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After Facing the Music, He’s Ready to Sing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The band was called Magic and Duy Tuong Nguyen was the sexy young singer and keyboard player who crooned love songs to Vietnamese fans around the world.

During the group’s heyday in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Nguyen and other Magic members traveled throughout Europe, Australia and the United States performing for Vietnamese audiences, whose numbers were relatively small but whose passion for their music made the band feel like stars.

But right before Christmas in 1992, the then-24-year-old singer was told he had leukemia and his doctor gave him only three months to live. The band, consisting of Nguyen’s friends and family members, stopped performing, and the promising young musician from Garden Grove resigned himself to an early death.

But hope arose after Nguyen learned of others who had survived the disease. He switched doctors and last April underwent a successful bone marrow transplant. His youngest sister was the donor.

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Although chemotherapy and other medications have left Nguyen’s skin discolored and his face and body bloated, he and other members of Magic now dream of reuniting after Nguyen recovers and regaining the popularity that made them one of the country’s most popular Vietnamese bands.

“The last two years were very sad for our family,” said Quoc Si Nguyen, Nguyen’s uncle and the group’s producer and guitarist. “But now, my dream is that one day, everyone can come together. My only wish is that we can do something with music because we all love music.”

After Little Saigon Radio broadcast news about Nguyen’s illness and bone marrow transplant, the local Vietnamese American community flooded the station with calls expressing concern.

“There was a tremendous response from the community because his band was very popular,” Minh Phuong, a disc jockey at the Santa Ana station, said through an interpreter. “People sent money to his home and called the station to express their grief. When members of the band held a concert to help raise money for his medical bills, it sold out. They had to turn people away.”

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Now recovering at home, Duy Tuong Nguyen said he is getting stronger and more energetic. But as he rubbed his swollen cheeks, he said it’s hard for him not to feel discouraged when he sees old photographs of himself.

“You could never tell that was me, huh?” he said, as he looked at an old compact disc cover showing his slim frame and handsome face. “But I feel pretty hopeful that I’ll get better. When I found out I had three months to live, I gave up all hope. But my friends, family and the Vietnamese community have all supported me emotionally, and that’s helped a lot.”

Magic formed in 1984, basically on a whim. Quoc Si Nguyen, 36, knew his nieces and nephews loved music, so he decided to organize the band to help keep them out of trouble. His girlfriend at the time became the band’s lead female singer.

“Almost everyone was in high school at the time, and I wanted them to have something to do on weekends so they wouldn’t join gangs,” said Nguyen, who has lived with his eight nieces and nephews since his parents died in Vietnam and considers them siblings. “We practiced every Saturday and Sunday from morning to night. When we were done, they were too tired to go out.”

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About a year after the seven-member band began performing at local nightclubs and parties, it gained a following and went on to make five albums. Although Magic started out as a new wave band, its renditions of traditional Vietnamese songs won fans from around the world.

“In my imagination, I wanted them to be stars,” said Quoc Si Nguyen. “But after (Duy Tuong) got sick, we didn’t want to do anything. We still had to make a living though, so we performed a little bit.”

Although Duy Tuong Nguyen now receives Medicare benefits, the family still owes thousands of dollars in medical bills. The band’s profits from album sales and from past performances have all but disappeared, and Quoc Si Nguyen said he has had to borrow money to help pay for basic expenses.

“We spent all our money on medical bills,” he said. “We owe a lot of money, but I don’t tell (Duy Tuong) about that because I don’t want him to worry. I only want him to get better.”

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Since his condition was first diagnosed, Duy Tuong Nguyen’s fight for survival has not been an easy one. His youngest sister, the only one in his family with matching marrow, was living in Vietnam and had to receive special permission to be flown to the United States.

“He was so weak,” Quoc Si Nguyen said. “Even after the operation, doctors said there was a 50% chance he wouldn’t make it. Doctors now say he’s in good condition, but with leukemia, you have to wait to see what side effects there are.”

Although Duy Tuong Nguyen is not yet strong enough to sing and is too self-conscious to perform in public, he still holds out hope that Magic can make a comeback.

“After I recover, I want to play with the band and go back to school,” he said. “We were just doing it for fun, but everyone knew about our band. It was exciting.”

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