War Before Memory: A Vietnamese American Protest Organizer's History Against 'Miss Saigon'

September 24, 2013


This post was originally published at 18MillionRising.org.

Photo by Anna S. Min.

By Bao Phi

(Italicized words are lyrics taken from the libretto of 'Miss Saigon')

I’m born in Saigon, just inside the Year of the
Tiger. My dad is half Vietnamese, half Chinese. My mom is mostly Vietnamese,
she’s pretty sure. Both lovers of poetry, they name me Thien-bao: treasure from

Three months later, bombs are falling from the
sky as they shell the airport, trying to kill us. My mom and dad take turns
holding me in the bomb shelter, as the world around us shook and exploded all
night. I don’t learn this until years later, and it’s an odd thing to hear from
your own family: we were almost killed before you had the ability to form


 “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

the heat is on in Saigon

is there a war going on?

don't ask, I ain't gonna tell”

1975, my parents raise six kids and take care
of my paternal grandfather in Phillips, South Minneapolis. Our house is two
blocks from Little Earth housing projects. The neighborhood is densely
populated with American Indians, a people who know about a great many things,
including broken American promises. Many years later, as a teenager, I’ll march
with American Indian activists in solidarity as they protest a visiting
football team that, like Miss Saigon, claims to honor the people that
they exploit. I’ll also read somewhere that Phillips is the largest, poorest,
and most racially diverse neighborhood in the Twin Cities.

But when I was a little kid, I just knew it was
rough. My earliest experience with multiculturalism is on the school bus: kids
of all hues, from all over the world, call me chink.


When I was a baby, I didn’t have to do much to
escape death. Growing up in Phillips, I soon realized that a lot of people in
the world wanted to hurt me. Because I was Vietnamese, because I was Asian,
because I was not like them, because I was not a part of their crew, because I
was around and they were bored, because I was not white and therefore
suspicious, because they had been hurt and wanted to hurt someone else, because
I could never be American. I learned to be fast on my feet. Rumor has it, one
of my distant relatives was an activist who fled from China and took up an
assumed surname: Phi, meaning swift, fast running or flying. In Phillips I live
up to my namesake.


I’m not more than ten when my dad brings me to
an Oriental – excuse me, Asian – grocery store in Saint Paul. While he shops, I
go to the front of the store to watch a young white boy play a video game.
Other small Asian boys flock there too, quietly watching him play. His older
sister glares at us, and says to her brother, “these gooks are surrounding us.”
As if we were the ones who torched her people’s hamlets.


the meat is cheap in Saigon

I used to love getting stoned, waking up
with some whore

I don't know why I went dead, it's not fun

Around the same time, my mom takes me to
Frank’s Nursery and Crafts. She loves to garden, and they’re having a sale.
When the salesclerk finishes ringing us up, my mom looks at the final price and
says, I think it’s too much. The clerk checks and says, no, this is what you
owe. My mom asks her to check it again, so she goes over the receipt. There is
a long line of customers behind us; they start to shuffle uncomfortably. The
cashier says she checked – there’s nothing wrong, pay up. My mom hesitates,
then says, “no, you are wrong, it’s too much.” The people behind us groan, and
the look they give my mom is unmistakable. They don’t have to say it. The way
my mom’s shoulders get stiff, shows all of us she can feel their glares. The
manager comes over. He checks the receipt, and finds that the cashier hit 22
instead of 2, and tried to overcharge my mom by $40 dollars. The people in line
behind us murmur, embarrassed at their assumption, and chuckle uncomfortably.
But my mom doesn’t wait for an apology from any of them – she sets her lips,
holds my hand, and we leave without looking back.


the Cong is tight'ning the noose

is it a week or a day or an hour that we

tonight could be our last shot got to put it
to use.”

I’m a teenager, shopping with my mom for
groceries at Cub Foods. In the parking lot, a Vietnam Vet starts shouting at a
Hmong family, two parents and two kids. “I fought for your people, you owe me!”
he screams at them. They don’t look at him, they keep walking, their shoulders
turn in towards each other as if they’re trying to make themselves as small a
target as possible. I see this and I want to say something, but I don’t. I feel
like an unlit match.


The first Persian Gulf War, and I have two
brothers in the military overseas. I fancy myself a teenage activist. I go to
all the rallies and say my family has already been torn apart by war once, I
don’t want to see it happen again, don’t want to see it happen to another
country and culture and people. Even though I am still living in Phillips, I am
only attracted to white women, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with
that. In my high school, the Vietnamese students in the Asian club ask me why I
get involved in all of these political causes but never participate in Asian
club. I have no answer for them.


you must
see how it is when you're my wife

having that
child of his brands us for life

alternative! This child cannot live!

is a play about a Vietnamese
prostitute in desperate need of rescue from evil Vietnamese men and the
war-torn Third World. It may be a nice place to visit but it sure doesn’t seem
like a good place to raise kids. Shut your mouth - there’s a helicopter in it!
On stage! The production values! Well there were helicopters in Vietnam, and
prostitutes, and white soldiers, and bad Vietnamese
men, and mixed race orphans, so the play must be historically accurate and
shit. The Vietnamese woman shoots herself in the stomach so she can sing one
last song while dying in the arms of the white man. When I was much, much
younger, I ask my mom if she wants to go see this play, because it’s about
Vietnam. She shakes her head and says, in Vietnamese, “that is not about us.”
She says it like she’s explaining to me that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist.


