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By LP Hastings
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Over the years, its influence has grown with its scope. The production centers on music, both the traditional songs of Vietnam and original pieces, some updated with modern pop and hip-hop flourishes and others playing it straight as Vietnamese “country” ballads. But there are also skits, plot-driven musical numbers and prerecorded, informative interludes.
“Because of the history of Vietnam and its modern music history connected to France and the U.S.—the idea of variety shows and those kinds of things—it makes sense that Paris By Night took off the way it did,” says Caroline Kieu Linh Valverde, professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis. She says that while it might be seen as comparable to phenomena such as Bollywood, Paris By Night stands out among entertainment consumed by immigrant communities by being born entirely of those communities. “I see Paris By Night as unique not only because of how it was created, but also because of how ubiquitous it was and how it landed back in Vietnam in a huge way.”
Nguyen Ngoc Ngan and Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen provide the glue for the show, filling up the interminable minutes of set changes with banter and jokes, as well as tidbits about Vietnamese culture and history. Ngoc Ngan, a tuxedo-wearing author who lost his first wife and children while fleeing a Vietnamese labor camp in 1979, plays the role of the feisty sage. Ky Duyen, the glamorous but warm daughter of the former South Vietnamese prime minister, moved with her family to Huntington Beach as a child. She’s the voice of the Americanized Vietnamese immigrant, able to muse on the gap between cultures and curious about the knowledge Ngoc Ngan can impart.
“Even for myself, it’s been such an institution of the Vietnamese overseas,” Ky Duyen says of the production. “I came over here when I was 9 or 10, and in Vietnam, I had gone to American school. So I didn’t know anything about Vietnamese history. Doing these programs, I’ve learned so much about the culture, the sayings, the nuance of the language.”
She isn’t the only one. “I’m always amazed at how many kids, the only connection they have to Vietnamese culture and language is through their parents watching Paris By Night,” says Hao-Nhien Vu. “For a lot of families, if they don’t have a lot of time to spend with their kids, working minimum wage 12 hours a day, then products like this are sometimes the first and only connection kids have with the Vietnamese language.”
Nhi Lieu, an assistant professor of Asian American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, remembers her Vietnamese-immigrant parents encouraging her to watch Paris By Night with them to learn about the country she had come from. But Lieu, who has written academic papers and book chapters about Thuy Nga, was struck by the connection the videos had to American culture. “When I was watching in the ’80s, I would watch the Solid Gold dancers, and then I would watch Paris By Night,” she remembers. “I’d say, ‘Oh, that’s kind of like Solid Gold, but the immigrant version.’ I’d sit there and think, ‘Wow, what are they going to do next?’”
But Thuy Nga’s main audience remains first-generation immigrants. And in the United States—especially in Orange County’s Little Saigon, the largest concentration of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam—many of them are now senior citizens, aged 35 years since the great exodus from Vietnam. Paris By Night, with its traditional Vietnamese music and celebration of culture, remains comfortingly familiar to them in a world where little else is.
“It’s something that a lot of elders associate themselves with,” says Malessa Tem, a UC Irvine junior and a member of the campus’ Vietnamese Students Association. She says that while she and her friends grew up watching Paris By Night over the dinner table, now their only contact with it comes when visiting relatives and when re-creating it for their club’s “culture nights.” “It’s, like, you have a bottle of fish sauce, a bowl of pho and Paris By Night—that’s the epitome of the Vietnamese family,” she says.
Thuy Nga understands that. The audience is why the shows pay such fealty to the homeland—reveling in Vietnam’s traditional music and customs, constantly revisiting such pivotal moments as the fall of Saigon in 1975. “There is this need in this community to move through history and to think through history and to remind future generations about this history,” says Lieu. “There’s this insistence on this memory of where they’re from and the war that is part of this experience.”
It’s this repetition of subjects that forces Paris By Night to continually outdo itself with ever-more-lavish productions and increasingly ingenious crossbreeding of traditional Vietnamese themes with modern motifs. After Paris By Night 98’s elaborate opening airplane sequence, for example, the program ran through a few melancholy homeland ballads performed by solo and duet singers alongside an onstage string section. But then came a pull-out-the-stops dance-pop number featuring a lustful, coffin-dwelling vampire and a maiden in distress. Someone at Thuy Nga must have been reading Twilight.