Saturday, June 26, 2010

2004 December Tsunami

One of the things that I am going to do is to follow up on some of my legacy projects from my 2004 Boxer Tsunami work.  Basically, there are several names for the biggest tsunami disaster in human history.  Some call it the Boxer Tsunami, others call it the Andaman Ocean Tsunami.  The name isn't important, but the event is important.  For background, go see the video from the National Geographic people.

South East Asia is a region that attracts tourism.  On the other hand, it has been an area subjected to both man made and natural disasters.

The 2004 Andaman Ocean Tsunami, or Boxer Day Tsunami is one of those natural disasters that people will be studying for decades.  It was such a major event that scientists today are still evaluating what actually happened.  I have also heard that the elephants knew that they needed to move uphill.

One should not assume you know everything.  Elephants knew.  The people were not so smart.  They walked out towards the wave as the waters receded.  

I will be here after the Fulbright Hayes GPA trip.  I will be standing exactly where that man got whipped out.  Ironically, there is a subtext to this video.  I know where it was filmed.  I also know that the man sold the video, and many didn't like the idea.  Let's just say that local justice was more swift than the gods.  

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Killing Fields & Comrade Duch

I suppose the essential film to screen about the entire Khmer Rouge Genocide would be the Killing Fields. In many ways, this film is one of several that would document genocidal behavior of governments.

What is complicated is that you can also tie this issue with a few other issues that have occurred in terms of ethnic cleansing and genocides.  Obviously, there is film documentation about the Rwanda genocides as in Hotel Rwanda.  One of the most basic questions is how does this all factor.  How is it that you can systematically kill people in an organized manner?  After the Killing Fields, there were numerous other incidents like the Hutu/Tutsi conflict in Rwanda, the massacres in Bosnia, the Sudan.  The Associated Press reports that in Kyrgyzstan there are attacks on Uzbeks.  So this stuff is still going on right now.         

From Wikipedia

It is expected that we will be in Cambodia and visit S21.  It was a former high school converted into basically a kill facility.  What is weird about the Khmer Rouge was their particular focus on documentation and details. Supposedly there is a tree in which they bashed in the skulls of babies.  Out of an estimate of 17,000 people, only 12 survived.  Any foreigner who got caught also ended up dead.  What is intriguing is that the head of the facility is undergoing a UN backed trial.  His name is Comrade Duch.    

Recently, the Cambodian Government have been conducting trials of the people involved with the genocide.  For example, on NPR, there was a discussion of Comrade Duch who was in charge of S21.  Go here to hear the transcript.  A verdict is supposed to be announced on July 26 according to the BBC.  How he got caught is interesting.  Supposedly he converted to Christianity, but he was finally found working with World Vision, a Christian NGO.  This was reported in the UK's The Independent.  Go here to find out how they caught him.  July 26, 2010 should be very interesting.    

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Unexploded Ordinance and bombing

The bombing campaigns of Arc Light, Linebacker, Linebacker II, among other campaigns ended up dropping a huge amount of ordinance in SE Asia.  It is not confined to Vietnam, as we ran "secret" wars in Laos and Cambodia, since the Vietnamese were using these countries as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Although we dropped enough bombs to flatten Europe and Japan several times, the results of the campaigns were often less than successful.  

In terms of sheer power, the United States did a number of things in Vietnam.  They effectively converted the B 52 into a conventional bomber from its original role as a nuclear strike weapon.  In fact the bomber is still operational in the Air Force, and it is still bombing things in Afghanistan.  The bigger question is proportionality.  This was outlined in The Fog of War.

Whether or not we think of the Vietnam War as a proportional is up to debate.  What is clear is that we have not accounted for all the ordinance dropped, several decades later.  

Monday, June 21, 2010

Yellow Face and Miss Saigon

Yellow Face:  This was one of the things that almost completely derailed the introduction of Miss Saigon on Broadway.  Jonathan Pryce, who played the original role of the Engineer in yellow face, became a topic of much rancor at the time.  His casting was considered to be really offensive to the APA community.  I'm not so certain.  The character engineers sex transactions for military service men.  Why a pimp has to be a happa (half Asian) escapes me.  Better to just have left him as a French man.  He doesn't look remotely Asian at all.  Much of the controversy surrounding the casting is outlined in Bright Lights Film Journal.

David Henry Hwang recently wrote a play called Yellowface.  It is very closely tied to the casting of Jonathan Pryce as he was heavily involved in the discourse.   The play further explores the identity politics in the discourse.  For Asian Americans, it is an issue of the signifier of the cultural act.  

The issue has arisen again with the 2010 release of the Last Airbender.  Go to this site to find out about the boycott proposals.  There were similar issues with the Prince of Persia casting, as none of the lead actors are Persian.  The 18 Mighty Mountain Warrior comedy group had a few things to say about that.  It's towards the end of the sequence.  

What I found fascinating about the discourse was that it was nothing new.  We are having this discussion about the Last Airbender in 2010.  Flying a bunch of academics to South East Asia may not fully ameliorate the issue of some very long standing stereotypical perceptions of Asians in America.  What I do know is that I have to create a text to delineate all these connections.  There is in some ways, a sort of fear/attraction of the Asian male, as embodied in Bruce Lee, and yet there is this patent emasculation of the Asian male as evident in Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's or Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.  Mr Yunioshi is particularly disturbing to me.

