Vietnam’s Musical Invasion
To young Vietnamese Americans, it’s the hottest music around. To older generations, it’s nothing more than Communist propaganda. And to a Little Saigon music industry once hailed as “the Vietnamese Nashville,” it could spell doom.
The thaw in U.S.-Vietnam relations has flooded music stores from Westminster to Philadelphia with verse and song from a culturally invigorated Vietnam.
It is a musical invasion that is widening a political and cultural divide between young people moved by the native Vietnamese sound and older generations who consider the music’s success a triumph of the hated government they fled.
The shift in tastes is emerging as a hot political issue. Local radio stations don’t play the native music, even though it sells out in stores. At demonstrations, protesters stomp on the Vietnamese products. And many residents simply clasp their hands over their ears when the music from Vietnam plays.
Some Little Saigon artists who have attempted to revive careers by touring in Vietnam have returned to boycotts and threats.
When Elvis Phuong, a popular old-time crooner of French and traditional love songs, came back from a Vietnam tour earlier this year, radio station switchboards lit up with callers branding him a traitor for choosing to tour in April--the “black” month marking the fall of Saigon.
Another singer on the tour, pop star Trizzie Phuong Trinh, said she received threatening phone calls, but has no regrets about going to Vietnam. “The industry is dying over here,” she said. “Singers have to make a living too.”
It wasn’t always this way. For years, Little Saigon dominated the global Vietnamese music scene, producing a nostalgic blend of love tunes and longing for an old pre-Communist Vietnam.
But the Little Saigon style is rapidly giving way to imported music that is generally more upbeat, lyrical, innovative--and less expensive.
Global sales of Little Saigon record companies have dropped as much as 70% from their peak in 1995, according to industry sources. At least eight production companies have closed; others are barely staying afloat.
“If this continues, we will be extinct. We can’t compete,” said Marie Nguyen, executive producer of Thuy Nga Productions, a leading local record company.
Many artists believe the imports are gaining popularity because the Vietnamese government’s censorship rules have loosened, unleashing an explosion of creativity.
Censors once prohibited musicians from playing songs in the melancholy minor keys, fearful of instilling sadness among the people. Also, songs could not express feelings of love between two people--only love of country or family.
But for many in Little Saigon, the iron fist of the Communist government is still very much present in the new imported tunes.
“These materials are being sent over . . . at an extremely cheap price to serve as soft propaganda from Vietnam,” said Van Thai Tran, a local attorney. The music’s message is “that everything is fine in Vietnam and that there is cultural normalcy in people’s everyday lives, when in fact the country is still repressive politically.”
Imports Touch a Raw Nerve
The imports have touched a raw nerve in the Vietnamese American community because the industry was born from the defiance and determination of refugees fleeing a war-ravaged homeland.
The Communists had banned much of the music from before their triumph over the south in 1975, deeming its Western, mainly French, influences corrosive to the revolution. For Vietnamese struggling in a new country, however, the music was a reminder of life decades earlier, before their homeland’s skies filled with bombs and bullets.
“They weren’t looking for ways to innovate. They were looking for ways to preserve that old feeling.” said Adelaida Reyes, an ethnomusicologist who has studied the Little Saigon music scene. “Instead of composing new songs, they kept doing the same things over and over again. What they were really trying to do is preserve the musical language of a Vietnam that they were continuing to idealize.”
What began as an effort to preserve a cultural legacy emerged as one of Little Saigon’s most profitable businesses. By 1995, at least 30 companies were located in a four-square-mile area of Westminster and Garden Grove. The companies produced mostly romantic songs popular before 1975, but also pop music that borrowed from American influences.
Among the A-list artists: Nhu Quynh, a young beauty whose traditional ballads bring tears to the eyes of war veterans, and Lynda Trang Dai, known as the Vietnamese Madonna, who purred soft-rock numbers and shocked parents with her peek-a-boo halter tops.
With a slick marketing pitch, the voices from Little Saigon penetrated all corners of the scattered Vietnamese community. Melbourne, Paris, Moscow and London were just some of the cities conquered by touring musical extravaganzas featuring as many as 25 artists.
“The fans acted like they were seeing the Beatles,” said Vu Anh Tuan, a 34-year-old saxophone player from Orange who has toured extensively with some of Little Saigon’s leading acts.
By mainstream recording industry standards, sales were tiny: A 15,000-unit seller was considered a hit. But profits fueled a multimillion-dollar industry that employed dozens of performers, composers and producers.
1997 Sees Flood of CDs
Fortunes began to shift in 1994 when the United States lifted economic sanctions against Vietnam, paving the way for greater trade between the two countries.
By 1997, compact discs from overseas acts began appearing in local music stores. Though initially dismissed as crude reproductions of local fare, the music caught the ear of many youngsters and thousands have become loyal listeners.
Music store shelves in Little Saigon, once stocked only with local artists, now brim with lower-priced imports that sell for as little as $2, compared with $8 to $12 for locally produced CDs.
“Every Vietnam CD we display, they get sold out,” said Khai Nguyen, a clerk at a music store.
A Times survey of more than 25 music stores and recording companies found that sales of local artists have fallen 30% to 70% from their peak in 1995. In many music stores, the Vietnamese-made music sells out, while local products go untouched.
Little Saigon is still home to the nation’s most active Vietnamese American music scene, with scores of records produced annually. But many local musicians and record company executives admit that the once undisputed Nashville of immmigrant music is under threat from a more innovative music-making machine overseas.
Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, boasts a booming recording industry, with hundreds of musicians and composers hungry for stardom. Freed from strict government controls, they have unleashed decades of pent-up creative energy, transforming the city into a modern-day Tin Pan Alley, Southeast Asian style.
Every night, singers tour the city’s bar circuit, performing one or two songs at each venue before proceeding on bikes to the next rickety stage. Successful composers pen songs by the dozen for their stables of favorite singers. Overseas businessmen scour the scene for potential hits, eager to carry the sounds beyond Vietnam.
The Vietnamese artists can’t match their American counterparts in style or showmanship. But fans say they compensate with soaring voices, passionate lyricism and inspiration from the struggles of living in an impoverished country.
Ringing up huge sales is Phuong Thanh, a soulful diva who sings rock- and jazz-inflected songs with an elegant voice that reminds many of the British pop star Sade.
“They don’t look like the Communist singers from before,” said Chung Tu Luu, a former singer from Vietnam who now owns a record company in Little Saigon. “They’re handsome, they’re beautiful, they’re young. And they sing new songs.”
“Vietnamese singers have better voices, the lyrics are better and the music is new,” Irvine teenager Huy Nguyen said as he scanned the imports section at a local record store. “The singers here sing the same songs over and over again.”
Critics Protest One-Way Commerce
Critics of the new music from Vietnam say their concerns are more than simply political. Many protest the one-way nature of the commerce in cultural products between the United States and Vietnam: Although the United States has opened its market to the Vietnamese compact discs, experts say Vietnam still prohibits importation of many types of cultural products, such as video and music.
At a Westminster demonstration this year marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, a throng of hundreds cheered as people stomped on a pile of Vietnamese-made compact discs and videotapes.
“I support my own artist over here,” said Viet Dzung, a songwriter and local deejay who doesn’t play the music from Vietnam. “There should be fair trade and the whole community thinks that way.”
While the younger generation flocks to buy the new imports from Vietnam, older Vietnamese Americans remain loyal to the Little Saigon sound.
“No way would I buy that music. I don’t like anything from Vietnam since the Communists took over,” said Vien Le, 53, a former soldier who lives in Garden Grove. “I like to listen to the music before the war. It’s good for an old man like me.”
At a recent concert in Santa Ana, local pop star Nhu Quynh sang a love song about a young woman who lays a white rose at the grave of her lover, a soldier. It was in homage to the sacrifices of the older generation, and the audience of several hundred people, including many former soldiers, swooned.
“A lot of my friends died,” said Phuc Chu, a 50-year-old former South Vietnamese Air Force helicopter pilot. “This song makes me miss my friends.”
Times staff writer Mai Tran contributed to this story.