An Eventful Trip Around South Vietnam
From an interview with Aircraft Engineer, Corporal Colin Creighton, No. 41 Squadron, RNZAF
The New Zealand Government was a reluctant participant in the Vietnam War, and it chose not to commit its air combat squadrons to the conflict. Instead, individual RNZAF pilots were seconded to other air forces. Sixteen helicopter pilots served with the Royal Australian Air Force in South Vietnam and flew troops, supply and gunship missions in support of ground troops. Fourteen fixed-wing aircraft pilots served with the United States Air Force as forward air controllers. RNZAF personnel also contributed to a Combined Services Medical Team.
The RNZAF contributed No. 40 Squadron to airlift NZ troops into South Vietnam on Hercules transporters, and No.41 Squadron flying Bristol Freighters on re-supply missions from Singapore to New Zealand military units and medical teams in South Vietnam. [i]
41 Squadron flights to support the medical team at Qui Nhon and the New Zealand Embassy in Saigon continued after the withdrawal of New Zealand military forces in 1971. At the end of March 1975, a Bristol Freighter was sent from Singapore to Qui Nhon to airlift out the five-member volunteer medical team. The last No. 41 Squadron flight out of the country departed on 21 April carrying 38 embassy staff and refugees.[ii]
Mainlander Colin Creighton, was an aircraft engineer corporal based out of Singapore with No. 41 Squadron RNZAF from 1971 to 1973:
“From Singapore, we covered the entire Southeast Asian Basin looking after all the New Zealand interests in the area, including Vietnam. I was up there from 1971 until halfway through 1973 when I returned to New Zealand. The squadron stayed up there until 1978 before it came home, it’d been up there for a little over 30 years non-stop.”
In 1971 41 Squadron transported five RNZAF helicopter pilots from Hobsonville to fly in Singapore to join the rotary-wing flight of No. 41 Transport Squadron. Three RNZAF Iroquois helicopters were also sent to Singapore in broken-down form by Hercules on September 25th and 26th. Colin was one of the ground crew who travelled with the pilots.[iii]
“Even back then Bristols were big ugly old things. Most of the helicopters could fly faster than we could. But they would get in and out of short strips and cart a five-tonne load, which is quite remarkable for their size and considering that they were built in 1945. They even took part in the Berlin airlift in the late 1940s. They are a well-proven old aircraft.
“I also knew the Iroquois very well, we had those on strength in Singapore. I spent a lot of time in the Malay jungle working with the helicopters up there on exercises, living in tents or in the jungle while you were fixing it.”
One of Colin’s ex RNZAF comrades, who served in Electrical/Avionics from January ‘67 to April ’87, recalled how one of his first jobs after completing his electrical/mechanics course in late 1968 was to “empty the bogger” of a Bristol after a Singapore to Whenuapai flight, “not a nice job”. “However, much more fun leaving one behind in Bangkok with Fuzz Freeman, Colin Creighton and Keith Reilly for a single man’s tour of Thailand in 1973.”[iv]
“40,000 Rivets Flying in Formation”
A typical 41 Squadron fortnightly resupply run was flight No. 5912 on 4th December 1972. The Bristol was loaded up at Tengah airbase in Singapore with supplies and crew, including two flight officers, a mechanical/aviation electronics operator, five service crew including one Flight Sergeant, two Corporals – one of which was Colin Creighton – and two ‘baggies’ or General Service Hands. The first stop was Butterworth in Malaya, then on to Saigon before they headed north to Qui Nhơn where the New Zealand Surgical Team was based. They returned to Saigon via the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF) base at Nha Trang, then headed south to Cần Thơ where there was the US and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) base. Their last leg was back over the South China Sea to Butterworth and finally back to base at Tengah. It was a three-day round trip. [v]
“I remember the Freighter as difficult aircraft to fly well … lacking pressurization, air conditioning, weather radar, retractable undercarriage or state of the art avionics. We cruised at 135 knots TAS, below 10,000 feet, sweating like pigs on the ground and freezing at cruise altitude.” wrote Flt Lt Peter Tremayne, who completed 28 flights with 41 Sqn RNZAF into or through Vietnam from 1965–1968 and 1975, and seven flights into Vietnam with 40 Sqn RNZAF from 1969–1971. The Bristol was often referred to as “40,000 rivets flying in formation”.
An Eventful Trip Around the Regions
“They [the Bristol] had three crew, and when we went on an away trip from Singapore we carried a staff of four servicing crew as well. This is the way I got thrown in the deep end several times. Being a single man, no married man wanted to go up to Vietnam, they would say “you’re single, you can go” and well I didn’t mind. I was young and silly in those days. I was 21 coming up 22 when I went to Singapore, and I was coming up 24 when I came home. I did another six months at Wigram, and then I got out of the Air Force.
“Generally, we’d leave out of Singapore. First, we would head to Malaya to stop off at a couple of army and airforce bases there. From there we’d head on to Bangkok where we dropped stuff off at the New Zealand embassy. Then occasionally we’d fly right up to Chiang Mai. From there we’d fly across the country, down to the base of Thailand again, to the area where the Bridge over the River Kwai film was set.
“We left Thailand and flew to overnight outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia, then fly the short hop into Saigon, landing there at about three in the afternoon. After we got everything sorted out, we went into town and were dropped off at our hotel by an army driver. The hotel was almost completely booked out by American troops on R&R, so we had a good night there. We weren’t allowed out of the hotel, but that didn’t stop us going to the local bar down the road. We just didn’t want to get caught by the local cops because they’d shoot on sight as the city was under curfew, so we had to be a bit careful.
“We got picked up in the morning and taken back out to the Saigon airfield [Tan Son Nhut Air Base] where we were dropped off at the big US Navy mess [US Army, Navy, Airforce and Marine corps were stationed there], which held about 300 people having breakfast. Everything was on display, including ice cream and jelly, and it only cost twenty-five cents.
