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  • The Transnational Vision of Miss Saigon:Performing the Orient in a Globalized World
  • Tzu-I Chung (bio)

At the beginning of the new millennium, the Philippines welcomed Miss Saigon as the nation's "musical event of the decade" ("Pride" par.1). In 2000, the musical generated phenomenal ticket sales and renewed what journalists termed "Saigon Mania" from the early 1990s in Manila (Tolentino), where local critics declared it worth watching "even if you have to pay a leg and an arm" ("Miss Saigon Is Home" par. 33). Its sponsor was the Ang Bayang Makulay Foundation, established by Joseph Victor Ejercito, the son of former president of the Philippines Joseph Estrada. Also the recipient of endorsements and security assistance from leaders of the opposing political parties, Miss Saigon, Manila, was seen as unifying the Philippines ("Miss Saigon Unifies"). Manila was the only Asian city where the original British production team held auditions in their ostensibly worldwide search for the female lead, Kim, and where they found Lea Salonga for the premiere and other young Filipinas in following years. Manila was the first city to stage the musical for its international tours in Asia, and the only Asian production that received immediate coverage on CNN network (Ressa). After Manila, Miss Saigon traveled to major cities in East and Southeast Asia, including Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Hong Kong, and most recently Seoul, where it has consistently enjoyed box-office success.

I examine the transnational productions of Miss Saigon in London, New York, and Manila as a case study of the post-Cold War circulation of American neocolonial cultural expressions.1 I use the term transnational, because each location is a part of "a world system, in which the exchange of commodities, the flow of capital, and the iterations of cultures know no borders" (Fishkin 8). Different nations' economic and political systems have historically been brought into increasingly closer cooperation by integrated market capitalism in the past centuries.2 On the one hand, globalization points to the homogenizing effect of this development. On the other hand, multidirectional interaction, intersection, contact, conflict, appropriation, and synergy and synapse between nations, cultures, and [End Page 61] individuals inform the "hybridities and fluidities" that define the transnational aspect of this world system (Fishkin 7-8). This study of Miss Saigon as a terrain of struggle and negotiation provides new meanings of Americanness and Filipino/a identity. Just as the Philippines appeared on the US imperialist map as America's gateway to Asia at the turn of the twentieth century, Manila has been a vital site for the transnational production of Miss Saigon at the turn of this century. Building on and extending the Asian American Studies scholarship on Miss Saigon and cultural studies approaches of political economy, I examine this musical at the tenuous intersections between national identities, colonial history, orientalist heteropatriarchal fantasies, and globalized capitalism.3

Miss Saigon is a commercially popular and critically contested musical closely associated with Filipino/as and Asian Americans. Despite the publicity surrounding the protests from Asian American theater and activist communities, the musical was hailed a "legend" at its 1991 New York premiere (Kroll). The buzz resulted in the largest advance ticket sale in Broadway history (Pogrebin par. 5). Later that year, Salonga, the Filipina actress who originated the title role of Kim, became the first Asian to win the Tony Award for Best Actress. The musical is the eleventh-longest-running Broadway musical in musical theater history. To date, Miss Saigon is ranked the third most successful musical in British theater history; it has won thirty major awards and entertained more than thirty-one million people in eighteen countries and in nine languages ("Miss Saigon Sets").

Miss Saigon's storyline is simple: as a remake of Madama Butterfly, it relates the romance between Kim, a Vietnamese bar girl working for a Eurasian man known as the "Engineer," and Chris, a US Marine, in Saigon, 1975; Kim forsakes her betrothed cousin Thuy, a Viet Cong, to marry Chris; Chris retreats with American forces, and Kim flees to Thailand to work in the Engineer's bar, raise Chris's son, and wait for Chris; three years later, Chris returns with his...


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