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“Marie To has endless ideas and a huge vision and is always willing to take risks and try new things,” says Sawyer, the dance choreographer. “At the same time, she is so respectful of her audience, really wanting to give them the kind of material they love to see. I guess nostalgic is the right word. This is a community who was forced to leave their homeland and who misses it desperately. And a lot of the material that Marie does really speaks to that yearning.”
* * *
In January, Thuy Nga founder To Van Lai told daily newspaper Viet Bao that Paris By Night might soon be ending if people didn’t start buying genuine DVDs instead of downloading and buying pirated copies. Thuy Nga’s producers say the public-information campaign is having a small, positive effect. Paris By Night 98’s sales marked an all-time low; after To Van Lai went public with his company’s troubles, sales of Paris By Night 99 were about 1,000 copies higher. That’s not enough of a jump to sustain continued production costs, though.
And so, Marie To and her cast say, it’s up to the fans: If they want to keep Paris By Night going, they need to support it. To some, this sounds like a marketing ploy. Others imagine political dimensions.
“That’s bullshit; it’s not ending” says Sam Nguyen, the clerk behind the counter at a DVD store in the Asian Garden Mall. “The product is good.” He holds up a copy of the latest Asia Entertainment DVD. “This can’t compare,” he says.
Thuy Nga’s employees say they understand why people might be skeptical of their motives. After all, watching Paris By Night certainly doesn’t communicate how close the company lives to the financial edge.
“Because we do have the best of everything in the show, people think, ‘Oh, Paris By Night, they’re so rich,’” says Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen. “They think we’re like Time Warner. ‘It doesn’t matter if we just steal this one.’”
That’s not the only assumption some have made about Thuy Nga. In the Vietnamese American world, Paris By Night gets noticed for being relatively apolitical. While other production companies produce shows that blast the communist regime in Vietnam, Paris By Night sticks to history and entertainment. In a community where newspapers are boycotted for showing the South Vietnamese flag on a foot bath and businesses are run out of town for displaying pictures of Ho Chi Minh, this raises suspicion: Is Thuy Nga run by communist sympathizers?
The issue came to the fore in 2004 when Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen’s father, Nguyen Cao Ky, returned to Vietnam and spoke with government officials. To many in Little Saigon, this was tantamount to betrayal—and Ky Duyen, as his daughter, was complicit. They flooded Thuy Nga with letters urging her dismissal from the show. But Thuy Nga held firm.
“They try to stay away from politics, but the unfortunate part of Little Saigon is that when you’re very popular, people start questioning your politics,” newspaper editor Hao-Nhien Vu says of Thuy Nga. “Sometimes, some right-winger calls for a boycott of some artist for some trivial reason, and when that artist shows up on Paris By Night, some people end up hating them for this.”
That suspicion has melded with the news about the productions’s financial troubles. An e-mail has been circulating throughout Little Saigon about Thuy Nga being sold to a Vietnamese company run by a relative of one of the show’s singers. Were Thuy Nga to be owned by Vietnamese nationals, they, too, would be considered by many to be traitors.
To laughs off that rumor, noting that the singer whose family was supposedly buying the company has been conspicuously left off the list of singers performing in Paris By Night 100.
For now, Thuy Nga is charging ahead, hoping to put on a 100th performance that tops all the ones that came before. Where most shows have eight or nine numbers featuring elaborate dance routines, To says, this one will have 11. Thuy Nga has even invited John McCain to attend; the Arizona senator is a hero to many Vietnamese refugees. If the entreaty seems far-fetched, consider that it was only a few years ago that U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez—whose Orange County district includes Little Saigon—came onstage in traditional Vietnamese garb to be interviewed by the MCs.
Those involved say they’re not thinking too much about what happens after No. 100. If it sells enough, they’ll do more shows. If not, they might start up another, cheaper variety-show franchise with a different name. Thuy Nga—with its recording company, magazine, karaoke discs and relentless touring schedules for its singers—will continue. Its flagship, though, may not.
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