National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage

National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage

by Karen Shimakawa

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National Abjection explores the vexed relationship between "Asian Americanness" and "Americanness" through a focus on drama and performance art. Karen Shimakawa argues that the forms of Asian Americanness that appear in U.S. culture are a function of national abjection-a process that demands that Americanness be defined by the exclusion of Asian Americans, who are either cast as symbolic foreigners incapable of integration or Americanization or distorted into an "honorary" whiteness. She examines how Asian Americans become culturally visible on and off stage, revealing the ways Asian American theater companies and artists respond to the cultural implications of this abjection.

Shimakawa looks at the origins of Asian American theater, particularly through the memories of some of its pioneers. Her examination of the emergence of Asian American theater companies illuminates their strategies for countering the stereotypes of Asian Americans and the lack of visibility of Asian American performers within the theater world. She shows how some plays-Wakako Yamauchi's 12-1-A, Frank Chin's Chickencoop Chinaman, and The Year of the Dragon-have both directly and indirectly addressed the displacement of Asian Americans. She analyzes works attempting to negate the process of abjection-such as the 1988 Broadway production of M. Butterfly as well as Miss Saigon, a mainstream production that enacted the process of cultural displacement both onstage and off. Finally, Shimakawa considers Asian Americanness in the context of globalization by meditating on the work of Ping Chong, particularly his East-West Quartet.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822328230
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 12/05/2002
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Karen Shimakawa is Assistant Professor in the Department of English and the Asian American Studies Program at the University of California, Davis. She is coeditor of Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora, published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt


The Asian American Body Onstage
By Karen Shimakawa

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2002 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0822328232

I should be-American!"

Abjection and the Asian (American) Body

* * *

You are here like a mystery

I'm from a world that's so diff'rent from all that you are

-CHRIS, "Sun and Moon," Miss Saigon

Advance publicity for the 1991 Broadway premiere of Miss Saigon, a musical written and staged by the blockbuster team that assembled Les Misérables (French composer Alain Boublil and lyricist Claude-Michel Schöenberg, and British producer Cameron Macintosh), was a lightning rod for Asian American arts and community activists. And it was not only the Asian American community that joined the fray: the issue reverberated beyond the New York theatre community and sparked a nationwide debate on race and artistic freedom. Indeed, the controversy surrounding the casting of white British actor Jonathan Pryce in the role of a Eurasian character named "The Engineer" elicited commentary in major newspapers all over the country, from journalists as far afield from theatre as George Will and Anna Quindlen. In part because of this controversy and the show's prior successful run in London, Miss Saigon opened in New York to record-breaking advance ticket sales of $39 million and went on to become one of the mostsuccessful Broadway plays of all time by its final performance in 2001 before a sold-out house (Gerard 1991).

A recasting of Madame Butterfly set at the close of the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon tells the story of a white American GI named "Chris" and a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese prostitute named "Kim." The pair meet in a Saigon bar and fall in love days before Chris's battalion is pulled out of Saigon in the 1975 U.S. Embassy airlift. Unable to find her in the throng outside the embassy gates, Chris leaves Kim behind, unaware that she is pregnant with their child. Back in the U.S. Chris marries Ellen. Act 2 opens three years later, when Chris learns of the child and returns to Vietnam with his American wife. After learning of Chris's marriage, Kim (who has been steadfast in her belief that Chris would eventually return to save her and their child) commits suicide in order to compel Chris and Ellen to take the child back to the United States and raise him as their own.

Initially inspired by a magazine photograph, Boublil and Schöenberg immediately saw a connection between that image and Giacomo Puccini's opera and embarked on composing a sung-through musical in that vein. Schöenberg's recollection of his initial response to the photograph is notable:

The little Vietnamese girl was about to board a plane from Ho Chi Minh City Airport for the United States of America where her father, an ex-GI she had never seen, was waiting for her. Her mother was leaving her there and would never see her again.

Behind this particular picture lay a background of years of enquiries and bureaucratic formalities, in order to find the ex-soldier from the other side of the world, with whom the woman had shared a brief moment of her life.... I was so appalled by the image of this deliberate ripping apart that I had to sit down and catch my breath.... Was that not the most moving, the most staggering example of "The Ultimate Sacrifice," as undergone by Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly, giving her life for her child?

But as Angela Pao notes, commenting on Schöenberg's statement, "As Boublil and Schöenberg have so effectively demonstrated ... this was far from the ultimate sacrifice a mother could make for her child" (31, emphasis in original). Is it the image of a self-sacrificing Asian woman/mother that trips Schöenberg's memory of Madame Butterfly or the (implied) sexual liaison with a (white) American man? The two are arguably inextricable: mutually defining images of Asian femininity, each necessarily invokes the other and finds its fullest, most cathartic expression in the Butterfly narrative.

