London, in 1991. It was a mildly sunny summer noon. Hundreds of people were waiting in a long line in front of The Theatre Royal to buy their tickets. I stopped by, and out of curiosity raised my eyes toward the billboard on which was portrayed an apparently sorrowful Vietnamese young woman who, with a small baby in her arms, haggardly gazed at a helicopter disappearing in the dark horizon. A line of words stood out in bright red lights: Miss Saigon, a musical play by Cameron Mackintosh. Mackintosh is also the producer of the famous Oliver a pride of British performing arts.

Frankly, I did not have much taste for Western musical plays, including the best-known Il Matrimonia Segreto by Cimarosa that I had seen some years before at the La Scala Theater in Milan, Italy, nor for the Vietnamese “reformed opera”, cai luong, even though more than once I felt myself at a loss while watching the captivating eyes of actress Thanh Nga. A simple reason: I disliked this kind of talk-and-sing play. Yet, the mere name of Saigon was just enough to make me hesitant for a long moment, and strangely moved. All of a sudden, I felt as if my old wounds were being opened up again, very painfully. Far away from Saigon for more than ten years, I did not expect one day I could mutter again in silence its name under a windy sky, on a foreign street: I was still able to momentarily remember a portion of a lifetime seemingly buried altogether with countless languishing memories. Then, determined, I bought a ticket and entered the theater, anxiously waiting to see again my beloved Saigon, with the same emotion as I would yearn to see an old-time acquaintance. The theater was already full. What, then, aroused such excitement from among the British audience? I wondered. Could it be that Saigon had incited their curiosity like an exotic geographical name, uncivilized and similar to that of a distant island or territory under their empire where “the sun never set”, or the paradise lost in Milton’s poem, or the vestige of a badly famous war they were fortunate to not take part in? Or more realistically, could the name of Mackintosh be enough to guarantee the success of the play?

Miss Saigon, in fact, was written by two Frenchmen: Alain Boublil, a playwright, and Claude-Michel Schonberg, a composer. The theme is very conventional, banal, if not boring, though the cost for the production and staging of the play exceeded five million US dollars, a big sum at the time, and its premiere, in 1989, also in this theatre, reached well over eight millions, a record. A hasty cheap “love” affair was told between Chris, an American GI, and Kim, a Saigon bargirl, in the final days of the Vietnam War. Then he had to return to his native land on the last helicopter. She was left behind, and soon gave birth to an Amerasian child, Tam, who three years later bought her passage out of Vietnam. In Bangkok, she met Chris again, now a married man. She asked him and his wife to raise her child to be a successful adult. Her request being denied, she resorted to suicide and died in Chris’s arms.

I could not but think of Giacomo Puccini’s famous Madame Butterfly (1904) that related a love story, also interracial, between a US Navy Officer, Pinkerton, and a pleasant Japanese young girl, Cho-Cho-San. Like Chris, he returned to his homeland and got married. Like Kim, she asked his wife to raise her child. Then she committed suicide too. It would not be an overstatement at all to say that the contents of Madame Butterfly had been “cooked” thoroughly to be transformed into a Miss Saigon, of course with lower quality. What made a difference, however, not counting the external scenes and time elements, was that Cho-Cho-San definitely didn’t prostitute for money. She had, on the contrary, the real love and the courage to sacrifice her family, her cultural tradition, her religious faith, and then died for her legitimate, desperate love. I would like to further comment: The love story, actually the sex encounter, between expeditionary soldiers and indigenous beautiful women and prostitutes is a cliché, an ancient story, too trite to be exciting. This theme is paramount in Madame Chrysanthème (1887) by French writer Pierre Loti; in the movie The World of Suzie Wong in the 60’s, in which Nancy Kwan played the role of a Hong Kong prostitute; in Sayonara (1953) of James Michener; in the novel The Quiet American (1955) by Graham Greene; in the film Indochine with Catherine Deneuve playing the leading female role; in the recently published novel entitled When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip, a former bargirl and Vietcong underground agent after her confession, but actually written by Jay Wurts (1990) and finally adapted into Oliver Stone’s movie Between Heaven and Earth, which indeed has blemished the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (South) and has caused a universal fury among the Vietnamese communities abroad. The list is endless. So there is nothing fresh, nothing interesting.

But when the velvet curtain was lowered, I felt an irritation in my eyes. Perhaps I had cried, and I did not know when. Out of rancor and resentment. All around, curtains, backgrounds, pictures, colors, human silhouettes appeared to be dancing blurredly. My head ached as if pricked by thousands of shapeless needles. The Londonian audience applauded cheerfully while I was sitting there, in deathlike stillness. Indeed, all of the so-called art, music, and performance loudly praised in Miss Saigon couldn’t cover up the evil intention of the sadistic “arts dealers” who had turned the tragedy of a people into a subject of entertainment for all mankind. In search of a topic that could simply incite a vile desire from a curious, no less sadistic audience striving to entertain themselves on the sufferings of other people, those “arts dealers” didn’t hesitate to exploit again the Vietnam War a war that not long before they had protested against with their big screaming mouths, a war that the human conscience and victims like us have been trying to forget. Among them, one has to mention Oliver Stone, the peacenik and brazen pro-Communist producer, who has created many blatantly antiwar movies, thus publicly slandered the people and the army of South Vietnam, and is planning to make a film from the My Lai tragic incident under the supervision of the VC government. In their eyes, the memories of Vietnam have nothing other than countless villages destroyed by the American and South Vietnamese bombs, and worse still, cities full of snack bars filled with GIs, whores and pimps. And for them, Saigon of the past was only a “huge brothel” as labeled in an insolent remark by a US senator in 1972.

