By Violi Calvert, Australian Filipina MagazineOctober 01, 2019

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).

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.

Review: Patrick Shepherd, Stuff Entertainment, Sep 28 2019

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.

An Eventful Trip Around South Vietnam

From an interview with Aircraft Engineer, Corporal Colin Creighton, No. 41 Squadron, RNZAF

Class 6, RNZAF Cadet School, 28 Feb 1966. Colin Creighton second from right, back row. Source: Gary Danvers Collection, Flickr.

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.”

View over the Mekong Delta/Miền Tây en route to Cần Thơ © Colin Creighton.

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.”

The Iroquois is one of the world’s most iconic helicopters, famous for its extensive role in the Vietnam War and distinctive ‘whock-whock’ sound. Source: Air Force Museum of New Zealand.

The Iroquois is one of the world’s most iconic helicopters, famous for its extensive role in the Vietnam War and distinctive ‘whock-whock’ sound. Source: Air Force Museum of New Zealand.

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”.

The crew of a B170 Bristol Freighter from 41 Squadron RNZAF talk with members of the New Zealand Surgical Team at Qui Nhon hospital. Image courtesy of Manatū Taonga | Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

The crew of a B170 Bristol Freighter from 41 Squadron RNZAF talk with members of the New Zealand Surgical Team at Qui Nhon hospital. Image courtesy of Manatū Taonga | Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

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.

Colin and crew land at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport to observe part of the airport under attack from Viet Cong missiles. © Colin Creighton.

Colin and crew land at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport to observe part of the airport under attack from Viet Cong missiles. © Colin Creighton.

“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.”

Getting Personal

“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!”

An RNZAF No. 41 Squadron Bristol Freighter taxies into Cam Ranh Bay Naval Base. Note the group of Viet Cong prisoners at right. © Colin Creighton.

An RNZAF No. 41 Squadron Bristol Freighter taxies into Cam Ranh Bay Naval Base. Note the group of Viet Cong prisoners at right. © Colin Creighton.

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!”

1975 RNZAF Bristol Freighter NZ5907 at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport evacuating 33 passengers including the NZ Ambassador for South Vietnam, Norman Farrell (right). Source: Gary Danvers Collection, Flickr.

1975 RNZAF Bristol Freighter NZ5907 at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport evacuating 33 passengers including the NZ Ambassador for South Vietnam, Norman Farrell (right). Source: Gary Danvers Collection, Flickr.

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.”

Colin provides guidance to Miss Saigon principal actors Jack Fraser (Chris) and James Foster (John) during a film shoot at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.


Sources:

[i] Air Force Museum of New Zealand.
[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.
[vi] https://vietnamwar.govt.nz/memory/fall-saigon
With special thanks to Colin Creighton for sharing his memories.

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 [1]

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.” [2]

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. [3]

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. ­

Image from: Pushing On, Bui Doi, The Dust of Life

Image from: Pushing On, Bui Doi, The Dust of Life

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.” [4]

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.” [4]

Colour Makes a Difference

Saigon. In the An-Loi area of the town more than 15.000 refugees were housed including Eurasian and Afr-Asian orphans left behind by the departing of US army. Source: Magnum Photos.

Saigon. In the An-Loi area of the town more than 15.000 refugees were housed including Eurasian and Afr-Asian orphans left behind by the departing of US army. Source: Magnum Photos.

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.” [5]

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”. [6]

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.”

The Hairy Cow blogspot: Bui Doi - the Dust of Life

Image from The Hairy Cow blogspot: Bui Doi – the Dust of Life

Nobody Cares

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.” [7]

The Showbiz Christchurch production of Miss Saigon is at the Isaac Theatre Royal from 27 September 2019


Sources:

[1] Miss Saigon music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr, adapted from the original French lyrics by Alain Boublil.
[2] The GIs’ children grow up (1974, September 11). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p. 15. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[3] McDonald, Ian. “Over half of American Army have tried drugs.” Times, 29 Apr. 1971, p. 1. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 27 July 2019.
[4] UNITED NATIONS Help urged for Vietnam’s ‘children of the dust’ (1985, November 8). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 5. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[5]All Children Must Have A Future“” The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982) 9 August 1972: 6. Web. 28 Jul 2019.
[6] The GIs’ children grow up (1974, September 11). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 15. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[7] The forgotten waifs of the war in Vietnam (1969, December 17). The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), p. 68. Retrieved July 25, 2019.

