I remember when I saw “Miss Saigon” for the first time; I was five years old, sitting at the front of the Bushnell’s stage about to see my first musical. I was not sure what I was getting into, before being dazzled by flashing lights, stunning costumes, and beautiful songs that still stick with me today.
To say that “Miss Saigon” has had a profound impact on me would be an understatement. As someone who was adopted from Vietnam and told about my heritage from an early age, it was incredible to see a show set in Vietnam on stage. This was the show that began my love for musical theater as well. When I look back on it now, however, I don’t get the feeling of nostalgia that I tend to get from other shows I’ve seen. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable. Within the show, the Asian characters are dulled down to insulting caricatures; the protagonist is a docile, silent victim, the women are sexualized, and the men are portrayed as brutes. These tropes lead to shows like “Miss Saigon” being inherently problematic, catering to orientalist stereotypes and glamorizing the trauma of the Vietnamese people.
Written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, “Miss Saigon” is set in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) during the final days of the Vietnam War. Based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera “Madama Butterfly,” it tells the story of Kim, who was orphaned by the war. Kim works at a bar and brothel called “Dreamland” run by the Engineer, a corrupt businessman. While there, Kim falls in love with Chris, an American G.I., who promises to take her to America once the war is over. Shortly after they get married, Kim and Chris are separated by the Fall of Saigon. Three years later, Chris has remarried, and Kim has given birth to their son, Tam, to whom she devotes her life and promises to protect by any means necessary. Through an organization called Bui Doi, Chris goes to reunite with Kim, bringing Ellen, his new wife, and John, his best friend from the war who works for Bui Doi.
Throughout the show, Kim barely gets to fight for herself or have a voice of her own. Instead, she is made the helpless victim in almost every circumstance, longing for someone to rescue her from her circumstances. During the second half of the show, most of Kim’s songs are about her wanting Chris to come and bring her to America. Something showed clearly in the song “I Still Believe,” where Kim reminisces about the time she and Chris spent together in Saigon and how she will wait for him to return no matter the circumstances. It’s supposed to be depicted as her love for him living on, but in reality, it’s just another example of people of color relying on white people to “save” them in the media. When the show lets Kim have her own voice, however, she sings about her devotion to her son, Tam, which, arguably, is the heart of the story. In the Act I finale “I’d Give My Life for You,” Kim sings about how much she loves her son and hopes that he will be able to experience a better life than she can provide for him. It’s a beautiful song that perfectly captures a mother’s devotion to her child, and it never fails to bring me to tears.
However, Kim’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. When Kim arrives at Chris’ hotel, she meets his American wife, Ellen and begs her to take Tam to America; she refuses. Wanting Ellen and Chris to take Tam to America to live a better life and seeing no other option, Kim shoots herself. As a child, I would’ve said it was a tragic ending because of Kim and Chris’ final moment together, but now I say it’s a tragic ending for the message it leaves the viewer with; Kim would rather die than continue to live her life in Bangkok with her son.
The other characters in the show don’t have it much better either. The women in Dreamland, like bargirl Gigi Van Tranh, are constantly seen as sexual objects for the men around them. Throughout the show, they never get to be fleshed out as characters and are only seen in skimpy clothing. The only two Asian male characters that are prominently featured, the Engineer and Thuy, are portrayed as villains and are two-dimensional caricatures of what Westerners perceive Asian men to be. They don’t get to win in the end either, as the Engineer ends his arc on a flamboyant song about America, while Thuy is killed by Kim in order to protect her son. The Americans are depicted as being well-meaning, but they do nothing for the first half of the show and are guilt-ridden over their involvement in the war despite only making the living situation worse for many of the Vietnamese characters. In the end, Chris and Ellen are portrayed as white saviors who save Tam from living a terrible life in Asia. Through these characters, the show does nothing but cater to the orientalist stereotypes that have harmed the Asian community in some of the worst ways possible for years.
For a while, I thought that I was overreacting. I knew vaguely of Miss Saigon’s past controversies, such as white actors Jonathan Pyrce and Keith Burns donning yellowface in the original West End production, and I knew that it didn’t portray the Vietnamese characters in a good light. However, I didn’t think much of it, as I thought I was just looking too deeply into it. Turns out, many other Vietnamese Americans feel the same way.
In her review of the restaged production, Diep Tran wrote that instead of fleshed-out, strong characters, what she saw on stage were “desperate, pathetic victims—people who were completely different from the resilient, courageous, multifaceted men and women of Little Saigon.” In her review, Tran also asked two Vietnamese authors about “Miss Saigon,” and shared their responses. One of them was Viet Thanh Nguyen, editor of “The Displaced.” He wrote that the show was “terrible, fulfilling every Orientalist trope that I had studied and was opposed to,” and that instead of portraying the Vietnam War for what it was — a brutal conflict that America didn’t need to get involved in — it turns it into “a racial and sexual fantasy that negates the war’s political significance and Vietnamese subjectivity and agency.”
Despite its problematic elements, there are still some aspects of the show that I enjoy. “You Will Not Touch Him” includes some of the most beautiful lyrics I’ve ever heard in a musical. They are sung by Kim as she points a gun at Thuy, who has come back to try and marry her, now enraged to discover that Kim has given birth to Chris’ son. “The earth moves where I stand / I feel the turning of a wheel / I feel nothing in my hand / Not even the feel of steel.” “Room 317” and “Now That I’ve Seen Her” are also personal favorites of mine, as they show a more sympathetic side to Ellen, even though she quickly goes back to being apathetic about Kim’s situation in the next song.
I will always have a soft spot for “Miss Saigon,” as it was the first musical I ever saw, and I am grateful for the roles which allow Asian actors to step into a business that is predominantly white. However, I will always want a show for Asians that is better than “Miss Saigon” so that instead of being silent victims, they can have their own voices. Instead of relying on harmful orientalist stereotypes, it can show an authentic portrayal of our lives. Instead of having our stories written by a white person, they should be written by an Asian person, whose life experiences will make the shows far more authentic.
Although shows like “Miss Saigon” continue to be popular with theater-goers, as we strive for better representation and diversity in media it’s time to let Asians and other people of color take control of their own stories.