Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Miss Saigon And The Bui Doi

The Vietnam War is a difficult and touchy subject, even 35 years after it ended. The legacy it has left is not one that could be referred to as a 'proud moment' in American history, but rather more an unwanted disaster that in my personal opinion should not have happened. We haven't really covered the war in any of our modules, which is a shame because it's an extremely interesting subject. I signed up to take an entire module on it in Eau-Claire, but unfortunately it did not run. But I did learn about it in my History class and the opinion of the Americans was an almost resounding 'shouldn't have happened'. The point of this week’s blog is not to give you a history of the war so I've provided this link to the BBC website.


I could talk for many hours about my opinions on the war, but I'm sure you aren’t interested in the ramblings of a mad person, so I will get to the point of my blog this week which is the 1989 musical, Miss Saigon.

Loosely based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon is set in the last 3 weeks before the fall of Saigon in 1975. In Act 1, Kim, a 17-year-old orphan is working in a sleazy Saigon bar where she and the other bar girls are raffled off on a nightly basis to the American GI's that habit this bar. Chris and John, two American GI's are there the night Kim starts her job and Chris immediately takes a liking to her. John pay's for Kim so that she and Chris can spend the night together, which they do. Chris then announces to John that he will be spending the rest of his time in Vietnam with Kim and buy's her from her pimp, The Engineer. John warns Chris that the Viet Cong are closing in and they need to get out of there. After Chris and Kim declare their love for each other, the other girls from the club sing traditional Vietnamese wedding songs and Chris and Kim are blessed.

We flash-forward 3 years to 1978 and in Ho Chi Minh City there is a celebration of the third anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam. Kim is in hiding with her little boy Tam, who yes, is Chris's son. Chris however, is on the other side of the world in bed with his wife, Ellen. He is having sleepless nights because of the war and because he believes Kim to be dead. Back in Vietnam, The Engineer has been 're-educated' (brainwashed by the new Vietnamese government and retrained to believe a communist philosophy) and has been hired, to track down Kim. After a standoff between Kim and her cousin Thuy, the new Commissar (who she was promised to at 13 but rejected him in Act 1), she kills him for wanting to kill Tam for being half-American. The Engineer tells Kim that he is now Tam's Uncle and he is their ticket to the US. They set out to Bangkok with the rest of the 'boat people' (name given to refugees).

In Act 2, John now works for an agency that works to find Bui Doi (children of American GI's and Vietnamese mothers) and connect them with their fathers. John tells Chris that Kim is still alive and also about Tam. He suggest that he, Chris and Ellen go to Bangkok and find them. When John finds Kim, he doesn't have the heart to tell him that he's remarried. The Engineer doesn't trust John, and tells Kim to find Chris herself, so she runs off in search of him. She suffers flashbacks of the day Chris left. The South Vietnamese people were trying to break through the gates of the US Embassy and there is a huge helicopter on top of the roof waiting to whisk the GI's away. Minutes later, the Viet Cong finally break through.

Back in 1978, Kim finds Ellen in Chris's hotel room where she begs Ellen to take Tam to America so he can have a better life. When Ellen refuses and says Chris feels the same, Kim flees and tries to find Chris. When John and Chris turn up at the hotel, Ellen tells them what happened but Chris remains adamant that he will stay with Ellen and provide monetary support for Tam, but from the US. Kim lies to The Engineer and tells him they are still going to the US, to his delight and he sings a song called ‘The American Dream’ and sings about how he plans to manipulate it to his gains. When the three Americans show up, the Engineer takes them to see Kim and Tam. When they arrive, Kim tells her son that he should be happy now that he has a father. She says that she cannot go with him but she will always be watching over him. The Engineer brings Tam outside to meet his father, at which point, Kim steps behind a curtain and shoot's herself. She lay's dying in Chris's arms as they share one final kiss before the curtain falls and Kim dies.

Miss Saigon is one of my favourite musicals, not just because of the powerful numbers, but because of the background that it is based upon. It was actually created by French Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, Tunisian-born Lyricist Alain Boubil and American Lyricist Richard Maltby Jr, so it wasn't too heavily influenced in one direction or another. The inspiration for the story was this photo of a child being taken away from her mother to start a new life in America.

