The men playing mah-jongg and sipping iced coffee had retreated. Many Westminster shop owners had shuttered their stores, once filled with soybean milk and war memoirs and shiny Buddha statues.
Little Saigon was in lockdown; the sense of loss was palpable. And in the yellowing pages of a local Vietnamese-language newspaper, stories paid tribute to a beloved voice that also had fallen silent in the midst of the global pandemic.
Thai Thanh, the diva who reigned over Vietnamese American popular music for nearly six decades, died in virus-battered March, leaving her legions of fans unable to venture out to pay their respects. The 85-year-old icon started her singing career at age 14 in her native Hanoi, merging northern Vietnamese folk songs, French music and Western opera into a hybrid genre called “Tan Nhac,” the so-called New Music of Vietnam.
A few weeks ago, family members honored the matriarch of three generations of performers in a somber service, paying their respects and bidding goodbye as her casket was carried through a Westminster mortuary. The procession flowed through Little Saigon, a cultural district where traditional and modern Vietnamese American artists have come to present artworks, perform music and recite prose and poetry.
“Can you imagine — she is a household name like an Elizabeth Taylor — beautiful, magnetic, supremely talented, and to be memorialized missing all her admirers. It is tragic and romantic at the same time,” said Stacey Nguyen, a businesswoman and fan from San Jose.
Hoa Dinh, a retired teaching aide from Anaheim, also was among the socially distancing mourners.
“It’s just so, so sad to think that this is a person who had such influence and who was so entrancing on the stage, that she would go quietly,” Dinh said. “I felt such pain at not being able to be there among what would be a crowd of thousands to offer my tribute.”
In California, fans who followed Thai Thanh’s career from its burgeoning days in what was then French Indochina said that the collective catharsis of a community has yet to be realized.
Born Pham Thi Bang Thanh on Aug. 5, 1934, the singer died on March 17 after enduring a long illness. In spite of her public persona, she was an intensely private woman, faithful to meditation. She’d been conducting voice classes before retiring and had suffered her first stroke just over two decades ago.
She’d also been singing occasionally, especially at celebrations, and her last appearances, in her early 70s, saw her commanding the stage in a mother-daughter duet for a Paris by Night video production, along with recording a CD titled “3 Generations,” featuring both daughters and multiple grandchildren.
“There are many, many successful entertainers. But Thai Thanh was more than that,” Dinh continued. “She was a symbol of the grace of Vietnam — as devoted to motherhood as she was to the arts. I’m using this month when we have to stay indoors to tell the younger generation more about her work and her impact.”
In 1950, as the singer launched her solo career, after performing with the family band known as Thang Long — among the first widely known bands in her homeland during the 20th century — she took on the stage name Thai Thanh.
She had an older brother, Pham Dinh Chuong, a prominent singer who performed as Hoai Bac; and an older sister, Pham Thi Quang Thai, who headlined concerts as Thai Hang and who later married Pham Duy, the country’s most prolific songwriter, with whom Thai Thanh had a long collaboration. She won acclaim with many of his works, including “Ky Niem” or “Memory,” and “Dong Song Xanh” or “Blue Stream” inspired by the Blue Danube. During the years spanning the Vietnam War, her star would ascend as she breathed life into his ballads and those of other composers such as Tu Cong Phung, Ngo Thuy Mien and Van Cao.
Thai Thanh and her husband, actor Le Quynh, had five children, among them daughters Y Lan and Quynh Giao, her torch bearers who later immersed in singing careers of their own. Y Lan’s eldest daughter, Mai Linh, is also an accomplished singer.
After 1975, following the end of the Vietnam War, Thai Thanh was banned by the new communist government and could no longer perform in public. She emigrated in 1986 to Little Saigon and renewed her career as part of an artists diaspora.
“I remember seeing photos of her first concert in O.C. and I thought to myself, ‘Finally, the sweetest voice with a lilt to it that I’ve been waiting to hear has come to America, free to share her music and bring us joy,” recalled Tuan Tran, a former electronics technician who was standing in line in Garden Grove last week to receive donated sacks filled with rice, masks and ramen, which he planned to bring back to senior neighbors.
Another fan, Mai-Phuong Nguyen, a physician from Huntington Beach, said Thai Thanh had a timeless voice “touching many generations.” When she was growing up in Fairfax, Va., her father constantly played the diva’s music. One recent morning, after the performer’s death, Nguyen woke at 2 a.m. to hear the familiar songs blasting on YouTube from her dad’s bedroom.
“I think when you’re introduced to something as a child, it becomes part of your identity,” Nguyen said. “My father really held on to her music, as it’s music that ties culture together.”
“It’s heartbreaking she did not have a formal funeral, as funerals are a big deal to our elders and a rite of passage,” she added. “Or maybe it’s a mixed blessing. Sometimes, people who are superstars would prefer a private ceremony.”
Vietnamese expatriates around the U.S. and the world had supported Thai Thanh’s resurgence, at times traveling to California, other states and Canada to see her perform in person. On March 25, they tuned in by the hundreds of thousands to watch her tender memorial, livestreamed on Facebook.
Both performer daughters, Y Lan and Quynh Giao, whose stage name is Quynh Huong, and her eldest son, Viet Le, wore pink, which according to Y Lan symbolized “the color of sweetness, the color of happiness” over the traditional black with white headbands favored for Vietnamese services. “Mother has lived in this world with countless happiness with her family, her children, her grandchildren and especially all of her audience,” she added, saying she has never felt “such deep pain” as with her death.
On the day they said their farewells, Thai Thanh’s beloved, linking arms and hands behind the hearse, softly intoned the lyrics to “Nghin Trung Xa Cach” or “Farewell of a Thousand Leagues,” an unforgettable hit, as the car slowly made its way toward a crematorium at Westminster Memorial Park. In this era of physical distancing, they had rushed to get official permission to have a tiny Buddhist funeral gathering. They broke down, again and again, sobbing.
Missing from the mourners was her youngest child, son Michael Dai, afflicted with spinal polio. Thai Thanh had helped supervise his care until he died, nine years before his mother.
“Mother, oh mother. We love you,” Y Lan lamented, pausing for a moment of silence beside the gladiolas and orchids covering the casket. She and the family sang until the final note, just as the diva would have.