Imperialism and stereotypes in “Miss Saigon”

Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s “Miss Saigon” documents the doomed relationship between a young Vietnamese orphan named Kim and a U.S. Marine named Chris during the Vietnam War. They marry after a single night together, but Chris must flee back to the United States without Kim when the U.S. troops evacuate Saigon. For three years, Kim struggles to survive in her war-torn country before reuniting with Chris in Bangkok – only to find that he has given up on finding her and remarried a white woman. Heartbroken, Kim commits suicide. 

While the music and production are stunning, the narrative contains several harmful narratives about Western imperialism and Asian women. 

Firstly, Kim and Chris’s relationship is blatantly predatory. Kim states that she is seventeen, and while Chris’s age is never mentioned, he is often played by an actor several years older than the actress who plays Kim. For example, the original West End production in 1989 featured a 17-year-old Lea Salonga and a 27-year-old Simon Bowman, and the revival in 2014 featured a 17-year-old Eva Noblezada and a 24-year-old Alistair Brammer. 

Furthermore, Kim’s right to consent is compromised. While the musical doesn’t specify if she became a sex worker willingly or if she was trafficked by the pimp known as the Engineer, she is a poor orphan in a war-torn country who will starve to death if she refuses Chris. The sex scene between Kim and Chris cannot be defined as anything but statutory rape. 

Chris also finds Kim more attractive than the other bargirls because he perceives her as more innocent and childlike. While the other women are wearing revealing clothing, Kim is dressed in a demure white dress, and she is the only woman in the brothel who has not had sex before. Chris’ disdain for the other bargirls also suggests that all Vietnamese women except Kim are worthless because they are promiscuous. All the Vietnamese women in “Miss Saigon” are sex workers, and the only white woman is not. While the sex trade between Vietnamese women and American soldiers during the Vietnam War is an important aspect of history, the musical uses it to imply that Kim is a rare find amidst a sea of cheap, easy Vietnamese women. 

The opening scene, in which the sex workers pursue American clients, also sexualizes Asian women. While their bawdy lines and striptease routines are directed towards the soldiers, they are also performing for the audience. It’s particularly notable in comparison to the portrayal of white French sex workers in Schönberg and Boublil’s other hit musical “Les Misérables.” The penniless streetwalkers in “Les Misérables” do not perform any provocative dances, and their cheap dresses and garish makeup evoke pity rather than arousal. The difference is uncomfortably palpable. 

Furthermore, all Vietnamese men in “Miss Saigon” are villains. The Engineer is a sleazy, opportunistic pimp who exploits Kim and her son to get passage to the United States. Thuy, who was betrothed to Kim before her parents died, refuses to let Kim leave Vietnam and tries to kill her three-year-old son. By trapping Kim between two sinister Vietnamese men, the writers can frame Chris as a brave white savior who will save Kim from her ugly country, even though his “rescue mission” involves raping, impregnating and abandoning a teenage girl.

All of these tropes perpetuate pro-American war propaganda. Chris symbolizes the American military, The Engineer symbolizes the corruption of South Vietnam, Thuy symbolizes North Vietnamese communism, and Kim symbolizes the innocent victim of it all. Therefore, the narrative implies that the U.S. military had the right to occupy Vietnam because they were protecting innocents from various groups of violent Vietnamese. It also argues that only the Americans know what’s best for the Vietnamese, an idea clearly rooted in white supremacy. 

“Miss Saigon” also fails to acknowledge the trauma that American troops inflicted upon Vietnamese civilians. Although all parties in the Vietnam War committed atrocities, the musical frames the war as a struggle between blameless American heroes and vicious Vietnamese communists. 

The musical drags Kim through two and a half hours of trauma before she finally shoots herself. Although Chris is horrified to find Kim dead, he has spent most of the past three years believing she was dead already, and he remarried because he assumed he would never see Kim again. Chris does grieve for Kim, but he never loved her as deeply as she loved him, and he still has a wife and child with whom he can build a new life. The Vietnamese woman dies for dramatic effect while the white couple lives on. 

Despite all my complaints about “Miss Saigon,” Kim is one of the most compelling heroines in musical theater, and her strength is often overlooked in criticisms of the musical’s tropes. While the white male writers created her as a stereotypically submissive Asian woman who exists to worship a white man, Kim exudes incredible resilience and bravery thanks to the incredible Asian actresses who pour their multifaceted souls into every performance and perfectly capture Kim’s raw, chilling agony. 

Therefore, while I despise the narratives within “Miss Saigon,” I cannot help but cry while I watch Kim’s story unfold. Her parents are killed in the war and her village is sacked. Her pimp sells her to a foreign soldier when she is still underage. The soldier promises her a better life in his country, then vanishes without her – leaving her pregnant. She spends three years raising her baby alone in the aftermath of the war. Her former fiancé chases her down, tries to throw her in a labor camp, and almost kills her son. She escapes to Bangkok on a refugee ship. By some miracle, she finds the soldier she loved, but he has already remarried just three years after leaving her and has no intentions of rekindling their relationship. When she breaks down and pulls the trigger, my heart breaks not for the lovesick Asian girl who cannot live without her white savior, but for the survivor who was violated by everyone around her and finally succumbs to the weight of her trauma. 

Schönberg and Boublil attempted to create a weak, fragile Asian woman, but Kim has evolved into a testament to the suffering Vietnamese people experienced at the hands of a colonialist war. Just as U.S. involvement in Vietnam caused thousands of casualties and destroyed a beautiful country, Chris’s involvement with Kim results in the death of a brave, loving young woman. While “Miss Saigon” is framed as a tragic love story, make no mistake; it is a devastating tale of U.S. imperialism.