During my time at university, all I could write were my parents’ boat stories. The magnitude of what they had been through overwhelmed me. I compared my experiences as a second-generation Vietnamese-Australian to theirs, and mine felt less worthy of articulating. Some days I’d imagine myself as part of the 5T drug-dealing gangs in Cabramatta during the 90s. Others, I’d imagine that I had fought in the Vietnam War, piecing together fragments of anecdotes my parents told me about being conscripted, rationing food, or dodging bullets and bombs. As a Vietnamese-Australian, I just did not think that my experiences could extend beyond these narratives, and as an Asian woman, beyond the trope of being a submissive sex object.
I was four years old when I first saw Miss Saigon in 1995. Ba, my father, had bought tickets for our family to see it at Capitol Theatre after his engineering colleagues told him, ‘Mate, you should take your missus to see it. It’s bloody fantastic!’ It was his first time driving out to the city, so we left Yagoona two hours early that weekend. Ba’s wide, tanned hands gripped the steering wheel so hard the moles across his knuckles popped up like skittles. The tailend of our maroon Holden swerved as he turned left out of Church Road and out onto the Hume Highway. I sat in the backseat with my mother Mẹ. She was wearing her best outfit—beige trousers like toffee against her pale skin, and a matching blazer from Cue with crooked stitching on one of the cuffs. My aunty sewed for Cue out of her garage a few streets away, and often sold some of the clothes cheaply or gave away defects for free. When we arrived at Capitol Theatre, Mẹ rolled back the sleeves of the blazer, burying the wonky bit beneath the satin lining.
Miss Saigon was no fun. I squirmed in my seat throughout the entire production, my mouth powdery from a musky perfume a woman in front of me was wearing. Ba, Mẹ and I were the only Asian people in the audience, watching white men on stage dressed in khaki uniforms, dancing with Vietnamese bargirls against a backdrop that glowered red like a slap to the face. Kim, the shy Vietnamese girl, spends her first night as a sex worker with an American named Chris, but refuses to take his money because she’s inexperienced. They fall in love, they marry. Yet even though he promises to take her to America with him, he leaves her behind, pregnant with their child Tam. Three years later, Chris returns to Bangkok with his new American wife Ellen, and they are reunited with Kim and Tam. Kim urges them to take Tam to America with them, but they refuse. Apparently, this pushes Kim to shoot herself, leaving Chris and Ellen with her son as she dies in Chris’s arms. This story merited a standing ovation.
A walrus-faced, elderly man wiped some tears away with a chorizo finger and blew his nose on his pocket square. The perfumed woman in front of me clapped with such vigour the pearls around her throat rattled, her blue eyes glistening with tears. ‘What a heartbreaking story,’ she gasped at her bald husband wearing a fuzzy blue Ralph Lauren sweater over his shoulders. My parents remained seated until the rest of the crowd filed out through the exits.
‘Did Kim really have to shoot herself?’ Mẹ wondered aloud as we drove back down the Hume Highway. Ba shrugged. His lips were straight, knuckles bulging on the steering wheel. Mẹ rolled down the sleeves of her blazer, and I saw the crooked line of stitching clearly against the beige wool fabric. The thread caught the sunlight streaming through the windows of the Holden, and it shone like a jagged scar. As Ba reached a familiar turn in the Hume Highway his shoulders relaxed. He began to hum his favourite song, ‘Biển Tình’ (Ocean of Love) by Vietnamese singer Thanh Tuyền. When we reached our fibro-clad home in Yagoona, Ba put in a Thanh Tuyền album into his Sony CD player. Her quavery voice could be heard from the kitchen to the garage. She sings about love, about loss in the Vietnam War. There’s not a single song about white American soldiers calling Vietnamese women ‘slits’, or Vietnamese women trying to sleep with white soldiers.