The jarring reality of life as a bar girl during the Vietnam war

In the Showbiz Christchurch production of Miss Saigon, American GI Chris (played by Jack Fraser) and Vietnamese orphan Kim (played by Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio) meet in a Saigon bar where Kim works as a bargirl.

The French had designed Saigon to accommodate 300,000 people. By 1972 there were over three million people in the twenty-one square miles of Saigon proper, and another million on the outskirts. It had become the most densely populated city in the world. South Vietnam had transformed from 90% rural to 60% urban. “The French left three permanent features; boulevards, bread and brothels,” wrote Anthony Carthew for the Canberra Times in 1966.

During the American Vietnam war, the bars in central Saigon were the haunt for thieves, confidence men, beggars and gangs of children who’d rob soldiers as they left. Brawling was common.

“Le Thi Xuan, at 16, has already had considerable experience peddling cigarettes and prophylactics at the entrances to bars where Americans congregate, and she is just beginning to work as a bar hostess, Xuan asserts in her rapid pidgin English, ‘Someday of the war in Vietnam I get American husband, go States. I got American boy-friend work ship … all time go Manila come back Vietnam. He make beaucoup [big] money. He talk maybe pretty soon we marry, go States.’

“For all Xuan’s confident assertion, there is apprehension in her voice. She knows it is unlikely she’ll marry an American. She’s much more likely to bear an illegitimate child who will inherit her kind of life.”

“In order to enter the society of bar hostesses, she lies about her age. The police make a half-hearted attempt to see that the hostesses are at least 18, but abuses of age limits and activities far outstrip enforcement.” [1]

SOUTH VIETNAM. Saigon. A bar where GIs find prostitutes and heroin. 1971. Image: Magnum Photos.

Many of Saigon’s bar girls came from villages in the Mekong Delta – the vast maze of rivers, swamps and islands at the southern tip of Vietnam. Others were war widows with young families to support.

“One feels sorry, of course, for these men, many of whom die from wounds because their slender bodies have so little resistance to infection and shock. But their widows are in need of a deeper sympathy. In some cases, Vietnamese-fashion, they have to support the entire family, ranging from grandparents to obscure, penniless cousins. When her man is killed, a Vietnamese wife is paid one year’s salary by the army – about $220 (£110) for private. After that – nothing.

“If she is pretty she can become a bar girl and hope; to make enough money to open a little street stall in the market, which is every bar girl’s ambition. If she is not pretty, and does not have the education which would win her one of the few jobs open to women, she has no alternative but to become a prostitute.” [2]

All were ostracised from ordinary Vietnamese society. Yet their weekly earnings were reported to be more than that of South Vietnamese cabinet ministers. [3] “A prostitute earned as much as $180 per month. The average government civil servant earned roughly $30 a month, and even cabinet ministers and Assembly members had fixed salaries of $120.” [4]

Mai (20) works in one of the many bars in the area of To do Street in Saigon. She earns more keeping soldiers ‘company’ and keeping them drinking than does any member of the Vietnamese Cabinet or Assembly. Mai claims she supports her mother and 5 young brothers and sisters on her earnings. When she first went to work in the bar she cried all day, but later she got used to the job. Her biggest worry is that she will never find a “nice” Vietnamese man willing to marry her because of what she does. She hopes to move to another part of the country when the war is over and start a new life. She can earn as much as $180 a month. Source: Magnum Photos.

Australian troops were considered much tighter with his money than their American counterparts. They were nicknamed ‘Cheap Charlies’ by the bar girls who had a little ditty they used to sing to the tune of ‘This Old Man’:

Lester Mengel, The 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR) with Kim, a Vietnamese prostitute. Source: Australians at War Film Archive.