The best example of the mixed reaction to the Asian male is Kung Fu, the TV series.  If you watch some of it, it is actually not too bad.
Now for the analysis.  Kung Fu was originally a project of Bruce Lee, but the producers did not feel comfortable having an Asian lead for a show, so they cast David Carradine.  Basically an entire TV series needed the lead actor to be in yellow face.  The one problem with that show was that some of the supporting roles for Asian American actors were pretty good.  There is actually some substance to the roles especially with the Shaolin temple scenes.  The other problem for me is that I liked certain aspects of the series.  The whole grasshopper term used by his Shaolin mentor is a part of our subculture.  The fact seems to be this:  if I want to be an APA actor in America, I need to old, and I must be a martial artist.  It would just be easier if I was a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie guy, but then I would be Chinese not American.  Regardless, I must also be able to quote Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu and maybe a few Buddhist or Confucian sayings.

All joking aside, as we are increasingly interconnected, we must expand our perceptions.  There are still difficulties.

Cuisine of Vietnam

"Cuisine is both an art and a science: it is an art when it strives to bring about the realization of the true and the beautiful, called le bon (the good) in the order of culinary ideas. As a science, it respects chemistry, physics and natural history. Its axioms are called aphorisms, its theorems recipes, and its philosophy gastronomy."
Lucien Tendret (1825-1896)
great-nephew of Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

From Korea Global TV

Other than the war, the most often asked question I get is about the food.  Everyone now talks about the food.  The ubiquitous Pho (pronounce it like fur) is always on people's mind.  Spring rolls also come to mind for many.  The thing is that like Thai cuisine, it is very complex.  For a sample of recipes, go here.

In Thai cuisine, there is a standard profile of flavors involved:  sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot.  Most people recognize the hot aspect, but this does not define Thai cuisine.  Vietnamese cuisine is a little different.  It isn't the same as Thai cuisine, as it has many other influences.  For example, there is no equivalent of a Banh Mi sandwich in Thai cuisine.  At least, as far as I know.

If you are in the Southern California basin, there is a huge Vietnamese population in Orange County.  Little Saigon has many restaurants and cafes.

The Road to Saigon, Miss Saigon and Filipinas

To portray Vietnamese women, Go to the Philippines
The title, Road to Saigon, caught my attention.  I thought, oh my, the last show of the season at East West Players in Los Angeles is about Miss Saigon.  In actuality, it was rather about how all these women got to play the character of Kim after Lea Salonga's tenure as Kim.  One thing I did realize is that all of the women were Filipino, not Vietnamese.  Lea Salonga was a child star in the Philippines with a strong track record of hits and TV shows.  Below is her audition for the part.

In fact, I began to wonder if Kim was a name that was Vietnamese.  Well, that doesn't matter.  No one can tell the difference right?  Ultimately, I think a key factor is an inability for some Americans to make any sort of differentiations between Asians.  But this issue could become a subject of an entire blog, but it isn't my focus.  I get mistaken for being Filipino sometimes. Regardless, the role of Kim allowed an Asian Pacific American to perform for the first time in some pretty nice gigs.  

After watching the vocal performances in The Road to Saigon, I now know why Miss Saigon succeeded.  It was due to the quality of the performers.  Objectively, they were all very good.  This musical production felt like it was talk story meets musical format.  Each of the women would explain how they got one of the choicest and perhaps one of the most controversial roles in American Musical Theater as far as Asian American Studies people are concerned.  As a musical, it is completely different than Miss Saigon.  It was more of an inspection of their own lives in terms of getting roles and getting through auditions.  The fact that the role opened up doors for these actresses is unquestioned.  What I think is clear is that a female APA is probably going to have a better shot at something than a male APA.  There are no roles like Kim for an APA male.  In essence in America, if you are a hot APA actress, you got a shot.   It also seems that to be a Broadway female vocalist, being a Pinoy is an asset.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

US State Department report on Human Trafficking.

On June 14, 2010, the US State Department released the Trafficking in Persons Report 2010.  As I intended to do before, I was going to use the Somaly Mam story as a springboard for a service learning element in my project.  She presented at UCLA in 2009.

There is a certain strength to the story, but the fact is that she always tells people about the level of personal harm this experience has done to her.  She also gets into discussion about poverty and class issues.  In SE Asia, class is a big player.  The other thing is that many of the governments in SE Asia are a Republican's dream.  Little to no regulation.  Little to no hinderances.  Shoot, you can drive the wrong way on a street, and no one will stop you.  There is in this sense, total freedom.  But total freedom also might mean total exploitation of your fellow human beings.  

According to Secretary Clinton the report focuses on several areas:
This year’s report highlights several key trends, including the suffering of women and children in involuntary domestic servitude, the challenges and successes in identifying and protecting victims, and the need to include anti-trafficking policies in our response to natural disasters, as was evident in the aftermath of this year’s earthquake in Haiti.
Remember, there was this case of some people trying to take the children out of Haiti to the Dominican Republic.  Because they were "missionaries," people were trying to give them a pass.  On the other hand, I could tell that there was something wrong.