I have no problem with stories about prostitutes, if they are written by
prostitutes wanting to tell their story.


A couple of years later, and it’s the first Miss
protest. It’s freezing, we stamp our feet on the streets of downtown
Minneapolis. Many white people walk by us in fur coats, but many of them smile
apologetically. Some of them even turn away in solidarity, and decide not to go
see Miss Saigon. An elderly woman, Esther Torii Suzuki, is protesting
with us. Over the years I grow to admire her and see her as my mentor,
treasuring her plucky stories about internment camp and wearing pantsuits.
David Mura is there, with his young daughter. The Ordway creates Community
Cultural Committees, including an Asian American one. When they bring the play
back in 1999, they don’t even mention it to the Asian American Cultural


My mom and I go to Vietnam. It’s the first time
she’s been back since the war, it’s the second time I’ve been back. I finally
get to meet my uncles, crazy Northerners, hardcore nationalists who stayed
North after Dien Bien Phu while my parents, seeking an education, went South.
Vietnamese people, you know what this means. My mom had not seen her brothers
in over 40 years due to war. They miss their little sister, they joke with her
and they lecture each other, they are kind to me, her youngest son. But
something is underneath. Whether or not they feel my dad fought for the wrong
side. The inter-village beef, the resentment that their little sister can
afford to lend them American dollars – we’re poor in America, but what few
dollars we have are gigantic in Vietnam. We can even save those big dollars,
and if we get enough, we have the privilege to buy tickets to Broadway musicals
that insist that they’re historically accurate depictions of what happened to
our family, our people.


with these two little diamonds to bait my hooks

I'll book us on a cruise
"boat-people" deluxe

don't worry 'bout the sharks out in the
Mekong bay

the pirates taking us are more scary any

The play Miss
is here in Minnesota for the second time. The actress who plays Kim,
the female lead, is in a nearby park for a meet and greet. I stand patiently in
line as men and women walk up to her, shake her hand, and tell her what an
inspiration she is. Her smile is bright but she looks tired. When it's my turn,
I smile, and I tell her I'm one of the principal organizers
of the protests of Miss Saigon here in Minnesota, but that I want to
make sure she knows we're not protesting her or any of the other Asian American
actors in the play. I've never seen a smile disappear so quickly. She tells me
I shouldn't be protesting the play because her character is a strong Asian
woman. She also says the play "tells the truth" about Vietnam. 

I tell her I was born in that country during the war.
My mom and dad survived, made sure I and my siblings survived. My mom held me
when the bombs fell. My parents raised six kids in an economically poor
neighborhood in a country that didn't want them. My parent's story tells a
truth about Vietnam too. Why isn't anyone interested in their truth? I ask her.

The woman who plays Kim says nothing - she turns away
from me, reaches for the next hand to shake, and smiles.


SPOILER ALERT: the brown person dies,
and the white people, though saddened, live to learn a valuable lesson.


I am standing on the sidewalk at the Ordway,
handing out informational leaflets with information about the stereotypes, the
racism and the sexism, of Miss Saigon. I have been instructed to be
polite, not to argue with anyone no matter how rude they are to me, to always
take the high ground in all encounters. An Asian woman drives her car slowly by
me, and her daughter, a mixed race girl no more than ten, glares at me from the
passenger side window. “You’re stupid!” she yells while looking directly at me.
“How can you protest love?” You really should be wearing a seat belt, I think
to myself. The Asian woman turns her car around in a slow loop, so that her
daughter can yell insults at me again. “You’re stupid,” she yells at me, again
and again. Her mother loops the car around about three times, glares at me
wordlessly as she drives by at a crawl each time, a cruel smile on her face, as
her young daughter harangues me from the passenger seat. It’s like groundhog’s
day for their venom. “How can you protest love?” the little girl yells at me.
You don’t even understand your own hate, I want to tell her, how can you
understand what love is?


In a strong G.I.’s embrace/flee this
life/flee this place!”

My dad
was a soldier who fought on the battlefields of his own country for 10 years
for South Vietnam, he lost his brother and sister-in-law to a bomb. Nobody ever
asks about his truth.


In 2003, Vietnamese American undercover police
officer Duy Ngo is shot by a fellow police officer. Even though the officer who
shot him opened fire with an MP5, a non-regulation sub machine gun he was not
authorized to use while on duty, nearly killing Ngo, the Minneapolis police
department attempted to blame Ngo for the incident. Duy Ngo committed suicide
in 2010.

