Miss Saigon: Bringing Discrimination

into the Limelight

The negative images of Asian Americans presented by the show Miss Saigon was not the first incident of discrimination of Asian Americans in the media. Since the late 1880s Asian Americans were discriminated against both on screen and off screen.

            On screen, Asian American men were stereotyped as the Fu Manchu type, possessing superhuman intelligence and ambition but subhuman in his immortality and ruthlessness, or the Charlie Chan type (benign and unthreatening). In either case, Asian American males are exemplified as asexual. This is still the case today, in the film Enter the Dragon (1973), the character played by Bruce Lee, did not engage in interest in women eventhough Lee’s white and black costars did. In contemporary action films it is nearly impossible to find a celibate main character.

            While Asian men were considered asexual, Asian women were the epitome of sexual. This is due to depictions of females as being petite, exotic and eager to please and serve men.  These images of Asian women have spun off into two characters one “good and one “bad.” The “good” Asian female stereotype is the title character of the movie, “The World of Suzie Wong.”  In the movie, Suzie offers herself unconditionally to the while male lead without expecting anything in return. An example of the “bad” female character is the villainous dragon lady who uses her sexuality to seduce me and get what she wants. This character is still used today in movies. In the big-screen remake of “Charlie’s Angels,” actress Lucy Lu dresses in black skin tight leather and a whip and infiltrates the evil corporation so that her counterparts could go undetected and steal the company’s secrets.

            Off screen, many Asian actors and actresses encounter a glass ceiling when trying to find choice roles. In the mid 1900’s few Asian actors were able to fill roles due to two reasons: 1. There was a lack of Asian characters available, and 2. Asian roles were given to white actors who wore yellow makeup and used tape to create the illusion of slanted eyes. In the comedy “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) Mickey Rourke played the role of the Japanese tourist complete with thick glasses, squinty eyes and buck teeth.

Asian Americans have taken more agency in their careers as time went on. In 1970, Visual Communications was opened in Los Angeles to help independent Asian American filmmakers to produce and distribute their films. Organizations such as MANAA have organized protests and teach-ins in response to culturally insensitive films such as “Rising Sun."   -Kent Lee

 Read the storyline to Miss Saigon

 Read about the Origins of Miss Saigon

In the1990 Broadway production of Miss Saigon the white English actor Jonathan Pryce was cast as the Asian pimp, “Engineer”.  This sent the Asian community into a rage.  Pryce was to perform in yellowface, wearing prosthetic eyelids, a poor attempt at an “Oriental” accent, and a mock-Asian walk.  After being reprimanded by the Actors’ Equity Association, Cameron Mackintosh, the producer, canceled the $10 million New York production.  Realizing that its action would result in the loss of many jobs, the Association reversed its previous decision, saying that Mackintosh had to be allowed “artistic freedom.” 

The practice of yellowface in Miss Saigon was problematic because it was not a rare case of “artistic freedom;” yellowface had become the tradition.  It was a tradition that some people believed had for the most part fallen out of practice.  “We [those opposed to the production] saw Miss Saigon as the latest in a long line of Western misrepresentations of Asians, perpetuating a damaging fantasy of submissive ‘Orientals,’ self-effacing women, and asexual, contemptible men,” (Yoko Yoshikawa).  In addition to the offensive practice of yellowface, descriptions such as “greasy Chinks” and “slits” were thrown into the script in reference to Asians.  This constant bombardment of “harmless” stereotypes is anything but harmless.  Stereotypes do send a message, especially when repeated in so many places in pop culture.  There is little hope that these narrow-minded views will ever be replaced with true understanding and appreciation for other cultures, races, and nations if entertainment continues to profit at the expense of minority groups.  Miss Saigon is another reinforcement of the still unfounded negative way in which western culture defines non-whites.

Blackface is a practice that has been well recognized, documented, and abolished in America’s history of acting.  Yellowface, however, has received significantly less attention and is not as offensive to the American public.  Most makeup books have long since removed the pages instructing white actors on how to make themselves up in blackface, so why are their still pages instructing white actors on how to transform themselves into Asians and Indians?  Quoting Guy Aoki in his paper “Asian Americans Living in  a ‘Bamboozled’ World,” “Would Pryce’s performance have been as well received if his character had been black?  I think not.  As with blackface, these characters were one-dimensional fabrications, reflections of what white actors and creators believed a race of people to be like – in our case, perpetual foreigners.  Still, these portrayals became the standards by which real-life Asian Americans are seen and treated.  Yellowface is no less hurtful and dehumanizing for us [Asian Americans] than blackface has been to African Americans.”  http://members.tripod.com/mwdaaeo/article.html  Today, thankfully, cartoon caricatures of black people are automatically recognized as taboo.  The exaggerated smiles of watermelon-eaters are gone from popular American culture.  However, similar cartoon caricatures of Asians are found everywhere on TV, the Internet, and even on popular American clothing brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch.