“Six of us sat down to have breakfast when an almighty bang went off behind us. A soldier over the other side of the room jumped up and yelled: “get out of the room, there’s incoming!” Three hundred odd people just disappeared, leaving us Kiwis sitting there thinking “what the hell’s going on?” We thought we’d just finish our breakfasts and as we got stuck in another bang went off. This one was much closer and it made the fried eggs on my plate flip up and land on the table! Well, we thought “OK, what do we do now?” There was no-one else around, so I got up and went and helped myself to more fried egg, sat down and we all finished our breakfast!
“After breakfast we went outside, there was nobody around, so we jumped in the Land Rover and drove around the corner to the passenger terminal where we were to meet the aircrew. From there we could see everything that was going on on the airfield. The rockets started coming in right about then, in groups of three or four, and there were about a hundred during the morning, finishing at 11 am. Just as we would think “thank god, it’s all over,” the next lot started coming in so we had to stay put. All the windows in the passenger terminal were perspex and they were shaking in and out by about 150mm with each big bang.
“When we went outside there were pieces of metal lying around the building. We had to do a good clean around the area, pick up the shrapnel and make sure none was trapped in the aircraft, and there were no holes in it. The shrapnel was still blue with heat when we picked it up. When we finally got out of there, as we taxied out we could still see the smoke from rockets going off in the distance.”
“From Saigon, we went up to near Cam Ranh Bay [Vietnam], which was a big naval base, then inland from that was an American airfield and we landed there. As we taxied in we could see there was an aircraft with a group of Viet Cong prisoners getting ready to be taken out. We went around the corner and parked, and as we were changing over our cargo, a machine gun on the hillside opened up – a big 12.7 mm Chinese or Russian machine gun.
“It was spraying bullets around – it wasn’t personal at that point – and I got the task of sitting on top of our aircraft and shooting back. After about three magazine-fulls the machine gun stopped, a gunship had come in from one side of the hillside and levelled all the trees with its mini Gatling guns. During that time I heard one round go past my ear with a hell of a bang, that’s when you know its getting personal!”
Stuck in the Middle – the Risk of Friendly Fire
“We very hastily got out of there and flew back to Saigon, with just one more stop to go. We changed over freight and passengers and heading back down south. We flew at about 11,000 feet over the ground, so we’re out of the way of machine gunfire. As we were heading south, I looked up through the observation dome in the back, and I could see three contrails about 30,000 feet up. I said to the pilot over the intercom “be aware that we’re flying under a B-52 flight.” And he said, “don’t look down then will you.” Which I did and here are three big long, thick strips of jungle erupting underneath us. Each B52 aircraft was carrying 120 – 500 pounders, they’re big bombs, One of those would level about six houses and we went diagonally straight through the middle of it. We didn’t see them until they’d blow up underneath us, but we could feel the impulse of them as we flew over top!”
The Yanks weren’t too Impressed
“We got down to our last point, which was just a dirt landing strip. As we came in over the end of the runway, there was an almighty bang from under the freighter as we went over the fence line. We taxied in, I jumped out, and everybody came out and went looking around the aircraft expecting to see a big hole in it, but there was nothing. However, underneath the plane there were four aerials with a big lead between them, one had come adrift and slapped down under the belly of the aircraft. The Americans had put a pole up, with what looked like a big soccer ball on top, like a homing beacon to guide aircraft onto the runway. They’d put it up the day before, we took it off the next day, the Yanks weren’t too impressed!”
The Fall of Saigon – NZ Moves out
At the beginning of April 1975, New Zealand Embassy officials cabled Wellington and reported that the situation in Saigon was deteriorating rapidly. Norman Farrell, the New Zealand Ambassador, recommended the immediate evacuation of non-official New Zealand citizens. The civilian medical team had already been evacuated from Qui Nhon at the end of March.
Over the next two weeks the Singapore-based 41 Squadron RNZAF, which sent a detachment to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport, made a series of flights to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate New Zealand citizens and various South Vietnamese nationals granted ‘unofficial’ refugee status. Some of these refugees, dependents of New Zealanders living and working in South Vietnam, were evacuated without the approval of their government. The last of these flights, on 21 April 1975, carried Ambassador Farrell and most of the remaining staff of the New Zealand Embassy. [vi]
“The enemy was coming in over one side of the airfield as our aircraft got out the other side. They had the New Zealand High Commissioner and his staff and equipment onboard these two aircraft, and they just got out of there by the skin of their teeth. This was our New Zealand High Commission that had been based in Saigon. These planes were loaded up with his staff, all their official documents and secret gear, some of their Vietnamese staff and anything else they needed to rescue. They were on the two aircraft with their aircrew and servicing crew on board. They operated out of there for about a week before that final day carting stuff out. But the very last flight out was the High Commissioner and his staff, and they were just getting out of there by the skin of their teeth. The old aircraft [Bristol Freighter] stood proud in the time it was up there.”
[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._41_Squadron_RNZAF. Accessed 1 August 2019.
[iii] The Auckland Star Sep 1971 https://www.flickr.com/photos/gcdnz/32583591944
[iv] Bobajob, ex RNZAF Electrical/Avionics, Jan67 to Apr87. Accessed 31/7/1019
[v] Scotty’s List (Version 3) All Flights into Vietnam by 41 Squadron RNZAF 1 December 1962 – 21 April 1975 – Issued Oct 2017. Accessed 1 August 2019.
With special thanks to Colin Creighton for sharing his memories.
That is how Sarah Buchanan describes taking on the role of Showbiz Christchurch president following the resignation of Markham Lee about three weeks ago.
Having a strong association with the company since 1989, Mrs Buchanan said taking on the role is an exciting new change.
Mr Lee has served as president of Showbiz on and off since 1990 with his association with Showbiz beginning in 1973 at age 11 when he performed in Oliver!
But it isn’t the only major change to the strong musical theatre company – which has been operating since 1938.
Paul Christ will take over as general manager in January following Michael Bayly finishing in the role in mid-September.
Mr Bayly, who served as general manager since May 2015, has gone onto become the national on-premise manager at Cassels Brewing Co.
Mr Christ has a wealth of experience in musical theatre having supervised, conducted and directed productions for Disney Theatrical Productions, Cameron Mackintosh and Vienna State Opera.
