I’m a Việtnamese refugee and was born in Sài Gòn, Việt Nam. My family and I were aggressively forced to flee our homeland due to the Việt Nam War. We fled in terror along with 800,000 other Việtnamese refugees. To non-Việtnamese, we were more commonly known as “the boat people.”
For us, we were now stateless and without a home. We fled in the midst of war. We escaped in the middle of an international humanitarian crisis. We gazed in horror as the brutal communist regime and American military annihilated our country. Our home.
“Finally. A musical about Việtnamese. I felt proud.”
“Lucky” refugees managed to escape, but only to begin our long and treacherous ocean journey. We endured crammed conditions, disease, contagious conditions, filth, storms, dehydration, and starvation.
Unlucky ships were hijacked by sea pirates who robbed refugees of what few possessions we brought with us.
Unluckier ships were hijacked and female refugees were raped or killed or both. About 200-400 thousand Vietnamese refugees died at sea. We finally made our way to safety in the U.S, but it was only after staying indefinitely at two refugee camps.
Fourteen years after the Fall of Sài Gòn in 1989, French playwrights Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil wrote “Miss Saigon” that was inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly.
I first heard about “Miss Saigon” as a young college student. I was beyond excited. It’s my birth place. It’s my connection to my homeland, despite being misspelled in the Westernized version (it should be Sài Gòn). Finally. A musical about Việtnamese. I felt proud.
The day arrived. As I sat throughout the production and saw it in its entirety, I felt anything but proud. What troubled me most then was the misogynic and demeaning depiction of and attitude toward Việtnamese women. It was appalling. It was disgusting how we were being portrayed, especially since I knew firsthand how strong, resilient, and incredible Việtnamese women are. Women like my mother, grandmother, and countless others who survived the Việt Nam War. Meanwhile, Việtnamese men were being portrayed as corrupt, morally bankrupt, and blatantly inferior to American soldiers.
“It wasn’t the degradation of Việtnamese women that bothered me most about ‘Miss Saigon’.”
In the decade since I’ve seen this musical, I hadn’t given this musical much thought. That is, until I discovered that “Miss Saigon” would be touring in town again. I cringed. This time however, I adamantly wanted to ensure that our Việtnamese voices were included to combat the erroneous and demeaning images of us. Hence, I collaborated with the local theater company that brought this production to town for an interview. My interview would appear on their website as well as their paybill that would be distributed to patrons as they entered the theater.
I had absolutely no intention of ever seeing this musical again, but was informed that improvements have been made in this revival to ease the controversy associated with it that had emerged over the years, particularly within Việtnamese communities.
Apprehensively, I went to see “Miss Saigon” on opening night last week.
The red curtain casually rose. Scores of Việtnamese prostitutes were gyrating against American soldiers and I was immediately reminded of the revolting misogynistic and problematic plot. The soldiers treated Việtnamese women like trash, a means to their sexual ends. American soldiers were presented as “white knights.” Việtnamese women were portrayed as desperate and viewed American GI’s as their ticket out of Việt Nam.
Look, I’m not naïve to the fact that prostitution is commonplace particularly during times of large influxes of foreign soldiers. However, it wasn’t the degradation of Việtnamese women that bothered me most about “Miss Saigon.”
As the plot progressed, I saw a towering bust of Ho Chi Minh appear on stage. Large Socialist Republic of Việt Nam flags boldly swayed on stage. Actors donned communist military uniforms and surrounded the towering statue and flags while dancing and singing to “Morning of the Dragon” to signify the “reunification of Việt Nam.”
“The communist flag displayed on stage is the equivalent to the swastika for the Jewish.”
For the actors, the dictator’s statue and flags were simply props. For non-communist Việtnamese like my family and I, these images are a reminder of the fall of our country. The day we lost our homeland. The day we were forced from our home. That our family and relatives who stayed were forced into prisons called “re-education camps.” It’s a reminder that our country remains under authoritarian communist rule. That my birthplace was renamed after the atrocious dictator who had violently overthrown my country.
The communist flag displayed on stage is the equivalent to the swastika for the Jewish. It represents brutality, genocide, murder, rape, torture, starvation, dehumanization, and inhumanity.
Scene after scene, act after act, I panned across the theater and observed patrons clapping and cheering. My stomach was turning. My throat tightened. Unstoppable tears began streaming from my face. I felt like I was in a parallel universe. It was surreal to watch crowds of people finding entertainment and even humor in these horrifying visuals.
The musical progressed. I struggled to focus on the actors, the lighting, the score, the backdrop, and the actual show before me. My thoughts wandered.
What theater attendees accepted as scenes from a musical, were real to me. It depicted the suffering and deaths of millions of Việtnamese under this barbaric regime. These images. They’re real to me. It occurred during the most traumatic time for Việtnamese.
This exact event was the reason why I’m a refugee today.
I walked out of theater halfway through the show. I’ve never walked out of any show.
“Yet our stories and legacy are reduced to a musical about an American soldier and a Việtnamese sex worker.”
At that moment, I shockingly realized that today was September 12th. It’s one day after numerous memorials had occurred across the nation in remembrance of the worst terrorist attack in the U.S.
It has been eighteen years since nearly 3,000 Americans were murdered on American soil. It’s a day that Americans remind that we should “Never forget.”
I know that Americans would never accept a musical about 9/11 with the main plot involving a firefighter falling for a prostitute. There would be complete outrage if there was a scene with a larger-than-life statue of the terrorists who hijacked the planes generously sprinkled with singing and dancing. This would never be considered entertainment, not after eighteen years following 9/11. My guess is, not ever.
Yet, it was only fourteen years after the Việt Nam War that Miss Saigon began touring throughout the world. Over 2 million Việtnamese civilians died and 800,000 people became refugees as a result, including me. Yet our stories and legacy are reduced to a musical about an American soldier and a Việtnamese sex worker.
There’s a disturbing and biased acceptance by “Miss Saigon” patrons that the worst atrocity for Việtnamese is an acceptable form of entertainment. Yet, I’m certain that not one of these individuals would find it entertaining if the atrocity was their own.
All tragedy should be honored and respected; no matter who it belongs to.