My first Valentine’s Day card said ‘Will you be my Miss Saigon?’ The words were written in red biro, a sickly cursive style, loops extending from the end of one letter to latch onto the next. The pen had been pressed so deep into the white cardboard it bumped out the other side. A pink satin ribbon threaded through a hole in the card was tied around the stem of a rose. I was fourteen at the time, and I thought being Mike Dudley’s Miss Saigon was the best it could get for me on the dating scene. He called himself a ‘Fair Dinkum Aussie’. I asked him about the origins of his ancestors, but he said ‘Babe, I’m Anglo. And stop asking me where I come from, that’s racist!’ I spent nine and a half days clutching his sweaty cookie-dough hand to school, until my parents found out and put me in extra tutoring.
Looking back on Miss Saigon, my reaction today to the colonialist representations of my cultural identity is to be thoroughly grossed out. Productions of the play often cast non-Vietnamese actors and producers. In 1991, protests were held before the opening of Miss Saigon on Broadway over the casting of white actors such as Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian man. The only Vietnamese woman I could find cast in the main role of Kim was Jacqueline Nguyen, who performed in a 2012 production of Miss Saigon at La Mirada Theatre in California. Regarding that performance, Nguyen states in a press interview with The Orange County Register that some parts of Miss Saigon actually reflected her mother’s life. Yet, despite there being Vietnamese actors with relevance to the role, productions often cast actors of Filipino or Japanese descent as Kim. This is problematic in itself, portraying Asian people as interchangeable under a white gaze.
This interchangeability of Asian cultures is further demonstrated in the origins of Miss Saigon. The musical was written by two non-Vietnamese playwrights, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, and premiered at the Theatre Royal in London in 1989. I use the word ‘written’ loosely because Miss Saigon is not an original. Instead, it’s transplanted from the opera Madame Butterfly, a similar story of a Japanese woman abandoned by her American husband. When he returns to meet their son, she too commits suicide. First performed in 1903, Madame Butterfly is still staged over a century later for audiences across the world. Sydney’s Capitol Theatre recently hosted the production and called it ‘a grand event in Sydney’s cultural calendar’.
The best way for writers from minority backgrounds to dismantle these stereotypes is to have safe spaces. Without them, we cannot thrive outside narratives that only re-circulate colonialist perspectives. In 2011, I met Stephen Pham, a fellow Vietnamese-Australian writer from Western Sydney. I was working at SBS Radio at the time and wanted to connect with fellow second-generation Vietnamese-Australians for a show I was producing. My cousin told me about Stephen, his colleague at the time, introducing him as ‘another artsy type of Viet like you’. I stalked Stephen on Facebook, asked him for an interview, and we hung out at Cabravale Memorial Park in Cabramatta to talk about writing. We sat in the grass and watched two Bács (oldies) walking to their parked Toyota after an arvo of shopping. Bác gái wore a wide brimmed canvas hat to shield her, and she pulled along a shopping trolley with wheels that squeaked against the grey asphalt. As she passed us, I could smell the minty, deep-purple Perilla leaves sticking out of her trolley. Bác Trai hobbled behind her, square tanned toes sticking out of his Colorado sandals, clutching plastic bags with bundles of meat wrapped in butcher’s paper. On one of the park benches, a Viet teenage couple in their school uniforms sat under the shadows of a eucalyptus tree, holding hands and drinking from the same plastic cup of bubble tea. This was a safe space, where we were surrounded by our own community and each other’s stories. I felt at ease bouncing ideas off Stephen, and it helped me challenge myself to write the Vietnamese-Australian experience away from stereotypes that already existed.
In 2014, I joined Sweatshop Writers’ Collective, a Western Sydney literacy movement comprised of writers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities. There, I was introduced to the philosophy of cultural theorist bell hooks, who explores how young people from marginalised backgrounds reclaim, celebrate and represent their own stories as a form of empowerment. By engaging with her writing on feminism and social activism, I was challenged to view popular culture and literature in the context of patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism. I was finally able to understand why I felt so grossed out by inaccurate depictions of my cultural identity by those outside my community. What was left to do was to break free from the stereotypes limiting me, and instead focus on reclaiming the narrative and speaking truth about life as a second-generation Vietnamese-Australian woman. During our Sweatshop workshops, I watched as other writers from CALD communities wrote stories reclaiming their experiences, stories unheard of in popular media.