According to the AP and the Huffington Post, Laura Silsby was convicted of child trafficking, but released to go back to the USA.   She still denies her role as a trafficker.  The problem is not just about missionaries who are out to kidnap children to convert them.  It is about economics, and greed as well.

What is very troublesome is that child trafficking for cases of adoptions is very high.  When the Andaman Ocean Tsunami of 2004 hit, Thailand blocked all adoptions coming out of those areas.  Orphanages were also closely monitored.  There are suspicions however surrounding the Moken and the undocumented Burmese.  Many believe these previously undocumented shadow populations were targeted for trafficking--they had no papers unlike Thais, so they could be forged.    

The bigger problem is that it isn't an isolated issue.  According to the Voice of America, trafficking happens in the United States.  Slavery still happens.  Much of the people come from economically distressed regions of the world.

Agent Orange

"A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards. More than that no man is entitled, and less than that no man shall have." 
President Theodore Roosevelt, Speech to veterans, Springfield, IL, July 4, 1903

Recently, there was an article out of Veteran's Today (Military Veterans and Foreign Affairs Journal) about Agent Orange.  Also recently, in the New York Times, there was an article about a joint plan by American and Vietnamese representatives.  For many, the term Agent Orange is a new term.  Unless you study military history, or history in general, these two words are unfamiliar to the now labeled Millennial Generation.  It is now important to bring this issue back into focus.  As we hear more and more about things like the Gulf War Syndrome, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and brain injuries, we must try to decipher the causes.    

According to the Department of Veteran's Affairs, they describe it as follows:  

Agent Orange is the name given to a specific blend of herbicides used in Vietnam from 1961 to 1971 during the Vietnam conflict. The U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides to remove leaves from trees that provided cover for enemy forces. Some Vietnam Veterans were exposed to these herbicides.
What is also not stated is that the general population of Vietnam was also exposed to these toxins.  The toxins are specifically dioxin.  The World Health Organization classifies this stuff as a major health hazard, potentially capable of creating birth defects, cancer among other things.  There was another report by Journeyman Pictures, which appears to be out of London.  Go here to get an overview.  What is little understood is how much damage dioxins can do, especially in terms of birth defects.  For a more brutal documentary of this issue, you can go here.  The images are brutal, so be forewarned.  Sorry, the embedding feature doesn't exist with Journeyman Pictures.

In Hoi An, there is an orphanage with children with severe handicaps and birth defects.  Locally, there is ample speculation that Agent Orange exposure may be a causal factor.  In some ways, exposure to chemicals seems to have also messed up DNA, but more studies are needed to create any clear cut connection.  The main problem appears to be actual dioxin levels.  According to Thanh Nien News, there are still significant hotspots containing this toxin.  

We are going to visit Hoi An.  I am also hoping to visit the orphanage.

You must be prepared to re-evaluate your previous ideas.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Vietnam as a signifier in American Film

Vietnam as a Signifier in American Culture
American Films versus Vietnamese Films

Kilgore: Smell that? You smell that?
Lance: What?
Kilgore: Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that.
Kilgore: I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like
[sniffing, pondering]
Kilgore: victory. Someday this war's gonna end...
[suddenly walks off
How does Vietnam factor?  Vietnam has sort of a dual face in America.  It is the same type of perception like that of Japan during the 1980s and 90s before the economic stagnation forced Japan to pull back all of its real estate and business dealings world wide.  Today, there is somewhat of an attempt at a sort of reevaluation of the perceptions.  For a more extensive list of films about Vietnam and the Vietnam War, go here.  

The key thing is that America views Vietnam through the prism of the war first.  When you ask any American about Vietnam, the first things that will come up is the Vietnam War.  The war also dominates the subject matter of films about Vietnam.  Most American films focus on the war.  Apocalypse Now perhaps succinctly defines the nature of Vietnam for America.  Vietnam is the Heart of Darkness for America.  Chinua Achebe famously critiqued Joseph Conrad's novel in his essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'The Heart of Darkness'"in the Massachussets Review in 1977.  In watching Coppola's film, one can clearly see the complex views of Asia at the time.  The slaughter scene of the cow was filmed in the Philippines by the way, not Vietnam.

One of the things that seems to be particularly of note is that these films tend to be very critical of America and critical of our own sensibilities.  In 1985, a film called Alamo Bay was released, and it was very controversial at the time.  It focused on recent immigration of Vietnamese fishermen into Texas.  FYI, there is also a huge population of Vietnamese in Louisiana as well.  For a more detailed history of the background for the film, go here.

Increasingly, the more popular films tend to focus on the lack of respect that the Vietnam Vet received.  This extends from Rambo, The 4th of July, and other films.  In some cases, there have been more objective depictions of the war.  We Were Soldiers appears to be more balanced in terms of discussing the tactical aspects of the war.

Vietnamese films focus on other things.  The Scent of Green Papaya is particularly different.  

Shoot, they even have gangster films.  Basically, you don't really see an obsession with the war in the Vietnamese film industry.

