue between Seema Dhungana and Christina Monaco:

Christina: Hey Seema! Are you ready?!

Seema: POV you’re in the Vietnam War! A man jumps out and says “Are you Miss Saigon?”

Christina: Seema, did you watch Miss Saigon? Be honest. 

Seema: No! I’m Mr. Sai-here ! XD ! Jk, jk ! I watched it! What! A! Doozy!

Christina: Seema wtf.

Christina: *cough* anyway, Seema and Christina’s Mega Epic Analysis of Race on the Musical Stage. Analyzing Miss Saigon (revival), directed by Laurence Connor, starring Eva Noblezada and Jon Jon Briones, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, and lyrics written by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. Take 14. Action!

Christina: Miss Saigon is interesting because you have a majority Asian cast and, it’s a revival, so you would hope that the content works towards combatting Asian stereotypes, but, I just looked it up, the director is another white man. So it’s interesting because those stereotypes still exist but in an almost self-aware way. You have the Engineer on one hand who very much leans into these stereotypes and works to give outsiders what they want. In the song “If You Want To Die in Bed,” we see exactly what the engineer values, which is that he is willing to grovel and sacrifice everything authentic about himself in order to reach “The American Dream.” 

Seema: I completely agree!!! The Engineer places a strong emphasis on finding “a way out.” He encourages the women to perform to please the American soldiers as a way of escaping the tragic conditions of their country. He tells Kim to “lower [her] eyelids and play sweet” to fit the submissive stereotype of Asian women at the time. He focused on playing to the fetishes of his customers as opposed to facilitating genuine relationships. 

Christina: Yeah, it’s really interesting how the Engineer represents exactly what we don’t want on a Broadway stage. He perpetuates the stereotypes that representation is supposed to fight against: submissiveness, fetishization, trickery, etc. The fact that the Engineer breaks the fourth wall so often feels like a nod to the fact that he is also playing the game. He is forcing these women to put on a performance to please an American audience, which is exactly what the actual cast is doing in the actual theater.   

Seema: And then on the other hand for stereotypes, in “The Heat Is On In Saigon,” the women are thrown over the men’s shoulders like “sex toys” and referred to as “whores.”  Kim, dressed in all white, contrasts the chaos and desperation in the room. She embodies innocence and sings of dreams when the reality of her situation is much more horrific. The intersectionality of her female and Asian identity undermine her character’s capacity to prevail from her depressing routine and, overall, silence her voice. 

[Seema begins singing “The Movie In My Mind”]

Christina: Seema cut it out! This is absurd! What a ridiculous turn of events!

Seema: [continues singing] The Movie In My Miiiiiind.

Christina: Seema ! The tape’s still recording! Seemaa ! I can’t cut anything out! Seemaaa ! I haven’t gotten that far into the tutorial and my free trial ended last week!

Seema: Let’s get back to it then! As we say in theater, The Show Must Go On! 

Christina: Although Kim is supposed to be the main character, the Engineer really has a lot more stage time I think.  Kim songs are usually about other people, whether it’s her lover, or her son, or her betrothed, and that’s the only way we find out what she is going through mentally. The way Eva Noblezada plays it, I noticed she usually stands still unless motivated by someone else to move, which I thought was an interesting characterization that could have been related to Kim’s past but also subtracted from the impression of her as a strong INDEPENDENT female lead. I don’t know if this is just the way that Eva portrayed it, or if it was under instruction by the director, or if her characterization as  a stereotyped Asian woman is too deeply embedded in the script to break free from. I felt like by the end I was surprised about how little I knew about Kim compared to how much I knew about the Engineer. Like I walked in expecting the story to focus on Kim’s personal journey and found it was a little less than I bargained for, and I wonder if that same idea applies to race as well as gender in this context. 

Seema:  YES, it is INCREDIBLE how the musical constructs the characters in a way that veils their backhanded racist remarks. Chris differs from the other men by wanting a better life for Kim and seeking more than personal pleasure from her company. Yet, as he opens up his heart during “Why God Why,” he asks “Why am I high on her cheap perfume?” and claims that he’s ”been with girls who knew much more.” He laments encountering Kim’s beauty within a devastating war ground where the filth of her home taints her memory in Chris’s mind. The comment on the enticing nature of her “cheap perfume” substantiates the idea that Kim is low-grade and inferior and reaffirms Chris’s dominant status to have the confidence to make such offensive remarks. While he appears to love Kim, he lacks understanding of her foreign culture and does not hold back from criticizing its negative qualities. Kim screams “I have had my fill of pain/ I will not look back again/ I would rather die” in response to Chris’s suspicions of her motives. While alluding to her death, Kim demonstrates agency, strength, and depth beyond the standard perception of Asian women.

Christina: I think that’s an interesting point because the few moments on stage where the audience is floored by Kim’s power are the ones where Kim breaks that expected stereotype of being a quiet submissive Asian woman and belts out a bridge about strength or finding a new life, which I think really just leads to the idea that American audiences need a woman to be loud and even angry to recognize her power. I see this as another way in which the show is outwardly cultural and representative but really when you dig a little bit deeper, it’s another show made by and for white audiences. 

Seema: As an Asian woman growing up in America, I can empathize with the desire to fit in with the dominant, white culture. Overtime I developed a distaste towards the traditions and lifestyle that my parents upheld since none of my friends at school shared those experiences. I wore the clothes that everyone else bought and packed lunches of turkey sandwiches that drew the least attention. My identity strongly drew from societal standards concerning American culture and an overall avoidance of any Asian stereotypes. The construct of “Miss Saigon” does not celebrate the culture of these Asian women, but rather praises a woman for being accepted and chosen by a white man. The role offers the chance to escape their identity as an Asian woman and reassimilate within a higher class in America. 

Christina: Word. I think that what we’ve been getting at is that Miss Saigon is another portrayal of another white American story with a mask of Asian representation that contributes to its success because it promotes multiculturalism while still existing in a white world. The story centralizes around the Engineer who is a very American, entrepreneurial character and shorts Kim, the representation of a more stereotyped Asian woman. I mean, the ending involves killing off the Asian woman and letting the underprivileged kid go to America with white parents. So, people can go see Miss Saigon and enjoy the classic American hero story while also feeling like they are supporting Asian culture, whether or not that is true.  

Seema: It’s still a banger though. They have a helicopter, that’s cool. 

Christina: Yeah. 

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. You two make a lot of really excellent points about how the show puts on a mask of moving past Asian stereotypes while actually reinforcing them through the relatively small amount of time that Kim gets to use her voice, the characterization of the Engineer as striving to be “American,” and the hero/savior role that Chris is given. Also, your personal experiences really strengthen your argument. And the conversation style is so relatable. Really great read– thanks for sharing!

    Like

  2. There was a lot of information packed in concisely in this post! Amazing. I really hadn’t come to the full realization that Kim’s songs were about other people until you guys explicitly said it. It kind of makes me wonder about the argument I made before about whether Kim had agency. In the past, I had said yes to a certain extent, but with this detail in mind, that kind of makes me kind of convinced that Kim just didn’t have it at all. She lives for others because that’s her way of survival sadly. I also personally relate to the experience of fitting in a dominate white culture but I have this feeling that my parents actually tried to do that for me because we never really talked about the Asian heritage at home except if it was something related to our relatives.

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