When productions of Miss Saigon cast non-Vietnamese actors and production staff, audiences are fed a story concocted by people who will never know what it means to be a Vietnamese woman. Yet, it is Vietnamese women left with this burden of misrepresentation. It seeps into every aspect of our lives. The veneration of Miss Saigon as a lauded narrative of Vietnamese women obliterates our diversity and complexity. As a Vietnamese-Australian woman from Western Sydney, whenever I was called a ‘good little Vietnamese girl’ during an internship, or asked if I ‘worship white guys’, I felt the effects of that narrative. The words may not be directly from the script of Miss Saigon, but these are lingering stereotypes perpetuated by the production. When I was a younger Vietnamese-Australian writer, they effectively blocked my ability to produce stories that were true to my experiences.
Vietnamese-American academic Diem-My Thi Bui explores why stereotypes of Vietnamese women’s experiences persist in her 2008 dissertation for the University of Illinois. Bui highlights how various representations of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American women often fall into categories such as the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps model minority, the prostitute/bride of white men, or as the Third World labourer. Bui hypothesises that the circulation of these similar narratives benefit the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. As one example, she draws connections between the lifting of the US embargo on Vietnam in 1994 with transnational corporations employing Vietnamese women as cheap labor for their production lines. The United States can profit culturally, economically and politically off the backs of Vietnamese women if we are forever the labourers, lovers and eternally-grateful model minority of their fantasies. And to offer an Aussie example, during the mid-80s to mid-90s, my mother and aunts took home hundreds of kilos of fabric from major Australian labels and sewed for 15 hours a day. For each garment sewn, my mother and aunts earned 10% of the selling price of that garment. $8 for a shirt, $10 for a pair of pants.
But when you choose to search for real Vietnamese-Australian stories, you find them tenfold. In October this year, I participated in Boundless, The Festival of Diverse Writers. I found comfort in hearing from Vietnamese-Australian playwright Hoa Pham, who recalled how she found a sense of community when she met Chi Vu, Dominic Golding and Phuong Ngo, fellow Vietnamese-Australian artists in Melbourne. She then spoke of her journey founding the online magazine Peril for Asian-Australian voices, which she founded in 2007 with a group of like-minded artists. And beyond this, in June I was one of the facilitators of a workshop for the Stella Girls Write Up program. There I heard about personal struggles with writing, similar to mine, expressed by several young Vietnamese-Australian women whom I met at the program earlier this year. There was Emma from Guildford, a year 12 student, who said, ‘My life isn’t as interesting as my parents’ boat stories, and I feel bad for writing about taboo topics like gambling and PTSD.’ And then there was Mai from Birrong, a year 9 student, who asked me, ‘How do I get into the entertainment industry in Vietnam instead of being an extra on Underbelly?’
My co-facilitators at the Stella program were Tongan-Australian writer Winnie Dunn and Armenian-Australian author Tamar Chnorhokian. Winnie and Tamar commenced the workshop with a simple exercise: write about your street. Mai from Birrong wrote about beating her little brother in a handball game after school, while Emma from Guildford wrote about sneaking out of her house at night to buy falafel wraps at the kebab shop down the road. Neither Mai nor Emma’s experiences feature any semblance to the meek and blindly loyal Kim of Miss Saigon. As we continued listening to each girl in the room, we heard of thirty different streets, thirty different faces of Australia. This, was perhaps, the grandest event in Sydney’s cultural calendar.
Shirley Le is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Western Sydney and a member of Sweatshop. She received the WestWords Emerging Writers Fellowship in 2017 and has been published in SBS Online, The Lifted Brow and Griffith Review. She has performed at the Sydney Writers Festival, the Sydney Festival and the Wollongong Writers Festival.