Lavish shows unite Vietnamese diaspora in a celebration of culture and music

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Dancers spin across a stage in flowing silk tunics under a bridge evoking Vietnam’s imperial city. Quang Le, a popular young Vietnamese singer, serenades the audience with a song about falling in love.

Suddenly, there’s an explosion and the bridge collapses. A crying baby is heard as the dancers fall to the floor. Quang Le slowly rises, tears streaming down his face as he sings a new song, this one about the loss of innocence.

The camera cuts to a montage of teary-eyed Vietnamese in the 3,000-member audience. The scene is a reenactment of the Viet Cong’s brutal massacre of Hue in 1968.

For many in the audience — both at the auditorium in Long Beach and watching on DVD at home — it was more than entertainment. It was a piece of history they had lived through.

The sequence is a typical “Paris by Night” production, lavish Vegas-style musical variety shows that have developed a fiercely loyal following. Over their 27-year run, the multimillion-dollar shows have become an international phenomenon and even garnered American Choreography Award nominations in the same category as Celine Dion and Cher.

The shows resonate deeply with generations of Vietnamese Americans, who display the DVDs prominently on shelves for showing during holidays and family gatherings. With their mix of traditional Vietnamese folk songs and modern-day pop singers, the shows present a colorful, if simplistic, panorama of the Vietnamese immigrant experience.

“Paris by Night” tugs at the heart strings and pays little heed to subtlety, mixing smiling dancers in traditional Vietnamese clothing with big stars like Minh Tuyet — the so-called Vietnamese pop princess — who prances around the stage in booty shorts.

The gala productions include dozens of performers who converge four to five times a year at big venues in the Los Angeles area and as far away as Seoul.

The man behind it all is Peter Lai To, who developed the productions in a modest storefront in a Westminster strip mall that has become the hub of Vietnamese pop music around the world.

Along Little Saigon’s Bolsa Avenue, other competitors popped up, creating a “Vietnamese Hollywood” that attracted entertainers from around the world, including Vietnam, where music production lagged under communism.

But “Paris by Night” remains the gold standard, with some shows selling up to 60,000 DVDs.

“If you go to England, Norway, Sweden, wherever you go, you will meet Vietnamese, and most of them have seen ‘Paris by Night,’ ” said To, 74.

But the global appeal of the DVDs has also put the future of “Paris by Night” in jeopardy. Its popularity has resulted in rampant piracy that To says might bring the shows to a crashing halt.

He’s spent the last few months planning the biggest extravaganza yet – a $2-million Las Vegas show over July 4 weekend that included flying acrobats and special effects. But there is growing fear from performers and fans alike that this could be one of the last shows.

Rooted in diaspora experience

The story of “Paris by Night” begins where the story of millions of Vietnamese immigrants began: in 1975 as the fall of Saigon created an international diaspora.

To and his family fled Vietnam and settled in Paris. The former philosophy professor worked as a gas station attendant.

But he and his friends were homesick for the music of Vietnam. So they began gathering after work with guitars and sang popular classics.

To also recorded music off cassette tapes he carried with him as he fled Vietnam.

“Vietnamese people love their music,” he said. “No matter where they landed, they barely set foot there, and they were already copying and buying [music] cassettes from each other.”

In 1983, To came up with the idea of producing MTV-style music videos to go along with the cassettes. With $19,000 in savings, he approached a friend, Jean-Pierre Barry, the owner of Euro Media Television, who helped produce the first “Paris by Night” video in the TV station’s studios.

Soon, To moved to Orange County to market the video to America’s burgeoning Vietnamese population. Thuy Nga Productions eventually made the transition to live tapings in front of audiences in the 1990s that were recorded and marketed to Vietnamese video stores and retailers around the world.

To found that no matter where the members of an audience were now living, the videos tapped a universal nostalgia among Vietnamese immigrants. The shows were constantly played in Vietnamese noodle restaurants and beauty salons.

“If you were a Vietnamese kid in Utah, there wasn’t a Vietnamese TV station for you to watch,” said Marie To, 46, executive producer of the series and Peter To’s daughter. “The only entertainment was ‘Paris by Night.’ ”

For many fans, “Paris by Night” succeeds by melding the old and new, drawing multiple generations of families together with shows that combine the nostalgic folk music remembered by older Vietnamese with the young pop acts that try to keep younger people interested.

Tieu-Y Nguyen, 27, a financial analyst from Tustin, said that her parents made sure to borrow new tapes from friends and that her siblings would gather in the living room to watch.

“It was like a huge family event,” she said. Nguyen would mimic traditional Vietnamese dance moves seen on the video. “For my parents, it’s like a piece of memory for them. The older songs remind them of Vietnam.”

A typical “Paris by Night” show is a four-hour spectacle featuring more than 30 singers and just as many backup dancers.

To hires directors, lighting designers and choreographers from Hollywood production companies. Marie To translates songs to English to help them create a flashy, sometimes cheesy, version of Vietnamese culture with themes such as “Portrait of Vietnamese Women” and “Passport to Music & Fashion.”

About two-thirds of the songs are traditional folk songs like those performed by Khanh Ly, a 65-year-old singer with long black hair who is beloved by older Vietnamese. The rest take on the tone of hip-hop-inspired performances by Lynda Trang Dai, known as the Vietnamese Madonna.

The shows’ longtime emcees, Nguyen Ngoc Ngan and Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, are seen as ambassadors of Vietnamese culture. They interview famous Vietnamese on the show, such as Viet Dinh, an author of the post- 9/11 Patriot Act, and “Top Chef” winner Hung Huynh. Nguyen Ngoc Ngan writes comedy skits for the show that impart Vietnamese values with a sprinkling of proverbs.

Each year, the shows become more lavish. The most extravagant show was Vol. 98, subtitled “Fly With Us to Las Vegas,” which cost $1.9 million to produce and was filmed at Planet Hollywood.

A small plane was rented to shoot a four-minute segment with the emcees dressed in pilots’ uniforms. The show begins with an explosion of lights as 12 female vocalists in glittery dresses sing on rising columns as the audience oohs and ahhs. Peter To brags that the traditional costumes have authentic detail down to the collars and head bands.

“People ask me, ‘Why do you spend so much money on that?’ ” To said. “I know we could produce a show for $900,000, but it would not attract people. People appreciate the details.”

But while To is spending more money than ever to produce the shows, their popularity has attracted pirates and counterfeit copies. The shows began showing up as illegal downloads on the Internet in 2003, when “Paris by Night” switched from videotape to DVD distribution.

Now, revenue from sales is declining as more people decide to grab the shows illegally rather than paying the $15-$25 retail price, To said.

To said he’s lost money on the last few shows because of lagging DVD sales, which have declined from a peak of 80,000 several years ago.

He said he has filed lawsuits, written letters to Congress and hired private investigators to track down owners of illegal file-sharing sites. But nothing seems to work.

These days, boxes and shelves of unsold DVDs are stacked up at the Westminster offices. The company was forced to close down one of its warehouses that stored old costumes.

“It’s like building a house and watching it get burned down,” To said.

Still, the 10,000 tickets to the two live Vegas shows for Vol. 100, performed at Planet Hollywood, sold out in a week, , he said.

In the meantime, To is trying to stay positive. Every “Paris by Night” show ends on a note of happiness and good feeling, and the newest one was no exception. Though the brand is in jeopardy, the performers entered the stage all smiles, singing about fond memories and new beginnings.