Riding The Wave of Vietnamese Pop Music

Nha Magazine, Caroline Kieu-Linh Valverde Posted: Jan 11, 2006

In 1992, while visiting my sisters in Atlanta, Georgia, my eldest sister excitedly brought out the then-latest installment of Paris by Night (PBN) video. PBN is a series of cabarets and variety shows. The videos feature celebrity masters of ceremony and popular Viet Kieu singers performing elaborately choreographed dance numbers and comedy skits.

Several years later, while staying with my family in Sai Gon, my aunt and her boyfriend brought home some music videos produced by Vietnamese Americans. My aunt’s boyfriend boasted about how quickly he could obtain pirated copies, proudly claiming that his video store was one of the first to have a particular edition.

This past year, while visiting friends in the densely Vietnamese suburb of Cabramatta outside of Sydney, I noticed a collection of the ubiquitous PBN videos.

This fascination with Paris by Night is not unique to my family and circle of friends. In fact, it is the biggest pop culture phenomenon to hit Vietnamese communities around the world, from France and the U.S. to Canada and Australia. The highly produced, big-budgeted music and performance videos have found their way into nearly every Viet Kieu home, and have reached millions of adoring fans in Viet Nam. Led by enthusiastic individuals and catapulted by technological advances, overseas Vietnamese have successfully created a global music industry. No small feat considering the various political obstacles that exist in both Viet Nam and abroad. Old time musicians and youth alike have found clever ways to get their music out to fans worldwide.

SaiGon Music transplanted to the United States after 1975

Refugees and immigrants who left Viet Nam after 1975 were initially concerned with adapting to their new home. However, it did not take long before Vietnamese music spread throughout the newly burgeoning Vietnamese American communities. Music at this time had more meaning than just entertainment; it also served the important role of connecting refugees and exiles to the homeland they left behind.

Linh Pham, a Bay Area resident since 1973 and a self-proclaimed party girl with a passion for the cha cha, recalls the musical events she attended at the time.

“I was young and always looking for a party but nothing was going on before 1975. When everyone began arriving, we tried to connect with friends by hosting small parties at each other’s houses,” said Pham. “Then by 1977 it seemed like every month there was a community-hosted event at local churches or schools that had live bands and even room to dance.”

In the initial tumult of 1975, most refugees left with little more than the clothes on their backs. Not many thought to bring music with them. In the early years, those who had items such as records and tapes exchanged them with others in the community. By 1980, there were individuals who had amassed a sizable collection of Vietnamese music tapes. Dubbing tapes eventually gave way to more professional operations.

Some of the early Vietnamese American music producers in the United States owned music businesses in Viet Nam before 1975. For them, the main objective was to make quality copies of pre-1975 music. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, those with previous experience in the music industry in Viet Nam re-established their trade in the U.S.

At about this time, Thuy Nga Productions began producing music in France. The founder of the company, Thuy Nga, had owned a studio in Viet Nam. Once transplanted in France, Thuy Nga’s husband, To Van Lai, a former professor in Viet Nam, helped rebuild the fledgling music house. With a keen sense of the diasporic market, To created a division of Thuy Nga called Paris by Night . To discussed the inspiration behind this new product.

“I used to live in the French Vietnamese community. In the morning we took the train or metro to work. Then we went home and went to sleep, do do. The next morning you got up again and went to your job or boulot. So, your life was three things, metro, do do and boulot, over and over again,” says To.

To Van Lai found the endless cycle of modern urban life deeply alienating. He set out to ease the tedium of la vie quotidienne, and hence Paris by Night was born.

“I wanted to know how a Vietnamese living outside of his country would find entertainment,” said To. “For example, during the day they went to work and in the evening they looked for entertainment. That is how I came up with the title Paris by Night . Those who lived in Paris needed distractions. Paris by Night originated from this desire for leisurely distraction.”

The company was hopeful about making a global impact on the Vietnamese Diaspora. In 1989, they began producing music videos in addition to records. This proved to be a profitable and influential direction for the production company. Success came so quickly that within a few years, To moved the company’s headquarters to Orange County, California, home to the largest Viet Kieu market.

Thuy Nga Productions has been operating at that location ever since. Though the company capitalized on new video technology, the contents of early PBN recordings still focused on Vietnamese songs written before 1975.

Exiled Music

Many who left Viet Nam after 1975 desired to hold onto a sense of their history and national identity. It is no wonder, then, that music from the war years continued to have a popular following long after the war ended. This genre was so popular in fact that Vietnamese American popular music came to be dubbed as “culture in a bubble.” For over a decade after 1975, songs (both Vietnamese and Western) that were popular in the nightclubs of SaiGon during the war were still being sold in music stores in the U.S., and could be heard in coffee shops and nightclubs in Vietnamese American communities.