In his historical survey of U.S. theatrical representations of the Chinese, James Moy argues that the forced opening of Japan by Western traders, missionaries, and military forces in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and Japan's own aggressive campaign to colonize Asia gave rise not only to the rhetoric of "the yellow peril" but also to the basic outline of the Butterfly story, with its characteristic penchant for fatally untrustworthy Asian men and suicidal Asian women: "American dramatists," Moy observes, "with the characteristic provincialism of the Eurocentric colonialist way of looking at the world, began killing off Asians-as if to articulate an unwillingness, an impatience, or simply a lack of desire to understand" (84). This fear of Asianness, concludes Moy, manifested itself in theatrical representation as an aestheticization of dead Asians-especially, although not exclusively, dead female Asians-with Puccini's opera constituting only the most celebrated iteration in a long line of beautiful(ly) dead Asian women.

Moy traces the Butterfly plot to the 1898 short story "Madame Butterfly," by John Luther Long, although historian Endymion Wilkinson, as well as Boublil and Schöenberg, locate its origins in an earlier text, Madame Chrysanthemum (1887), the autobiography of a French naval officer (Julien Viaud) writing under the pen name Pierre Loti. The popularity of the Long story, which bears remarkable similarities to Loti's, led to a Broadway musical (Madame Butterfly: A Japanese Tragedy) staged by David Belasco in 1900. That production was attended by Puccini, presumably thus providing inspiration for his most celebrated opera (and the most widely known version of the Butterfly narrative), which debuted in 1904. The marketability of the Butterfly story did not end there, however. As Moy, Marchetti, and others point out, the story of an Asian/oriental woman sacrificing herself for a white, heterosexual (usually married) Western man (and often their biracial child) continues to be a plotline of choice in East-West romance narratives produced in the West. So pervasive is this race/gender narrative, in fact, that "in the late 20th century," surmises Angela Pao, "it is impossible to discuss Western representation of Asian women without returning to Madame Butterfly" (26).

The familiarity and availability of the image of a (suicidal) Asian woman was certainly relevant in the creation of Miss Saigon, where the play's creators began with the self-conscious objective of retelling the Butterfly story, but the implications of Pao's comment are much wider: the self-sacrifice of an Asian woman for the love of a white (Western) man has become an archetypal template, against which Asian women's sexuality is always measured in terms of self-denial/self-destruction (and often internalized racism). Thus it is entirely predictable-perhaps unavoidable-that, in wanting to tell any love story involving an Asian woman and a white man, Boublil and Schöenberg were reminded of Puccini's heroine, ninety years and nationalities/national histories notwithstanding.

The direct association between interracial romance and the Butterfly narrative is frequently also generated by a third factor (as it is in this case): militarism/military conquest. In fact, the Miss Saigon creative team readily acknowledges that the displacement or metaphorization of the diplomatic/military conflict onto an interracial love affair-specifically, the Butterfly narrative-was what they envisioned from the start: "it came to our minds immediately," recalls Boublil, "that these two people were living in short cut what these two countries-Vietnam and America-had been living" (qtd. in Behr and Steyn, 38). This link between Butterfly narratives and military/diplomatic relations is not new, for as Marchetti argues, the sexual relationship of the Butterfly narrative is frequently employed as an allegory for, or interpersonal negotiation of, larger international politics, reaffirming the West's (usually benevolent) dominance over the East: "The myth continues to function," writes Marchetti, "as a political legitimation of hegemony internationally" (108). If, as I argued in my introduction, the Vietnam War and its aftermath represent an abject history from which U.S. Americanness must repeatedly distance itself, the self-annihilation of the Vietnamese woman/Butterfly thus effects her own abnegation, leaving the U.S.-identified audience's conscience clear of blame and free of the taint of war or Vietnameseness/abjection. In other words, the Butterfly narrative, when deployed in this military setting, serves the dual (or colluded) purposes of abjecting Asianness and the traumatic memory of military defeat.

At the same time, as Susan Jeffords has argued, "Vietnam representation [in the U.S.] is thus more than a comment on a particular war: it is an emblem for the presentation of dominant cultural ideology in contemporary American society" (5). That cultural ideology, according to Jeffords, is gender: "Gender is the matrix through which Vietnam is read, interpreted, and reframed in dominant American culture," she argues. "The unspoken desire of Vietnam representation, and its primary cultural function, is to restage 'the Nam' (read: gender) in America" (53).