He said Showbiz offers the perfect opportunity to draw on his professional musical theatre experience along with his work in commercial and not-for-profit art sectors.
“I have travelled extensively for a large part of my career . . . it was time to come home and reconnect with family and put to use that industry experience to the advantage of the New Zealand performing arts sector.”
Mrs Buchanan has a long-standing relationship with Showbiz having served as vice-president for the past five years and been on the board since 2010.
She said her role as president will be made easy due to having a “marvellous” team and board she has been able to delegate tasks to take the pressure off.
“We are really lucky we have all these exciting shows coming through from the West End and we are able to stage them here which is fantastic,” Mrs Buchanan said.
In September, Showbiz announced a dazzling season to be staged at the Isaac Theatre Royal next year starting off with My Fair Lady from April 3.
In June, the music of Chess will be staged in concert with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.
The final show of the year to be staged will be Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story featuring the music of American musician and singer-songwriter Buddy Holly.
Mrs Buchanan said the talent in the city is phenomenal and Showbiz has fantastic creatives who know how to put on a show.
She has led an exciting career both on and off the stage including touring as a personal dresser with English singer Elaine Paige twice.
Although she has taken on a major role at the company, Mrs Buchanan’s days in the spotlight are far from over.
She will play the Queen of Transylvania and perform in the ensemble as part of My Fair Lady
Written by Georgia O’Connor-Harding
This heart-wrenching musical set during the dangerous days before and after the fall of Saigon is another triumph for one of the city’s leading musical theatre companies.
Showbiz Christchurch has produced a spectacular production, taking on the emotionally-intense Miss Saigon.
Set in the 1970s during the Vietnam War, the global-blockbuster paints a candid picture of the grim reality Vietnamese, particularly women, had inflicted on them as a result of the war.
I can only imagine how emotionally-drained the performers, particularly the lead roles, must feel at the end of the show each night. There were rarely any lulls in this fast-paced production and the highly-energetic cast gave it everything they had.
Showbiz brought in some seriously big guns to play the extremely challenging lead roles, and it took the show up to another level on the professional scale.
Leading Filipino performer Marcus Rivera was absolutely mesmerising in the sleazy, calculating, borderline-creepy role of The Engineer.
Although you could say The Engineer is the antagonist of the show – selling women at his seedy club – I couldn’t help but love the cheeky persona Rivera displayed in what is a complex role, and he also provided some much-needed comic relief.
If You Want To Die in Bed and The American Dreamwere absolute standouts by Rivera, who was backed by a sparkling cast. Both musical numbers brought the razzle-dazzle of Broadway to the stage, and portrayed The Engineer’s desperate plight to obtain a visa to live in the United States.
Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio was angelic in her role as Kim. She has one of the most beautiful, world-class voices I have ever heard from a performer in a Showbiz production.
Forced into prostitution before falling in love with a US GI, Bergantinos-Panlilio owned the historically career-transforming role of Kim. What really tugged at the heartstrings was the way she portrayed the unbreakable bond Kim has as a mother with her son Tam.
There was so much to take in, but two moving numbers were The Movie In My Mind and Bui Doi.
Miss Saigon deals with mature themes, including prostitution, exploitation, violence and suicide, which requires a brave cast to be able to pull it off.
Wearing minimal clothing and playing the role of prostitutes would have taken an immense amount of courage from the female ensemble. I admire the confidence the women in this show have and how they executed such a difficult role in a professional manner.
The Movie In My Mind, led beautifully by Sion Choi and the bar girls, was a cold slap in the face as it explored the hardships inflicted on women in the war, especially how it expressed their dreams of a better life and their desperation to escape to the US.
Bui Doi was another powerful number which advocated for the Vietnamese and American children conceived during the war. The song was impressively led by powerhouse James Foster in the role of John the GI and backed by a strong male cast.
Miss Saigon was educational, genuine and takes audiences on an emotional roller coaster ride. I would happily go see it again.
Miss Saigon is on at the Isaac Theatre Royal until October 12. To book tickets, go to www.showbiz.org.nz
By Emma Dyer
Miss Saigon starts in 1975 at the very end of American involvement in the Vietnam conflict, the Fall of Saigon. If, like me, you go to see Miss Saigon with a preconceived idea of the show, prepare to have your expectations delightfully challenged. I had read and heard a lot about both the show itself and the history that inspired it. There are certainly some aspects of this, originally groundbreaking show, that can now be seen as problematic. However, Showbiz Christchurch’s production of it firmly addresses issues that a decade ago, when they last performed it, would not have been considered. One of the most valuable contributions to this show I’ve seen is the care and effort taken to talk with real people, refugees and veterans, who will see their own history somewhat reflected in this show. Context really is what makes Miss Saigon more than just a show, women like Kim still exist, and people continue to be displaced by war and injustice. Hagar New Zealand is an organisation that supports people who have suffered these traumas. After watching the show it was easy to see why Showbiz Christchurch have chosen to support the excellent work that Hagar does.
The three key roles are Kim (Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio), The Engineer (Marcus Rivera), and Chris (Jack Fraser). The amazing voices of these three lead performers propel this tragic story across the Isaac Theatre Royal. It is hard not to be drawn in. Without spoiling the plot for those who like to be surprised, the story centres around a young Vietnamese woman, Kim, who endures many of the different hardships refugees still suffer today. Orphaned and having fled her village to the big city of Saigon, she is desperate, and enters into work as a ‘bar girl’ in Saigon at “Dreamland”. On her first night as a bar girl, she meets a young American man, Chris. This meeting is to change their already chaotic lives forever.
One of the aspects Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio especially brings to this role is her ability to convey both innocence and strength at the same time. Her portrayal of Kim gives a completely believable voice to thousands of authentic Vietnamese stories. Having had the privilege to hear some of the stories told to Showbiz Christchurch, by now local Vietnamese women, I can say that her Kim does them justice.