Uc Dai Lot. Cheap Charlie
He no buy me Saigon Tea .
Saigon Tea cost many, many P [piastres, the local almost worthless Vietnamese currency]
Uc Dai Lai, he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
He no give me MPC, [Military Pay Certificate]
MPC costs many many P,
Uc-da-loi he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie
He no go to bed with me,
Bed with me costs many many P
Uc-da-loi he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
Make me give him one for free,
Mamma-san go crook at me,
Uc-da-loi, he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
He give baby-san to me,
Baby-san costs many many P,
Uc-da-loi, he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,
He go home across the sea,
He leave baby-san with me,
Uc-da-loi he Cheap Charlie

Image from website: 24 pics of prostitutes of the Vietnam War

Saigon Tea

Saigon Tea bars were usually narrow places, with a bar and stools along one side and small padded booths on the other. The manager was called ‘Papa -san’ and he looked after the cash register. Middle-aged women, called ‘Mama- san’, kept the girls moving.

Once inside, the customer would sit at the bar and order a drink, paying around $2. The local brew, Ba Muoi Ba (33), was best avoided. It was low quality, unfit for human consumption according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and rumoured to contain formaldehyde – but it was cheap! [5]

About 20 seconds after sitting down at the bar, a girl would sidle up and introduce herself to the GI. The dialogue was unromantic and, to the uninitiated, incomprehensible:

“Hey, you. You No 1 (the best). Come here, sit down’, the bar girl begins as she spies a GI.

“How long you come Vietnam? How long you stay? Where you work? Work Bien Hoa, huh? You kill beaucoup VC (Big Vietcong) you No 1. You buy me one Saigon tea? I love you too much.”

If he showed interest, she would ask him to buy her a glass of Saigon tea, a one-ounce glass of almost colourless liquid costing $2 and tasting faintly of mint.

“With it comes a paper tab in two parts. The girl tears off her half of the tab, for which she will later collect $1.”

“By the time the customer has bought two glasses of Saigon tea, and had two drinks himself, he can be persuaded to sit in one of the padded booths. Once there, he is kissed, cuddled, tickled and petted — and encouraged to buy Saigon-tea — until he either regains his senses or runs out of money. Generally, these two things happen to him at the same time.”

“A tea-bar girl is slim, dark and fascinating. Her age is between 17 and 30. Working eight hours, she can earn up to $40 a day. Often her earnings provide food and lodging for her large refugee family who would otherwise be destitute.”[6]

Photo from manhhai on Flickr captioned: GI and bar girls in a bar during the Vietnam War in September 1967 in Saigon

Deluxe class joy-girls

Some bar girls will promise anything to sell another glass of Saigon-tea with no intention of giving the customer anything other than attentive company and superficial affection. Others, however, are prepared to go further. “They’ll bat their dark eyes like a schoolgirl and ask the GI: ‘How much you pay?’” [7]

From dingy back street bars to the ‘the de luxe class joy-girls’ on the verandah of the Continental Palace, ‘a relic of the French Colonial days’, bar-girls were everywhere. [8] There were between 100,000 and 300,000 girls who were prostitutes, bar girls and temporary wives of GIs, heavily dependent on the American presence. [9]

“The dignity of Vietnamese women has also suffered tremendously during these five, six years since the arrival of the American troops. The women who have been driven from the countryside because of the heavy bombing have to flock into the towns, can’t find any jobs, and so have to prostitute themselves. It’s the only way left to them—they are sold as sex objects. The families with daughters who have gone to that point suffer. Even the husbands have to shut their eyes when their wives have to prostitute themselves in order to feed the children. And it’s moral torture for the husbands”, said Madame Van of the People’s Liberation Government. [10]

With the wartime boom in prostitution, the courts no longer committed a girl solely for being a prostitute, as “that would be like trying to stop a tidal wave”, said Sister Mary, an Irish nun who ran a centre for delinquent girls in Vinh Long, South Vietnam, 50 miles southwest of Saigon. Girls from ages 10 to 18 were admitted to the centre founded in 1958 by the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem (1954-63) after a crackdown on vice. The girls had often been involved in more serious crimes, such as kidnapping other girls. Sister Mary pointed out some of the girls and spoke matter-of-factly:

“There’s Lisa, she’s 10. She was working in a brothel in Saigon. She still has marks on her body.”

“That is Rose — she used to steal 10,000 piastres ($A40) a day.”

“She [16-year-old Margaret] was kidnapped, drugged, and put to work in a Saigon bar”.

SOUTH VIETNAM. Saigon. A bar where GIs find prostitutes and heroin. 1971. Image: Magnum Photos.

