“Motive” and the absence of motif in Miss Saigon

A: Alright! Set Hike Go! 

C: Okay? 

A: Oh, I’m recording already. 

C: Give the introduction then. 

A: Good afternoon on this fine autumn day. You are listening to a critical dialogue about the modern interpretation of the forces that constructed Miss Saigon. I am Alex Shen and I am here with Connie Wu. I must say we are quite daring with our interpretation. 

C: We must not ignore the overwhelming existence of the writer’s will to make money by satisfying the consumer’s will to be entertained. 

A: Still it feels like I joined the dark side. I would have been so scared to present this back in high school. But, I bet if there are middle or high school students listening they would clap their hands. 

C: Let’s give more background information than just the name. 

A: Miss Saigon is a stage musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil premiered in London in 1989. It opened on Broadway in 1991 and is the 13th longest-running show on Broadway. This musical has stirred up controversies ever since its debut, so what do you think is the message it tries to convey to its audiences?

C: I wouldn’t say that the book writers of Miss Saigon intended a meaningful message through Miss Saigon since it is just a Vietnamese version of Madame Butterfly. Of course, the audience may be able to get something out of it based on their personal experience, but I think Schonberg and Boublil wrote this musical solely for its tragedy and people love to pay for tragedies.

A: So what would you say is the driving force behind them creating this musical?

C: As far as I know, the authors saw a picture of a Vietnamese girl giving away the child she had with an American soldier, and reminding them of the famous Madame Butterfly, so they created another version of it set during the American Vietnam war, which the target audience, white America, would be much more familiar with than the war Madame Butterfly was set in.

A: That’s true. The Vietnam war here is also portrayed in a very American perspective, where the American soldiers are powerful, and Vietnamese people are having no agency over anything and fall into the claws of communism.

C: There was definitely some white savior complex going on in Miss Saigon. Anyway, I was saying that the authors saw the potential of the tragic love story pattern in Madame Butterfly so they copy-pasted it into a new setting. Kim is just a symbol of innocent, naïve love that we are supposed to be empathizing for, and it reminds me of last-century Disney princesses.

A: In contrast to Kim, the other bar girls, like Gigi, would be a more realistic version of what those girls were actually like and going through, but they don’t get the spotlight because they are not the stereotypical innocent Asian girl straight out of American fantasies.

C: I have to say I sympathized with Gigi more than Kim and a powerful woman like her would make a great main character, rather than some girly daydreaming about a prostitution client giving her a good life and protecting her from her arranged fiancé.

A: That Vietnamese guy, Thuy, is indeed an interesting character. We only know that Kim is betrothed to him, but somehow he acts like the villain in the plot.

C: Of course, that’s because arranged marriage sounds as evil as communism to Americans and Thuy had them both. I mean even though the practice of arranged marriage has decreased in many Asian countries, it is ridiculous to use today’s standard to judge people from another culture half a century ago. I personally think Thuy was a better choice than Chris- I mean he even came back to take Kim with him no matter if she has become a bar girl or lives on the street, even after he has become a high-ranking official. Thuy does not care how he would be judged by the society as long as he could be Kim, and compare that to Chris, who just wants Kim to disappear from his “normal” American life.  Thuy is probably the only main character I don’t hate in Miss Saigon.

A: What about how other characters play into the love drama. 

C: The Engineer is definitely an entertaining character. Oh wait, I also don’t hate the Engineer. 

A: You don’t hate the Engineer? Elaborate?

C: He’s funny.

A: Okay… I mean, he is funny, and he’s got the eleven o’clock number. The engineer is like an embodiment of the American dream. He has got all those false imaginations about Capitalism and wishes to go to America to continue his human trafficking business.

C: The human trafficking he has done in Vietnam wasn’t necessarily bad though because otherwise the girls and women in war are left to starve to death, or even if they could earn money from being prostitutes, they are very likely beaten or killed by their clients so they need a mafia-like male to look over them, who is the Engineer.

A: You’ve got a point there. I think the Engineer acts as another contrast to Kim, just like how we said Gigi was a less idealized Kim. While Kim represents true love, the Engineer is characterized by his material desires, so he is almost like a satirical character mocking capitalism.

C: We learned about the Engineer’s past through his number “The American Dream”, but I feel like telling such a tragic backstory in a comical way takes away the opportunity to both give more dimensions to the Engineer’s character. His character design leaves almost nothing human in him, except the short moment of affection he showed toward Kim’s son in Let Me See His Western Nose. I would be curious to learn more about his emotional evolution over the course of the years and if he ever felt bad for himself. This entertaining number also tried but did not succeed in putting forward a serious message of how capitalism has intruded the culture and lives of those being invaded, as something similar is happening just until recently, ahem, Afghanistan, ahem.