Yellowface helps to ensure that top acting roles continue to fall into white hands.  Asians and other minorities have become acceptable to see in small roles such as sidekicks, maids, war enemies, etc.  It is rare enough that a good script is written that calls for an Asian in a leading role.  When these scripts do arise, yellowface makes it acceptable for that role to go to a white person.  Producers claimed that audiences didn’t want to look at an Asian lead for so long, or that there weren’t any qualified Asian actors.  This inability to accept minorities in professional or even human roles is confirmation to many that America is not ready to see minorities as professionals beyond traditional stereotypes.  Acting is pretending to be someone else.  If it is still difficult to watch minorities even in acting then Americans are showing that they haven’t broken down those walls and crossed those bridges.  Producers are in the business of giving the public what they want to see, and the public is still calling for stereotypes and discrimination. 

While hurtful images of Asians in show business may sell tickets, they are, consciously or not, reinforcing the stereotypes that America claims to be working hard to break down.  Producers can hardly claim that this is merely humor or for entertainment’s sake when their casting decisions reinforce that these stereotypes obstruct Asian Americans from acting jobs.  Cindy Cheung, a Chinese-American actress, acknowledges that, “When my main agent calls me, it’s usually for a role specifically as an Asian-American woman.  I’d also like to be called for other roles.”  The casting of Asian Americans only in specifically stereotypical Asian roles might be easier to swallow if all of those roles were going to Asian Americans.  Miss Saigon proved that they are not.  Portrayals of assimilated Asians are exceedingly rare and there are few successful Asian American actors and actresses.  “The Asian-American stars who are mainstream now are immigrant guys who come from China and do kung fu and karate.  That’s what’s marketable in Hollywood’s eyes,” Alan Muraoka, a Japanese-American actor who starred in “Shogun,” “The King and I,” and “Miss Saigon,” stated.  http://www.csmonitor.com/durable/1999/08/13/p20s1.htm  Even in recent films such as “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist” that are comical remakes of Asian films, the main hero is white.

Tom Kouo, who played Thuy in Miss Saigon, reflected, “I’m grateful for Miss Saigon for the opportunities it gave me.  But in the end, it’s still written by two French guys who don’t really understand who they’re writing about, no matter how hard they might want to.  Being in the show, you realize that you’re not represented here.  You’re out there performing, speaking words written by people who don’t know what you really say, how you really say it.”  http://www.joan-almedilla.com/news/amag.shtml.  “It [the show] is romantic, intense, and at times, brave.  It shows things that we don’t always want to see.  If we look at the bigger picture, it deals with a place and subject that some Americans would rather not deal with,” says Shoyun Kim. http://magazine.14850.com/9307/drama.html.  When directors are claiming that a white actor is more fit for a role as an Asian then an Asian actor, it is a sure sign that the role was not that of an Asian at all but rather a personification of America’s stereotypes and fears.  “The show was designed to seduce, flooding the senses with a 3-D fantasy – specifically targeted at a heterosexual western man’s pleasure center,” (Yoko Yoshikawa).  However hurtful, the images in Miss Saigon did sell to an eager public.  

Yellowface has been used in many instances to soften a story presented to a white audience.  For many Americans it is still difficult to view an Asian male and white female in a romance or the white female as a victim.  “By substituting a white actor in yellowface, the audience can experience outrage at the story but at the same time, be soothed by the fact that it is not real . . . the yellowface actor plays out white fantasies of race in a safe environment.  Yellowface performances can be unbelievably offensive, completely unnecessary, or absurdly unreal.”  Peter Npstad http://www.illuminatedlantern.com/fumanchu/index.html Western Visions: Fu manchu and the yellow peril.                                                                       -Rebecca Cantor

            Though there were many negative things surrounding the opening of Miss Saigon there were also many positive reactions:

  1. The founding of many Asian American organizations such as Kambal sa Lusog (an organization is made up of primarily Filipinos and accepts gay, lesbian, and bisexuals) and APACE (Asian Pacific Alliance for Creative Equality made up of actors and actresses and were large players in the fight against Jonathan Pryce’s performance.
  2. United a pan-Asian community nation wide.  From New York to California there were Asian Americans fighting for equality and a chance to voice the discriminations that have been plaguing actors and actresses.  Asian American actors were rarely seen in plays and on TV even for Asian/Asian American roles.  If they were cast, it was usually a character full of Asian stereotypes. 
  3. This movement was a shock to many because to broke many stereotypes that people held true.  The “Model Minority Myth” that Asians are passive and would not speak up when confronted was disproved by the protests and actions taken to stop Jonathan Pryce and Miss Saigon’s story line.  Also it was a way to show that all Asians were not the “geeks” stuck behind their calculators; there are other professions that Asians excel in. 
  4. The commotion around Miss Saigon has caused awareness about the discrimination that is going on and has brought about more diverse castings.  This has given plays/musicals a new creative flare.                                                                        -Chelsey Kadota