The Economics of War

When the Americans withdrew from 1974, a significant source of income left with them. The new government found themselves responsible for “an unknown number of prostitutes, drug addicts and other social misfits whose existence had until then depended on the corruption generated by rich foreigners.” [11]

The Communist government claimed 350,000 prostitutes were left behind and set about a programme of ‘re-education’ establishing the ‘Centre of Rehabilitation for the Dignity of Women’ in Saigon. Between 1975 and 1985, over 14,000 women in the newly named Ho Chi Minh City were sent to these centres.

Sister Françoise, a French Roman Catholic nun and government advisor, spoke of the prostitutes as generally simple peasant women driven into the trade by the economics of war. The majority were common women forced to migrate into the city either because of the fighting or bombing or through the Strategic Hamlet Program, the plan by the governments of South Vietnam and the US to combat the communist insurgency. [12]

Like the American resort at Vũng Tàu where ‘boom boom girls’ serviced the needs of GIs on leave, the French, after 100 years of occupation, also had some experience in this area:

“After a 56 day siege beginning March 13, 1954… French colonialism died in Indochina after almost 100 years, in one of the 20th century’s crucial battles.

“There were women then, too, inside the French encampment. … There were also two ‘bordels mobiles de campagne’, French mobile field brothels, with 18 Algerian and Vietnamese girls. When the siege ended, the puritan Vietminh sent the Vietnamese girls and their madame for ‘re-education’, as happened to Saigon bar girls after 1975. Yet now, my hotel, like others in Dien Bien Phu, had its own willing courtesans in a large annex marked ‘Thai massage’. Puritanism has gone the way of state central planning as the free market flourishes. So much for ‘re-education’,” wrote James Pringle for Reuters in 2004. [13]

“In the French as well as in the American period, the ‘Flower Boats’ or sampans plied their trade. They were frequently family operations, with the daughter(s) working as prostitute(s) while the brothers pimped on dry land. Some of the larger junks, however, were professionally run, often by the Saigon underworld. Prior to 1975, statistics from the Ministry of Society of the Saigon government reported about 200,000 professional prostitutes. In Saigon alone in 1968, there were about 10,000 professional prostitutes. By 1974, the figure had reached 100,000.” [14]

Photo from manhhai on Flickr captioned: Saigon 1972 – Photo by Raymond Depardon – Rạp REX chiếu phim Love Story (Chuyện Tình) American soldiers and Vietnamese women in front of a movie theater.

Sightseeing and ‘sweet nothings’

When the American military withdrew from South Vietnam and Thailand, the extensive sex industry created for the rest and recreation of the troops had to find new markets. The Asian sex industry turned to other countries to find ways to continue to profit from the estimated 100,000 prostitutes who had been recruited to meet military needs. One route to profit was though sexual tourism. [15]

By the end of the 20th century Vietnam’s southwestern neighbour, the impoverished, corrupt and lawless Cambodia, had become the centre of the child sex trade – a favourite destination for sex tourists.

Poor Vietnamese parents caught up in the country’s thirst for consumer goods, sold their children for as little as £200, condemning them to torture, humiliation and disease in neighbouring Cambodia. They were joining the children from India, Thailand and the Philippines working as prostitutes in Asians squalid brothels.

“When I first met one of these children, 12-year-old Dah Vit, it was clear she had been tortured. Cigarette burns scarred her rest and hands. We were sitting in the back room of a brothel a few miles outside of Phnom pen, the Cambodian capital.

“‘She’s a virgin, fresh, no diseases’, the mother-san, the brothel’s madam, told me.

“Dah Vit’s mother, Trang, believe she had sent the Dah Vit and her other two daughters into the restaurant trade ‘for three months’. The money they would earn would help the whole family.”

“When they come home we will all be better off. Maybe, one day, we will even have a television,” Trang told reporter Nick Daniel in 1996. [16]

Ten years later, Deborah Orr reported in The Independent that Vietnam had become a primary source and destination country for forced labour and sexual exploitation.