With Amazon, you even have a category that says, "Must See Vietnam War Movies."  Ultimately, for most Americans, they see Vietnam with this mirror.  The only other way that they perceive Vietnam might be through the cuisine.  Lately, the fusion of Asian cuisine with Western cuisine seems very popular.  Let's not get into other forms of confusion between the differences between Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Burmese, Malay, Hmong among others.  Most Americans perceive things in simplified terms.  Some can't tell if the person is Korean, Japanese or Chinese.

This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of this trip.  We must move beyond the image of the Vietnam War, bar girls, and soup stalls.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Books by Vietnamese Writers

There are a limited amount of texts that appear to be available in English.

These are a few titles.

Duong Thu Huong

Novel Without a Name
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics) (June 1, 1996)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0140255109
ISBN-13: 978-0140255102

Paradise of the Blind
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (August 20, 2002)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0060505591
ISBN-13: 978-0060505592

Bao Ninh

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books (April 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573225436
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573225434

Monday, June 14, 2010

Orientalism and the American Mind

A Speculative Post-Colonial Dissection       
I'm actually fascinated in the cultural mechanisms that drive the discourses surrounding South East Asia.  There is this strange Hegelian Dialectic argument between the East and the West in general.  This sense of confusion could be seen in Lost in Translation, which is a film that documents the sense of disconnect between Bill Murray's character, Bob, and Japan.  For the most part, much of the discourse surrounding Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand as well as Asia in general is tinged with Orientalism.  For many in the West, they are like Bob.

For Bob, Japan is a cipher.  The more he actually tries to understand Japan, the less he seems to understand.  In a sense, this discomfort perhaps will always exist.  

Definitions and being Defined
Now, we have to get into definitions.  The Orient invokes descriptors like exotic, mysterious, complex.  Asian is less exotic and more connected with a map.  When you describe anything Asian, you have to qualify it with geographical locations.  The sign signifier aspect of the term particular gets complicated.  Oriental often can be used as a descriptor for a rug--Oriental Rugs, Oriental table.  Asian is more broad and neutral.  Asian rug just sounds to generic.  The two terms signify two different things.  Whether or not you can sense the tone of each word also gets complicated.  If you want to know, generally, don't call Asian American people Oriental.  It makes some feel like an ornament.    

The main issues is that there is a tendency towards simplification.  The Orient/Asia becomes a simplified monolith that becomes the sign/signifier for an entire region.  The fact that the languages are diverse, and there is cultural diversity in Asia is not often inspected or challenged.  (A good parallel is the term Mexican.  Mexican is now a descriptor for anyone south of the border.  This includes all of Mexico, Central and South America.  It's inaccurate.  Never call a Guatemalan a Mexican.  That could be unhealthy for you.)  If you ask an average American, they may not be able to locate Vietnam on a map.  Many students can't identify the years of the American Civil War, let alone the Vietnam War years.  Many view things through the prism of generalities.  This is also the heart of Orientalism--simplifications and generalizations.    

Orientalism, the post-colonial buzz term, was first defined by Edward Said in his book aptly titled, Orientalism,.  If you read it, it focuses mainly on the Middle East rather than Asia.  The history of the West's relationship with the East has always been convoluted with racial dynamics and just outright manufactured perceptions of Asians.  "East is East.  West is West.  And never the 2 shall meet."  Basically, it is a question of the other.

Orientalism and Wars
For much of the 1800s and the early 1900s, there has been this strange obsession with eugenics and Social Darwinism.   Some of this can be tied to wars.   Images of Chinese smoking opium often show up, but to be honest the traffickers were English.  The fact that there was a war against China by Britain for the right to keep on selling opium, says more about the West than about China.  Regardless, most Americans do not know of the Opium War in 1839.

Japan can be a starting point.  The Russo-Japanese War is an interesting historical event that ultimately messed up the initial Orientalism myth.  In the 1800s to early 1900s, much of China was being dissected by various colonial powers.  Practically every part of China was being taken over by Western powers, but Japan got into the mix in the 20th Century.  The Japanese for the most part were sort of dismissed, since they were Asian.  The Russians assumed they were weak because they were Orientals.  No Non-European power has ever defeated a European power.  This changed after the Japanese promptly sunk their entire Pacific navy and forced Russia to back off in China.  This strange sort of logic surrounding Asia seemed to persist even after the Russo-Japanese War and the collapse of Singapore during World War II.  That happens to be one of the greatest defeats in the history of the British Empire.  The British had a hard time processing this event.  Overall, there remains this mixed fear of Asians as a generality.  On one level, the Asian can be easily dominated.  On another level, the Asian is the ultimate warrior.  In many ways, it is a form of doublethink.