Even a sad story needs comedy for balance, in this case, it often comes from the sleazy and shady character who owns Dreamland, “The Engineer”. It’s a tribute to Marcus Rivera that he can play a character who quite often behaves as in a morally reprehensible way but still comes across as likeable, even relatable. A line from the song “Backstage at Dreamland” sums up The Engineer perfectly, “shut up and put your hot pants on”. The fact that it barely raises an eyebrow among the girls he employs ought to make you thankful to live here in our usually more enlightened society.
Chris is best summed up as what happens when young men are sent abroad into a war of questionable morality. In casting Jack Fraser Showbiz Christchurch have hit perfection, he melts into the role and adds the humanity that could otherwise be missing from this tired and warworn soldier. That’s not to mention his always fantastic voice, every word sung is perfectly clear and filled with emotion and meaning.
The music in Miss Saigon is as epic as you’d expect from the talented duo who also created the musical Les Misérables. Something you won’t see from your seat in the theatre, but is of particular note, is that the score is so complex and detailed as to require not one but two percussionists to produce the wide range of distinctive musical elements that make this show feel so atmospheric. One of the best parts of the whole show combines both sound and sight. This occurs in the first act as the story transitions in time from 1975 to 1978, the orchestra masterfully provides the soundtrack to a regime change, while the communist army marches across stage, faceless. It’s hard not to be awestruck by this.
The set and costumes for a show are always one of my highlights. I like to be dazzled. The costumes for Miss Saigon are beautiful and cunningly designed to be as tasteful as possible, given the constraints of characters who sometimes have to wear “hot pants”. But it was Harold Moot’s set that most caught my imagination. There were many amazing pieces but perhaps the most interesting was an enormous American flag made from flashing lights, straight out of Las Vegas. Head of Lighting Darren McKane told me after the show that each of those hundreds of bulbs was a delicate (and hot) incandescent bulb that had been carefully saved from the last production of Miss Saigon a decade ago. Go and watch the show, if only to marvel at the effort involved in just this one feat of set construction.
The Miss Saigon musical staged by Showbiz Christchurch at the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch opened last Friday (September 27) to a captivated audience.
Judging by the number of people up on their feet in [a] standing ovation at the end of the show, it was a huge success. Even during the intermission, the buzz and lots of smiling faces indicated the audience was suitably impressed by what they had seen so far.
The musical, which was written in tribute to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil of Les Misérables fame has been toasted globally. I have previously watched three productions of Miss Saigon in Sydney and could confidently say that this time, again, the story was well told and would have a strong season in Christchurch.
The story of the lead up to the fall of Saigon draws out and gets the audiences involved in the drama of the lives of people affected by the American war. It centres on [the] romance of a young innocent Vietnamese girl (Kim) and an American GI (Chris), which turns into a tragedy when they got separated when Saigon falls. Unbeknown to Chris, he fathered a son with Kim. Their reunion years later was heart-wrenching with Kim then meeting the wife of Chris (Ellen), then deciding how her son could have a better life.
Overall the cast and the ensemble delivered through the haunting and challenging songs, the convincing acting, the music, and the crisp and well synchronised group moves.
They had been aided by the simple but effective set and props, effects, lighting, costumes and make-up. Notably, the helicopter scenes and the gates cleverly shifting, shutting out the anguished crowd wanting to get out, were so realistic that the audience felt they were part of the scenes.
Marcus Rivera, who played The Engineer, was the standout performer. I have watched him twice in that role and I would say that he again had gone a notch higher in his latest portrayal.
He commanded the stage in “The Heat is On in Saigon” and “If You Want to Die in Bed” and mesmerising in “The American Dream” amidst the backdrop of scantily-clad showgirls and male dancers. He personified an unsavoury and disreputable pimp, with his confident singing not missing a beat with the orchestra’s accompaniment.
But don’t just take my word for it. Patrick Shepherd who did the review for Stuff.Co.NZ also felt that: “the show’s success rests on the three main leads and especially the engineer.
Marcus Rivera was excellent as the sleazy, self-serving manipulator making a buck amid the chaos. …. Rivera relished this role, singing with an easy confidence and plenty of cheeky sauce.”
Backstage Christchurch reviewer Kate Divett also said: “Marcus Rivera (The Engineer) is sassy and clever as the opportunistic club owner – his moment in “The American Dream” was memorable.”
Tina Bergantinos Panlilio, a Filipino-New Zealand singer and musical theatre actress who played the role as Kim and Jack Fraser as Chris, get equal votes from me in their level of performance and contribution to the success of the show. Both have strong voices and convincingly conveyed the deep emotions they were feeling. If I were to pick only one song by each of them to put on the weighing scale, it would be Panlilio’s rendition of “I’d Give My Life for You” and Fraser’s “Why God Why”.
Daniel Aguilar, another Fil-Aussie singer and stage actor, who was a late addition following an adjustment of the cast, did the role of Thuy superbly. He has played the same role years ago and his confidence from that stint showed.
James Foster‘s acting and vocals, in the role of John, get a big tick, too. His exchange with Chris as a concerned colleague and friend in “The Telephone Song” and leading the all men choir in the Opening of Act II – “Bui Doi” especially touched and drew much appreciation from the audience.
Hannah Austin played the role of Chris’ wife Ellen in a touching way. Her rendition of “I Still Believe” with Kim as thousands of miles separated them and “Now That I’ve Seen Her” expressed a torn yet hopeful heart.
Sion Choi (Gigi), who made her musical theatre debut, is a talent to watch out for. As she gains more experience, she would be able to show off more of her vocals and exude more confidence onstage.
This Miss Saigon production is a stunning theatrical spectacle and amazing musical theatre. I tip my hat to the Director, Stephen Robertson; the Musical Director, Richard Marrett and Showbiz Christchurch for a job well done.
Miss Saigon runs through to October 12 at the Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch.
Violi Calvert is a producer/broadcaster of Radio Tagumpay, Triple H 100.1FM and winner of the Parliament of New South Wales Multicultural and Indigenous Media Award for Coverage of Community Affairs (2015).
Review: Miss Saigon
Showbiz Christchurch, Saturday 28 September
Directed by Stephen Robertson
Musical Direction by Richard Marrett
Reviewed by Kate Divett, Backstage Christchurch.
