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COMMUNITY VOICES | We all deserve better than the Ordway’s Miss Saigon
I am a Vietnamese American woman, born and raised in Minnesota. I am friends with some of the protesters of Miss Saigon as well as a few members of the cast and crew of the show - this includes one of my best friends. At my wedding last year, she played an original song she surprised me with many years ago; she remains the first and only person to ever write me a song. I both love and respect her more than I can say.
I emphasize this so you know I have spent a great deal of time doing my best to listen, understand, and empathize with everyone involved in the Miss Saigon controversy. I have spoken to family members, friends, and acquaintances. I have waited for more people to publicly provide reasoned and contextualized dialogue, but instead I find myself too often presented with opinions that are either too reactionary, therefore preaching only to the choir, or too ignorant, so that it pretty much amounts to trolling. I have spent a lot of time self-reflecting and self-criticizing my own assumptions and motives. I tried to stay mindful and question myself before I questioned others.
Ultimately, I decided it is important to speak up because it is not about my personal hurt, but about our Minnesota communities’ well-being. I hope my perspective contributes to honest self-reflection about any preconceived notions you hold, no matter your views.
Before I go into my experiences with the show, I want to make one thing clear: While the stereotypes inherent in Miss Saigon are palpable to me, I decided to omit many personal stories I could tell you. Stories about how these stereotypes have harmed me and my loved ones. Having observed much of the media coverage over the last couple months, I believe the majority of mainstream reporting and the Ordway have used these personal histories to create divisions in the Vietnamese, Asian American, and Minnesota communities as a whole. Intentionally or not, the media and the Ordway have used our different experiences and identities to reinforce why Miss Saigon is fine, even though the better conclusion might be to ask what it means to show one story and only one story over and over again, instead of working to show many stories that reflect our diversity.
I will center instead on what I believe is missing or minimized in the public forum thus far. That is: Detractors are not taking into context the very real economic, political, and social environment in which this show is being performed. This is why it is not productive to view the Miss Saigon controversy through a lens of individual choice, art, or free speech. These ideals are important, but they have functioned as smoke screens and misdirection, and they are not the point of my critiques.
What we should be discussing are issues of money, power, privilege, and opportunity. What we should be concerned with is how the Ordway's actions hurt all Minnesotans, regardless of color or creed. Their decisions are directly harmful to some of us, but indirectly harmful to all of us. Finally, we must discuss concrete ways the Ordway and other organizations can become better leaders and make better decisions to improve our communities.
But first, back to the show: It should come as no surprise that I was conflicted about seeing Miss Saigon. But since free tickets were available to me through the cast and crew and because I wanted a well-rounded opinion, I went. I worried that somehow my presence legitimized the show for other audience members, but I stayed. Now that I have seen the new production, the Ordway cannot say I do not know what I am criticizing.
I did my due diligence to come with an open mind. Despite everything, I hoped for the best. However, the lack of diversity was stark. There are an estimated 241,664 people who identify as Asian or Pacific Islander in Minnesota, according to the Council of Asian Pacific Minnesotans' April 2012 Report. 110,307 of us are Southeast Asian. 27,086 of us are Vietnamese. Yet our communities were not there.
I confess that I felt physically sick most of the evening. The hardest part about watching Miss Saigon was witnessing the reactions from the uncomfortably white audience. Seeing their ignorance about my culture, language, and history being reinforced frustrated me. The factual inaccuracies are too countless to name. I can almost forgive costume errors. I can try to ignore the lie about forced cousin marriage being traditional. But I was later told by the actors that the Vietnamese song the show claimed all women sing at all wedding ceremonies was actually just gibberish, even in the script itself. I naively thought it was poor pronunciation.
For those of you who read actual Vietnamese, here is the text of the "Vietnamese" from the show: "dju vui vay, yu doi my, dju vui vay, vao nyay moy."
That there is any debate about whether the show is racist would be laughable if it were not so depressing. That this is not satire and that the Ordway has the audacity to suggest people, especially Vietnamese people, should think songs like these are beautiful is insulting. To add injury to insult, later scenes portray giant posters of Ho Chi Minh, glorifying the third anniversary of the show's reunification. There is so much more that is wrong, both factually and morally, but it is too much to go through here.
It is unfortunate that the Ordway expects us to overlook all this and hang on to threads about how this happened somewhere to someone sort of. I do not appreciate what this show does for race relations or what this show does to prevent us from connecting as fully formed human beings. The connections made are incomplete, superficial, and disturbing; the dangerous part is that it may not seem that way on the surface.
I wondered if anyone watching had considered the bigger picture - where the French colonized Vietnam, the U.S. made things all the murkier once civil war was afoot, and throughout all this millions of people were murdered, raped, and displaced. Two French guys came along a few years later, adapted Madame Butterfly - a show written by an Italian in 1898 about a Japanese geisha who kills herself for a U.S. naval officer, then made millions upon millions of dollars and won bunches of accolades. Fast forward to now and the Ordway is profiting off these injustices for the third time.
