By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
To read this story translated into Vietnamese, click here.
Like the birthplaces of most empires, the stretch of Bolsa Avenue just west of Purdy Street in Midway City isn’t much to look at. Single-story, suburban starter homes line the street, with their gray stucco, peeling door trims, cracked cinder blocks, wrought-iron fences and oil-stained, two-car driveways. Above, power lines hum like cicadas.
A cherub-faced 29-year old named Quang Le enters one of these houses through a side door from a side yard. In a living room that resembles that of an immaculate bachelor pad—style-on-a-budget black couches, a low coffee table, mini-fridge in the corner and a small TV on a stand—Le sits down and waits, tenting his fingers as he leans slightly forward. Wearing a black suit jacket with pinstripes and still sporting sunglasses, he’s overdressed for the room—but not for the Vietnamese-speaking world, where he’s a pop star.
Beyond the living room is what might have once been a kitchen or bedroom. Now, though, the remnants of residential life have been ripped out to make way for a spacious but Spartan recording studio with the knobs and buttons of a mixing board. Behind a glass partition, microphones, chairs and sundry instruments lay between walls padded to enhance acoustics. It’s in here that Le joins Mai Thien Van, a smiley, scarf-wearing starlet who, like Le, emigrated from Vietnam to California to sing. While in headphones and in front of two suspended microphones, the performers look into each other’s eyes, hold hands and croon the words to “Chuyen Tinh Buon 100 Nam” (“100 Year Love Story”), a nearly 20-year-old song about a romance that endures after the great exodus of Vietnamese from their country in 1975.
Co ai ve Sai Gon
Xin gium toi nhan gui tam tinh nguoi o troi xa
Chuyen chang chien binh xua
Chieu ba muoi nam do dinh menh xuoi biet nguoi yeu
Is anyone returning to Saigon?
Please deliver my sentiments to someone afar.
To my lover, a soldier, long ago
That afternoon 30 years ago, when we lovers were fatefully distanced.
Le and Mai have become something of a sensation for their duets; they recently released an entire album of them. In Las Vegas over Independence Day weekend, Le and Mai will perform “Chuyen Tinh Buon 100 Nam” on stage—actually, they’ll lip-synch to the track they’re recording today—in front of a dazzling backdrop of LED-light strings and a full band. The crowd, who will have paid from $58 to $2,000 apiece to be there, will applaud in recognition of both the singers and the song.
The rest of the four-hour spectacle of music, choreography, skits and wordplay will go on. The curtain will draw, and then for the first time in a long time, the people who put on the strange, ubiquitous variety show called Paris By Night won’t be sure what to do next. They’ll have taped their 100th edition since the show started 27 years ago—and it just might be their last.
Two decades ago, the home next door to the present-day recording studio held the American nerve center for Thuy Nga, the production company that puts on Paris By Night. Co-producers and married couple Marie To and Paul Huynh had just moved to Orange County from Paris along with Marie’s father and Thuy Nga founder To Van Lai. In their garage on Bolsa Avenue, they edited video and duplicated the tapes for Paris By Night, which, by the late ’80s, was already a phenomenon for Vietnamese worldwide—even in Vietnam, where it has long been banned. The years since then have seen Thuy Nga’s audience and productions grow alongside the challenges of changing technologies, generational gaps, and, of course, the always-fraught political relationship between the Vietnamese diaspora and its now-communist homeland.
But now, the production company that’s known for pushing the limits of Vietnamese entertainment may have finally have pushed itself farther than its checkbook can carry it.
* * *
The last time Paris By Night was filmed in Sin City—less than a year ago—it made its singers fly. That was the theme, after all: “Fly With Us to Las Vegas” was scrawled in reflective gold over the face-heavy montage on the DVD cover for Paris By Night 98.
The show opened in Planet Hollywood’s Theater for the Performing Arts with a sanguine female voice piped in overhead, providing the mock-safety video instructions as women in shimmering turquoise cheongsams (body-fitting, stiff-collared Asian gowns) stood in the aisles, demonstrating how to fasten seat-belt buckles, and then all raising their arms upward. On video screens came the image of an airplane in flight, and then the scene in the cockpit.
The show’s two MCs—Nguyen Ngoc Ngan, the wry and bespectacled elder statesman of Vietnamese entertainment, and Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, a sunny, Americanized politician’s daughter—sat in the pilot’s compartment, dressed as captain and co-captain. As Ngoc Ngan said in somewhat broken English that he just graduated from flight school, Ky Duyen powdered her face and batted her eyelashes in front of her compact mirror.