The Ordway Still Doesn’t Get Sexism and Racism (The Problem with Miss Saigon)

 

"Don't Buy Miss Saigon Coalition's 'Our Truth' Tumblr project slide show was projected in front of the Ordway Theater during the protest of the opening night of Miss Saigon.  October 8th, 2013.  Photo by Bao Phi."

Don’t Buy Miss Saigon Coalition’s ‘Our Truth’ Tumblr project slide show was projected in front of the Ordway Theater during the protest of the opening night of Miss Saigon. October 8th, 2013. Photo by Bao Phi.

 

By Guest Contributor Mai Neng Moua

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, here we are again.  Miss Saigon, the musical about a Vietnamese prostitute falling in love with a white soldier during the Vietnam War, then killing MissSaigonLies-logoherself when he ultimately rejects her, was back onstage at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul (MN), until the show closed this past Sunday.  This musical, like any good zombie, just won’t stay dead. Along with it, the racism and sexism inherent in the play have been resurrected.  Really, as the mom of two girls under six and the spouse of a candidate running for office, I don’t have time to get involved – again – in the protest against Miss Saigon.  I protested this back in 1994.  Plenty of good people (Don’t Buy MISS SAIGON Coalition) are already working on it.  More articulate writers (David Mura) have written about it.

However, when one of my African American friends said, “No one has said why it’s offensive and I’m unfamiliar with the show, so I can’t relate,” I decided to follow my advice to my husband Blong, who had originally refused to answer the question of a white man: “What does the Trayvon Martin case have to do with civil rights?” Responses to these questions take time and energy. But as I told Blong, “Plenty of people don’t know, so while it is tiresome, you have to answer the question.”

So, why is Miss Saigon sexist, racist and generally offensive?

The above-referenced Vietnamese prostitute is portrayed as a tragic figure whose only hope is being rescued by the white soldier.  Since the Vietnamese men in the production are portrayed as morally offensive and undesirable, this white guy is the only choice.  The only hero of the musical is a white man.  It’s bad enough that the woman at the center of the musical needs a man to rescue her from her life. The fact that this can only happen at the hands of a white man makes it sexist and racist.  I am Hmong, not Vietnamese, so why do I care?  Unfortunately, people can’t tell the difference.  They’ve mistaken me for Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.  Kim, the Vietnamese prostitute, is me.  I am her.

In Miss Saigon, the only image of Asian women is “prostitute”– not that I am condemning sex workers.  But not all Asian women during the Vietnam War were prostitutes.  When stereotypes are the only images people see, it is necessary to correct the record.  This play is telling me and my young daughters that essentially, we, Asian women, exist to serve and please white men.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  My truth about the Asian women I know who lived during the Vietnam War is far different.  The women I know were resourceful, strong, and fearless.  For example, my mother took care of my two brothers and I after my father died at the tail end of the Vietnam War.  After the Americans pulled out of Laos, the Hmong were targeted for extermination for our role in helping the Americans.  With my mother as the head of our household, we escaped Laos and survived the refugee camps in Thailand.  In America, she navigated the social service system so that we had a roof over our heads, had food in our stomachs, and graduated from high school and college.

Another issue with Miss Saigon is the portrayal of the Vietnamese men.  Sure, there are bad seeds in every group. But with a broad brush, both of the male Vietnamese characters are portrayed as  loathsome.  Television has long perpetuated the image of undesirable Asian men.  They never get to sleep with, let alone, kiss white women; Asian women don’t want them.  Hell, they’re so bad that they don’t even want themselves.

Again, the reality is far different from the play.  My truth about the Asian men I know:  My maternal grandfather was a tasseng, an elected offical in charge of 10-20 villages in Laos.  My uncles were high-ranking military officials in the late General Vang Pao’s “Secret Army,” which was funded by the CIA.  Hmong people from near and far came to them to resolve issues and problems.  Here in the US, my uncles and cousins are shamans and pastors, leaders of my people’s spirituality.  I love my Hmong uncles, brothers, and cousins.  I love my Hmong husband. They are resilient, remarkable, and brilliant men.

I protested Miss Saigon back in 1994 when the Ordway first brought it to town.  I was a college student at St. Olaf and had never protested anything before.  I didn’t know what to say or do.  I was scared people would yell or throw things at me.  Then I met Esther Suzuki, a Japanese American woman whose family survived the racist U.S. policy of internment camps.  Esther was about my size – which is small – but she was fearless.  Esther protested Miss Saigon because, she better than anyone, understood Dr. King’s “No one is free until we all are free.”  I stood with Esther, protesting Miss Saigon, and drew strength from her.  We protested Miss Saigon because it was racist, sexist, and offensive to us as Asian Americans.  Nineteen years later, this hasn’t changed.    

Racism didn’t end with the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  The Ordway would never open a show about the “romance” between Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress Sally Hemmings.  The Ordway would never dream of mounting a play about the “romance” between a Jewish prostitute and a Nazi camp guard during World War II.  It would never open a show with actors and actresses in blackface performing a minstrel show.  The Ordway would find such shows racist and sexist.  The backlash in all those cases would be, justly, brutal.  Miss Saigon is exactly that with an Asian visage.  It’s not beautiful, it’s not romantic, and it’s not tragic in the tradition of Shakespearean drama.  Miss Saigon is racist and sexist.  The Asian community will continue to speak out about Miss Saigon because institutions such as the Ordway still don’t get it. 

