I once had a friend named Karen from the Japanese international schools who told me that she had seen Miss Saigon in Japan. At the time, the entire Asian American arts community was up in arms over the fact that the Eurasian pimp was being played by a white guy (as opposed to an Asian guy or Eurasian guy.). I was speaking to my friend about the big controversy, and then it suddenly dawned on me.
"Did you see it in Japanese or English?"
"Japanese," she said.
"Did they have the same controversy over which races got to play which parts?"
"No," she said. "All the characters are played by Japanese."
"Even the white characters?"
"How do you tell them apart?"
"It takes practice," she said.
I didn't think about Miss Saigon in Japan again for another fifteen years, but today, while researching something on Youtube, I accidentally stumbled upon footage of Japanese Miss Saigon. Karen wasn't kidding; all the players ARE Japanese. That is just bizarre. I'm so used to things being color-coded: In American movies or plays with Asian themes, white guys are good, Asian guys are bad, and Asian women are prostitutes with hearts of gold. How do the Japanese tell their characters apart?
Imagine what would happen if the Japanese made Rambo into a musical. Instead of having a single white guy wiping out an entire horde of Asian male baddies, they'd have a single Asian guy wiping them out. Rambo would be dodging in and out, blending with the locals--he'd have so much natural camoflage that it would be hard to even catch sight of the guy. The audience would be just trying to figure out who was who.
Youtube is amazing. Not only can you see what Miss Saigon looks like in Japan, you can also see other national versions of the same story. The Koreans, for example, follow the Japanese convention of having an all-Korean cast playing all characters. In this clip, for example, both the Vietnamese girl and the white girl are Korean, and both have the surname Kim. European countries with racially homogenous populations also follow the convention. The Dutch, Finnish, and Israeli Miss Saigons all feature white people dyeing their hair black. Racially heterogeneous places like the U.S. and Germany tend to hire Asians to play Asians and whites to play whites.
Curiously, I couldn't find the original French version or the Vietnamese version (though I imagine that the Vietnamese wouldn't be so keen on making their own version...).