“Criminal gangs operating in Vietnam are known to recruit children promising jobs or marriages abroad, or to purchase them from guardians eager to be rid of them.”[17]

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. They said of Vietnam:

“Vietnam remains a significant target for traffickers. Vulnerable women, men, and children are at risk of sex trafficking and forced labour. Women are trafficked as brides to neighbouring countries, as well as further afield, with incidents of trafficking that reach as far as Europe.” [18]

The willingness for families to pimp their own daughters and for women to seek out prostitution as a career has been attributed both to greed and capitalism on the one hand, and poverty and war on the other. Combined with the ancient ethnic value called ‘phuc duc’ or merit-virtue- which can be created by women and handed on to future generations – and filial responsibility, these may help explain why prostitution was so prevalent during the Vietnam War.

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. Like Kim in Miss Saigon and tens of thousands of other Vietnamese bar and ‘boom boom’ girls during the Vietnam War, she sacrificed herself to save her family.

Within the span of hundred years of human existence,
what a bitter struggle is waged between genius and destiny!
How many harrowing events have occurred while mulberries cover the conquered sea!
Rich in beauty, unlucky in life!
Strange indeed, but little wonder,
since casting hatred upon rosy cheeks is a habit of the Blue Sky.
[19]

The Showbiz Christchurch production of Miss Saigon is at the Isaac Theatre Royal from 27 September 2019


Other stories: Mai Lan Gustafsson’s “The Warlore of Vietnamese Bargirls,” Part 1 | Part 2


Sources:

[1] The forgotten waifs of the war in Vietnam (1969, December 17). The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), p. 68. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[2] Weary Vietnam no future (1966, February 23). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 20. Retrieved August 3, 2019.
[3] ”Clean-Up Drive in Central Saigon Shifting ‘Tea’ Girls to Outskirts.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 14 Mar. 1972, p. 5. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013,
[4] http://www.sexquest.com/ccies-kinsey/vn.php.html Accessed 30 August 2019.
[5] The delights of Vung Tau (1972, March 9). Woroni (Canberra, ACT : 1950 – 2007), p. 7. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
[6] Tea for two in Saigon (1969, October 20). Papua New Guinea Post-Courier (Port Moresby : 1969 – 1981), p. 12. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[7] GI JOE LOSES HIS HUMOUR Vietnam- the very unfunny war (1966, November 3). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p. 27. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[8] “Vietnam: the empty promises.” The Listener, 6 Feb. 1975, p. 162+. The Listener Historical Archive, 1929-1991, Accessed 27 July 2019.
[9] South Vietnam (1970, May 5). Tharunka (Kensington, NSW : 1953 – 2010), p. 10. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
[10] Steinberg, Marsha. “Women of the South.” The Second Wave: A Magazine of the New Feminism, vol. 2, no. 2, 1972, p. 9+. Women’s Studies Archive. Accessed 28 July 2019.
[11] Indo-China’s first year of peace (1976, May 18). Papua New Guinea Post-Courier (Port Moresby : 1969 – 1981), p. 5. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
[12]Prostitutes Rehabilitated.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 29 Jan. 1976, p. 2. International. Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013. Accessed 6 July 2019.
Becker, Elizabeth. “French Nun Helping Vietnam to Rehabilitate Prostitutes.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 29 Nov. 1976, p. 4. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013, Accessed 28 July 2019.
[13] Pringle, James. “Au Revoir, Dien Bien Phu.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 1 Apr. 2004, p. 9. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013. Accessed 29 July 2019.
[14] http://www.sexquest.com/ccies-kinsey/vn.php.html Accessed 30 August 2019.
[15] ‘Terror and Coercion: The Female Sexual Slave Trade‘ 1979. 1979. TS Grassroots Feminist Organizations, Part 1: Boston Area Second Wave Organizations, 1968-1998: Women Against Violence Against Women Records, 1972-1985. Northeastern University. Women’s Studies Archive. Accessed 27 July 2019.
[16] Daniel, Nick. “Children sold into sex slavery on Street of Flowers.” Sunday Telegraph, 1 Dec. 1996, p. 26. The Telegraph Historical Archive. Accessed 27 July 2019.
[17] Orr, Deborah. “The cruel hypocrisy that demonises the world’s most vulnerable people.” Independent, 19 Aug. 2006, p. 11. The Independent Digital Archive. Accessed 27 July 2019.
[18] https://hagar.org.nz/vietnam/. Accessed 28 July 2019
[19]  From Lê Xuân Thuy’s (1968) Kim Vân Kiều, second edition, page 19