Bravo, Showbiz – Miss Saigon is good. It’s really, really good.
This final show in Showbiz’ 2019 season is an absolute winner. The storyline is brutal and heart-wrenching (bring tissues – be warned), and the production requirements are epic. The challenges that are posed by Miss Saigon are well and truly met by the team who have brought it together. Bravo again!
For those unfamiliar with the context of this story – picture Vietnam in the mid-1970s, the protracted conflict between North and South (supported by international forces on both sides) is drawing to a dramatic close. Saigon is heaving with foreign (mostly American) soldiers who are being entertained by women in the local bars and clubs. These women are treated like cheap commodities, enduring unspeakable hardship. Miss Saigon follows the story of one of these women, Kim, and Chris, an American GI, and the fallout of their brief but passionate encounter.
Where to begin with the praise? Firstly, with the principal cast members. Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio (Kim) wonderfully portrays both the vulnerability of her character’s position and the underlying strength required to endure and overcome circumstances. Her voice is divine and soulful throughout. Chris (Jack Fraser) is brilliant as the disillusioned American GI who falls for Kim, bringing all his considerable vocal talents to bear in the role. Marcus Rivera (The Engineer) is sassy and clever as the opportunistic club owner – his moment in “The American Dream” was memorable. James Foster (John) drew enthusiastic and well-deserved applause from the audience after his moving performance in the opening of Act 2. Hannah Austin (Ellen) is a refreshing new local talent, who shone in Now That I’ve Seen Her. Daniel Aguilar (Thuy) was menacing as the long-promised suitor, especially in Kim’s Nightmare.
The various forms taken by the ensemble are absolutely brilliant in this show. The girls set a red-hot scene in the opening of Act One as they all compete for the business and attention of the American soldiers, under the hustling eye of The Engineer. A highlight piece for me from the whole show was the sequence during The Morning of the Dragon – stark colours contrasting with the busy colours of other scenes, and the regimented choreography, flag-waving and dragon dance were all very evocative. The crowd – including a 14-strong children’s ensemble – showing desperation to escape the failing Saigon was particularly moving.
The success of this show can also be attributed to the obvious hard work of the production team as well. The stage, sets, lighting, sound, costume, hair and makeup, and props are all on point – the enormous, shapeshifting set pieces are particularly impressive. While as stage set-up that includes a full-scale, flying helicopter will always draw gasps, I was also impressed by how little details of costume and props added to the sense of time and place. I was moved to read in the programme about how the show has been embraced by the local Christchurch Vietnamese community, and that Showbiz has also reached out to Hagar International, who work with women who are survivors of trafficking, slavery and human rights abuses.
Final praise must, of course, go to the dynamic directing duo of Stephen Robertson (Director) and Richard Marrett (Musical Director). Their vast experience and talents are on display here for all to see via their complex, masterful music and stage work, drawing the numerous pieces of the production puzzle together to tell a compelling and tragic story. For all the many successful elements that one could choose to comment on, I must mention the charming, poignant effectiveness of the smallest cast member – Tam, the 3-year-old character who was played on Saturday night by Lakshya Kumar, but has a rotating schedule of four young performers from Russley School. The content of the show is inappropriate for the most part for such a young child who is an essential character – I was transfixed and moved by how this young actor was so carefully managed during his performance by the actors on stage, very much part of the story but shielded from difficult content so wisely. Bravo to Robertson for the sensitive direction brought to bear here – the effect of this young person’s presence brought some of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the night.
Christchurch audiences should know that Miss Saigon is a modern musical masterpiece, and Showbiz is bringing its A-game to provide a phenomenal fortnight of exuberant, passionate, emotionally-rich theatre in our city. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience it.
REVIEW: Miss Saigon is one of the iconic shows of its generation and this production goes right to the heart of it.
Those who love the musical will not be disappointed and those who don’t know it, well, this is a great opportunity to do so.
This realistic and gritty rendition has all the familiar ingredients the audience hangs out for, from the appearance of Kim’s cute son to the visual spectacle of the helicopter.
As always, the Showbiz company worked hard and gave it their all, but the show’s success rests on the three main leads and especially the engineer.
Marcus Rivera was excellent as the sleazy, self-serving manipulator making a buck amid the chaos. Rivera made the transitions of the character credible with the punchy The Heat is On in Saigon and If You Want to Die In Bed, the menacing The Morning of the Dragon and a tantalisingly ironic The American Dream. Rivera relished this role, singing with an easy confidence and plenty of cheeky sauce.
As the thwarted couple, Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio (Kim) and Jack Fraser (Chris) dug deep in delivering two very powerful performances. I particularly enjoyed I’d Give My Life for You (Kim) and Why God Why? (Chris) and the tenderness they both showed in The Last Night of the World and Sun and Moon. Throughout they were superb and their intensity never let up.
The scantily clad girls were called on to do some fairly brazen things which they did, bravely and unselfconsciously. While the cast definitely looked the part and were robust when aggression was needed, on occasion they didn’t sound quite so secure with occasional weaknesses showing up in exposed passages, the wedding ceremony (Dju Vui Vai) a case in point which came across a tad strained.
The male chorus in Bui Doi, however, was as stirring a rendition as you could hope to hear. It also saw James Foster (John) at his dramatic best, hectoring from behind a lectern while heart-wrenching images played out on the screen behind him. Hannah Austin (Ellen) shone in an impassioned account of Now That I’ve Seen Her and her duet with Kim (I Still Believe) was similarly strong. Daniel Aguilar did well as the aggrieved Thuy, suitably officious and volatile.
The band was solid, a nice touch having the live sax player in the club but I did feel some of the ethnic samples were overly prominent in the mix at times. Sets were deceptively simple but very effective, the lighting effects bringing warmth to the sun, an eerie menace to the advancing mob and gravitas to Ho Chi Minh’s statue. The flags, political imagery and garish lights in The American Dream were also neatly offset by the monotone flats and hints of bamboo.
The cute “aw” moment of Tam’s reveal usually gets more of a reaction but curiously didn’t. However, look out for Thuy’s ghost in the second half – it is surprisingly chilling.