I also wondered if anyone in the audience or at the Ordway asked themselves: Instead of questioning the legitimacy of Asian Americans' protests, what is the legitimacy of two French guys' ability to tell a story about Vietnamese people? How does France's colonial past with Vietnam influence their perspective?
Somehow the clapping, the whistling, and the laughter during scenes that made me feel more ill than anything else probably means the majority were likely too caught up in the razzle dazzle to let these questions cross their minds. They probably didn't even notice when The Engineer, who is Miss Saigon's pimp, practically spelled it out for them, "You can sell shit and get thanks. That's what I learned from the Yanks."
At the post show talk back, there were a total of three Asians (including me and my cousin) in a sea of white folks. When two of us raised our hands to ask questions, the moderator immediately and abruptly decided the Q&A session was over.
I met up with some people from the cast and crew afterward and they agreed the moderator shut us down intentionally. They expressed disappointment that the only Asian people who wanted to say something were quieted. Not a new experience for any of us. They acknowledged the post show talk back focused on relatively superficial subjects, like the actor's motivation and the apparently profound beauty of children with mixed heritage.
They also noticed that when the Miss Saigon controversy came up, anecdotes about how the actors or their families benefited from the show served to justify Miss Saigon's continued presence by the Ordway. While I respect the actors' personal right to relate to the show positively, I do not think that being able to find parts of yourself in a deeply misrepresentative and flawed story justify the status quo that keeps our communities marginalized.
Still, I am glad I was able to have any conversation about the show with some members of the cast and crew, although it was hidden away from public view. We discussed the social impact of Miss Saigon and the opportunities available for Asian Americans in general. The difficulty of challenging those who employ you, like the Ordway. The hardship of extracting yourself when your financial livelihood is on the line. I think of Adam Chau's MPR article where he states, "Working artists of all colors may be trying to change what they see as wrong in the industry from the inside, or may simply want to work in their field." I relate because I work in the applied social science field and I am just trying to do the same thing too.
I should mention that another dark spot did reveal itself. One of the actors who joined us spent the night interrupting and undermining Miss Saigon critiques. I had to explain patiently that my experience as an Asian woman growing up in Minnesota was not the same as his experience as a white man growing up in Minnesota. My friend tried to explain to him why his behavior was defensive and argumentative, but he deflected. At another point in the evening, he asked my friend, who has been his co-worker for some months now, if she and I were cousins. She is of Japanese and Jewish/Eastern European heritage. I have Vietnamese and Chinese heritage. I guess to him, we still looked alike. I guess you could refer to Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon as cousins.
During all this, another actor had been quietly listening. Before she said good night to us all, she hugged my friend and whispered that she agreed with her critiques.
We could all see he did not mean harm, even as he caused it. He argued the show did not perpetuate ignorance, even as he expressed his own ignorance. He did not understand the impact of his actions matter just as much, if not more, than his intentions. Many defenders of Miss Saigon have cluelessly done the same over the last couple months; their arguments illustrate how Miss Saigon absolutely perpetuates ignorance.
Afterward, I left thinking about how the Ordway would not allow me to speak, to dialogue with my community in front of their white audience instead of closeted behind the scenes and segregated at an empty bar, because they have not been interested in listening. I wished I had spoken anyway, even if they would not hand me the microphone.
My experience the night of the show aligned with my experience a few weeks ago at the MPR/Mu Performing Arts conversation. I attended to gain a better understanding of the Miss Saigon controversy. I left disappointed because the Ordway President, Patricia Mitchell, demonstrated a profound lack of empathy.
Toward the beginning of the conversation, she invoked the similarity between the educational value of blackface and the educational value of stereotypes and misinformation in Miss Saigon to justify the show. It only went downhill from there; though she is the President of a powerful organization, she somehow made the controversy about her own self-victimization rather than about listening to what people had to say. She claimed the community's reaction proved she was creating needed dialogue without acknowledging the serious power differentials within our communities.
There was at least one Ordway employee who came to the conversation with genuine openness and desire to be a better ally. I have thought about her often and I empathize with the difficult position she is in because she is not a decisionmaker in this mess. I was also pleased to see old friends, meet new allies, and learn more about the protesters' work. I found that while I supported the protesters on principle, I could not bring myself to be more involved because I was critical of certain parts of the protest's strategy, messaging, and demands.
On the whole, the MPR conversation stayed too stuck on questions of art, in part because of Patricia Mitchell’s diversions. Whenever Asian Americans publicly bicker with each other about art for art's sake, it is the mainstream media and the Ordway who financially benefit. The Ordway cannot claim Miss Saigon helps audiences think about social issues, yet not connect this point with the serious and sometimes devastating conclusions with which some people walk away. The Ordway should not confuse art and propaganda.
I would rather the Ordway admit Miss Saigon is racist, sexist, and a financial powerhouse than claim their work accurately represents and benefits our communities, all while working behind the scenes to rip them apart. The Ordway's actions show they have prioritized their bottom line over truly lifting up marginalized communities. Their actions are irresponsible as a nonprofit and as a beneficiary of Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (ACHF) tax dollars. Their halfhearted efforts to address these and other problems with Miss Saigon do not outweigh the damage they have done. I wish it went without saying that you can acknowledge a problem all day, but what is the point if you are not going to create positive actionable change?
