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?
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).
- Ballenger, Becca. “Miss Saigon (Musical) Context & Analysis.” StageAgent. StageAgent, n.d. Web. 14 May 2017.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Pham, Minh-ha T. “Why Fashion Should Stop Trying to Be Diverse.” Threadbared. WordPress, 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 14 May 2017.