The season runs at the Isaac Theatre Royal until 12 October.
The Last Airlift of Americans: Tuesday 29th April 1975
The last Americans were evacuated from Saigon on Tuesday 29th April aboard six giant marine helicopters.
The evacuation, ending two-decades of US involvement in Vietnam, came after calls in the morning from the Vietcong and the new President of South Vietnam, General Minh, for all Americans to quit the country. The evacuees were flown to US ships standing off South Vietnam.
Vietnamese rushed to join the evacuation as helicopters lifted Americans off the roof of the US Embassy in a last-ditch attempt to escape the country, ignoring a 24-hour curfew ordered on Saigon. They also rushed to Tan Son Nhut airfield, outside the city.
The last dozen Americans tossed tear gas grenades at panic-stricken civilians who had broken into the building. 100 Vietnamese huddled on the roof of the deserted U.S. Embassy as they waited for another evacuation helicopter which never came.
The Pentagon said from Washington that about 50 ships carrying 6,000 marines and more than 700 helicopters were stationed in the South China Sea off Vietnam for the operation.
A massive fleet of refugee vessels was also reported underway through the port of Vung Tau, 70 kilometres south-east of Saigon. Ships of all sizes were crowded with tens of thousands of refugees.
Communist forces were reported to have attacked the port to halt the Vietnamese refugee rush. South Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese vessels, as well as US and South Vietnamese craft, were helping the refugee exodus.
The ordinary South Vietnamese Flee
The original intention was for no Vietnamese to leave on the flights, AAP-Reuter correspondent Neil Evans reported. However, a last-minute rush saw many Vietnamese hustled aboard buses. Word was put out that the evacuation definitely was on at 11am local time and evacuees were given one hour to reach rendezvous points.
Altogether at least 2,500 people assembled amid tense and dramatic scenes throughout central Saigon. Weeping Vietnamese arrived carrying what they had hastily grabbed.
A convoy of buses each packed with about 70 people left in threes and fours, guided by fully armed marines in flak jackets and helmets.
Vietnamese army officers discarded their military clothing and wore civilian dress, and begged to be taken aboard buses.
“I travelled in a private car with a convoy shortly after one o’clock in the afternoon”, Evans reported. “At least six packed vehicles tried to burst their way through police barriers at the airport entrance and shots’ were fired in bursts over the top of the cars.”
“Vietnamese youths on motorcycles were pulling alongside foreigners in cars and offering large sums of money to be helped into the airport. Most carried nothing at all and were abandoning their machines in order to jump aboard American vehicles.”
High Ranking Government Officials and Military leave
Senior South Vietnamese officials continued to flee the country in the hours before the Communists attacked Tan Son Nhut the day before, halting evacuation flights for 12 hours.
Military sources said South Vietnam’s highest-ranking military officer, Joint Chief-of-Staff Chairman General Cao Văn Viên, and several other senior officers, fled the country aboard General Vien’s private C-47, a propeller-driven cargo plane. Government sources said Prime Minister Nguyễn Bá Cẩn had fled the country without formally turning over powers to his successor, Vũ Văn Mẫu.
The former President of South Vietnam, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, had flown into Taiwan early on Sunday amid strict security aboard a special US military aircraft with 15 companions and 10 tonnes of baggage.
In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning Vietnamese civilian and military police swept through a camp of refugees at Tan Son Nhut airbase who were awaiting evacuation flights and arrested several military deserters fleeing government officials and draft-age youths.
When the security sweep began, some of the evacuees fled, scaling a 2.43 metre mesh wire fence topped by a metre of barbed wire, leaving shoes and pieces of clothing on the wire.
Admittance checks at the compound gates were more stringent than at any time since the airlift began 11 days previous. No Vietnamese were allowed in unless accompanied by an American citizen who was going with them on the flight.
The Vietnamese sweep came as the US Air Force stepped up evacuation flights to the highest level, carrying our 40 loads over the previous 24 hours. There were already 20,600 evacuees on the small Micronesian island of Guam in the Western Pacific, the staging area for the US. Refugee numbers would swell to 100,000.
The Fall of Saigon: Wednesday 30th April 1975
The fall of Saigon came 2 hours after the last American flag was pulled down and the United States left the country it had spent almost 14 years trying to keep out of communist hands.
Thirty minutes after President Dương Văn Minh announced the surrender over Saigon Radio, 20 communist tanks loaded with soldiers and flying the red-and-blue, gold starred Vietcong flag rolled into central Saigon and into the grounds of the Presidential Palace.
Agence France Presse reported that President Minh and the South Vietnamese Prime Minister Vũ Văn Mẫu watched as soldiers leapt from a lorry with the PRG’s flag after the tanks had entered the palace. No leading figures were seen with the Vietcong troops who entered the palace. The troops had apparently been ordered to occupy the palace to ensure that power changed hands peacefully. Minutes after a Viet Cong general drove out Minh and Mau who were under arrest.
By 12.30 pm Viet Cong troops drove into central Saigon and were cheered and waved at by Saigonese. Guards were stationed about every 50 metres along the main streets in the central city, while the NLF flag was run up on the defence ministry buildings. Around 2000 troops occupied the small park in front of the presidential palace in tanks and trucks. On their helmets was written “Tien vi Saigon” “onward to Saigon”. Within hours Saigon radio announced the city would henceforth be called Ho Chi Minh City. Nobody expected the Communist North Vietnamese to arrive so quickly.
The surrender ended three decades of war in Vietnam in which well over 1,353,000 military and civilians died in North and South Vietnam, including 58,318 Americans, 5,099 South Koreans, 1,446 Chinese, 426 Australians, 351 Thai, 25 Taiwanese, 39 New Zealanders and 9 Filipinos killed in action.
