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: