On a bright, clear afternoon, a video crew has set up at Laguna Beach's Heisler Park. The subject of the shoot is a rising young singer who has recorded three albums, toured Europe several times and Australia once. In some cities she plays to thousands, but the park-goers who stroll by on this day look on curiously without recognizing her.
Huong Tho is being interviewed by Trang Nguyen for an entertainment news program on Costa Mesa-based Little Saigon Television. Her fame is among Vietnamese immigrants the world over; she is one of several stars--like Khan Ha, Ylan, the Dreamers and Tai Thai--developed by Little Saigon's recording industry, which in a matter of about 10 years has made Orange County the pop music mecca of the Vietnamese-speaking world.
"It's the main place to distribute music for the Vietnamese community in America and the world," says Vu Tuan Duc, a top local arranger who also writes and sings his own music.
The industry is just one aspect of a vibrant arts and entertainment community that has developed in Little Saigon in the 20 years since Vietnam War refugees began moving into the area and turning it into the largest Vietnamese community in the United States.
Traditional music ensembles exist alongside the groups that pump out Vietnamese rock and rap. There is Vietnamese-language radio as well as television. Three of the five largest Vietnamese publishing companies in the U.S. are based in Orange County, and paintings by local Vietnamese American artists tour in prominent exhibitions.
All of this exists in what is almost a parallel world to the rest of Orange County, largely unknown--like Huong Tho--to those who aren't Vietnamese.
Still, crowding the bins of every music shop in Little Saigon are hundreds of compact discs recorded by dozens of singers and groups; music video cassettes and laser discs line the walls, and almost all the products were made in Orange County, for export to Vietnamese everywhere.
In Vietnam, CDs produced in Orange County are a status symbol among a rising elite class.
Not much of the music is original, and sales won't rival REM or Garth Brooks: 5,000 to 10,000 units is considered strong. "The recording just supports the touring," says Yen Do, publisher of the Viet Daily News in Westminster. Huong Tho agrees: The records serve to get one's name out. Touring is where the money is.
When she tours internationally, Tho performs in a group of five women billed as the Five Dragon Ladies. Within the United States, she often flies on weekends to do quick-hit concerts in cities with large Vietnamese populations: Houston, San Jose, New Orleans and others. Some of the most popular performers are out almost every weekend.
When she isn't touring, Tho sings at the Ritz in Anaheim, one of a handful of local Vietnamese nightclubs that has served as one impetus to the growth of the local recording industry. Other factors have included the sheer number of Vietnamese here, the explosion in electronic recording technology and the rapid drop in the cost of producing compact discs. More recently, the launching of Little Saigon Radio has provided an additional boost.
There are at least a dozen studios in Orange County recording Vietnamese-language pop, most of them equipped with the latest technology. There are about 20 companies that produce and distribute CDs and tapes, not to mention the many singers who are opting to put out their own releases without the help of production companies. There also are several companies making music videos, which play in clubs and are sold for home viewing.
Some 50 singers live, record and perform locally, from such top names as Don Ho (not the Hawaiian crooner), Ylan and Vu Khanh to such up-and-comers as Huong Tho. "Most of them, if they want a decent income, work here," says Vu Tuan Duc. "All around the globe, this is the place."
It is not uncommon for singers to come to Little Saigon from Vietnamese communities in other parts of the country for the sake of their careers, Vu says. He even knows of one husband-and-wife team--Cong Thanh and Lynn--who emigrated here from Australia in search of stardom.
While some were stars before the fall of Saigon in 1975, a new crop has grown up in the United States. At least one, Dahlena, is a blond American who sings Vietnamese phonetically--she doesn't speak the language.
Vu Tuan Duc is one of three brothers behind Soundtech Studio in Fullerton. One of the busiest local studios, its story illustrates the growth of the industry here. Brother Vu Tien Dung (who goes by Antoine--even though the third brother is named Vu Anh Tuan) bought his first recording machine about 10 years ago, a four-track machine that cost about $1,200.
"First we did it just for fun. We didn't think of doing it as a business," Vu Tien Dung recalls. But he recorded a tape of a local singer, Ho Van Sinh, and made $600, and "with that $600, I designed the studio."
He soundproofed a portion of his house and built a recording booth with an eight-track system. "When that was done, it looked pretty good so we thought 'why not 16-track?' " Now, with the addition of computer synthesizers and sequencers, the studio can produce an entire album even without the use of live musicians.
The product at Soundtech and other studios is Vietnamese music in U.S.-style pop arrangements. By far, most of the selections are love songs written before 1975 in Vietnam. "We just rearrange them in a modern way," says Vu Anh Tuan. "Whichever they want, pop, rock, whatever."
Of the other songs, most are Vietnamese-language translations of U.S. hits. A few singers are starting to write their own material but that still is rare. "They like to stick to something familiar," notes Vu Tuan Duc.
Since many of the singers are using the same material, the way to stick out in the crowd is through arrangements and the level of recording quality. The finished product must compete for listeners not only with other Vietnamese-language product but with mainstream pop. "The biggest competition," says Vu Tuan Duc, "is what you hear on the radio."
Many local singers are content with their success on the Little Saigon scene. "Right now, they don't feel they need the American market," says Yen Do. "They make good livings."
Not surprisingly, however, some are beginning to reach for broader success. Vu Anh Tuan is among them. He was inspired to pursue a career in music when he first heard jazz, not long after he came to the United States at age 8. At 16, he was playing bass and saxophone behind singers from the burgeoning local scene.
Now, at 29, he is in high demand for recording and touring dates on the Vietnamese pop circuit, and it is there he makes his living. But jazz, which he studied at Cal State Fullerton, still exerts its pull and he harbors dreams of being a professional jazz man.
Like many of his generation, he straddles two worlds. There is enough of a music business in Little Saigon to give him constant work and to send him on tours to Vietnamese-speaking communities all over the world. But he feels the drive to make a mark in the mainstream.
"Since I came over here and heard the music, I loved it," he says, pausing to pull on a cigarette and to run a hand through his long, black hair. "I know American music more than Vietnamese music."
But building a career in jazz is tough for anyone, and Vu worries that he has an extra barrier--one of acceptance. "You don't see many Oriental faces in the American music scene," he notes. "Have you seen many foreign faces on MTV? Have you seen any Japanese or Chinese? . . . How long have we been here? Twenty years now?"
The market for Vietnamese pop now is fairly limited, but the lifting of the trade embargo against Vietnam raises the possibility of local record producers someday tapping that market--of 70 million. For now, though, copyright laws in Vietnam remain weak, piracy is widespread, and one has to contend with the continuing resentment of the Communist government. Such American recordings that are sold there are sold on the black market.
Touring may be another matter. A handful of U.S. pop singers, including John Denver and Bryan Adams, have toured Vietnam already. Some Vietnamese American singers say they hope to sing there some day but not unless the government changes. A few say privately that they hope to tour there regardless, but the first to go doubtless will come under heavy criticism.
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Arts in Little Saigon: A Five-Day Series
Sunday: Over 20 years, a vibrant culture has emerged, piece by piece.
Monday: A small core of believers is working to keep traditional music alive.
Today: The pop music mecca of the Vietnamese-speaking world.
Wednesday: Some artists struggle to confront the past; others try to move beyond it.
Thursday: How the county's arts establishment has--and hasn't--reached out to Vietnamese Americans.
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Stores specializing in Vietnamese-language music recordings are concentrated along the business districts of Bolsa Avenue. Some of the stores also offer locally produced music videos and laser discs:
1) Bich Thu Van Music and Gifts
9200 Bolsa Ave., No. 137
2) Thuy Anh
9200 Bolsa Ave.
3) Bon Phuong-Trung Tam Bang Nhac
9550 Bolsa Ave., No. 101
4) New Castle Laser Club
9852 Bolsa Ave.