Therefore, it is no surprise that Miss Saigon was created from the background of a snack bar no more no less than a brothel during the wartime with typical characters all having the common denominator that one could find in novels and movies from different spaces and times: a prostitute selling her body for a living and an expeditionary soldier in need of sex. That’s it. The passionate love, fantasized (e.g. surrealistic scene of the moonlight reflection on the couple’s bed) in this musical play and leading to the tragic death of Kim –the female role capable of always arousing tears from a maudlin, if not naive, audience– is nothing more than a product of imagination or myth. For if there had been a bit of this “passionate love”, then Chris would have agreed to raise his illegitimate child or demanded his wife to do so, the same way Pinkerton had done in Madame Butterfly, or further, in Vietnam then, there would have been no fatherless Amerasian children wandering in the streets, abandoned by the new regime.

What disturbed me the most in Miss Saigon, besides the blunders about customs, psychology, culture, historical background (was there still a scene of an American GI embracing a Vietnamese bargirl at or near the end of April 1975?), etc., and the political propaganda scheme useful for the Viet Cong (e.g. parade of VC cadres and soldiers around Ho Chi Minh’s big statue), is the distorted image of the Vietnamese woman which the play, intentionally given an attractive and provocative title, has villainously instilled as a dangerous stereotype into foreign spectators’ minds. During the war, bargirls and whores constituted only a very small number, and were just a dim, isolate spot on the shining mirror reflecting the sublimity of millions of warriors’ mothers, wives, widows, sisters and daughters who had sacrificed their own lives and personal happiness solely to stand by their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers in a fight against the Communist aggression and for the ideals of freedom and peace. In spite of hunger and poverty, they had not given up their self-pride and honor in exchange for the powerful dollar, and from another point of view, had not been too feeble-minded to kill themselves for a silly and meaningless love. Yet, had anyone ever heard any mention about them? At least, why hadn’t Kim been portrayed as Cho-Cho-San in Madame Butterfly, or Katsumi in James Michener’s Sayonara, i.e. a good girl, so her love, had it ever existed, could have been more believable and her death more acceptable? Would it be that in our self-proclaimed civilized society where sex and excessive individual freedom dominate all other basic moral values, the myopic and cynical eyes of writers, playwrights, and producers could only see through the Vietnam War the bodies of sluts and sex jobs that they had then easily bought at dirt cheap price at a nightclub, a snack bar while yet artfully disguising their sordid act under the cover of a pretty but hollow appellation love? Could these people believe that those elements of a play would definitely ensure their success with a public that is no less myopic and cynical? Of course, to be a bargirl or a prostitute isn’t iniquitous or “sinful” as far as one’s personal ethic is concerned, even though from a national point of view it is a shame. But to publicly glorify it as the incarnation of a faithful love and as a splendid symbol for all Vietnamese women  which Miss Saigon, intentionally or not, has done stupidly would be total error and hypocrisy and lack of morality (for even Boublil and Makintosh themselves certainly have no courage to respect or to love any of the whores, their compatriots, crowding the quartier of Saint-Denis or the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and the Soho streets in London?), and would be, on the other hand, an insult to the Vietnamese people. Among the war tragedies that the people of South Vietnam have suffered in anger and desperation, especially in April 1975 a time frame selected for the play there are still a great number of noble things that the crooked and the hypocrite are not willing nor able to discern... Fortunately, there were no Vietnamese players, I comforted myself, in Miss Saigon, probably because they had not been selected or had turned down the offer. Well, let Lea Salonga, the Filipina actress, take le role of Kim and bear the shame for our people.

 Once out of The Theatre Royal, I started strolling along the bank of the Thames, just letting the breeze freely caress my hair and the old memories of Saigon, of Vietnam, of an old loving time, race back in abundance. There were disorderly confidences and eternal hatred, and nobody had ever known. Until when will I cease to be stateless person walking lonely among indifferent crowds, like I did that evening in London? On my way back to the student hostel, while walking past Soho, I stopped at a pub and consumed a lot of beer, just to appease my anger. The scene of brazen-faced prostitutes soliciting customers made me feel nauseous and think of Miss Saigon, and then I wished I had enough skills to write musical plays to be named Miss London, or Miss Paris, in which the female roles would also be prostitutes, using Soho or Saint-Denis as backgrounds –only to be dedicated to Mackintosh and Boublil.

Many years have passed by, and I have well forgotten about that musical play I always considered as an accident, an arts stain. Unexpectedly, in recent days its name reappeared conspicuously in the streets of Portland, Oregon. Miss Saigon, indeed, will be played at the city’s performing arts theater this year. Naturally, I feel angry again, more intensely than before. And powerless, painful, I grind my teeth. And to myself I murmur, everywhere I go I meet them -those ignominious “arts vultures.” When will they stop plucking at our still open wounds?

Portland, OR, May 1993

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