Music that evoked nostalgic sentiment was soon accompanied by music with themes of a lost nation, patriotism and the refugee experience. The nationalistic songs evoked images of a glorious past and contained hope of returning to the homeland. Leading this trend was Viet Dzung, a musician from the privileged class in Sai Gon. Like many who came to the U.S. after 1975, Dzung struggled in the early years of resettlement. But by the early 1980s, his brand of music, called hung ca or “renovation music,” became widespread. It spoke to a politically unified community that despised the Vietnamese communist regime.

Dzung explained, “The Vietnamese American community wants a democratic Viet Nam. So we use our music as a tool to fight for what we believe in and to represent the community as well as those who remain in Viet Nam and cannot speak for themselves.”

The undertone of this nostalgia is a strong anti-communist point of view. In the early years, the cultural Viet Kieu gatekeepers tended to adhere to this perspective. If they perceived anyone falling out of line with these views, they would pressure the individual or group to take a stronger anti-communist stance.

Truc Ho, director of Asia Productions, exemplifies this attitude.

“The main purpose of Asia is to gap the bridge between the young and old generations. We try to promote to the new youth. If they want to sing about love and human rights for Viet Nam, I will help them. But if they want to sing about communism, I will not produce them.”

Viet Kieu Music Invasion

After the fall of Sai Gon, the communist government continued its tight control of cultural production.

Discussing Vietnamese government restrictions on music consumption and creation, Truc Ho said:

“After 1975, the Vietnamese government did not let you listen to any kind of music except ‘Bac Ho’ music,” said Truc. “You could not play classical, jazz or rock. The communists had their own ideas and wanted us to listen to revolutionary songs. The climate for making music is better now, but music is still controlled by the government. As soon as the composers write anything against the government, they will have a problem.”

Though the Vietnamese government attempted to stop black market activities and illegal purchases of do hai ngoai (foreign products) through enforcement campaigns, Sai Gon residents watched the videos openly in 1993. Paris by Night videos and other tapes and CDs from the overseas Vietnamese community could be found in many shops in Sai Gon and covertly in Ha Noi.

While looking for Paris by Night videos in Ha Noi, a Vietnamese citizen referred me to a small video shop in the old quarters of town. When I entered the store and inquired about Paris by Night videos, the owner stared at me for a few seconds then asked me to follow her to the back of the store. There she handed me a paper bag filled with pirated Paris by Night videos for rent. During that same period in Sai Gon, I found overseas Vietnamese music openly sold in music shops and video stores and played in clubs, cafes and karaoke bars.

In Sai Gon however, the residents were captivated by Viet Kieu music. Paris by Night videos were extremely popular, especially in karaoke bars and in homes. Most of the people I encountered in Sai Gon at that time preferred the music of the overseas community, claiming that they produced the best singers and the most professional performance videos. They thought the PBN shows looked “glamorous and modern” compared to the “unsophisticated look” of the Vietnamese musical productions. Families could not wait for the next installment of music videos to arrive from the U.S.

Sai Gon residents’ musical consumption in many ways mirrored that of the Viet Kieu community in the United States. Like their overseas counterparts, those in Sai Gon also enjoyed live shows with performers singing the old pre-1975 classics—be it nhac tien chien, American pop tunes or Trinh Cong Son songs.

Fearing competing cultural ideologies, the Vietnamese government used intimidating tactics such as random raids and severe restrictions on cultural production perceived as corruptive of communist ideals. These anti “social evil” campaigns sent a clear message that Viet Nam was an authoritarian state. Consuming anything but Vietnamese cultural products could be seen as a threat to its fragile national identity. Foreigners had to tread carefully if they wanted to continue living and working in Viet Nam. And locals had to be extra careful or they could lose their livelihood or face imprisonment.

Looking Back Home

By the mid-1990s, despite the wild success of music videos, Viet Kieu music stagnated whereas new music from Viet Nam was perceived as innovative by listeners and musicians alike. In the late 1990s, CDs such as My Linh, Toc Ngan, took Viet Nam and the U.S. by storm. With its R&B sounds and upbeat and romantic lyrics, it was a quick favorite with many sophisticated listeners in the Vietnamese American community. Phuong Thanh’s raspy voice and rebel image struck a chord with the young Viet Kieu audience. Songs like “Trong Vang” and “Lang Thang” became hits.