Claude-Michel Schonberg said, “The silence of this woman stunned by her grief was a shout of pain louder than any of the earth’s laments. The child’s tears were the final condemnation of all wars which shatter people who love each other. Behind this particular picture lay a background of years of enquiries and bureaucratic formalities, in order to find the ex-solider from the other side of the world, with whom the woman had shared a brief moment of her life. She knew, as only a mother could, that beyond this departure gate there was both a new life for her daughter and no life at all for her, and that she had willed it. This photograph was for Alain and I, was the start of everything… ”

The main themes of the story are the about the ones who were left behind to suffer the consequences after Saigon fell on April 30th 1975 and those who had to make the ultimate sacrifice. 58,000 American troops were killed during the war and the number of Vietnamese is actually uncalculated. What really choke's me up about the war is not the trauma the American Veteran's have suffered, or how the US Government have failed to look after their own military but the poor children who were fathered by the American GI's and then left without a second thought. The Bui-Doi or 'Dust of Life' are at the heart of Miss Saigon. If it wasn’t for Tam, then Kim could have probably lived with the memory of Chris and as painful as it was, she could have probably moved on. But being left to raise a child that would be rejected by society would be a truly horrific task to handle. What many people don’t realise is that because these poor children were 'half-caste' they were seen as children of the enemy. One of the songs in Miss Saigon is called 'Let Me See His Western Nose'. Because these children were American in appearance, they were rejected by society because so much hatred was geared towards the US in the aftermath of the war. Some were lucky enough to be airlifted out of Vietnam in Operation Babylift, a plan formulated by President Gerald Ford. Some 3,300 Amerasian children and orphans of war were flown to countries like the US, Canada, France and Australia. In 1989 the Amerasian Homecoming Act was implemented meaning that any child born to an American father was allowed to emigrate to the US with members of their immediate family. Exact numbers are unclear, but it is believed that 23,000 Amerasians and 68,000 of their relatives arrived in the US under this act. I would like to say that they were welcomed with opened arms, but alas, this isn't the case.

Shockingly, only 3% of Amerasian immigrants had been successful in actually meeting their fathers. According to a study by Ohio State University, only 76% wanted to meet their father and only 30% knew their fathers names. The reality of the situation was that the fathers did not want to know their illegitimate children. Embarrassment, fear, and memories of a forgotten past were things that kept the children away from knowing true happiness with the father's that could have provided a better life for them. Children born between 1962 and 1975 would have been grown up by the time they emigrated, but because they were shunned in their home countries, they were poorly educated and unable to find jobs. Aside from not able to provide for themselves they also face the barrier of not being able to take part in the naturalisation process because they do not know English, thus rendering them alienated on both sides. Once they were scattered across the US but now much like the Italian, Latino and Jewish communities, you will find them in their own little hub in metropolis type cities where they can speak their native tongue and they can work at low-level paying jobs, trying to live above the poverty line. 'Dust of Life' is meant to bring about connotations of children who have been abandoned and who drift through life without a purpose. Unfortunately, this is exactly what they are.

Of course there are action groups to help these poor people, but the damage has already been done. Boat People SOS (BPSOS) is a group operating out of Virginia that aims to "empower, organize, and equip Vietnamese individuals and communities in their pursuit of liberty and dignity." It is a step in the right direction but 35 years on from the end of the war, we are still reminded of the effects. The 80s was a very poignant decade for films to made about the war. Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Full Metal Jacket are just some of the films that were made. Most depictions paint the Americans as the heroes, but if you step back and think for a minute, you have to wonder whether they really are. Of course, Ho Chi Minh needed to be stopped, but at what cost? Despite being produced at the end of the 80s, Miss Saigon was a reminder that Vietnam is not something that is going to be forgotten easily. Through the words of the song and the tragic love story that was almost doomed from the beginning, an audience is reminded that war affects everyone, even the generational gap. And sometimes, you have to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good.

The US may have lost the battle, but they won the war. The biggest Nike factory in the world is based in Vietnam. But who work in those factories? The Bui Doi? I'd like for us all just to think about that the next time we're pounding the concrete or pushing ourselves at the gym.

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