Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Miss Saigon in Thailand vs La Jolla Playhouse's Fiasco

“All knowledge that is about human society, and not about the natural world, is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation. This is not to say that facts or data are nonexistent, but that facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation… for interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place.”

― Edward W. Said

In Thailand, the advertisement for a 2012 production in Bangkok of Miss Saigon is very Thai. I don't see a Western name on that cast list. It's all in Thai script. If there was a Westerner, you would see the Western lettering. Given the history of this musical, I also found it interesting that the production poster of the Bangkok production has not a single white face in it. This got me into a mode of thinking about the problems of being Asian in America.

Much of it is directly because of the social media storm that developed after La Jolla Playhouse did a production of a play set in China with very few Asian actors. Hans Christian Anderson's "The Nightingale" becomes a musical with Duncan Sheik lyrics. The fact that it is based on a fairy tale about Asia by a European is a little weird too. So why the uproar? Asian Pacific Americans (APA) are always either ignored, or misread.

Asians in Asia don't have a hangup on identity. They know who they are. They know what their culture demands. If there are no White actors around, they'll cast an Asian. Screw it. They know that they are on top of the food chain in their country. People ask me, "What's up with Asians in America?" It's complicated; it's also sad. In some ways, I've been trying to develop a noun with a proper definition. My working terminology is APA Purgatorio. We exist existentially in the marginalia of cultural contexts. We don't fit in America. We don't necessarily fit in Asia. We are perhaps truly globalized existential beings.

Asian Pacific Americans (APA) are perpetually under various forms of reductionism in the USA. We get statements like:

You speak English so well. How long have you been here? Where are you really from? Etc.

We are considered foreigners in our own land. In Ronald Takaki's Introduction to A Different Mirror, he discusses how the taxi driver didn't recognize that he was an American. So, in terms of casting, we aren't authentic enough. They will import an actress from Asia. Or they will recast an APA character into a Caucasian character. You would think that if you go to Asia, it would be better. Hold your Mongolian horses dude and dudettes, Bruce Lee is the exception, not a rule.

When an APA comes to a country in which Asians run the show and look down upon White people, it shakes up the perpetual inferiority complex. We become a part of the majority. But that really isn't true. We are not always accepted in Asia either. Being APA is a sort of purgatory in Asia too. My stay in Thailand is sort of complicated. They view me first as Japanese, and then get confused when I say I'm American. I'm unusual. In Japan, being Japanese American isn't exactly an asset. I would be miserable trying to find a job in Japan. In some ways, we are never perceived to be good enough. There is an underlying question of "Why did you leave the mother country? Were you poor, or a failure?" Shoot, the Japanese don't even like Japanese who get educated in the Ivy League or the University of California. Ironically, if you are Japanese American, it makes better sense to move to a third country like Thailand, or Vietnam or Singapore. Your English skills become a clear asset.

The APA Purgatorio condition manifests itself much more strongly in the culture industries--Hollywood and Broadway. The La Jolla Playhouse casting issue never showed up on the radar until an APA actress, Erin Quill posted a blog entry that openly criticized this casting decision. This created a wild fire reaction by the Los Angeles Asian American Theater community, so much so, that the La Jolla Playhouse had to have a forum. Casting Controversy Shadows La Jolla Playhouse's 'Nightingale' | KPBS.org. The backlash was sort of weird in the sense of using the premise of a multi-cultural cast was good. But, the lead role went to some white dude? So? What gives?

This is my theory. Asians from Asia are usually preferred over APAs in Hollywood and Broadway. The Harold and Kumar franchise is sort of an exception. This premise of APAs not being good enough to cast as a lead in a role has a long history, and the La Jolla Playhouse drama is not the first or last. They don't believe APAs can draw a theater audience to sell seats. There are examples.

The original production of Miss Saigon takes the wedding cake, the birthday cake, and the upside down cake combined. The fact that the main female protagonist was cast with a Filipina not Vietnamese is intriguing. Lea Salonga is good, but it seems like Hollywood would prefer to import their leading Asian actresses. The fact that the role is being a bargirl doesn't help much in terms of stereotypes of Asian women either. Most of the big Hollywood success stories of Asian male actors are from Asia: Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li, Jackie Chan. To a certain extent Ken Watanabe, but that was Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima. If there are Asians in Hollywood leads, they are most often imported. Having Jonathan Pryce cast as the Eurasian brothel owner just reinforced what I call the lack of belief in the marketing power of APAs. They cast him because he was a name, and Caucasian. Only authentic Asians need apply or a substitute will be found. If they cast, Chow Yun Fat, maybe they would have tried, but he doesn't do musicals. Did "The Nightingale" surprise me? No.

The other thing is that we are foreign, but unfortunately not foreign enough for some people. One of the more basic problems about the existential condition of APAs in the USA is that many Americans perceive all Asians as being the foreigner first. Even if you were born and raised in the US of A, you are still asked if you speak English. This is not isolated to Caucasians. Blacks ask the same question. Mexicans call all Asians, chino. There is a disconnect between our appearance and what we are. This plays a role in casting which is more of a sympton of a wider existential condition.