The increasing popularity of Vietnamese music began in Viet Nam in the early 1990s and started attracting the attention of overseas populations in the mid-1990s. It seemed the “Vietnamese music invasion” was complete. However, by 2002 a transformation was taking place in Sai Gon. Interest in Viet Kieu music was growing, especially live shows featuring Viet Kieu singers performing in Viet Nam.

Apparently, with the help of the Committee for Overseas Vietnamese, a handful of Viet Kieu performers were allowed to sing regularly in Viet Nam and were even being billed side by side with Vietnamese singers. Tieng To Dong, a well-known music venue in the center of the city, had Elvis Phuong as its regular guest. Moreover, Phuong’s CDs appeared in numerous music stores, both state and privately owned.

Aside from Elvis Phuong, I easily found works by other Viet Kieu musicians, including Huong Lan and Tuan Ngoc. In some cases, I found CD compilations with both Vietnamese and Viet Kieu contributors. Less stringent restrictions were giving Vietnamese people more choices in the kinds of music they wanted to listen to.

This “coming home” of sorts was not a natural process but rather a long drawn- out struggle to perform in communist Viet Nam. Even under this kind of cultural control, the people found a way to listen to the music that they liked. And because there were inconsistencies in what could actually be heard and produced, musicians still managed to express their creativity—albeit under some censorship.

In 2005, the idea of listening to music produced under the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam hardly seems provocative. Yet there are still many in the Vietnamese American community who will never accept music originating from a communist Viet Nam.

Though the U.S. is considered a democracy, we often find elements of censorship in the mainstream as well as in the many ethnic communities in the country. There are segments of the Vietnamese American community that remain critical of Viet Nam’s communist government. Some take the extreme line of boycotting anything related to Viet Nam, refusing to return to the home country, sending remittances or even consuming goods made in Viet Nam.

For these anti-communist groups, even cultural productions are seen as propaganda tools of the Vietnamese socialist government. As such, they boycott music from Viet Nam, criticize Vietnamese American singers who work in Viet Nam, and protest Vietnamese singers when they perform in the United States. Material cultural products from Viet Nam are seen as a threat to the dominant anti-communist cultural ideology of the exiled Vietnamese American community. Viewed as a social evil, some members of the community in the U.S. have tried to instigate a de facto “social evils” campaign to stop products from Viet Nam from infiltrating the Vietnamese American population.

In the area of music, no production house is safe from anti-communist scrutiny. Even the popular PBN suffered under Vietnamese American censorship. In celebration of Vietnamese mothers in 1997, Thuy Nga released “Ca Dao Me” (“Mother’s Folk Song,” number 40 in the PBN series). Though it was another highly anticipated PBN video, its contents soon proved too controversial for anti-communist groups within the Vietnamese American community.

The controversy involved clips of the South Vietnamese military helicopter in battle followed by cuts of Vietnamese families running from burning villages. Anti-communist groups like The Front claimed this depicted the South Vietnamese military as perpetrators of pain and suffering. They and others carried out a full campaign to demand an apology and a recall of all Number 40 PBN videos. In response to the campaign, nearly 2,000 people gathered in front of the Paris by Night store in Orange County to protest the misinformation and demanded a full refund.

The Vietnamese American community’s outrage prompted Paris by Night to issue a public apology. The production company also promised to edit out the offensive sections of its video for trade. The lesson was clear: de facto censorship within the Vietnamese American community does not allow for the creation of music seen as threatening to the core ideology of anti-communism. Because inadvertent images in video productions like PBN can come under fire, artists and producers are careful not to cross the line, whether in the form of lyrics or in their private lives.

No matter the political situation in Viet Nam and the U.S., individuals from both countries will find ways to connect with their families and friends. This is also true for those in the music industry. However, because they are celebrities and culture creators, they are under intense scrutiny. Many artists are fearful of bi chup mu, or of being called a communist.

Sky Nguyen, a Viet Kieu musician, said that he knows a well-known anti-communist agitator in the community who has protested businesses selling music from Viet Nam even while his own family regularly patronizes the shop. The contradictions are not lost on anyone, but rather exist in symbiosis with members of the community.

Control of music production extends to controlling Viet Kieu artists’ livelihood. Due to general curiosity about the home country, improved conditions for work in Viet Nam and additional competition from the “Viet Nam music invasion,” a handful of Viet Kieu artists have opted to perform in Viet Nam. They do so with heavy criticism from the anti-communist groups in the U.S.

One of the first Viet Kieu to return to Viet Nam was Elvis Phuong. In 1996 Phuong made a video Ta On Doi, Ta On Nguoi (Thanking Life Thanking Humanity). In 2000, after his first solo show in Vieät Nam since 1975, Vietnamese American club owners cancelled 12 scheduled U.S. appearances.

