Filipinos and karaoke have always gone together like spam and rice. There’s a rich, compulsively joyful liturgy of music inherent in Fil-Am culture that permeates every gathering I have ever witnessed. Whether that’s my eight-year-old niece nervously singing “Let It Go” or Uncle Frank leading us in Methodist hymns on a poorly-tuned baby grand–we can’t help ourselves. We are deeply moved by music (bonus points if it’s an earnest 80s ballad). It’s in the water; it’s in our bones.
Which leads me to my point: Filipinos loooove Miss Saigon. We will lecture you about Lea Salonga and Jon-Jon Briones till the cows come home. We will sing that shit in the bathroom with our toothbrush microphone. Miss Saigon is a mood. If you’re confused as to why Filipinos flock to a tragic musical about Vietnamese people, it is for two reasons: 1) the music is bursting with operatic pathos, which is exactly what gets us in the feels, and 2) historically, the Vietnamese roles have been cast with Filipino actors. SparkNotes version*: when Boublil and Shonberg were touring Southeast Asia in search of a cast, they found no substantial pool of talent until they got to Manila. In Manila, they were swimming with so much talent they set up a school just to feed the audition pool. Yes, the producers Christopher Columbussed Filipino talent, effectively opening a channel for Filipino artists to immigrate and become bona fide Broadway stars.
Which is why, against my better judgment, I dragged my parents to the national tour of Miss Saigon at the Pantages in Los Angeles this summer. A Fil-Am org in the performing arts was offering group tickets and a reception at my Uncle’s restaurant—complete with an accompanist. Sheet music was highly encouraged, and present and past cast members were expressly invited. I thought, as a theatre artist, it’d be a lovely night out to see a show that literally put Filipinos on the map in my field. Yes, I was aware of the problematic schema—including the erasure of *actual* Vietnamese actors—but selfishly, I wanted to experience the show as an awkward piece of Fil-Am history for myself. Plus, I was probably contributing to the salaries of a dozen Pinoy actors, who in turn were probably Western Unioning a chunk of that back home to Lola. Rationale enough for this coastal liberal elitist.
What awaited me was truly a mortifying spectacle. To say age does not become her would not even begin to describe the depth of Miss Saigon’s 21st century flaws. The story wallows in its white guilt at the expense of brown, fetishized bodies that must reenact the trauma of the famous “helicopter scene” night after night. On top of that, the show asks an atrocious amount of physical and emotional labor from the principal artist’s body for a character that has no agency at any point in the story. The Engineer is touted as comic relief when there’s really nothing funny about a man selling native women’s bodies to white men in order to assert his masculinity. Suffice to say I cried my way through the entire show–and I guarantee you, it was not for the same reasons as those sniffling around me.
And yet, I walked into a warm, joyful party that celebrated Fil-Ams in the arts and the show that was the sole opportunity for our bodies and voices for a long, long time. We cried when an original cast member nailed “Bring Him Home” and told us the story of how he got cast with no headshot and borrowed sheet music. We greeted and gawked at the cast members that came in spite of the late hour after a double show day. We laughed at that guy that insisted the white principal cast member sing with him. We made merry over pancit palabok and classic Broadway tunes and so much red wine.
There’s an odd cognitive dissonance between the cultural imperative of “go be a dentist” and the unflagging braggadocio of a Fil-Am who’s just mentioned Lea Salonga for the umpteenth time. We can’t help but collectively tout our artistic successes, and yet cultural Fil-Am narrative actively works against young artists trying to make something of their raw talent. The raw talent is pervasive, but rarely is it encouraged to develop into a career worth pursuing.
The work of the decolonizing artist, then, is to resist this survival mechanism of our parents and elders by taking stock of the oppressive stories and systems in place. Second, it is to heal the intergenerational trauma that stifles our artists’ voices and makes us dependent on our colonizer’s art and opportunity—to practice radical self-healing by demanding space and resources as artists. And, third, it is to make art that both honors those that have torn oceans in half to be here and imagines the better, liberated life that they still strive for.
This is the tragedy that I see in slow motion: Filipinos, to this day, have precious few compelling narratives that demonstrate resistance or agency on stage or screen. In that frightful absence, many still see Miss Saigon as a beacon of representation, and that simply could not be further from the truth. And until we are able to collectively nurture our children into generative, free-thinking artists, we will never be free of the colonizers’ voices singing sweetly in our heads.
The work of the decolonizing artist, then, is to forget: to forget that sad, intellectually impoverished musicals like this ever existed. It is also to remember: remember our own stories worth telling, our own music worth spell-binding so that the power of old colonizer’s tales simply fades away. The work is to one day simply say, “Tita, we don’t have to sing those songs anymore – we have our own songs now.”
And the memory of a bleeding Kim fades into the blood-red sunset.
*of a great book which you should definitely, definitely read: Puro Arte by Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns