Updated on 5.5.2019.
I saw the original run on Broadway in the 90’s and the recent revival touring the U.S. It says something about our world that the political and social issues explored in the musical are still relevant. Let’s see what I’m talking about, since I’m such an authority on both theatre and the Vietnam War (who isn’t?).
SPOILER ALERT – I TALK ABOUT EVERYTHING
A few points to consider along the way:
- The more you know about the Vietnam War, the better.
- The Amerasian Immigration Act was not passed until 1982, and it didn’t offer immigration opportunity to the mothers of Vietnamese-American children.
- In Ken Burns’ documentary Vietnam, a former Vietcong fighter tells how his brother brought his fiancé home to meet his family, shortly before going to fight. The brother died in battle not long after, but his fiancé refused to find another man to marry. Instead, she took her own life. Why is this important? Love, and its confounding effects, is universal (even between two people of different cultures, such as in Miss Saigon).
Miss Saigon begins just before the fall of Saigon, in April of 1975, and deals with the aftermath of the war. Seventeen-year-old Kim arrives in Saigon after fleeing her bombed-out village. She is lost and alone, which, makes her the perfect prey for a pimp called the Engineer, who offers her immediate work as a prostitute.
During her first night working in the bar called Dreamland, Kim meets a U.S. Soldier, Chris. He is the only one who shows her any kindness or respect. She doesn’t want to end the evening with the other drunk, high, and violent soldiers in the bar, so she takes her chances with Chris. What follows is brief, but whirlwind romance that crashes down with the fall of Saigon, leaving Chris and Kim separated.
Fast forward three-plus years and Chris is back home in America and has a new American wife. Kim is living on the streets in Saigon, where, unbeknownst to Chris, she has given birth to his son, Tam. It’s all she can do to stay alive and care for their child. With little to hope for, she dreams of seeing Chris again and giving her son the chance for a good life in America.
Several themes fuel Miss Saigon. One is the way unique cultures understand, or more often, don’t understand each other. It’s generally accepted that the Americans did not understand the Vietnamese people on either side of the conflict, nor did they try to. This is illustrated when Chris marries Kim in a Vietnamese wedding ceremony, but he appears to have little understanding of exactly what has happened. It has repercussions.
Consider these two lines by Kim that bookend the story:
“I’m so much more than you see. A million dreams are in me.”
“You don’t know; you can’t know what I’ve done to be here.”
This is, of course, a personal statement about Kim. But it also speaks to American attitudes towards the Vietnamese, including refugees after the war.
In Miss Saigon, Kim stands face-to-face with Chris’s new wife, Ellen. Ellen lets Kim know that decisions have already been made about her and Tam without anyone asking her. Ellen and Chris can’t know what Kim has done to be there, or what her hopes are. But the audience knows. And there’s nothing they can do about it but watch the consequences play out.
There are also overtones of imperialism in the above scene, where a one country imposes their will on another under the premise that it’s for their own good. We know what’s good for you, not you, and you’ll eventually understand and be better for it.
Another theme in Miss Saigon is the “America Dream,” as viewed through the eyes of the Engineer. The question becomes, is that what the American Dream is? This perverse thing? Or is it the limitless possibilities that Kim hopes it is? The Engineer has a line, “I deserve to be in a land where a man sets his price and you pay and he’s yours. I should be American!” Now why would he think that?
(Another great line — “Cocaine, shotguns and prayer: the American Dream!”)
The main theme is the idea of “a mother’s ultimate sacrifice.” First, consider this, from Vietnamese author Nha Ca (a pen name) who wrote about her survival of the battle of Hue in 1968:
“And again, two crossbred children of a Vietnamese mother by an American father: ‘These are children of an American imperialist who are left here to harm the future of the nation’ – such was the Việt Cộng verdict. No need to waste bullets. The heads of the two little children were smashed against the wall.”
This view is reflected in Miss Saigon by Thuy, when he threatens Kim’s son, Tam, “He’s one drop in a flood, left here to taint our blood.” So getting out of Vietnam seems like a good idea to Kim.
I’ve read reviews that are unhappy with the idea that an Asian girl kills herself over a failed relationship with a white guy. Except that’s not what happens. Kim clearly articulates that in the song “I’d give my life for you.” It’s further explored through the Engineer, who grew up fatherless, watching his mother prostitute herself to French occupiers. When the U.S. comes, he opens a bar and starts selling women to the G.I.s. It’s all he’s known; it’s left him a greedy pimp with little to show for it. Now Kim is working as a prostitute with her young, fatherless child by her side. She doesn’t want Tam ending up like the Engineer. In her final moments, Chris asks her why she shot herself. She replies, “The gods have guided you to your son.” It’s not about Chris, it’s about Tam. It’s about the real issue of Amerasian children after the war.
On a broader level, you could infer that it’s about immigration, and not just in America. All over the world, refugees from violent conflict are searching for a new home.
There are people who see Miss Saigon as a “White Savior” story. No one is saved, and America is not painted in a good light. The show is extremely political, with characters as stand-ins for various countries, for political and philosophical ideologies. White is irrelevant here. On ground level, when so many South Vietnamese wanted out for fear of the approaching Communist army, Americans were the only option. There was no question that the invading communist army would go on a violent purge once they took power.
(If you’re interested in seeing how desperately people wanted out, watch the documentary Last Days in Vietnam.)
Another complaint is that Kim is a prostitute. Fair enough; it’s low-hanging fruit. However, Miss Saigon deals specifically with the mixed-race children of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women left behind. There are estimates of 30,000+ children (I’ve read smaller estimates, so take it with a grain of salt). It’s true that children of U.S. soldiers were born to Vietnamese prostitutes. If you’re going to write a story about these fatherless children, a prostitute in Saigon is a reasonable choice. The stories of these women is yet another layer in the tragedy of Vietnam.
Miss Saigon isn’t a perfect musical. It tries to do too much and that hurts the narrative in the second half. It’s true that the characters are not deep and the story is painted with broad strokes. There are too many points to be made, which distracts from what could have been a deeper study of Kim and Vietnamese culture that I think some critics want. The writers also hurt themselves by demanding to follow the plot-line of the Madame Butterfly opera instead of just using it as a jumping-off point. The plot ends up forcing the action instead of letting character choices shape the story.
These missteps don’t interfere with the power of the story, though. The authors set out to shine a light on specific issues and they do it. It’s an outstanding musical.
It’s interesting to read the many polarizing opinions about Miss Saigon. I think this confounds critics at times because it’s not a show about empowering anyone and it doesn’t spell it out for you (except the American Dream thing, they clonk you on the head with that). Being Asian doesn’t exempt anyone from the evil that all men do and have done throughout history. America, the ARVN, and the NVA were violent factions crashing against each other. In between were the innocents who were left with nothing but death and destruction.
I think the problem we have as a society, or maybe a species, is that we can’t stand to have our thinking challenged. Only verified.
Honduras. It’s violent, basically overrun by drug cartels. The primary consumer of their drugs is the United States. So, the U.S. appetite for white powder, combined with the U.S. War on Drugs, has helped create a virtual narco-state. Hondurans are fleeing the violence for what they hope will be safety and a new life. They are running to the country that helped create the problems they are escaping. The prosperity of America still calls.
Madame Butterfly. The story has inspired many other tales. In the original short story, the title character, Cio-Cio-San, doesn’t kill herself. In that story, her American husband sends his new wife to take Cio-Cio-San’s son away to live with him in America. When she arrives, Cio-Cio-San and the child have vanished. A bold statement from Cio-Cio-San. How come no one ever bases a story on that?