Miss Saigon or Missed Opportunity?

On a London stage in 1989, a musical went up that broke ground in its sheer number of Asian characters–its namesake is, after all, a Vietnamese city. A few things were not quite right; however, as evidenced by the photo below of the two leads, Kim and Tran Van Dinh.


Yes, the half-French, half-Vietnamese Tran Van Dinh (“The Engineer”) was played by Jonathon Pryce, a white man using eye prosthetics and yellowface.

The controversy over this casting climaxed when in 1991, Pryce followed his role to Broadway, where the Actor’s Equity first banned him from the role and then reversed their decision following much pushback. Wealthy (white) New York theater-goers thought “any actor should be able to play the role,” especially because the Engineer was half-French (Marisol and Chow 2017). The casting director only confirmed this idea by “blaming the yellow face on lack of talent” and repeatedly saying that “they looked everywhere and they could not find qualified Asian-American actors” (Marisol and Chow 2017).

Blaming racist hiring practices on the unavailability of people of color is a practice that is still incredibly prevalent, most visibly in performance spaces like theatre, film, or modeling, as Ashley Mears investigates in her piece “Size Zero High-End Ethnic.” Though the bookers and clients of models tend to blame one another for their lack of model diversity, “both sides agree that it’s very hard to find a good ethnic model, presumably in comparison to their white counterparts” (Mears 38). A whole slew of issues follows that line of thinking though–one being the limitations of the phrase “a good ethnic model,” which one can interpret to mean a model of color whose body agrees with white, Eurocentric beauty norms in every way except for the light tint of their skin, another being that the agencies were not actually seeking out people of color, just as the casting director of Miss Saigon “never did open call search for the role” of the Engineer before giving the part to Pryce (Marisol and Chow 2017).

So, Pryce collects his Tony and moves on with his career, and Broadway shows that it has learned its lesson by hiring “only actors of Asian heritage to play the Engineer” from then on (Paulson 1). Problem solved, right?

Alistair Brammer and Eva Noblezada in Broadway’s 2017 revival of Miss Saigon

Absolutely not! Because this very visible element of racism was only hiding the insidious, covert racism at the core of the musical. After all, it is essentially a modern rendition of Madam Butterfly, “the template for stereotypes of Asian women as docile or tragic” (Marisol and Chow 2017). Throughout Miss Saigon one can expect to find stereotypes such as the “Asian woman as a martyr […] the virgin whore trope […] the white guy sweeping an Asian woman off her feet [and] the Asian man as morally bankrupt” (Marisol and Chow 2017).

Despite these issues, some Asian actors like Jon Jon Brionnes, who currently stars as the Engineer on Broadway, are thankful to Miss Saigon for giving them the opportunity to get on a stage for large audiences. But is this exposure much different from the Rick Owens Paris fashion show which “used teams of mostly African American step dancers” as edgy tools for his own profit and for the profit of the majority white and wealthy fashion industry (Pham 1)?

Miss Saigon remains one of the only venues through which Asian-American actors can get work aside from minor roles requiring them to use accents or play out some sort of gross stereotype–the industry has not changed that much since its yellowface-endorsing days of the ’90s–so the white, wealthy majority still profits off of these Asian bodies. By allowing representation through an inherently racist and sexist text, Broadway claims political correctness while displaying people of color in a manner with which a white supremacist society agrees. Linking Miss Saigon‘s success with the unjust tactics of the fashion industry, a New York modeling agency Casting Director explains that “the ethnic girl needs to represent everything that [the audience is] afraid of in a way that they’re not gonna be afraid” (Mears 40).

Works Cited

  1. Ballenger, Becca. “Miss Saigon (Musical) Context & Analysis.” StageAgent. StageAgent, n.d. Web. 14 May 2017.
  2. Marisol Meraji, Shereen and Chow, Kat. “The Blessing (And Curse?) Of Miss Saigon.” Interview. Audio blog post. Code Switch. NPR, 10 May 2017. Web. 14 May 2017.
  3. Mears, Ashley. “Size Zero High-end Ethnic: Cultural Production and the Reproduction of Culture in Fashion Modeling.” Poetics 38.1 (2010): 21-46. Web. 14 May 2017.
  4. Paulson, Michael. “The Battle of ‘Miss Saigon’: Yellowface, Art and Opportunity.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Mar. 2017. Web. 14 May 2017.
  5. Pham, Minh-ha T. “Why Fashion Should Stop Trying to Be Diverse.” Threadbared. WordPress, 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 14 May 2017.

4 thoughts on “Miss Saigon or Missed Opportunity?