Generalized Perceptions
For Americans,  the perceptions of Asians are very narrow in American media.  Asian American males are not exactly as popular in popular culture as the exotic Asian and/or Asian American females.  Even if you are the hero, you are still sort of nerdish.  Just take a look at Heroes if you want any sort of example.  The question does arise in how does the West really perceive Asians.  I'm not even bothering the term, Oriental, since that seems sort of old as well.  It's like the difference between such terms as colored, negro and black.  All in all, there is a sense of confusion about Asians.  Some of it seems to mirror the perceptions of Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino.  The rituals seem to be different.  The cultural codes are different.  What is not properly defined is that we are talking about cultures and societies that may have existed long before the Mayflower even hit the rock in Plymouth because they ran out of beer.  (That's true by the way.)  So it isn't crazy to see old Walt sitting on his porch drinking a beer and scowling about them new neighbors.  Walt comes around to helping the young kid next door.  Eastwood is unique in that way.  He tries to show both sides as he did with the Flags of Our Fathers/Letters From Iwo Jima project.  But what of this overall concepts in Post-Colonial discourse?        

Edward Said's text primarily focuses on the perceptions of the Arab world as a starting point.  In my opinion, Orientalism is a part of this concept of New Historicism or general Post-Colonial theory.  Everything must be interpreted within a context, with the prism of a society's system of ideas and mythologies.   Indeed contemporary historians have begun to deconstruct ideas of the "other" quite analytically, as evident in Ronald Takaki's work like a Different Mirror.  This does not however diminish the stature of Said's text.  He was the first to conduct a systematic study of this Orientalist mythology.  There is this mixed duality with perceptions of Vietnam, Cambodia or in fact all of Asia.  There is a permanent tinge of the exotic to Asia for the West.  To get a better understanding of Orientalism, you can see a number of his interviews on Youtube.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Vietnam through the prism of food

Before I can even get on the airplane, everyone has been asking about the food.  It is the same about Thai food when I fly overseas.  Is the Thai food better?  Well, hell yeah.  What are you thinking? Is it going to be better in the USA than in the country of its origin?  Come on.  Get a grip my lowly hamstrung buddies with families and obligations. I don't expect Vietnamese cuisine to be any different.

There appears to be several approaches to the entire food category here.  In some cases, the Vietnamese cuisine is now having a renaissance of attention.  Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations can't get enough of the cuisine.  This is from his previous series, A Cook's Tour:

On the other hand, you got this weird exotic aspect to SE Asia that shows up with these cooking shows.  Now, I like Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.  If you saw his special on the Gulf Coast, man you will wonder what the heck is the attraction for possum.  On the other hand, if you really think about it, a lobster is a very strange thing to eat, and crawfish are called mudbugs for a reason.  We make it feel better by calling it cajun, creole, or whatever cuisine.  The fact is that a crawfish is a bottom feeder.   It eats dead matter.  But what the heck, I still eat that stuff too.  As I will declare, I'm a horrible Buddhist, which is why I don't call myself a Buddhist.  A real Buddhist is a vegan.  I'm far from that.  Oh, the shame of it all.  

Although food isn't a part of what I am working on, it is something that does lend towards a perception of the cultural norms of a society.  In the old days, it was considered a matter of civility to protest being fed a horrible diet of lobsters and clams.  During the Colonial days, it was really for pigs and animals.  Now, it is high end cuisine.  So when people complain about seeing people eat bugs, I sort of ignore it.  WHAT THE HECK DOES A LOBSTER LOOK LIKE?    It's a bug (you pay more for it so it feels acceptable) for gosh doodly google sake.  Actually, I always looked at it as an overpriced shrimp.    One very ugly thing that I've actually eaten is mantis shrimp in Thailand.  It really was good.  One thing I never got past is horseshoe crab.  It's just too prehistoric for my taste, but my friend loves it.  You eat the eggs, not the rest of it.  The one thing that is strictly off limits is durian.  Can't stand the smell or the taste.  Andrew doesn't like it either.


Personally, I expect to see some darn good food.  In fact, I might put up some food porn in the blog, as Anthony Bourdain calls it.  Pictures of great bowls of pho.  Egg rolls to die for.  (I know that's a fragment but bite me grammarian.)  And the Banh Mi sandwich . . . aaaaahhhh   heaven.  More on food porn, see Bourdain.

I should have been in the culinary arts or culinary anthropology.  Damn.  Too late to change my major now.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Semiotics of Miss Saigon

From a previous production.

From the Tony Awards
["Dreamland" is a club filled with American Marines,]
[civilians and south Vietnamese officers. The girls parade]
[around and get the crowd to buy raffle tickets:]
[the winner of the "beauty contest" will be the prize.]

The heat is on in Saigon
The girls are hotter 'n' hell
One of these slits here will be Miss Saigon
God, the tension is high, not to mention the smell
The heat is on in Saigon
Is there a war going on?
Don't ask, I ain't gonna tell 

Yeah, my title for the blog is suggestive.  It could easily be misread.  This is an entry about mis-readings.  Semiotics is about the reading of signs and culture.

You have to start someplace.  There is one thing that you will never actually escape from, and it is SEX.  Got your attention now don't I?   I suppose one way to prepare for travel study is to review some of the perceptions embedded in our own American culture.  Miss Saigon actually encompasses some pre-programmed perceptions about Vietnam:  A war and Hot Girls.  Generally, when you invoke the term, Vietnam, you will get Vietnam War movies like Rambo, Platoon, or warm and fuzzy musicals like Miss Saigon.  You could combine the war and rape, and you get Casualties of War.    