Discussing the controversy, Phuong said: “Some were mad and thought it was political to sing in Viet Nam but I’m not about politics. For four years I did not perform in Orange County [because of my performances in Viet Nam]. Radio Bolsa was very critical. They [Vietnamese American club managers] have invited me to sing but we are not sure. Maybe we will agree soon. I told my audience in the U.S. that I just want to live my remaining days in Viet Nam and maybe be buried there too. So the U.S. audience accepts it.”

Though artists wishing to perform in Viet Nam face ostracism from anti-communist factions in the community, more artists are choosing to work in or visit Viet Nam every year. For the Viet Kieu artists, the U.S. is a shrinking market. Overexposure also means artists cannot find work as they once did and this makes Viet Nam a more appealing option. There, Viet Kieu singers are still a novelty, yet they are also familiar to the general population thanks to various pirated CDs and videos. As long as artists can move beyond harassment tactics they are free to work in Viet Nam.

Most music industry insiders agree that musicians just want to perform. Tuan Ngoc, who is cautious about performing in Viet Nam for fear of losing the market in the United States, concedes.

“If there wasn’t so much politics involved in performing in Viet Nam, I would sing there. As a musician, I would want to perform wherever my fans are. It’s just hard now because I still feel bad about performing in a country that I tried so hard to leave,” says Tuan Ngoc.

The Youth

For the younger Viet Kieu generation who were mainly raised or born in the United States, melancholy Vietnamese music does not hold much appeal. Like youths everywhere, they are attracted to popular mainstream music and its renditions in the Vietnamese American music scene.

Tuan Ngoc, who’s been a musician in Viet Nam and the U.S. for over 50 years, worries about the future of Vietnamese American music and assimilation.

“The sad thing is that our children and grandchildren will be as good as the American musicians. But they will not be interested in writing for the Vietnamese American audience because the market is too small. The hope lies in Viet Nam’s [artists], but they are not creating either.”

It seems that what comforts the community in exile is also what keeps it from creating new sounds. Still, there exist individuals looking to change this stagnation. However, Vietnamese Americans who have ventured to create their own music have a difficult time penetrating the Vietnamese American market.

Nguyen Phu, a musician who composes and sings his own songs with a heavy Saigonese accent, is unique. Like the English and Irish who prefer the American English pronunciations, Vietnamese pop standards prefer the northern Vietnamese accent. His struggle for acceptance has to do with growing up with hybrid cultural influences.

“I didn’t appreciate Vietnamese music until I was 15 or 16. I used to listen to American music. When I hung around with Vietnamese was when I learned to appreciate the lyrics.”

Nguyen and his band Phuong are taking chances by attempting to play edgier rock and roll. But they haven’t found a large enough market in the community. Bands like Phuong rarely get support from the major Vietnamese American labels.

Duy Tran, a sound engineer, musician and founding member of the independent label B-Flat, said, “I’ve lost faith in Asia and PBN because they have the power to make change but they won’t do it.”

Duy Tran and others formed B-Flat in response to the lack of support for young bands.

“PBN has brainwashed the Viet Kieu community here about what’s good. As a result, musicians like us have no chance to have our original works accepted. Our 17th Parallel [rock] band was really hated by the community, and that had a lasting imprint on me. So, my work with B-Flat is to support artists. I always push the artists because it’s the only way to help them pursue their art. In my compilation work with B-Flat, there are a lot of bands that have broken up, but I want to help them feel inspired to take up music again.”

B-Flat’s first compilation, What the Pho, included eclectic Vietnamese American music ranging from new wave to hard rock.

According to Tran, B-Flat’s new compilation, No MSG, has two purposes: “To make good music and promote upcoming musicians.”

Tran and B-flat are also helping to promote the likes of Tran Thu Ha, an established singer from Viet Nam. When it comes to music, the Viet Kieu youth have managed to connect with musicians in Viet Nam without the political baggage of many in the older generations.

Vietnamese music both at home and abroad has developed in significant ways. From preserving pre-1975 music and creating anti-communist protest songs to creating new sounds, this music continues to evolve. The task to create, disseminate and enjoy the music has sometimes meant dodging the political bullets on both sides of the ocean. Nevertheless, many musicians and music lovers have maneuvered through this terrain to create and find the music that expresses their artistic and social identity.

Writer, professor and former Fulbright fellow Caroline Kieu Linh Valverde takes a look at the history and development of Vietnamese popular music and how it reached its global Viet Kieuaudience. Currently she teaches Asian American Studies at UC Davis.

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