What Does “Miss Saigon” Have to Do with It?

by Luanne

Most of the CDs in my collection are Broadway musical cast albums.  From the time I was a preschooler, I’ve listened to show tunes, first learning them from my mother’s LP collection of 1950s show classics.  The one recording from any era that moves me every time I listen to it is Miss Saigon.  From “The Movie in My Mind” to “Sun and Moon” to “I’d Give My Life for You,” the music makes me cry.

Miss Saigon

I’ve seen a touring version of the show, as well as a professional show, which my daughter was in, in Wichita, Kansas.  Those productions really brought home how unfortunate it is that Miss Saigon is one of the few musicals available for Asian actresses.  Except for the young woman playing lead, all the Asian girls in the play portray prostitutes and pole dancers, strutting across the stage in bikinis.

In the song “Random Black Girl,” by Kooman and Dimond, the place of Asian females in Broadway shows is clarified:

“But I guess things always could be worse,
When it comes to my Broadway station
At least I’m not cursed
Enough to have been born Asian.

Then I’d be stuck in Miss Saigon dancing on a pole,
Stead of the random black girl singin’ the soul.”

While the character singing bemoans the fact that she plays the token African-American character, at least she gets to stand and sing “the soul” with dignity.

So would I be happy to see Marisha in the show again?  Certainly!  I love seeing Marisha happy doing what she loves.  And although it’s sad that Miss Saigon is the only real opportunity for a mainly Asian cast, I do love the show.  As I said, it makes me cry every time I hear the music.

Trying to figure out why the show affects me so deeply, I realized that, for me, the American mother of two children born to Korean women, the story of Miss Saigon operates as a tale of adoption.  Now, if you’ve seen the show, you know that the main character Kim and the American soldier Chris fall in love during the war and are separated during the fall of Saigon.  Afterward, there is no communication and Kim bears Chris’ child–a child he doesn’t know exists–and Chris marries an American girl, usually played by a white actress.

South Vietnamese refugees walk across a U.S. N...

Kim wants her son Tam to go to America for what she believes will be a better life than she is able to provide for him.  Otherwise, Tam, left behind with his mother, now in Bangkok, will suffer the fate of an Amerasian child.  The song “Bui Doi,” offers a heartbreaking explanation of how poorly these children, “the dust of life,” are treated.  Kim wants Chris and his wife Ellen to take Tam.  To make this happen, Kim commits suicide so that Chris will not feel that they are taking the child from his mother.  This also frees Ellen to love Tam because he’s no longer tied to a living mother in Vietnam.

None of this sounds like adoption, except that if Chris and Ellen take Tam back to America to raise, with Kim gone, Ellen would be able to adopt Tam.

No mention is made of adoption in the show.  I’ve never heard anybody talk about Miss Saigon as a show about adoption.  But when I watch the show, when I hear the songs, that is what I am feeling.  I know that Ellen, the privileged but sympathetic American who knows nothing of the hell of Kim’s life, is my double, and I feel for the situation she is in.  But most of my empathy is with Kim, who has been living with the fruits of her love for Chris, who has been carrying the burden of knowledge, and who desperately puts her love for her son ahead of the value of her own life.

When I cry while listening to Miss Saigon, it’s not because I don’t notice that the story underscores the exploitation of Asian women during the Vietnam War and the Korean War.  It’s not because I think it’s okay that Asian American actresses are “given” this one show “dancing on a pole.”  It’s because it brings out my feelings of sadness for the type of situations which have allowed me the privilege of being a mother to my amazing Korean kids.

***

Luanne’s most recent post can be found here.

Comments

  1. Lisa DeNike Ercolano says:

    Can’t write a comment through my tears. Thank you for this.

  2. Barbara Crawley says:

    Aside from the beautiful music and heart wrenching story in “Miss Saigon” I can well understand why it would affect you on a deeper level as both a mother of two Asian children one of whom is an actress. Thanks for sharing…..

  3. Peri Schacknow says:

    Thank you for your meaningrful perspective on this show, Luanne; I will watch it again through different eyes next time. God bless the writers of theater who can touch us in this special way … and our beautiful, talented children who are blessed to bring their words and music to life.

    • Peri, thank you so much for reading and responding to the piece! I so agree with what you say here and the writers and our children–and you said it so beautifully.

  4. Beautiful post, and equally beautiful sentiment; Miss Saigon is one of the few Broadway soundtracks that makes me tear up every time…that and Les Mis. Ugh…

    • Thanks so much for reading and responding, Mikalee. Marisha and I are both seeing Les Mis together in about a week. It’ll be my first time and I can’t wait!

  5. I am a huge musical theatre fan and love how you captured what the show means to you — so touching (and the bit about different races often being left with character parts is so true!). I will certainly see the show in a new light, beautiful post!

  6. Thank you for your heartfelt blog! Jenny

  7. I was first introduced to Miss Saigon by my mother when I was 5 years old. At the time, I didn’t understand the cultural implications of the story–I just identified with the melodies, however, over time, the story has packed more and more of an emotional punch every time i listen. Wonderful post.

    Jill
    http://jillyfaace.wordpress.com/

  8. I’m certain you will have some interesting dialogue with your children in the years ahead. There are some actresses of Asian descent on screen…Sandra Oh (she’s of Canadian extraction first, then Korean ancestry) in Grey’s Anatomy series, Lucy Liu a Chinese-American, etc. Change takes time. But yes, I agree very few those filling of Asian descent that are 360 character depictions, not a stereotype.

    • Jean, you are so right about these two big names on screen. In fact, as an actress, Marisha really identifies with Sandra Oh. Thanks for your encouraging words!