What does this musical say about the West's perception of Vietnam?  In the above sequences, you have a man (supposedly a hapa) selling Vietnamese women.  That's how the musical opens; it opens in a bar.  As the musical progresses, an American soldier has a romance with cute Vietnamese girl, who gasp . . . is a virgin.  Evenually, he goes back to the USA and hooks up with an American girl.  He then finds out that he has a kid with the bar girl, so he comes back to SE Asia.  He finds her, and then she promptly kills herself at the end of Act II so their kid can go back to the USA.   It's a sort of recontextualization of the opera, Madame Butterfly.  In that sense, it is sort of a post-modern artifact.

I'm going to do a very bad version of a semiotic analysis of the myths and signs embedded in the musical.  First really outlined in a book, Signs of Our Times by Jack Soloman of UCLA, semiotics is about the analysis of image, symbol, signs and mythologies.  Basically, it is a form of culture mining.  It is all about the subsurface; what is going on underneath.  Miss Saigon is actually about Miss-Interpretations, but this is largely because it is based on an Orientalist opera.  Because of this, I'm not entirely certain if it is current, or an echo of the past misinterpretations of Asia.  The one big thing is the issue of bars and bar girls.  It is more complex than what you might think.  There is a historical context to this all, and much of it has to do with a tendency for US Military bases often fueling the development of sex industries surrounding them.  There are other issues with the musical that often rankles Asian Pacific American scholars, specifically popular culture images of Asians in America.  But, let's start to break down the obvious selling point of the musical--hot Asian chicks in a bar.

Who created the Bar Girl formula?
Bar Girls.  It's real.  There are parts of Thailand, Korea, Japan and the Philippines with these types of districts.  There is such a thing as sex tourism.  Now that we have settled on their existence, how did they develop?  When you think about the red light district image of the region, most of them are located in areas in which the American military presence was high or remains high.  Usually, they are around military bases.  (Think about it.  There is a reason for the Tijuana scene; you got the US Navy across the border.)  Some Americans assume that Asians are decadent like the Engineer and readily sell their women, but America had a hand in creating these dens of sin.  In Bangkok, the notorious Soi Cowboy is in fact named after an American named T. G. "Cowboy" Edwards, who happened to be a former military airman.  Remember, the musical play ends in Bangkok with Kim as a bar girl.  The development of sin economies is not inherently an Asian phenomenon.  The entire bar girl scene in SE Asia was largely a creation of an economy designed to serve the American military.  The Philippines was particularly messed up by this bar girl culture that developed around the military bases.    Ironically, Filipinas are often trafficked to work in these businesses.   In Korea, there are abandoned women who have been left with children not recognized by their fathers.  The US Military is attempting to address this with a program.  Furthermore, there was an article in the NY Times accusing the US and South Korean governments of promoting these sex industries.  Patong Beach, Thailand, was a port of call for the US Military.  Now it's notorious for this sort of stuff.  In reality, all war implies a few things: rape, pillage and plunder.  We don't rape; we create a free market for the purchasing of sex.  After we leave, the economy develops a life of its own.

The Fetish Issue
If you track the discourses in Asian American studies, this is one hot issue.  You can go to to get a better picture of it. also has some good background information on this.  The main problem for some in APA Studies is that Miss. Saigon is basically a Euro-American man's wet dream.  David Henry Hwang was clearly bothered by a remake of an opera that he parodied and pummelled.  He was a key player in the protests against the casting of the show.  That drama by the way ended up in another play called, you got it, Yellow Face.  Miss Saigon is a retooled remake of Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, so of course there will be embedded elements of Orientalism in the text.   The opera is pure Orientalism about Japan, but it is a product of its time.  Japan effectively was forced to open its borders due to Commodore Perry's fleet in Tokyo harbor.  Japan was exotic, new and weak.  David Henry Hwang deconstructed it in M Butterfly.  In Act I, Scene 6 the lines go as follows:

Song:  It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it?  The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.
Gallimard:  Well, I didn't quite mean . . .
Song:  Consider it this way:  what would you way if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman?  He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy.  Then when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself.  Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct?  But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner--ah!--you find it beautiful. 

In essence, Miss Saigon is about getting the Asian girl, but it also reduces her into a prostitute.  It sort of diminishes the man into a rice chaser too.  This is actually the top of a huge iceberg regarding sexual attraction, dynamics and even culturalization.  An Asian gal can be a fetish for anybody, not just a White man.  Hell, there are fetishes for blondes, brunetttes, Russian girls, English girls, etc.  Anything can be a fetish.  Shoot, there are people who are only attracted to heavy people.  They call themselves chubby chasers.  People get fetishes about other weird things.  The only thing that it makes clear is that it sucks to be an Asian American man.  We are not the subject of fetishes.  Well, unless you are a gay Asian man, then the paradigm goes the same with Asian women.  White women don't look at me like some sort of prize.  My fate is to become a relatively solitary man in his 60s who will mentor a young Caucasian kid to become the next kung fu master of wordsmithing.  It will probably be the son of a woman whom I thought was a  real hottie--probably blonde.  Well, the good thing is I don't have to worry about the rice chaser thing.  The women do.