The Ordway is a part of the recent surge in appropriation and commodification of Vietnamese culture by the mainstream. Their actions exemplify the all too regular passive aggressive and oppressive institutional decisionmaking that plagues Minnesota and contributes to our shameful racial disparities - many of the largest disparities in the entire country, as described by Minnesota Compass. They encourage our acceptance of stereotypes without giving the proper weight to the consequences of stereotype threat.
By showing work like Miss Saigon and claiming they are representative of Vietnamese people, the Ordway also feeds into and builds on the disparities in Asian American women's mental health. When it comes to Vietnamese images in mainstream media, in particular, the only role models we have are prostitutes and other people's fetishes. People can only relate to us as exotic sex objects. We are not presented as three-dimensional human beings. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), Asian American teenage girls have the highest rate of depressive symptoms of any racial or ethnic group in the country.
The unfortunate thing is that the issues I've described are only a few of the ways the Ordway's actions undermine our communities. I have not touched on how the Ordway's decision to bring back Miss Saigon continues to reinforce problematic tropes about adoptees, interracial marriages, and sex trafficking.
The Ordway needs to stop making short-sighted, cynical, or ignorant decisions. Instead, they need to work with integrity to ensure their intentions and their actions are in alignment. I suggest they approach criticisms with transparent reflection instead of shallow defensiveness. They must work to be a better ally to our communities and to create an inclusive environment where these tired and outdated stereotypes are no longer desired.
To do this, the Ordway and other organizations in Minnesota who struggle with engaging marginalized communities must:
1) Work to end segregation in the programs you offer to the communities you serve. If your programs (like Miss Saigon) employ people of color, but bring in only white audiences, you have a problem. If instead your programs are culturally-specific, but marginal instead of mainstream, they will only occasionally bring in people of color. You cannot rely solely on these programs either. Bring in work that actually integrates diverse audiences. Look toward the future and consider the diversity of generations to come. Do the right thing now and you will diversify your donor base in the long term.
2) Work to end segregation within your organization, both in terms of hierarchy and departmentally; if most of your employees of color are at the bottom or work only in some departments but not others, you have a problem. Diverse perspectives are necessary in all parts of your organization in order to functionally make culturally responsible decisions.
3) Ensure top leadership reflect the diversity of the communities you serve, both within your organization and on your board. Do not keep a dummy cultural council on hand to parade around, especially when you do not consult them before bringing in Miss Saigon and have no good answer to explain why you failed to do this.
These would all be good starts. If the Ordway believes they have financial constraints to any of these suggestions, they either need to be more creative or they need to reexamine their business plan. And we need to reexamine their 501(C)(3) nonprofit status.
I understand my critiques are harsh. I say all this not to villainize the Ordway. I do not think the Ordway is solely responsible for all the disparities I mentioned, but they are certainly part of a much larger institutional and structural problem - problems that are especially prominent in arts organizations. This is why it is absolutely necessary they listen to communities who are excluded, end destructive decisionmaking, and take responsibility as institutional leaders to change course.
I know you may question the connection between Miss Saigon and my critiques, but I ask that you think deeply before you dismiss; both subtle and blatant forms of discrimination work together to undermine social justice. I would not express any of this, if I did not want us to do better together, and if I did not believe the hard truth has become necessary to tell.
I want us to share the best Minnesota has to offer with all our communities. I want us to create a more honest, welcoming, and respectful culture. Minnesota is and has always been my home. I am one hundred percent Vietnamese American, Asian American, and Minnesotan – I am all these identities all at once and I cannot split my loyalties between any of my selves. This is why the Ordway's decisions are unacceptable to me; they divide, they do not make for a better place to live, and this impacts all of us.
Many Vietnamese people I know quietly understand this show is not for them. Many from my generation grew up with incomplete stories from our parents because traumas are difficult or impossible to talk about and, in their views, best left in the past. So we cobble together what we can. No one else is telling stories about us, so we settle for less.
We come from a world rife with centuries of colonialism and a history that punishes political activism. We are taught the public sphere is dangerous and that our impact is unlikely. We too often accept injustice as a part of reality.
And while many of us may not protest loudly, we protest with our absence. We protest with our pocketbooks. We are used to oppression and minimization and flawed representation, but we are proud and we will not pay to be humiliated. I want the Ordway and the rest of Minnesota to know that our silence is not our submission; our strength is our survival and our perseverance.
My family, like all our families, came to this country for a better life. Minnesotans, we all deserve better and we can all do better than Miss Saigon.
“Each moment is a chance for us to make peace with the world, to make peace possible for the world, to make happiness possible for the world.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Denise Hanh Huynh is a researcher based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. While she works broadly on social issues, her primary interests include issues salient to immigrant and refugee communities, Asian American women, and informal education organizations.
© Denise Hanh Huynh