On Thursday, Nov. 7, the student-led group Vietnamese Organization: Inspiring Cultural Engagement VOICE hosted a panel discussion entitled “Miss[ed] Saigon: Mis-Represented, Mis-Understood, Mis-Conceived.” VOICE invited Assistant Professor of English Jennifer Kwon Dobbs and Mr. David Mura, a Japanese-American author, to host the discussion.
The goal of this panel discussion was to foster critical thinking about the widely popular musical “Miss Saigon.” “Miss Saigon” is the story of a doomed love affair between Kim, a Vietnamese bar girl, and Chris, an American sergeant fighting in the Vietnam War. The show addresses topics such as prostitution, imperialism, the adoption of biracial children and the idealization of America.
At the beginning of the discussion, VOICE emphasized the popularity of “Miss Saigon.” The musical premiered in 1989, and it currently holds the title of sixteenth longest-running production in Broadway musical history. “Miss Saigon” last played in the Twin Cities in October 2013 at the Ordway Theatre. The year 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the show, which has recently garnered renewed interest.
This interest has also led to renewed controversy, as Asian communities protest what they see as the simplification and misrepresentation of their culture. In hosting this panel, VOICE hoped to discuss the misrepresentations that they believe “Miss Saigon” reinforces.
Kwon Dobbs started the discussion portion of the panel. She first explained that she feels disturbed by the coupling of troubling themes with catchy music. These songs are designed to bring happiness to the listener. Yet in doing this, she explained, the songs mask underlying issues of the objectification of women and the misrepresentation of Vietnamese culture. She addressed the opening number, “The Heat is on in Saigon,” a song which centers around prostitution and glorifies it with a catchy tune, an exciting dance number and glamorous images. Yet, looking at the themes it conveys, Kwon Dobbs believes that the song makes sex trafficking “palatable.”
“We can begin to see how the song shouldn’t seduce us,” Kwon Dobbs said.
Mura discussed the generalization of the Asian-American community that occurs in “Miss Saigon.” Specifically, he referenced customs portrayed in the musical that are not actually representative of Vietnamese culture. Mura also criticized the musical misrepresentation of the Vietnamese. In the musical, the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese characters are involved in the sex trade. This singular portrayal reinforces the sexualization of Asian women, portraying them as “sexually submissive and constantly sexually available,” Mura said.
Mura went on to point out that the characters and images of “Miss Saigon” reinforce the idea of a dominant American nation, while undermining the resolve of the Vietnamese nation to gain freedom and self-sufficiency.
The ‘”good natives” are those who welcome their conquers, Mura said, and the “bad natives” are those who resist imperialism and the social constructs that arise from it.
Critiques like these are part of a controversy that has been around almost as long as the musical. Locally, the Asian-American community protested the latest return of “Miss Saigon” to the Ordway. While the Ordway hosted “Cultural Conversations” to facilitate discussion around the misrepresentation of the Asian community, many Asian-Americans felt that these discussions did not adequately address their concerns.
VOICE has committed to the larger ongoing protest around “Miss Saigon.” At the end of the panel, VOICE leaders encouraged panel attendees to take pictures in a photo booth. The group plans on posting these photos to a Tumblr page entitled “Don’t Buy Miss Saigon: Our Truth Project.” This Tumblr page functions as an outlet for the Asian communities to protest the misrepresentations they find in “Miss Saigon.” VOICE drew heavily from this page as a guide for their discussion.
Toward the end of the discussion, Mura said that he believes younger generations will not accept such gross misrepresentations of a community. However, Kwon Dobbs, Mura and members of VOICE also emphasized throughout the talk that awareness is a large part of deflecting these misrepresentations.
Mura concluded with a challenge to see Asian-American communities with all their complexities and to protest any misrepresentations that cultural phenomena like “Miss Saigon” promote.
“We, as a country, need to be better than that,” Mura said.
Mura ended the panel discussion on a powerful note, saying that Americans need to listen to diverse and accurate accounts of Asian life and not “some rich, white composer speaking for someone else.”