The recent opening of the musical "Miss Saigon" at the newly renovated Ahmanson Theatre was the subject of extensive media coverage and advertising hype. The show's Broadway debut was steeped in controversy: Should Jonathan Pryce, a white actor, or an Asian American play the Eurasian engineer. In Los Angeles, the hiring of numerous Asian American actors seemingly addressed this concern, perhaps in recognition of the large Asian American communities here.
But coverage missed the main point of protests among Asian Americans on both coasts: What kinds of Asian roles are at stake?
In the play, Kim, a Vietnamese bar girl and prostitute, falls in love with an American GI. After he returns to the U.S., she bears him a son. In the meantime, he marries a white woman, but returns with his American bride when he discovers Kim to be alive in Thailand. Ultimately, Kim kills herself to ensure her son's "escape" to a "better life" with his father.
This update of the opera "Madame
Butterfly" at first seems a mild improvement over the Puccini warhorse: the GI feels sorrow upon abandoning his Asian paramour; a song, "Bui-Doi," decries the plight of Amerasian children. In doing so, "Miss Saigon" restages and conveniently expiates American guilt over Vietnam.
This expiation occurs through the recirculation of Asian stereotypes: extremes of sexuality represented in the shy lotus blossom, the prostitute and the pimp; "Oriental despotism" in Ho Chi Minh and in Kim's Vietnamese suitor, and its inverse "Oriental subservience" in the phalanxes of soldier hordes; "the sleazy, sneaky Oriental," in the person of the engineer, and familiar paternalistic narratives, such as "white man saves Asian woman from Asian man," and "Asian woman dies for white man/white man's son."
True, "Miss Saigon" gives Asian American actors jobs--as hired help fleshing out the fantasies of a white playwright or director. In the name of empowerment though employment, "Miss Saigon" instead secures Asian American subordination.
No matter how seductive the spectacle, racism is still racism.