Miss Saigon: a critical essay.
By Dominic Golding.
It had been over a decade since I first heard Miss Saigon, on CD and reading the stage handbook a musical about Vietnam. Back then it was quite a momentous occasion because it also set train in motion- I, to become a performer, an actor, a singer. To become the Engineer be starring in a Broadway production as a pimp. Yep my life long passion is… to be a pimp.
But it wasn’t long before my love affair with Miss Saigon went sour. My anger against the establishment- the whites; represented by Chris, the GI who falls in love with Kim came to embody everything that I despised. At the time I was deeply hurt, afraid, spiteful at the greater world and America’s part in destroying Vietnam. The more I listened to the CD the more I came to the belief that whatever white American men touch they destroyed. As played out in the musical Kim kills herself. You can read a whole lot of Orientalist and colonial discourses into that. I ended up burning the book and CD, my hatred ran deep.
As an adoptee the song Bui Doi and the boy been taken (sold) by the Engineer to be given to Chris, has always been a weakness in the musical. Plot wise its an emotion red herring. Miss Saigon is a love story between a white male and Asian female- a prostitute.
Me, being a son of a prostitute, yes there is probably a case in that. As my adopted friend whom came to see the show with me could see himself as that boy he was sympathetic to that reading.
For me though, having worked in the Vietnamese community for so long and living in Vietnam for ten months Miss Saigon was wrong. We are not whores, we are not submissive, we do not fall in love with the first Anglo Saxons we date- we fuck them but not necessarily out if passion, we are not evil puritanical communists, we do not forcibly arrange marriages, we do not freely give away our children, we are not suicidal, but we do think America is great and full of wealth.
Being a theatre practitioner the musical was visually stunning, a few blocking flaws, in all a damn good spectacle. It was like watching a movie- not a theatre piece. I do believe it is telling for adoptees to see this piece of good art (for those in Brisbane and Sydney).
It is an important piece of work, misguided but it is valuable as the composers initially used a photo of orphans from that war as inspiration to write Miss Saigon.
Again it comes down to another’s vision or idea or apathy of children of colour leading to becoming adoptees or in this case reclaimed by the father and step mother to a whiter world a better world- not the seedy streets of Bangkok. As a note, many Asian-American Vietnamese children haven’t been readily or even happily reunited with their fathers. In a number of cases, as adults many have gone from being “homeless” in Vietnam to well being truly homeless in the US.
In someway Miss Saigon is a positioning in relation to transracial adoption it encapsulates everything that makes the idea of rescuing a child from the Third World a humane act. And the Engineer is cunning, sly, controlling, nasty, cowardly, devious, lecherous everything which is portrayed about Asian men. Chris can be nothing but heroic, proud, confused, and loyal (to the white woman, wife or whiteness), masculine, and he is free to turn his back on the Third World literally as in the blocking and metaphorically through his actions. The fact that Chris returns to Kim in Bangkok only after finding out his has a child yet he never faces her directly until she has already killed herself; with his pistol- one has to wonder who is more cowardly.
As for me acting as the Engineer, and living that dream treading Broadway I’m willing to let that go. Instead I’ve written and performed in plays about my experience as an adoptee child growing up in the middle class white world-n- rural Australia. Just maybe, just maybe I’ll write my own libretto on the Vietnam War, where there are no evil Asian men, sexually submissive Asian females selling themselves to white men (note you actually don’t see Chris’s African American GI friend getting it off with a Viet chick), or poor defenseless orphans to be saved.