Vietnamese men, they can’t tell when we’re
friend or foe, and pretty soon we can’t either.


Is the white man’s truth always bigger than


go on!

and shoot!

I will not change my mind!


you are still mine!


not anymore!


you're mine until we die!


is doomed

and so is your GI


get the hell out!


years later, I’m reading a book by Anthony Bourdain, a white man whom I admire. He
compares Vietnam to meeting a woman and immediately falling in love. “You
sense that given the opportunity, this is the woman you want to spend the rest
of your life-“

Stop it.


It’s now. The United States is on the brink of
bombing Syria. The Ordway is bringing Miss Saigon back to Minnesota for
the third time. This play, that romanticizes war, marches back to us on musical
heels. My parents are still in Phillips, me and my family are not too far away
– literally and figuratively. At daycare, our daughter’s surroundings are much
like mine were when I was her age – her cohort are Native American, Black,
Chicano/a, white. No one has made fun of her race or gender. Please, I beg the
world, let that last as long as possible.

I hire a babysitter so that I can go to a
community debate with the Ordway at MPR. I don’t even want to go – why waste
money and time when we know the discussion will do no good. They’ll claim that
they’re using art to provoke discussion. They will find Asians who agree with
them, then reward them. They will magnify the voices of the Asians who take
their side. They will find people who say it’s not so bad, or that there are
more important things to protest.

But I go. I am encouraged to see quite a few
Asian American community members there, and also some allies of color,
indigenous allies, female allies, white allies, queer allies, and of course,
some whose identities are intersections of all of these. Some of us in
attendance – Rose, Janet, Ed, myself, and a few others – have been a part of
some or all of the three protests against the Ordway over the last twenty
years. I’ve spent the two weeks beforehand reading and re-reading materials
about Miss Saigon, reading the text of the shitty songs, staging debates
in my head. I’m like a boxer ready to get in the ring. I want to be ready to
debate anyone, handle any argument they throw my way. I tell myself, over and
over again: don’t lose it. Be rational, no matter how stupid they are, no
matter how dismissive.

The President and CEO of the Ordway, a white woman, suggests that we all see
the show so that it can provoke feelings in us. Though several of us have in
fact seen the play, I can’t help it. “My entire family was almost wiped out in
that war,” I blurt out. “You think I need to go see your play in order to have
my emotions provoked?” There goes my resolve to avoid losing my cool.

I feel raw. Can barely sit still. I want to
vent, to rage, to add my perspective as a Vietnamese person, but I also don’t
want to dominate the conversation. I listen to several Asian American women
talk about how men assume they or their mothers are prostitutes, or see them as
submissive sex objects who will do anything for a white man - a behavior that Miss
reinforces. David Mura is there. His daughter has graduated college.
My daughter, not yet four years old, is at home. Her middle name is the
Japanese name of Esther Suzuki, who died shortly after the second protest of Miss
at the Ordway.

my child has no future, like the dust of

Our daughter has a greater chance of someone assuming she is a submissive
sex object without agency or a voice, than the Ordway promising that they won’t
bring this colonialist, racist, sexist play back. People will look at her
and assume she has it better in America than whatever country she is from,
though she was born in Saint Paul. The coproducers of the play can’t even
manage a simple apology. “We’re sorry you’re hurt,” the CEO says. That’s like
punching us in the face three times and instead of apologizing for causing us
violence, they say: sorry that you happened to get hurt by our fist.

Miss Saigon, which has been called “the
greatest love story of our time,” is an expensive production. It has raked in a
ton of money, and it will continue to do so. Human beings seem to have an
endless appetite for racism, sexism, and colonialism. Most of the people paying
hundreds of dollars to see Miss Saigon would hate to be called racists, I’m
sure, or would deny that they are supporting something that reinforces
Orientalism, sexism, and human trafficking. But they’ll open up their wallets
all the same.

At home, our daughter asks me to cut out heart
shapes from paper. She tapes them onto a large round circle from another piece
of paper. “What is this?” I ask her. “It’s a Valentine’s Day card for everyone
in the whole wide world!” she exclaims, and she means it. Her gesture of love
is inexpensive, but not cheap.


I would like to thank the many movement
organizers and friends who helped me edit and fact-check this essay, and
provided me with links and informational resources to strengthen it, especially
Juliana Hu Pegues.. I’d like to give a special thanks to Cara Van Le whose
essay “Part of Memory is Forgetting” strongly influenced the aesthetics and
voice of my essay, and also the members of the Twin Cities Don’t Buy Miss
Saigon Organizing Committees, presently and through the years.


To sign a petition boycotting "Miss
Saigon", go here.

To learn more about the "Don't Buy Miss Saigon" campaign, go here.