Helicopter Mom (Or, Something for Everyone to Resent)

Natalie Shapero


I want to tell you about a helicopter that is, quite frankly, no helicopter at all. It is instead an isolated cockpit and half-cabin—no sensors, no tail, no blades. A dummy pilot sits at the controls. To give the appearance of rotors, long cords fan out from the center in circular motion. The machine descends via hydraulics, and leaves the ground the same way. It may be backless and flightless, but when early-90s theatergoers paid a record-breaking $100 per ticket to witness the Broadway debut of the Vietnam War musical Miss Saigon, they were paying to see this great metal bird ease its massive body down from the wirework and onto the stage.

Miss Saigon tells the story of Kim, a painfully earnest teen prostitute slinging her way through the war in a gaudy brothel. Chris, an American G.I., spends the night with her, gets her pregnant, and then hops a helicopter back to the states while she caterwauls on the embassy roof with the rest of the would-be refugees. If this last visual seems familiar, it's because the show actually sought to animate one of the most iconic photographs of the Vietnam War, in which a crowd of embassy evacuees collectively scramble for a rope ladder leading up to a CIA-piloted Air America Huey, with many stranded in its wake.

This harried scene lives on in the American cultural memory as a kind of East Asian iteration of The Rapture, in which the anointed security and diplomatic personnel are gifted with an airlift. Everyone less deserving remains behind in some vague, unceasing despair. Miss Saigon leans readily on this construction of America-as-Heaven, following Kim as she gives birth to a son and then settles in for a life of steadfast waiting. She waits for Chris to return and claim her, claim the child, and deliver them both to a new life in the free world. When she learns that Chris has remarried in the U.S. and is willing to offer financial support but nothing more, Kim begs Chris and his new wife to take the boy and raise him in America. They decline, and so, presumably weighing the value of her own actual life against the benefits of her son being an American, she kills herself so that the boy's white and sufficiently moneyed father has no choice but to take him home.

Miss Saigon does not purport to be a fully original work, but instead bills itself as an adaptation of the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly, in which a naive geisha named Cio-Cio-San fails to realize that the British lieutenant husband who fathered her child will never make her an honest woman. (The original opera takes place in Japan, with the cultural dynamics blithely superimposed onto Vietnam through a specific variety of arrogance I'm going to call the Transitory Property of Asian-ness.) The classic Madama Butterfly moment is the scene of Cio-Cio-San's suicide, which, like Kim's suicide decades later, is performed on stage. The update lies in the particular route of escape. While Cio-Cio-San plunges a dagger into her chest with a long grace designed for the stage, Kim just grabs a gun and blows out her brains. She loves America so much, she even wants to end her life the way we do, all speedy tragedy and no ballet.

The woman who originally played Kim, Lea Salonga, consistently brought down the house with this particular variant of artless self-harm. Salonga was "discovered" in Manila as part of a much-publicized talent search, the creative team behind the show traveled from city to city in search of Asian teenagers. (I will try, here, to ignore the obvious resonance with sex tourism operations in the region.) On British talk television, she performed as Kim and then sat for interviews in a drab green t-shirt, her face plain and her hair pulled back into a bun. She is intensely green in these early clips, responding to a question about love scenes by telling the reporter they are a challenge because she has never, in real life, been in love.

Salonga was notable not only for her age (she was 17 at the time of casting), but for being one of the few actual Asian actors in the West End production, which relied heavily on white actors in pancake makeup and prosthetic eyelids. The most notable example with the celebrated British actor Jonathan Pryce, who'd garnered high acclaim for his portrayal of Kim's Eurasian pimp. When the producers brought the show across the Atlantic to Broadway and sought to retain the principle cast members, a large contingent of Asian-American theater actors protested, urging Actors Equity to extend its existing prohibition on blackface to yellowface as well. Frank Rich described the production as "a show with something for everyone to resent—in principle, at least." In the end, Equity and the show's producers settled on a sort of compromise, with Pryce allowed to play the role, but only if he left his fake face in London.

The American production transformed Lea Salonga's face as well, albeit much more slowly. Salonga graduated from Broadway to the role of pan-Asian Disney princess, singing for both Jasmine and Mulan. She began giving interviews in heavy make-up, disingenuous industry smile at the ready. She became a spokesperson for Avon in the Philippines. For Salonga, it seemed, the role of Kim ended up being a sort of half-helicopter in its own right: she stepped inside it, and she disappeared.

Most recently, she can be seen endorsing American Idol runner-up Jessica Sanchez to take on the mantle of Kim in the much-hyped forthcoming movie production of Miss Saigon. Apparently, there is timeless interest in the epic story of the imperialist seduction and abandonment of a young waif. We see this story replayed not only in a planned fictional remake of an existing fictional remake of a classic opera, but also in the tabloid press. This year saw the release of the first film from Noah Baumbach since his public divorce actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, who—as was well reported—had given birth to their son shortly before the split. Leigh is famed for playing sex workers, and also for being the daughter of actor Vic Morrow, who—as was also well reported—had been killed on a movie set, by a malfunctioning prop helicopter that took his head off as he filmed a movie about an American trying to rescue children from war-torn Vietnam. The woman left behind must carry on. She must conform to our expectations of a creature simultaneously submissive and strong, the same expectations we've placed on our own indigenous population, for which our national helicopters are named: Apache, Lakota, Blackhawk.

And so when I say Miss Saigon is a love story, I don't mean Chris and Kim; I mean Chris and the helicopter. The woman has been duly eclipsed by machine. Even an early 90s New York Times profile of Salonga herself, mostly dedicated to chronicling the young star's general innocuousness and accompanying work ethic, referred to her as the "Iron Butterfly Within Miss Saigon." Again, I think of the vehicle first. I think of its ability to drown out everything in its orbit with the prerecorded revving of the motor it does not have. I think of the play's origins in opera, the desire for homage, and the wordless obeisance that the play, like Kim, must pay to its looming benefactor: Miss Saigon includes no spoken lines.