Helping Students Critique Miss Saigon’s Stereotypes

By Debbie Wei

When I first heard that Miss Saigon was coming to Philadelphia, I didn’t react too strongly. I had heard that there was some controversy surrounding the show when it opened in New York over the casting of Jonathan Pryce, an Anglo-British actor, in the role of “The Engineer” — a role which was written as a mixed race (Vietnamese/French) character.

At that time, two things rankled the Asian-American community. First was the issue of a white actor in “yellow face” — in the British productions, Pryce wore facial prosthetics to raise his cheekbones and had his eyes painted in a “slant.” In an era in which Americans had hopefully realized the insensitivity and racism behind “blackface” productions, people should be able to understand the anguish caused to Asians when “yellowface” becomes acceptable and Asians who protest are labeled “oversensitive.”

The second issue involved the question of economic and artistic survival in racial casting. Ellen Holly, a Black actress and writer, responded to the Miss Saigon controversy in an opinion in the New York Times. “In an ideal world actors would be able to play any fictitious role they are capable of creating the illusion they are right for. … ,” she wrote. “[But] to date, it has only been a one-way street in which whites co-opt roles from their darker brothers. … [There is] a long and profoundly frustrating history in America in which, decade after decade, the ideal world we all long for has functioned so that whites are free to play anything under the sun while Black, Hispanic, and Asian actors are not only restricted to their own category, but forced to surrender roles in their own category that a white desires.”

For Asian-American actors, roles are few and far between. To have one of the few roles explicitly written as “Asian” played by a white actor meant one less chance for an Asian-American actor to find employment in his craft.

But despite this historical rancor, I remained relatively unaware of any controversy which might surround the production in Philadelphia. Then one day students informed me that schools were planning class trips to see Miss Saigon. Apparently, in a push to help ticket sales, the Walnut Street Theater was offering half-price tickets to high school students. When students began to ask me what I thought about the play, I decided that I’d better investigate the plot and libretto and help give students some questions to ask when they saw the play. It was through this investigation that I became disturbed, and then angry, about the play and the fact that it had become a draw for area high school classes.

The issue of Miss Saigon also raises larger questions about how field trips are chosen for students. Part of me is guessing that many teachers were lured to the play by the offer of half-price tickets — particularly at a time when arts have been cut back and exposure to the arts for our students is highly limited. Some may have been lured by the title, Miss Saigon, in an effort to expose their students to “diversity.”

After reading the lyrics with their predictable iambic pentameter rhyming and simplistic, crude words, I cannot imagine that teachers took students to this show in order to expose them to superior literature. I don’t know if any analysis was done in terms of understanding the offensive nature of the play to the Asian-American community, the misogyny evident in its treatment of women, the racism in the character portrayals, the erasure of history in the quest to provide entertainment.

The play has been touted as a modern day version of Madame Butterfly. The synopsis of Miss Saigon is quite basic: A U.S. soldier, Chris, meets a Vietnamese prostitute, Kim, in a brothel in Saigon. Kim, though a prostitute, is, of course, a virgin, since Chris has the great good fortune to “encounter” her on her first day on the job. They spend one night together and fall in love. When the U.S. troops pull out of Vietnam, Chris is forced to leave Kim behind. Three years pass in which Kim remains faithful to Chris, has his son, and is forced to leave Vietnam because an evil Vietnamese government official is pressuring her to marry him. Kim flees to Bangkok and is reunited with Chris three years later, only to discover that Chris has married and has arrived in Bangkok with his white wife, Ellen. Kim shoots herself and dies in Chris’ arms so that Chris and Ellen can take her son to the United States and raise him.

Historically, the Madame Butterfly/ Suzy Wong/Miss Saigon storyline about an Asian prostitute — a sexy, demure siren with a heart of gold who falls for a white man and whose sole purpose is to love deeply, be compliant to his demands, wait longingly and lovingly for him to return to her, and tragically, though always happily, end in self sacrificing death — is quite familiar to Asian Americans. What are the historical roots of this image?


The fact that in the past 50 years Asia and the Pacific have been consistent locations for U.S. military involvement cannot be ignored in looking at the popularity of an image of a “feminine” Asia whose role is to be sexual servant — prostitute — to a “masculine” America. Butterfly/Kim become symbols for an Asia which longs to join the modern, “civilized” world but cannot do so without the help of the West. Lest this notion be missed, the writers of Miss Saigon ensure its inclusion in the song entitled “The Movie In My Mind.” As the Vietnamese prostitutes gather on stage, they sing songs of longing for American men as saviors: “The dream they leave behind, a scene I can’t erase. And in a strong GI’s embrace, leave this life, leave this place. The movie plays and plays, the screen before me fills. He brings me to New York. He gives me dollar bills…” Later, Kim herself adds her lyrics: “The movie in my mind, the dream that fills my head. A man who will not kill, who’ll fight for me instead. … He’ll keep us safe all day … and in a strong GI’s embrace, leave this life, leave this place. A world that’s far away, where life is not unkind, the movie in my mind.”

