In The Pipeline: The Streisand of Saigon

Heads turn at the bustling My Thuan Market on Westminster Boulevard in nearby Little Saigon as we take our seats one recent morning by the dim sum counter.

People are noticing the person I'm with, Carol Kim, but keeping a respectful distance. Sometimes they'll come over and gush, but on this morning, they're content to just notice and smile.

This is what it's like for the woman who in many ways is the "Barbra Streisand of Vietnam," a singer who is not just widely beloved but also takes fans back to another time and place, whose voice represents a nostalgic look back to a world before the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Just mention the name Carol Kim to many Vietnamese transplants of a certain age and see the reaction you get — typically a huge grin because the thought of Kim, again, reminds many of better times and gentler days.

Before that monumental event, the fall of '75, Kim's voice was one of the most popular in Vietnam, and many of her fans from back then wound up here in Orange County — just like Kim.

We first met several years ago when Kim worked as a stylist in Huntington Beach at a local hair salon. She and my mother had become (and remain) good friends, and so I had the privilege of learning about Kim's vaunted singing career.

Most weekends, she'd be jetting off to someplace around the world to sing at various functions and concerts and appear on television programs, as she still does today.

She first came to America in the spring of 1975, just before the fall. Kim landed in Illinois initially, and in the early 1980s came to live in California.

These days in concert, Kim likes to celebrate the great American songbook and will talk at length about her fondness for love songs along with sad, bittersweet musical odes. One of her favorites is the Patsy Cline classic "Crazy" (written by Willie Nelson). She also likes Linda Ronstadt, Aretha Franklin and Streisand and has performed many of their hits collectively over the years.

Though she usually sings in English, she shifted gears recently. For her latest album, "D¿u Tình Thiên Ân," Kim chose to sing in her native language, and instead of choosing pop music titles, she opted for spiritual songs.

The reason? Kim just converted to Catholicism this past spring and wanted to pay tribute to her faith in a meaningful way. (Kim's music is available on iTunes and Amazon in addition to many other popular outlets.)

"I wanted to thank God for all that has been given to me," she said. "For my daughter. For my singing career, which I have been blessed to have since I was a teenager. More than 45 years now."

Kim's been back to perform in Saigon numerous times over the years and will continue to tour other parts of the world as long as she is invited — which, it seems, will be for a long time to come.

And she no doubt will always cause a bit of commotion when she's seen in Little Saigon, or any other Vietnamese enclave around the world. After all, for many Vietnamese fans, she was the soundtrack of their youth, and they still can't seem to get enough of her.

"They still get a little bit crazy," Kim laughs. You see it in their eyes as they approach her, and as they reach out to her, almost in disbelief.

She is theirs. And she always be.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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