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Mai Neng Moua is the founder of Paj Ntaub Voice, the Hmong literary arts journal where she nurtured and published more than 200 emerging Hmong writers and artists from across the U.S.  From Paj Ntaub Voice came Bamboo Among the Oaks, the first Hmong American anthology, to which she contributed and edited.  You may find her writings in publications such as Bamboo Among the Oaks, Healing by Heart: Clinical and Ethical Case Stories of Hmong Families and Western Providers and Where One Voice Ends Another Begins: 150 Years of Minnesota Poetry.  Her awards include the Bush Artist Fellowship, the Jerome Travel Grant, the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series in Poetry & Creative Prose, and the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant.  Mai Neng graduated from St. Olaf College and attended the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.  She works for the State of Minnesota and lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two daughters. 

  • Leyen Trang

    Yes, yes, and yes. In addition, I think this was possibly one of the first stories that began perpetuating the white-man-savior trope often seen in books that feature Asian women as the “protagonist.” I guess this is also sort of a result of the white-savior trope…

    Somewhat off topic, but I am currently a student at St. Olaf College and we’re actually hosting a Miss Saigon panel discussion this week (late, I know, but planning took way too long) so I think it’s rather funny that I came across your article just now.

  • Baakus

    As an Asian guy, I want to thank you for standing up so strongly to racist perceptions of Asians in the West, and in particular, the way you empathize with and stick up for us Asian men. Both Asian men and women don’t do enough to support each other, but I think that it’s particular more painful when Asian women don’t do it because in the West, they are more readily accepted and appreciated by White people than Asian men are. I hope the next generations of Asian Americans will be more supportive of one another across gender lines, as opposed to trying to distance themselves away from their heritage and towards Whiteness.

  • Baakus

    Even if Miss Saigon stops being performed, it will hardly be a dent in the popular image of Asian women and Asian men in the West. Big loss.

    Don’t pretend that this is an even fight. At this rate, we’d probably need 20 straight years of outright propaganda to undo the stereotypes that have been ingrained in the Western mindset about Asians.

  • Audrey Dorland

    Thank you for taking the time to answer annoying questions. Some of us have real difficulty learning things without someone teaching us.

  • StickyGeranium

    I don’t dispute the ultimate condemnation of Miss Saigon as generally sexist and racist, but I read the story somewhat differently when I saw it.
    The Miss Saigon I saw was about a naive girl in Saigon who (after totally implausibly falling madly in love with a dumb white soldier in just one night) showed herself to be courageous and passionate, and who ultimately killed herself so that her son would grow up in America, the land of dreams. The story was much more about her than about Chris, who was tiresome and angsty. And that overarching narrative about her dreams of America and her sacrifice for her child for the American dream is powerful, because even at the same time as it is totally American-centric and devalues Vietnam, it’s the dramatized and romanticized expression of an idea that is quite pervasive in the world.
    So yes, it does nothing for depicting Vietnam other than in tired racist and sexist tropes, but it’s also the story of a naive girl who grows into a powerful woman and a mother and who will do anything for her child.

  • Yonnie

    It seems like instead of focusing on banning Miss Saigon, the focus should be on making sure that there are OTHER depictions of Asian women and men, and more specifically other depictions of Asian women and men in the period depicted in the play. The author says, “…not all Asian women during the Vietnam War were prostitutes…. My truth about the Asian women I know who lived during the Vietnam War is far different. The women I know were resourceful, strong, and fearless.” It would seem to me that instead of wanting to erase the story of this Asian prostitute, there should be a focus on ADDING the stories of the strong, fearless, and resourceful women that she knows. It is the danger of the single story that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about. The problem is not that this story exists. It is that the other stories do not.

    • Uyen

      I don’t think it needs to be either/or, it can be both/and. This essay focuses on why the musical is offensive, but at least here in the Twin Cities there have also been articles shining the spotlight on other, more representative, more deserving artistic pieces. For one, there is a play running in Minneapolis right now called Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, and it was covered in this piece called “Skip Miss Saigon, see Mu Performing Arts’ Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals”: http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/arts/2013/10/04/skip-miss-saigon-see-mu-performing-arts-kung-fu-zombies-vs-cannibals

  • Kennedy

    My thoughts are that the Ordway does get it. However, they are turning the other cheek because they are reaping such profits from this. Yes, the Ordway is definitely White supremacists and Racists, but the underlying truth is that all those who attend, act, write, and participate in this incapacitating atrocity are all also white supremacists and racist or have so much internalized racism within themselves. I think that the Ordway knows that this promotes WHITE SUPREMACY, SEXISM, RACISM, and other unhealthy behaviors but only hide behind the poor excuse and lie of this being “art” and “controversial” because they are getting the privilege of being able to hold this event and keep the money. The profits only stroke their racist egos and their white supremacists ideals keep them from having compassion from US, the asian community. This right here is a pure example of Institutionalized racism. Also, once ONE person or group of Asian people say that it is OK, they will have a media frenzy about it and drown out our voices with the voices of the corrupted whom only appear to be asian.

    • Baakus

      Isn’t it infuriating how some people think that racism or sexism can be disproven if just ONE member of the offended group denies being insulted?

      Yet there are plenty of white people who claim that things like white privilege exist, yet we don’t hold them to the same high standard of having 100% of their in-group members agree.

      Oh yeah, it’s because non-whites are a hive mind, whereas white people can think for themselves. HOW COULD I FORGET?