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 herself 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.
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.