A: Ooh getting a little political here are we. I do want to state quickly that even though we interpret the construction of this musical as mainly prompted by fame and money. The message of the musical is dynamically changing with each different time period and the movement that sways the audience. 

A: We also see in the beginning that Kim is wearing nice clothes, meaning she could be from a prominent family, and we don’t really know what happened to all that.

C: Agreed. I would be much more intrigued by this musical if more of it is on life struggles during wartime rather than some old-routine toxic love story, which is also my feeling toward the Les Miserable musical.

A: So you think that the authors of Miss Saigon were just using a love story plot that is attractive to the white audiences and install it to the Asian woman stereotype.

C: Yes. However, that did make Miss Saigon the first major musical centering on Asians and especially Asian women, so it helped in the way that it made the audiences pay more attention to the Asian community.

A: Yeah, and it has provided opportunities for Asians in the musical industry, who have a hard time getting the roles they deserve. When I watched Miss Saigon in LA several years ago, a large portion of people on stage were Asians, but still, about ninety percent of the orchestra and orchestra terrace were Caucasian.

C: What about the Asians?

A: Emmm… There were definitely not as many Asians as in the boba Tea shop next door.

C: Of course there wasn’t. I mean, that is even in LA where a significant portion of the population is Asian. When I saw the Madame Butterfly opera in Nashville two years ago, I felt like the only Asians in the audience were other Vanderbilt students. Also, a lot of the geishas in the show were performed by white people, so yellowface and the geisha makeup and choreography were terrible. I am talking a lot about Madame Butterfly because I am much more familiar with Japanese culture than Vietnamese, but I am sure there exist some racial stereotypes and cultural inaccuracies in the choreography and staging of Miss Saigon as well.

A: I don’t know a lot about Vietnamese culture either, but I think the performance in Miss Saigon creates tension between the power dynamics of Vietnamese people and the American. For example, we see a demonstration of masculinity when the Vietnamese communist party takes over Ho Chi Minh city.

C: That’s because brute force equals masculinity and power according to popular beliefs, especially in America. What do you think then, of the trio of Kim, Chris, and his American wife, Ellen?

A: I thought the American wife would be more of a side character, but it turned out that even she had more agency and control than Kim.

C: I wished so badly for her not to be the stereotypic jealous woman, who she just turned out to be exactly. Then the story becomes two women fighting for one man and the one who loses commits suicide. This iconic portrayal of women in popular media across the world is far different from how women interact with each other in real life and demonstrates how patriarchy is implanted into the media and people’s minds. I hate it so much that you are now stuck with me judging the entire musical hard.

A: It is true that we don’t know anything about Ellen except her being a stereotypical jealous (white) woman and the authors lost another chance to create a meaningful character, but if she is not such a character and those people actually sit down and talk out a solution, we will not have the tragic ending of our princess Kim killing herself, and the authors cannot make big money.

C: I feel like Kim’s suicide was there either for the sake of tragedy, or because that’s just what happened in Madame Butterfly, but pride suicide, like hara-kiri, is a very Japanese practice. Or maybe Kim killed herself because her prince doesn’t love her anymore so she has no longer a reason to live, haha.

A: I do want to state that both characters Kim and Ellen portray more cowardice in the final scenes. One refuses to acknowledge that her husband loves the woman in his past. And the other one just dies. Perhaps this was constructed to play towards the fantasy of the general population. I do think many in the modern era wish for a time simpler and a universe where the world is 

brimming with naivety. 

C: It very well may be a fantasy. People definitely seek things that are far from the truth. 

A: We see that Kim wears her white gown at the beginning and the end of the show when she commits suicide, and that is symbolism for her innocence, or naiveness, depending on how you want to put it. This shows that Kim stands at a moral high point in the show, even compared to Chris.

C: Although I personally do not believe naiveness makes you morally correct, Chris was not doing better either. His character just summarizes what happens when people don’t do their cultural background research. Of course, I’m not saying that a soldier should do a comprehensive cultural research before going to war, but as a musical that centers on cultural difference, I don’t think Miss Saigon talks about culture enough, and what’s more it does give a valid message for the future of Asian Americans.

 A: I agree. The cultural difference in Miss Saigon is mainly depicted from an invader versus the invaded perspective, and the show is about how the Vietnamese people dwell in their weakness and sorrow instead of overcoming the difficulties and adapting, so it fails to outline the vast possibilities lying in the future of the Asian American community, which is still disadvantaged in the current American society.

A: Alright I think that’s all no? 

C: Mhmm

A: Thank you all for sticking around and listening. This has been Cultural Identity of American Musicals: Criticising the “Motive” of Miss Saigon. With your host Alex Shen

C: And Connie Wu.

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