In the David Henry Hwang's interview about his production of Yellowface (His meditation on the Miss Saigon Controversy), he gets into this entire thing about identity and race. You can watch it and come up with your own opinions.

There may be more basic issues--ethnic diversity. Because America is largely a heterogenous society composed of multiple ethnic communities and cultures, you don't have a cohesive American identity tied to ethnicity and to culture. Thailand and Vietnam, however, do have clear national ethnic identities. They are very proud of their country. With APAs, we are sort of stuck, sort of like Black and Hispanics. Blacks sort of have the identity of being slaves and a part of the history of the making of the country, however, the negative aspects. Mexicans, well, some view parts of the USA as originally Mexico, and so, they feel connected. For APAs, we love our country, but our country doesn't necessarily love us. Despite the Chinese building half the transcontinental railroad, APAs are not often included in the melting pot discussion, except during Asian Pacific History Month. For the most part, Hollywood and Broadway have shunned domestically raised APAs. Even a role that obviously screams for casting an Asian will probably get cast with some white guy or a guy who sort of looks Asian if they can't get someone like a Japanese Actor Ken Watanabe to play the role. There are some pretty glaring examples of this practice. One is from the 80s. The other is from the 70s.

Joel Grey was cast as an Korean martial arts master in the 1985 film, Remo Williams. This was really bad yellowface. The makeup really sucks.

I sort of find it difficult that you couldn't find one single Asian American actor to play a martial arts master. Can you say Mister Miyagi anyone? I think there is a reason why people remember The Karate Kid, not Remo Williams. Some things are less clear. Kung Fu the TV series of the 1970s is one show that is really mixed. I like the show, but the history of the show still stings.

It seems that Asian characters can be cast with White actors, especially if it calls for a mixed race character. David Carradine of Kung Fu is a good example. Bruce Lee came up with the concept, but they didn't let him play the part. America's rejection ended up with a number of Hong Kong flicks that rocked the world, so in a way, it ended up producing some great martial arts films. By rejecting him, they created the legend. Still, if you look at Kung Fu the TV series, APAs did get some good parts, but unfortunately, nothing allowed them to be the lead. Most often, they were given supporting mentoring roles. I call it the old martial arts mentor of young white dude role. Perpetual supporting actors roles seem to be standard fare of APA actors. You would think this perpetual support role slot would have changed since the 70s Kung Fu series. Apparently, it hasn't. Instead of casting changes, they change the entire project now.

The La Jolla Playhouse didn't perceive the casting as an issue. Why? The funny thing is that even White people often get miffed when things get cast in a whitewashed way. They made DragonBall into a live action film with White actors. Bad reviews. They made The Last Airbender, which has obvious Asian characters, with mostly white actors. Most stayed home. There were machinations to make the seminal anime movie, Akira, with white actors. Why the need to pull a David Carradine?

The 18 Mighty Mountain Warrior, sketch comedy team, often explore this issue. Sometime comedy is more effective than a rant. In this piece, the children speak. Right now, if they made the film, I would ignore it like I ignored the other anime based films. By de-asianizing it, you lose the soul of the story. I've heard that they've optioned the Japanese film, Battle Royale. Somehow, I think if they remake it with an all white cast, it will suck. Besides, they already made it already with The Hunger Games. I believe there is such a thing as an Asian aesthetic.

So, what to think of it all? America is one mighty screwed up country. We think of race relations having improved recently. I'm not sure. The racial overtones over Obama is disturbing. Recent articles by the AP say that things are mixed. The Associated Press article, "In Obama Era, has race relations improved," shows some contradictory polling and responses.

My other suspicion is that they just cast their friends. If you want to cast APAs, you have to create the forums for them. People often pull out of their networks, and if their networks are not that extensive, you get what you get.

Interesting comparison. Thailand had a similar casting beef a long time ago. The King is held in high esteem here. 1st Rule of Thailand, "Don't mess with the King." Second rule, refer back to first rule. Remember, The King and I, that musical that became Yul Brynner's meal ticket. It's about Thailand or late 1800s Siam. It's based on basically a British nanny's impression of being a nanny to Asians. Most Americans are exposed to Thailand through this musical. Note: Yul was not Thai, but rather Russian American. King Mongkut is Thai. That sucker is banned here. Production, film, book. Et al. It's considered insulting. The casting was insulting. The storyline is insulting. The history is flawed with inaccuracies. It's Banned. Thailand does not suffer such orientalism lightly.

I guess if you want to do a play or a film about Asia with Asian actors, do it in Asia. If you want to recast a version of Miss Saigon or Madame Butterfly, do it in Asia. Maybe we all have to become cultural Bruce Lee warriors to make it happen. But then, APA Purgatorio is sort of like The Train Station in The Matrix. It's hard to break out. The Train Man is always around to keep you there. You must do what you must do. At least one Eurasian actor got to lead in a franchise.