- US citizens go: last airlifts (1975, April 30). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 1. Retrieved August 20, 2019, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article116344766
- Vietnamese panic, beg for flights (1975, April 30). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 1. Retrieved August 20, 2019, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article116344768
- Thieu, 15 others flee to Taiwan (1975, April 28). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 5. Retrieved August 20, 2019, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article116344532
- Americans flee as Reds near (1975, April 30). Papua New Guinea Post-Courier (Port Moresby : 1969 – 1981), p. 7. Retrieved August 20, 2019, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article251045397
- Quiet End to War for Vietnam by Stewart Dalby. The Financial Times(London, England),Thursday, May 01, 1975; pg. ; Edition 26,655. Category: News. Gale Document Number:HS2304323519
The pop musical Miss Saigon is a global stage sensation set in 1975 at the end of America’s Vietnam War when the conflicting cultures and ideologies of the world meet tragically in one city: Saigon. American GI Chris falls in love with Kim, an orphaned Vietnamese ‘bar girl’, and they dream of making a life together.
Separated by the fall of Saigon, Kim gives birth to Chris’ son alone and waits faithfully for his return. Unable to contact Kim, Chris remarries and attempts to move on with his life in the U.S.
Circumstances reunite the pair three years later in Bangkok, and they must decide what the future holds for all of them.
This tribute to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly brought forward to the 1970s during Vietnam’s American War also draws parallels with the tragic story of Fantine from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s legendary hit musical Les Misérables.
Young, unworldly and abandoned, Kim and Fantine sacrifice all for the sake of their children. Both are stories of passion and exploitation, which reflect the jarring reality of life during pivotal moments in history shaped by French nationalism and colonialism.
As one theatre reviewer said “these shows brim with images and scenes that incite reactions and provoke questions”.
The Showbiz Christchurch Production
Ten years after staging the New Zealand premiere, Showbiz Christchurch is mounting their second production with the same Christchurch based creative team from 2009: Stephen Robertson as director and choreographer and Richard Marrett as musical director.
The show calls for a strong Asian and European cast. Returning from the Philippines for the lead role of Kim is former New Zealand resident Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio, who has played this role previously in the Hamilton Musical Theatre and Dunedin Operatic productions of Miss Saigon. She will be performing opposite Jack Fraser as Chris.
Jack Fraser will play ChrisMiss Saigon will be Jack Fraser’s third role this year with Showbiz Christchurch having had major parts in The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and We Will Rock You. He is also no stranger to the work of Boublil and Schonberg having performed twice in Les Misérables.
Filipino/Australian countertenor Marcus Rivera will perform the role of The Engineer. Marcus knows this role well as he has played it three times previously. He also comes with a vast CV of theatre, opera, film, TV, concert and cabaret credits.
Joining Marus is fellow Australian Daniel Aguilar performing as Thuy, a role he also has played before on the 2007 Australian Tour of Miss Saigon.
The 18 children in the show – four performing the role of Tam, plus 14 ensemble children – all come from Russley Primary School. The children range in age from 5 to 11 years of age and represent 30% of the entire cast.
Reprising its role is the set. In just three days long-time Showbiz volunteer Don Gillanders and a team made the Iroquois helicopter. It features in one of the most spectacular scenes in the show, the evacuation from the American Embassy which is based on real events which took place on 30 April 1975.
All epic stories need epic music and, in Miss Saigon, Schönberg uses music to underline the conflict between the two distinct cultural worlds of Kim and Chris.
Musical Director, Richard Marrett says this show is among his favourites to conduct: “its score is wonderfully orchestrated and is at times soaring, passionate and epic, and at others delicate, intricate and beautiful. In the hands of 19 expert players, the live orchestra will certainly transport theatregoers powerfully through the turbulent, emotional worlds of the play”.
“The orchestrations employ diverse musical styles,” says Miss Saigon percussionist Craig Given. “There is a fusion of Western and Asian influences, as well as some saxophone infused Broadway-style power ballads.” Given and international ethnic percussion specialist Doug Brush will have a large set up of traditional and ethnic instruments such as gongs, prayer bowls and a ‘damaru’ or Tibetan skull drum, which was traditionally made from the cranium of two human skulls.
“There isn’t much else that is this big, logistically interesting and rhythmically complex,” says Given.
The Inspiration for Miss Saigon
Claude-Michel Schönberg, of Les Misérables fame, was taking a coffee break and thumbing through a magazine someone had left on the piano when he came across a photo of an 11-year-old Vietnamese girl about to board a plane from Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon to join her American father who she had never met, leaving behind her mother.
“I was so appalled by the image of this deliberate ripping apart that I had to sit down and catch my breath. I suffered for the mother as though I might see my own little boy leaving me forever, and I suffered for the child as though in my early youth, I had been forcibly removed from my parents. 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?”
“This photograph was for Alain [Boublil] and I, the start of everything…” wrote Schönberg, in October 1995, six years after their second musical, Miss Saigon, had premiered on the West End, and four years after it had opened on Broadway.
The Miss Saigon Effect
For some, the show awakens long-suppressed memories from their own time spent in Vietnam.
“My Dad was a Vietnam Veteran. He passed away in April this year and is dearly missed,” says Natasha Armstrong of her father former W2 Company Radio Operator, Tom Naylor. “When Showbiz Christchurch staged Miss Saigon in 2009 we all went to watch as a family. It was really emotional, but Dad enjoyed it. He even talked a little about his time in Vietnam.”
Don Lord, Executive Director of Hagar NZ says: “Vietnam remains a significant target for traffickers. Vulnerable women, particularly from villages like the one Kim in Miss Saigon was from, are today at risk of sex trafficking and forced labour. Many are trafficked into neighbouring countries to meet the demand for wives in rural communities, into other Asian countries as forced labour, and even as far as Europe.”
Hagar New Zealand is a charitable organisation which supports the recovery of women and children who have survived severe human rights abuse in Vietnam, Cambodia and Afghanistan. Some of their clients have come from situations where they have been trafficked and in slavery and Hagar is committed to seeing them healed and thriving.
For a member of the Christchurch Vietnamese community, the beauty, poignancy and relevance of Kim’s song about her son, “I’d Give My Life for You”, reflects an essential aspect of Vietnamese culture: a mothers’ love, sacrifice and selflessness.
The Tale of Kieu, a significant work of Vietnamese literature, is a poem which recounts the life, trials and tribulations of Thúy Kiều, a beautiful and talented yet tragic young woman, whose story is used to illustrate Phuc duc, a karma like merit-virtue which can be created by women and handed on to future generations.