Jeffords's readings of representations of Vietnam and the Vietnam War position male soldiers/veterans as either defeated victims of feminization or revisionist emblems of American masculinity. Miss Saigon participates in both of these projects-especially the latter-and by mapping the Butterfly narrative onto them, the play's logic is to racialize gender difference, gender racial/national difference, and, in demarcating those differences, to abject the "Asian-feminine = female = not-American" equation in order to consolidate the "white = male = masculine = American" constellation. Indeed, in consciously fashioning the character of Chris as an allegorical stand-in for the United States, Miss Saigon focuses on and self-consciously re-creates (white) American masculinity-or rather, it consolidates Americanness as whiteness/maleness/masculinity-by abjecting Asianness as non-American/female/feminine.

U.S. lyricist Richard Maltby, hired to collaborate with Boublil and Schöenberg in translating the libretto into English, commented that "neither Claude-Michel nor Alain nor even Cameron really understood how devastating the Vietnam War was to the American psyche" (Behr and Steyn, 65). Presumably, France, too, bears a deject-abject relation to "Indochina," a historical relationship that is subsumed by-perhaps abjected through-the limited focus on the United States's involvement in Vietnam, with only passing references to France's originating role as colonists in the region. If anything, that France played a large role in instigating the devastation of the region seems to have been a source of legitimation for Boublil, who recounted feeling a sense of relief on discovering Loti's French antecedent for Puccini's American opera, "since it must not be forgotten that Vietnam was a French colony and a French mistake before it became an American one" (qtd. in Behr and Steyn, 31). This shared history of involvement in Southeast Asia constituted a source of authority for Boublil and Schöenberg, who (in promotional materials written after the start of the Pryce casting controversy) averred that "The Engineer, the half-French, half-Vietnamese wheeler-dealer [was] an actual Vietnamese type that many French and English journalists have encountered" in addition to being based on the minor character of Goro in Puccini's opera (Behr and Steyn, 32). However, Boublil claimed "insider" knowledge of both sides of the story-declaring a greater affinity with the Vietnamese victims than with the Americans, despite their (France's and the United States's) shared "mistake": "Born and raised in Tunisia," he reflected, "I had learned a sense of fatalism under another Oriental hot sky.... Kim and Thuy are familiar to me, like a friend's sister and a cousin.... I also felt very clearly that the American Dream probably meant for Vietnamese exactly what it meant to me and my school friends in Tunisia" (Behr and Steyn, 33). Thus, Boublil and presumably his collaborator distance or demarcate themselves from France's abject historical relationship to Indochina/Vietnam by projecting that guilt/responsibility onto the United States and at times by identifying with the Vietnamese victims as a way of deferring affiliation with a United States that is (perhaps more spectacularly) saddled with the abject burden of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

The show accomplishes this task by avoiding even the superficial moral ambiguities of Puccini's narrative. Schöenberg states flatly (and without further elaboration), "We didn't want Chris to be a bastard like Pinkerton" (Behr and Steyn, 30), and indeed the published/performed version of the character has very little in common with the worldly, womanizing, callous, and aggressive American in Puccini's opera. Rather, Miss Saigon labors to establish Chris as well intentioned and without fault at every stage of the narrative. In the opening musical number other GIS jovially participate in a lottery/"beauty contest" in which the woman who "wins" becomes the prize of the holder of the winning lottery ticket. The women preen, strut, and bump and grind in G-strings and bikinis, apparently not only willing but enthusiastic to participate in this exchange. Chris hangs back from the catcalling-not from a lack of appropriately heteromasculine libidinal aggression, as the lyrics later assure us, but because of his patriotic preoccupation with the impending end of the U.S. occupation of Saigon:

The meat is cheap in Saigon Why can't I just play the game? We lost the war long ago What is this bug up my ass You tell me I don't know. ("The Heat Is On")

Near the end of the number it is not Chris but rather his friend (appropriately named) John who, as a gesture of homosocial affection, "buys" Kim for Chris-despite Chris's reluctance, we are assured:

JOHN: I'm gonna buy you a girl.

CHRIS: You can buy me a beer.

Thus, Chris is exonerated from all potential charges of exploitation or objectification in retaining Kim's services-enabling the audience (by now positioned to identify with Chris's point of view) to enjoy the spectacular display of (apparently eager) sexually available Asian women, without having to feel ethically compromised for having taken pleasure in the appeal.


Excerpted from NATIONAL ABJECTION by Karen Shimakawa Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents


Introduction: “It’s not right for a body to know his own origins”

1. “I should be — American!” Abjection and the Asian (American) Body

2. “The dance that’s happening” Performance, Politics, and Asian American Theatre Companies

3. “We’come a Chinatowng, Folks!” Resisting Abjection

4. “I’ll be right here . . . right where you left me” Mimetic Abjection/Abject Mimicry

5. “Whose history is this, anyway?” Changing Geographies in Ping Chong’s East-West Quartet

Afterword: “Then we’ll have drama”




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