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School of Theatre & Dance, San Francisco State University
Statement on Anti-Asian Violence and the Atlanta Murders
Madama Butterfly (1904)
South Pacific (1949)
Pacific Overtures (1976)
Miss Saigon (1989)
Ever since Giacomo Puccini’s adaptation of David Belasco’s adaption of John Luther Long’s adaptation of Pierre Loti’s 1887 novel Madame Chrysanthéme, the trope of the Asian woman as prostitute has become a longstanding figure on the American stage. Against a background of military violence, the on-stage stereotype of Asian women as sexual objects who are both readily available and easily discardable continues to circulate and affect the lives of Asian women. The recent murder of 8 people, 6 of whom are Asian women, at three spas outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and the characterization of the accused murderer by a Georgia police official as “having a bad day” due to a sex addiction, exemplifies the persistent belief that the natural state of Asian femininity is death.
Murdering people is NOT “having a bad day,” but the following examples are:
Being attacked, harassed or murdered for being Asian
Being attacked, harassed or murdered for being a sex worker
Being attacked, harassed or murdered for being an Asian sex worker
Being attacked, harassed or murdered because someone thinks you are a sex worker
Being attacked, harassed or murdered because someone thinks you are an Asian sex worker
Our hearts go out to the victims, their families, and their friends.
I wrote the statement above on behalf of the School of Theatre & Dance, which was published on March 18, 2021. Below is an elaboration, for non-performance scholars.
n my book Choreographing Asian America, published over ten years ago now, I wrote a chapter called “Pedagogy of the Scantily Clad” to critique the ways the musical Miss Saigon (1989) had gone from being at the center of a casting controversy in which a white actor performed in yellowface, to rehabilitating itself as a primer about the Vietnam War. In addition to writing about how Miss Saigon presents prostitution as the only logical profession available to Asian women, my critique focused on how a stereotype-laden theatrical production was promoted as an appropriate source of historically accurate and factual information about the Vietnam War.
Miss Saigon (1989) premiered in the West End in London before the start of its ten-year run on Broadway in New York City from 1991-2001. For a decade, Miss Saigon represented one of the few employment opportunities on Broadway for Asian and Asian American performers. While Asian female prostitutes have long been a staple of American Hollywood film and television—Papillon Soo Soo’s singular moment as the “me so horny” Vietnamese prostitute in Full Metal Jacket (1987) being the most notorious image—a rotating cast of Asian female actors, dancers, and singers continued to portray sex workers on stages well into the 21st century.
After Miss Saigon closed on Broadway, touring productions brought Miss Saigon to regional theaters in small towns all over the United States. Marketing materials included study guides for school groups attending the production. Promoting the show as a way to teach the history of the Vietnam War, the study guide included discussion questions asking viewers to consider why the main character Kim, a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese prostitute, had to die -- as if the circumstances of her storyline could have gone in a different direction, or as if a character has agency to make different choices. In my critique I argued that the authors of the study guide confused theatre history with the history of the war in Vietnam. Kim’s act of suicide had nothing to do with war, cross-cultural differences, bad luck, unconditional love, or any kind of choice that she could have made; instead her death had everything to do with the fact that the entire premise of Miss Saigon is based on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904).
The inspiration for Miss Saigon is centered around a story told about the moment Claude-Michel Schönberg (composer) and Alain Boublil (lyricist) saw a photograph of a Vietnamese woman at an airport saying good-bye as she sends her child to live with the child’s father in the U.S. Schönberg claims that he immediately thought of the woman as Madame Butterfly. In Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the heroine Cho Cho San is a geisha who enters into a “marriage” with Lt. Pinkerton, an American naval officer stationed in Japan. Lt. Pinkerton leaves Japan and promises Cho Cho San that he will return for her. Cho Cho San gives birth to a child and spends years waiting for Pinkerton to return, even though her family tries to convince her that Pinkerton is not coming back for her. Pinkerton eventually returns to Japan, but he is accompanied by his new American wife. Cho Cho San discovers that Pinkerton is married and decides to die by suicide; with her death, Pinkerton and his wife can take the child home with them. The Vietnamese woman in the news photo that inspired the musical might be sending her child to the U.S. to live with the father, but there is no evidence that the woman was ever a prostitute or that she harmed herself. Yet Schönberg and Boublil can only imagine Asian women through the lens of a well-trod theatrical stereotype that has found its way into popular culture, one viewed as the true nature of Asian femininity.
The character of Kim dies by suicide because the creators of Miss Saigon wanted to restage a Madame Butterfly narrative set during the Vietnam War. This simple explanation of theatre history would have easily answered the study guide’s question, asking why the character of Kim is a sex worker, why she marries an American soldier, why she gives birth to a mixed-race child, and why she ultimately dies by suicide. Of course, this would have also required a lesson on the long history of orientalism in Western theater and its relationship to colonialism, thus throwing into relief the enduring legacy of the racist and sexist premise of Madama Butterfly. What happens in Miss Saigon happens because of what happens in Madama Butterfly.
While Miss Saigon is based on Madama Butterfly, the librettist, lyricist, and choreographer upped the ante in terms of the musical’s racist and misogynist representation of Asian women. Featuring performances within a performance, audiences are treated to song and dance numbers where American soldiers sing racist and misogynist lyrics about Vietnamese women while watching exotic dancers, who are also sex workers, at a strip club. A dream sequence titled “American Dream” portrays a Eurasian pimp’s fantasy of making it in America by starring in a Vegas style dance number surrounded by a chorus line of even more Asian sex workers. After being treated to these shows set within strip clubs, the audience is presented with a scene towards the end of the musical in which the heroine manages to escape to Thailand. There she finds work performing sex shows from inside of a glass box. This is the enduring image of Asian women that has been on tour across the United States as well as internationally since 1989. The musical has been staged by high school theater departments, college and university theater departments, and community theaters. The official Miss Saigon North American Tour finally closed after its final performance on March 15, 2020, in Fort Meyers, Florida, due to COVID-19 safety concerns, and not because the show’s producers finally recognized the musical’s “persistent belief that the natural state of Asian femininity is death.”
Even though the theaters are closed for now, Miss Saigon staged the killing of Asian sex workers every night, and the part it played in perpetuating and spectacularizing these associations between race, sex, and death lives on.
Yutian Wong is a Professor of Dance Studies in the School of Theatre & Dance at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Choreographing Asian America (Wesleyan University Press, 2010), editor of Contemporary Directions in Asian American Dance (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016) and co-editor with Jens Richard Giersdorf of the Routledge Dance Studies Reader, 3rd Edition (Routledge, 2018).