Like Kim in Miss Saigon and tens of thousands of other Vietnamese women during and after the Vietnam War, she sacrificed herself to save her family.
Showbiz Christchurch had NZ Vietnam Veterans and NZ Vietnamese, who escaped before and after the fall of Saigon, share their stories with the Miss Saigon company and theatre patrons. With such meticulous and in-depth background work put into delivering the best audience experience, there is much to look forward to in this new production of Miss Saigon.
They’re called Bui-Doi
The dust of life
Conceived in Hell
And born in strife
They are the living reminder
Of all the good we failed to do
We can’t forget
Must not forget
That they are all our children, too
Miss Saigon 
Mỹ lai ‘Amerasians’
The children of American GIs and Vietnamese women
“Wisps of blonde can be seen bobbing and darting among the rivers of black haired women and children in the street markets.
“Round blue eyes peer out of thatched huts. Along dusty paths, some of the faces that beam up at strangers are black, others are fair-skinned.
“Contrary to some expectations, most of the mixed children have been accepted and cherished by their Vietnamese mothers and grandmothers, and many also by aunts and cousins and others in remote branches of their extended families.
“Relatively few have been totally abandoned to orphanages, and only a small number are available for adoption.
“The trouble comes outside the protective circle of the family, for when those youngsters step into the streets, enter the schools and seek new friendships, they are often met by teasing and ridicule from both adults and children.” 
New York Times reporter David Shipler wrote this from Saigon in 1974, the year following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on 27 January 1974, heralding the suspension of all U.S. combat activities. The Vietnam War, as it was known in the US, had become a political hot potato. American people were protesting. Troop morale was generally low. Drug use was prevalent. In Vietnam, “drugs were more plentiful than cigarettes or chewing gum” and attempts to suppress use was “almost completely ineffective” and would come only with the withdrawal of the American troops, a US congressional report concluded in 1971. 
The standard length of service in Vietnam was one year. The best morale-builder of all was that soldiers could actually count the days ‘til they returned home.
Bụi đời– the dust of life
Left behind after the removal of the US troops were one million orphans who had grown up to have families – and lose them – during the war. Included were those known as Bui Doi – the dust of life. Some 8000 of these were the offspring of American GIs and Vietnamese mothers. Many were harassed, many were left to run the streets. These children were generally rejected by Vietnamese society, yet for years, Vietnam would not let them out, and America would not let them in.
“They are of mixed race in an essentially homogeneous society, without a father in a patriarchal society, reminders of what is seen as lack of morality on the part of Vietnamese women and of a time in Vietnamese history that is not exactly viewed with joy and happiness.” 
Estimates vary as to exactly how many ‘Amerasian’ children there were in Vietnam. “The US Government has alluded to about 8,000, while the Vietnamese say there are in excess of 10,000, maybe up to 15,000,” said human rights lawyer Sanford Mevorah in 1985. At the time, only 131 had made it to the US.
“The US and Vietnam had agreed that the children, born of American servicemen and Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War, were a US responsibility, but the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries meant there was no machinery to bring them to the US.” 
Colour Makes a Difference
The illegitimate ‘negro-fathered’ children were doubly disadvantaged. New Zealand paediatrician Dr. Margaret Neave worked for the Save The Children Fund with the NZ surgical team in Vietnam, based at the Qui Nhon hospital in South Vietnam.
When asked about their future, she spoke plainly:
“Their future? None I can see.
“At the moment, most are protected in orphanages. But later on . . . well, they won’t get jobs. Discrimination, you know.
“The Vietnamese are disgusted by them.”
Dr. Neave estimated there were “some thousands” of these children throughout Vietnam – most of them left behind in moves to adopt orphans. She did not criticise the Vietnamese attitude towards these children, and said, “You need a few generations of food in your belly to afford generosity.” 
One former Vũng Tàu bar girl had three half-black children by three different GIs. The soldiers have all gone home, but she has “no regrets” she said, “Because at the time I
like to have money.”
“It was a happy life. A house to live in, you like with one American, that American gave you money and bought you things. With all that money it is you who made the decision to work that way or not. And if you happen to have a baby because you’re not careful, that’s your bad luck”. 
Generally speaking, the different children, the half-white as well as the half-black, were “doomed to ostracism.”
“But, of course, it is worse for the Afro-Asian children. Like many other people, the Vietnamese are very conscious of colour,” Mcrovah said in a 1985 interview, appealing to the United Nations for help to break the political impasse that existed preventing ‘Amerasian’ children from being brought to the United States from Vietnam.
“They consider dark skin undesirable, associating it with the Moi, or savages, the tribal people who occupy their mountainous rain-forest country. To them, light skin colour – as long as it is without the taint of foreignness – is highly prized.”
It wasn’t just the Americans who had left their mark on a generation of Vietnamese children.
“In 1954, when the French military forces withdrew in defeat from Indo-China, they left behind an estimated 10,000 illegitimate Eurasian children and a scattering of Afro-Asians in Vietnam alone.
“By the end of 1967, nearly 4000 of these children were repatriated to France under that Government’s policy of recognising citizenship regardless of legitimacy”.
“Saigon’s streets, as well as the streets of Da Nang, Tuy Hoa, Bien Hoa, Vung Tau, and other cities occupied by foreign troops in Vietnam, are crowded with homeless children who beg, shine shoes, pimp, sell themselves, wait around for a chance to steal.
“These boys and girls have nothing, and nobody cares. Cuts, scratches, and abrasions on their dirty bodies become infected and scarred. Their flimsy cotton shirts and shorts go from dirty to filthy, and then rot into tatters until the children beg or steal money to replace them.”
“Every war produces illegitimate children, but under some conditions, the children are fairly easily absorbed into their society. How many illegitimate children were born in Europe during World War II will never be known, because, except for the half-Negro children, the youngsters’ parentage has gone generally unremarked.
”As the illegitimate boys of Vietnam have little choice but to beg or steal, so the girls mostly become prostitutes.”