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Opinion

Commentary: As a teenager, she loved ‘Miss Saigon.’ As an adult, she demands more for Vietnamese Americans

Vivien Ngô as a bar girl in her high school production of “Miss Saigon”
Sixteen-year-old Vivien Ngô played a bar girl in her high school production of “Miss Saigon.” She looks back at that time in her life with mixed feelings.
(Courtesy of Vivien Ngô)

“Miss Saigon” changed my life. The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, I was raised in Fountain Valley, a stone’s throw from Little Saigon. Despite growing up in the world’s largest Vietnamese diaspora, I yearned to see myself in stories.

The English-language media and books of my youth offered little representation of Asian people, let alone of Vietnamese Americans. The television series I watched with my parents were Chinese or Korean dramas dubbed into Vietnamese. Quintessential Vietnamese entertainment — “Paris By Night” and Vietnamese folk opera — showcased only ivory-skinned beauties to whom I did not relate.

That was why I was obsessed with “Miss Saigon,” a musical that premiered in 1989 and was created by the team behind “Les Misérables.” It tells “a tragic love story” between a Vietnamese prostitute and an American G.I. during the Vietnam War.

My first brush with acting came with an ensemble role in a high school production of “Miss Saigon.” It’s one of the main reasons I am a working actor today.

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The time I spent rehearsing and performing in musicals helped me manage the depression and anxiety I developed as a teenager in response to a family member’s unresolved war trauma.

Aside from that, it helped me believe, even if naively, that my community and our histories deserved to take space. A young me saw “Miss Saigon” celebrated in the West, and for the first time in my life, I was excited and proud to be Vietnamese in America.

Vivien Ngô
Fountain Valley-raised Vivien Ngô, after a high school performance of “Sweeney Todd.”
(Courtesy of Vivien Ngô)

Not only was I inspired to learn more about my family history, I itched to teach my non-Vietnamese friends about that history.

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Sure, I always hated the central character, Kim, and saw her as weak and submissive, but when I decided to make performing a career, “Miss Saigon” gave me hope that I might someday cross off “perform on Broadway in a lead role” from my bucket list. I wanted to love “Miss Saigon” so much; I even defended it in front of a largely non-Asian college class tearing it apart.

Years later, I cherish memories of the fun dance rehearsals and the excitement of my first opening night. I also remember a majority-white cast running around in yellow foundation, exaggerated eye makeup, dyed hair and black wigs.

I remember the confusing Vietnamese-esque gibberish I had to learn to sing, an actual part of the original script that wasn’t updated until the 2014 London revival. I remember being encouraged to run around the stage screaming in broken English. It pains me to admit that a decade ago, I found amusement in playing a scantily clad prostitute who only knew how to say, “Gimme fie dollah!”

Vivien Ngô on the set of “NCIS: New Orleans”
Actor Vivien Ngô with Johnny Tran, LeVar Burton and Chad Gomez Creasey after wrapping an 2018 episode of CBS drama “NCIS: New Orleans.”
(Courtesy of Vivien Ngô)

Like many twisted love affairs, my relationship with the musical soured over time. Fond memories of the show grew distant. Essays on gender, race and decolonization began nourishing me in ways “Miss Saigon” never did. I saw cracks in the American Dream and began unpacking two decades of internalized racism and sexism.

And it dawned on me: “Miss Saigon” has never been about me or my community. It has always been about a money-making machine that rarely hires or supports the Vietnamese, though it profits from their experiences.

When I realized this, I let go of my “Miss Saigon” dreams. I moved to Los Angeles and began chasing a different dream, one that would never include me wistfully singing about an imaginary man who’ll “keep us safe all day.”

“Miss Saigon”
The “Miss Saigon” revival began in London in 2014, arrived on Broadway in 2016 and is scheduled to tour the United States through 2020.
(Matthew Murphy and Johan Persson)
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Two months ago, I revisited “Miss Saigon” at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. I had received free tickets so I thought, why not? This revival was billed as a grittier, honest version. I was curious to see these updates.