      • It might be cool for your daughter to write a fan letter to Sandra Oh and give reasons why she likes Oh. I’m sure Oh would appreciate/understand her.

  9. beautiful and amazing post!

  10. it’s good post, sob…

  11. I am a fan of the songs…I love The Movie in my Mind and I Still Believe. Moves me too in a way that you are. Very touching post.

  12. Very interesting, thanks for sharing!

  13. Interesting!

  14. Miss Saigon has also on me left its indelible mark because I’ll never forget having watched it in London! I am not an adoptive mother, nor do I have ties with East Asian countries. It’s just an incredibly well performed piece of work with great acting and singing.

    Even though the women play prostitutes, they all have singing roles and stunning ones at that. It could never exist without them.

    I feel that by saying ‘…all the Asian girls in the play portray prostitutes and pole dancers, strutting across the stage in bikinis.’ you somewhat downplay their significance. There’s only one who gets the lead role. Isn’t that the same everywhere? Kim provides the sweet & innocent touch and the other women the rough. I just love it. But even the rough turns into sheer beauty when they sing The Wedding Ceremony (no bikinis there, I think?). Priceless.

    • Oh, you saw the original Miss Saigon? Maybe you saw the man playing John, Peter Polycarpou, whose version of “Bui Doi” I linked to in the piece? It must have been an amazing theatre experience!
      I meant the main point of the piece to be my view of the “adoption angle” within “Miss Saigon,” but I do make an issue about the lack of roles for Asian actresses in stage musicals. You’re right about the wedding scene being beautiful. It’s still hard to watch your talented daughter meet such a low glass ceiling in the field of her choice. It would be nice if there were more shows than there are for young Asian actress/singers. The chorus aspect of the singing is lovely in the show, I agree. As far as solo songs or lines go, other than Kim (an amazing role), Gigi has 1/2 song, one of the other girls has 2 lines, 2 have 1 line each, and that’s it. And those are all sung dressed in bikinis ;). Nevertheless, I agree with you wholeheartedly that “It could never exist without them.” Thank you so much for pointing that out.

  15. such an amazing post.. ah, what a great story about LOVE.. thanks for sharing.

    • I did a doubletake when I read what you wrote–that this is a story about love. It is, in so many ways, and it gives me a new view back into the subject. Thank you so much!!

  16. It is a thought provoking musical, isn’t it?

  17. GREAT JOB,PROUD OF YOU!!!

  18. Hi Luanne, I really love your awesome blog. Sad that Miss Saigon lost the Best Musical Award at the 1989/90 Laurence Olivier Awards to Return to the Forbidden Planet in London. Wonder about what that was about? http://www.segmation.wordpress.com

  19. Kimberly Wohlford says:

    Luanne, I truly enjoyed reading your personal perspective on this production as you illuminate the insight, or rather slight, on Asian roles in theater…something I had not considered. I had the pleasure of seeing Miss Saigon on Broadway about 15 years ago and loved it. The interesting thing was that “the buzz” surrounding the play was all about the helicopter hovering over the stage. What you have written here reveals what might be seen as a deeper, unspoken message looming over this production.

    • Kimberly, I’m so jealous that you saw Miss Saigon on Broadway. Sigh. The only thing that will come close to making up for it is that I am actually going to be seeing the west coast premiere of Allegiance in San Diego. It’s Lea Salonga’s new show with Telly Leung and George Takei. No roles for young Asian actresses in it haha, but the story is so worthwhile, and I suspect the music will be beautiful. Do you remember who was playing the Engineer when you saw it? Just curious. Back to your comments: your comparison with the message looming over the production with the helicopter hovering over the stage (I can barely think about the helicopter scene without crying) is so lovely. thank you so much for your heartfelt response.

  20. My uncle created the orchestration for the Broadway musical, and I have never had the chance to see it. Hearing about it through your experience was so powerful and touching. Thank you for sharing!

    • What a wonderful and rewarding job your uncle must have! I’ve heard rumors of them bringing Miss Saigon back to Broadway. If they do, I hope we both get to see it. Thank you so much for reading and letting us know that it touched you.

  21. Wow. I love Miss Saigon – I’ve never had the chance to watch it, but have listened to the soundtrack hundreds of times over the past 20 years. This is the first time I’ve seen it through a different perspective. Thanks for that, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

    • Audrey, I sincerely hope you get to see it on stage sometime. Thank you so much for your congratulations!! It came as a complete shock to hear from WordPress :)!

  22. I wonder if the stereotypical sex trade parts would exist if not for the r&r during the Korean and Vietnam wars…South East Asia is not just sex, drugs and martial arts as many of the movies and shows suggest. Sorry I side tracked a bit there.
    Great post and though I haven’t seen the show it sounds touching.

  23. I had never thought of Miss Saigon this way. You hit the nail on the head.

  24. desinghrajan1 says:

    Cool

  25. I would love you to feature on my blog. Please check out http://www.5thingstodotoday.com and send your suggestions to David at 5thingstodotoday@gmail.com and I will give a link back to your blog from mine. Thank you so much. Enjoyed reading your blog.

  26. Reblogged this on Don't We Look Alike? and commented:

    Re-blogging Luanne’s “Miss Saigon” post.

Trackbacks

  1. […] waiting from WordPress editor Cheri Lucas telling Marisha and me that one of our blog’s posts, “What Does ‘Miss Saigon’ Have to Do with It?,” had been Freshly Pressed.  That was such a wonderful two month birthday present for the […]

  2. […] few months ago, my mum wrote a Freshly Pressed post called “What Does ‘Miss Saigon’ Have to Do with It?” about her experience with the musical Miss Saigon and her emotional journey which unfolded as she […]

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