These particular lyrics are intriguing in their attempt to musically reflect historical amnesia. The brutality of U.S. troop involvement in Vietnam was well documented, coming to a head with the uncovering of the My Lai massacre. While the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., records the names of some 58,000 Americans officially killed in Vietnam, the Vietnamese suffered two million deaths and four million wounded. Between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. sprayed almost 18 million gallons of defoliants, including Agent Orange, over 4.5 million acres of South Vietnam. They exploded “more than 15 million tons of bombs and ground munitions in Vietnam, a country less than half the size of the state of Texas,” according to Jerold Starr in his book The Lessons of the Vietnam War. “This represented four times the total dropped by the U.S. in all theaters of the war in World War II and is equivalent in destructive force to about 600 Hiroshima-type bombs.”

How interesting then, for the show Miss Saigon to present images of Vietnamese women who equate U.S. troops with “peace and safety.” And Kim’s words about “the world that’s far away where life is not unkind” is an ideal vision which allows us to safely avoid any discussion of how life may not be so “kind” for Asians in America.

In addition to the political message painted within the story of Miss Saigon, it became more apparent as I read the lyrics that racism and misogyny were also part and parcel of the play. The opening number features American GIs in a brothel singing: “The heat is on in Saigon. The girls are hotter than hell. One of these slits here will be Miss Saigon. God, the tension is high, not to mention the smell.”

Here then, we are confronted with a production in which Asian women are referred to as “slits” — one wonders which part of the anatomy was being referred to, but, either or both ways, the message of dehumanization is clear. The objectification of women continues with words like: “I gotta get my friend laid as a souvenir” or “If I’m your pin-up, I’ll melt all your brass. Stuck on your wall with a pin in my ass. If you get me, you will travel first class.”

This is a show where Asian women are referred to as “meat” (“The meat is cheap in Saigon”), and there is not even the barest of attempts to present balanced racial images. Every Asian woman in the production is a prostitute, every Asian male is evil, every American is a hero. And in a typical scenario for Asian Americans, the Asian man lusts after the Asian woman who finds him repulsive and only has eyes for the white man.

Perhaps the “best” racist lines are reserved for the role of the Engineer, the role played by Pryce on Broadway. He is bent on demeaning and degrading every Asian imaginable as he sings: “Gee, isn’t Bangkok really neat. The things they’re selling on the street! Fresh dog if that’s what you’d enjoy. A girl, or if you want, a boy. … You want a thrill, come on and grab it. Three girls, two gerbils and a rabbit. … Greasy Chinks make life so sleazy.” And so on.

After reading Miss Saigon, I needed to understand why on earth a visit to this show would be considered educational. I did, in fact, end up discussing the show with high school students, asking them to think about the issues raised in New York around casting and also asking them to think about racism and sexism in the lyrics. We talked about the symbolism of Kim as “Asia” and Chris as “America” in uncovering the show’s message about the relationship of countries to each other. One of my students wrote in her journal: “It’s like all they want to say is that Asia is there to be raped and you can do whatever you want to her, and she will still love you and want you. And then, the thing that Asia is good for is producing things for you, the way Kim produces a son for Chris.” Another student commented on the portrayal of Asian men in the play and likened it to popular visions of Asian men as evil and undesirable and as people from whom Asian women need to be rescued.

Many students I spoke with said their classes didn’t seriously discuss the play after they saw it. The show was summarized as either “good” or “bad” in terms of entertainment. However, just because something has public exposure does not necessarily mean it has merit as entertainment. (Any glimpse of commercial TV can tell us that.) And just because it is a major Broadway success doesn’t make it educationally sound material. Hatred and narrow nationalist history can always find a safe haven in spectacle.

The Asian-American community in Philadelphia was quiet during this run of Miss Saigon. Some discussion and phone calls were made, but, by and large, community members I spoke with were burned out — too tired to take on yet another issue. Too tired to face a marketing behemoth with enough finances to bombard the airwaves with slick advertisements. Too tired to create enough noise to have schools question the wisdom of featuring Miss Saigon as a school trip. I do hope, however, that teachers and parents will now revisit this play with their students, carefully read the lyrics, and collectively consider the messages conveyed in popular culture. This, I believe, is the essence of what education should be about.

Debbie Wei ( is a former ESL teacher and currently works for the Philadelphia Public School District as an Asian/Pacific Studies curriculum specialist. She is a founder and board member of Asian Americans United.