Mixed Couples, Smupples, Whatever 
With the Pew Research Center's finding that when you see interracial unions, Asian women rates are higher than men makes things more complicated.  The factual data seems to indicate that Asian women tend to marry out more by a rate of 40%.  Asian man, you are not so lucky.  You only have 20%.  Really, there has always been this thing about Asian girls.  I get the question all the time.  "Do you know any hot Japanese chicks?"  Well, yeah, but I know not to direct you to them.  You're probably after a fetish, not a woman, not a person.  Now, if you were a total Japanophile, then maybe.  I always tell some Non-Asian friends that getting an Asian girl isn't what you think it is.  Now culturally, there are differences in terms of gender relationships.  There also is the influence of Confucian values.   Many of the households tend to be the domain of the wife, and in some Asian households, they control the heart of it all, the finances.  In some cases, the man gets an allowance per week.  Now, some of my Latina students really liked that idea.  The Latino men were horrified.  Machismo without the dinero means emasculated machismo.  What is probably more of an issue is cross-cultural taboos.  Even the dreaded Joy Luck Club goes over this matter.  I know.  I know.  But the APA man comes off sort of bad in these texts.  It's like the Black man in Waiting to Exhale.

People are individuals not monolithic stereotypes.  One should not get into a discussion about who should marry who, especially with 1 in 7 new marriages in America being interracial now.  Personally, I do not give a hoot.  Most of my friends are in mixed marriages, and yes, they are Non-Asian men with Asian women.  Remember, my fate is to be single for the rest of my life to train some kid to be the next master of something.  Actually, I've become comfortable with the concept of singledom.  Upon further analysis, I'm not certain if it is an issue of fetishization of the Asian female, or rather the screwed up negative perceptions of American women in general that makes the attraction so strong.  Blondes have more fun, but you don't marry them.  Brunettes are smarter.  Red Heads are hot headed, but good in bed.  These are sayings that often come up in discourses--among men by the way.  Are American men actually running away from American Blonde, the American Black woman, or the Chicana?  The attraction lies in a negative equation.  Are Asian girls preferable because they are not White, Black or Latina?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I think there are personal factors here.  Once you get past the stereotypes, you will discover something different--a human being.  

After going through all this analysis, I realized that I'm safe.  There isn't a huge fetish for an Asian man by white women.  The only person who publicized an attraction to an Asian man was Marguerette Duras in her book, The Lover.  Ironically, she's French.  Maybe there is something wrong with Frenchmen.  When I walk into a room, I'm not going to get, you know, that look from women.  Shoot I don't get the look from Asian women because they are being drowned in the attentions of the rainbow coalition of men trying to hook up.  Other than a minor curiosity about the Asian dude wearing a cool hat, I rarely become an issue of interest.  Usually, afterwards, I'll be asked if I'm a lawyer, dentist or electrical engineer.  Asian Pacific American man walks through door, yawn.  Asian Pacific American female walks into a room, the bees come a buzzing.  (The fact that a few of my platonic shadow friends are very hot, doesn't hinder it either.)  But there are other stereotypes of ethnic women.  Latinas are hot blooded.  Black women have attitude.  White girls are high maintenance--Sex and the City--level high maintenance.  But then, you got phrases like "Once you go black, you never go back."  Whatever.  My analysis of the issue is that all people have fetishes.  Shoot the strangest one was a guy who had some weird foot fetish and an obsession about toes.  Weird.  The only cultural artifact out there that lets the Asian man get the girl is the Harold and Kumar franchise.  I'm uglier than John Cho, so it's sort of pointless to speculate about me.

I really don't have any.  What I know is that there are broad generalizations out there.  How America really perceives Vietnam or Cambodia or Japan or China is complex.  There appears to be this need for a Miss Saigon chick in the American mind.  It's time to see the real Vietnam, not the Miss Saigon version.  Whether or not America is ready to see the real one is up to question.  

What is the real Saigon?  Or is it really Ho Chi Minh City?  As I always say, "We shall see."  I also expect the real Miss Saigon to be nothing like Kim.  Probably better.  But what do some Americans think of Miss Saigon?  It's like this:


The Fulbright Hayes Group Project Abroad Trip

I'm going to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand within a span of 2 months. All of the airplane tickets are paid for. All of the housing in 2 countries are paid for. (I'm paying for Thailand, but that is my own personal project.) All the arrangements have been set before I am going to LAX. How you might ask? Well, it is because of a great grant being used by El Camino College, Long Beach City College and Bakersfield College as well as my lowly little El Camino Compton Educational Center. Basically a bunch of community college professors are being paid to go abroad and to develop curriculum. I would say, "I'm one lucky son of a female dog."

As of the year, 2010, I have been allowed to enroll in the US Department of Education's Fulbright Hayes Group Project Abroad. Now, you might be thinking, what the heck is that Fulbright term doing there? Well, to be precise, it isn't a traditional Fulbright. Fulbright scholarships are destined for those who can spend a lot of time overseas, and more importantly, it is governed by a different part of the US Government, specifically, the US State Department.  I'M NOT A FULBRIGHT SCHOLAR.  I'm a scholar traveler being paid to do so by the Federal Government.  Talk about a great stimulus package.  So, I'm a lowly professor/writer/traveler/NGO advisor who will be running around all of South East Asia documenting my findings.  The fact is that I enjoy this sort of stuff now.