Minutes in, I saw only the same caricatures on stage. The much-heralded addition of the occasional phrases in actual Vietnamese (substituted for the previous offensive gibberish) did nothing to hide the fact the story still turned my people’s war trauma into torture porn for non-Viet voyeurs.

The only Vietnamese woman deemed worthy is 17, virginal and incapable of seeing herself beyond her relationships with men. The Vietnamese male refugee is still painted as sleazy and opportunistic; audiences still roar with laughter during his minstrel song and dance.

And the helicopter. I watched people take out their phones to snap pictures of the show’s signature aircraft. Images that might trigger survivors are reduced to a technical set piece. In this “realer” version of the show, audiences still would rather find spectacle in wartime trauma than be sobered by it.

I shook during the standing ovation. On that stage, I did not see the tragically beautiful woman with whom the audience seemed to have fallen in love. I saw a young me ⁠— a suicidal child who felt trapped in a world that infantilized and sexualized her.

I saw my Vietnamese sisters, and our other Asian sisters who fight uphill battles every day to be heard and respected. When the world looks at us, it often assumes we are Kim, deserving of adoring pity but never empowerment.

“Miss Saigon” impacted the way I valued myself. The stereotypes it upholds play a part in how many people within the Vietnamese and larger Asian diaspora see themselves in relation to whiteness.

I am not writing this to ask for pity, nor do I want to argue about whether or not “Miss Saigon” should be canceled. I know better. The Broadway revival opened in 2016, and the touring production is scheduled through June 2020, with more shows to come.

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All I advocate for is the very thing “Miss Saigon” has denied us ⁠— a real voice and ownership of the stories Vietnamese Americans carry in our blood.

Qui Nguyen
Qui Nguyen during a rehearsal of his play “Poor Yella Rednecks,” which is about Vietnamese Americans refugees living in Arkansas in the 1980s. The play premiered at South Coast Repertory earlier this year.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this week, the national tour began a two-week run at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa. Down the street is South Coast Repertory, where Qui Nguyen’s critically-acclaimed plays “Vietgone” and “Poor Yella Rednecks” were developed and performed. It is strange to see “Miss Saigon” performed so close to a place that has nurtured such groundbreaking work.

America’s involvement in the nightmarish Vietnam War has inspired a plethora of cinematic dramas, most notably “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Born on the Fourth of July.”

These two theaters are a short drive from Little Saigon, where many Vietnamese Americans do not care about “Miss Saigon.” To them, it is for other Americans. There is no need to protest a musical like “Miss Saigon” in Orange County when there are Vietnamese businesses to support on every corner in Westminster, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley and beyond.

It is this community, the one that raised me, that also inspires me. When I look at the people in my hometown, I see beauty and strength swirled with idiosyncrasies and flaws. Caricatures of good and bad war victims do not exist there. My community, like any, is not without problems, but it has spent four decades nurturing and building an amazing Vietnamese American oasis, in spite of racism and xenophobia.

I do not fault anyone who attends the show to support the Asian American performers appearing in it. There are actually three members in the company who are of Vietnamese descent. And I understand why people choose to take work I would decline. Life as a theater artist is tough, and a Broadway national tour means good pay, benefits and a career-boosting credit.

If, however, you truly want to see stories created by people from the Vietnamese diaspora, the Viet Film Festival takes place in Orange County Oct. 11-13, the same weekend “Miss Saigon” closes at Segerstrom. The festival showcases and celebrates a diverse range of films from the global Vietnamese diaspora. This is a film festival organized by and for the Vietnamese community. There is also a multitude of work by incredible Vietnamese storytellers around the world.

So I ask you this: are you really interested in stories that center Vietnamese people, and if so, why would you watch “Miss Saigon?”

Vivien Ngô is an actress known for her work on Ava Duvernay’s “Queen Sugar” on OWN. She is currently producing and starring in a feature film with other Vietnamese Americans.


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