Add yours

  1. The first thing that came into my mind when I read this post about “yellowface” was a play I recently watched in the cities called “Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery,” (a mouthful!) a “metatheatrical polemic about the way Asian-Americans have been characterized and caricatured in popular culture.” Using dark humor and wit, the play has one satirical scene where there is a White man putting on makeup to play the Asian character Charles Chan, emphasizing the absurdities of yellowface. This play relates a lot to what you say in your post about Eurocentric portrayals in theater, film, and modeling where there is often a lack of ethnic actors. Even when they are in plays, they are portrayed through stereotypes that categorize an entire ethnic group with certain characteristics.

    Even more specifically, your post directly relates to a debate that happened last year about a play at Carleton called “Tales of Rashomon”. This play was a chosen as an initiative to include more diversity in theater, but a majority of the main actors cast were White and the background/supporting actors were all Asian, leading to a whole debacle about whitewashing. Similar to your post, the director (who was a White woman) felt that there were not enough Asians auditioning that fit the parts well, just like the Little Saigon casting director’s statement that they “could not find qualified Asian-American actors.” In the end, I watched this play and sat through White people performing traditional Japanese performance styles and, at some point, trying to speak in Japanese. What was it about the Asians given supporting roles where they were not good enough to have any leading roles? Sounds like submissive stereotyping to me. Or maybe there truly was not enough auditions from the Asian community for this play. Then perhaps the advertisement to audition needed to reach a different and greater community at Carleton.


  2. This post reminds me of the controversy over the casting of Emma Stone as a part-Asian woman in “Aloha” – the director has acknowledged that he made a mistake, but was definitely more focused on having a star-studded cast than representing Asian-Americans in his movie set in Hawaii. It seems like such a cop-out for casting directors in theater or film to say that they couldn’t find an actor good enough to play a role that represents the character’s real ethnicity/race.

    I watched this awesome video on Facebook about Asian American Representation in the media (here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/StrongOpinionsLooselyHeld/videos/696676947180987/). Constance Wu, one of the main actors on the new TV show “Fresh Off the Boat” talked about how she found herself going out for roles like the best friend or the assistant where it seemed obvious that it was “to put color around the lead white person’s story.” Mindy Kaling talked about how “women, especially young women of color want to see someone on the TV who is not playing a terrorist or someone in I.T. but is someone good who makes good decisions, and is a good mother and wife and girlfriend and teacher and leader.” And John Cho says, “It’s not as though there’s so much Asian representation that we can spare those parts. So when I see a White Actor playing an Asian role, my emotion is sadness.”

    Even in thinking about the new TV show, “Fresh Off the Boat,” I wonder how people have reacted. Constance Wu talked about the show being special because “we don’t try to make it super P.C. It’s celebrating our differences as opposed to neutralizing it so we can be as cool as other people. We’re cool in our own way.” A New Yorker review says, “simply watching people of color having a private conversation, one that’s not primarily about white people, is a huge deal” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/09/home-cooking-television-emily-nussbaum). Hopefully there will be more shows like this one that feature families all of a race other than White.

    Also, here’s a funny article I found that photo shopped Constance Wu into famous movie covers to show what it’d be like if Asian women had star roles (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/cast-constance-wu-in-everything-too_us_573cd550e4b0aee7b8e8e474)


  3. Wow, what a captivating way to shift our attention to different manifestations of racism underlying Miss Saigon. If we consider your closing statement more closely, we could say that the debate over Tran Van Dinh’s ethnic authenticity presented a crisis that did frighten the audience — a crisis in which a white man chose to act in place of a Vietnamese man, profited from it, and was considered reasonable by the casting director. Pryce’s eye prosthetics are especially astonishing to me, because it must have raised flags for its audiences, either for its demonstration of the great lengths the producers went through to avoid hiring an Asian character or for its attempt at race-crossing through body modification/cosmetic surgery. Much of our class’ attention has been turned to the features that are typically attributed to black and Latinx bodies that have become popular through cosmetic surgery, but this case only highlights the red flags raised when a white man chooses to wear an undesirable feature like the monolid. Despite the discomfort this may have raised for Asian or white audiences, though, the show went on, which makes me wonder if a case like this is such a spectacle. Are there features that are closely associated with Asianness that have been appropriated and profited from? How do we see Asianness in circulation through non-Asian bodies, and what do these features/characteristics/cultural tropes say about how we see Asia? What Miss Saigon has made clear is that the trope of white Western women sweeping a “Third World” Asian woman off her feet has immense currency in the United States, so much so that the storyline of the opera Madame Butterfly has been reiterated through Miss Siagon and M. Butterfly. There has to be a fascination with such a pairing, particularly during periods of US and East/Southeast Asian conflict, which makes it harder to note the racism that underlies the audience’s desire to watch this romance unfold and tragically end. Like the NY modeling agency Casting Director explains (as laylortynn has noted), the ethnic girl of this play, Kim Van Dinh, plays a central role in this East-West partnership and raises /few/ red flags for a popular audience because a romance of this kind is not what the audience fears.


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