Business.  According to the Federal Government, I must include a statement in some capacity so here goes:
"The contents of this web site were developed under a grant from the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad (GPA), U. S. Department of Education. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government." 
Okay, now that I got that out of the way, of course this stuff isn't the opinion of the US Federal Government.  It's my mental excrement darn it.  I should get credit for my excrement, not the Feds.  So there.  Actually, if you want to find out more, go to the link.  I made the entire statement a link, so there is no way I get hammered for such an error.  Now, back to the entire background of travel to me.

Before the George W Bush era, I was a person who never liked airplanes, and the farthest I went was to San Francisco, and I drove.  Now I get on airplanes every year, alone, and plant myself in some location that I've never seen before.  You can only do this when you are single by the way.  No one else would tolerate a person disappearing for 2 months into the jungles of South East Asia.  They would think I went bamboo.  For more of an explanation about "going bamboo" go see this Anthony Bourdain special on Indonesia.

The purpose of a blog is to allow me to store and document my findings with this trip. Most of it will probably become a sort of travelogue. Basically, much of the content will evolve into a form of travel writing, but further academic meditations will develop afterwards. Whatever the outcome, I am going to monitor the sense of difference between the image of Asia and the complexities of America's perception of Asia.

For this project, I'm focusing on both Vietnam and Cambodia. The goal is to develop two separate modules based on specific use values and literary content. Because America is obsessed with the Vietnam War, I intend to focus on the war issue. With Cambodia, I am going to shy away from the Khmer Rouge/Killing Fields issue. What I am going to focus upon are modern NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) trying to deal with human trafficking and other social issues. The Cambodian module will be the basis for service learning projects that could be developed for a number of nonprofits in the Los Angeles Basin.

Project Outline: Vietnam
For the purpose of my project, I have decided to review a variety of contemporary texts from Vietnam about the Vietnam War. Now for the Vietnamese, they term this war as the American War. In fact, it is a part of an entire laundry list of wars that Vietnam has been involved with. The bigger question to me is how the East and the West approach war, and the depiction of war in their cultural products.

Now there are a lot of resources on this topic. For example, there is a pretty good PBS Website called, Battlefield Vietnam. Out of Clemson University, there is a bibliography developed by Edwin E Moise. In addition, there are stories focusing on the effects of the war and the eventual migration of populations from war zones such as the PBS special, "Vietnam Passage: Journeys from War to Peace." PBS also has a dedicated website called Vietnam Online, which is a part of the American Experience series. There is also the Vietnam Center and Archive, which has extensive materials on the war, and various pics. There are website that focus on our obsessions like the Vietnam Era POW/MIA database from the Library of Congress. Obviously, there is also the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as well, which maintains a website. Much of the content however is USA centric. In other words, we don't have a clear profile. The purpose of this project is to create a more logical and holistic approach to the topic. It is more akin to Clint Eastwood's examination of Iwo Jima with his combination of Flags of Our Father and Letters from Iwo Jima.

Project Outline: Cambodia
Cambodia for the most part is one of the most ignored SE Asia countries outside of Laos. Both of these countries got messed up by the Vietnam War conflict, as the US bombed the living daylights out of these countries in various secret wars. In Long Beach, CA, we have one of the largest populations of Cambodians outside of Cambodia. In fact, I live right in the middle of what could be considered to be Little Cambodia.

Much of the images of Cambodia are connected to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge period in which he almost wiped out the entire country with genocide and murder.

In terms of online resources for Cambodia, much of it is sourced from PBS. With the Frontline/World series, they have some episodes called Pol Pot's Shadow, October 2002. There is a website called Beauty and Darkness: Recent history of Cambodia. Out of Yale University, they have the Cambodian Genocide Projectambodian Government. Basically, the Killing Field's dominates the discourse when you invoke the term, Cambodia. However, I'm going to focus on the after effects--poverty and human trafficking.

Somaly Mam is a Cambodian woman who has gained some sort of notoriety because of her efforts to combat human trafficking. Much of this is directly connected to her personal experience of being a sex slave at a very young age. In fact, what I find fascinating about her is her ability to formulate and develop her NGO called AFESIP Cambodia despite what could be considered to be a horrible childhood. The US fundraising wing is called the SomalyRoad of Lost Innocence basically outlines her eventual enslavement in the sex trade.

Increasingly, there appears to be a spike in human trafficking. Websites and organizations are focusing on this aspect like This is a website run by the Academy for Educational Development. In addition, there are organizations in the Los Angeles Basin such as CAST that tries to work with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Projects: Thailand
I am in essence a person who always has something going on in the background. For years, I have been working on the Tsunami relief effort in Thailand. Lately, I've been trying to push for a transition of funds to build up a scholarship program with the Graduate School of Psychology at Assumption University. More of this later, but this isn't the focus of this blog.