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.
“Sitting next to me is the first officer, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, doing the makeup because she got up very late this morning,” Ngoc Ngan said, still in the English-language drawl of an in-flight narrator. “I have tell her many, many times that you should not spend so much time doing the makeup because people might think you’re getting old.”
Ky Duyen shot him a stern look and, as the audience laughed, interrupted him: “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, this is your first officer speaking, and my role is very important because if your captain die”—she shouted that last word—“I’ll be the one taking you to your final destination.”
After a few minutes of banter in Vietnamese, they disappeared from the screens, returning attention to the stage. Overhead, Ky Duyen and Ngoc Ngan counted down in English: “Camera 2.” “Check.” “Camera 1.” “Okay.” “Lighting, sound, music and roll tape!” The voice of a classic Vegas ringside announcer read the title of the production. Curtains lifted. Keyboard arpeggios whirled, a triangle pinged. Nearly two dozen dancers took to the stage in pirouettes and leaps, silk sheets falling from their arms and elaborate metallic pendants bouncing on their chests. Drums kicked in; violins stabbed dramatically. From behind the dancing phalanx, three women rose into the air on narrow, hydraulic platforms. The audience hooted in recognition of the singers, who traded lines while being ferried up and down.
Backstage, Shanda Sawyer, the show’s dance choreographer, operated the lifts from a control panel. “That was a little nerve-wracking,” she says, laughing, months later, “because it’s dangerous, getting these beautiful singers in their 6-inch pumps up and down and in time for the camera shot and in sync with the music.”
Sawyer was used to the pressure, though. The Los Angeles-based choreographer has developed routines for events including the Academy Awards, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and Disneyland’s Christmas parade. She’s among the legion of experienced outsiders who have been brought into the world of Paris By Night over the years—she started in 1995—to make it into what it is, and her experience shows: Paris By Night has the pacing and feel of an awards show, the splendor of a circus and the diversity of a parade.
“Everything behind Thuy Nga is Hollywood,” says Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen. “Only the singers are Vietnamese faces. But from the director, the lighting director, the union—these are professional guys. Some of our dancers, they’re right now dancing with Beyoncé; they’re on tour with Britney Spears—they’re the best.”
The best: That’s the idea behind Paris By Night. Ask the average Vietnamese immigrant how Thuy Nga is distinguished from other production outfits such as Asia Entertainment and Van Son, each of which has its own line of variety-show DVDs, and the response is usually the same: the quality, the production values and the prestige.
After performing for a few smaller companies, Quang Le signed a contract with Thuy Nga in 2002. He remembers flying to Paris for his first taping and being surprised—and a little intimidated—at how strictly organized the run-up to the show was, from wake-up hour to makeup to curtain time. “I always thought the Vietnamese productions are poor,” says Le, who moved to America from Vietnam in late ’90s. “But the first day I worked with Thuy Nga, I was surprised. I didn’t believe there was a Vietnamese production with a working and organized system like that. It was unexpected.”
What wasn’t unexpected was the effect the show would have on his career. Being signed to Thuy Nga is akin to, in American singing terms, being signed to a major label and getting an MTV reality show. Singers put out solo CDs in addition to the work they do on Paris By Night, but it’s usually the fact that they’ve appeared on the show that gets people to pick up those CDs. And it’s Thuy Nga that often earns singers the fans who show up for their solo concerts.
“I have been working with Thuy Nga for eight years now,” says Le, who’s known for singing traditional Vietnamese ballads. “Before, nobody knew Quang Le, but now all the Vietnamese recognize me. All of my life is connected to Thuy Nga.”
* * *
Moran Street in Westminster terminates in a cul-de-sac of back doors and loading bays for some of the most important organizations in Little Saigon. Nguoi Viet Daily News’s offices are here. So are Viet Bao Daily News, the Saigon TV network and the headquarters of Thuy Nga.
But while Marie To spends much of her time in Thuy Nga’s offices, you’re also likely to find her a couple of doors down. In the offices of RMI Cargo, To—usually dressed in black, with her hair cropped at her neck—gestures about while coordinating her media empire through a Bluetooth ear piece. A few years ago, Thuy Nga started RMI Cargo to increase revenues. The money from the shipping company, whose work is unrelated to singing or dancing, helps subsidize Paris By Night.
This is Thuy Nga’s biggest secret that it no longer wishes to keep: It isn’t rich.
Though the problem is worse than ever, it isn’t new. In 1999, during filming of a Paris By Night at Long Beach’s Terrace Theater, a representative of one of the national film-workers’ unions told Marie he would shut down the production mid-course—hours before a live, ticket-holding audience was set to arrive—if Thuy Nga didn’t turn the production into a union shoot. That meant paying $150,000 worth of dues on the spot. Marie, sobbing, got permission from a group of singers to withhold their salaries to pay the union. The crisis was averted, but just barely: At Thuy Nga, there’s never much money in the bank. “They needed the cash right away,” Marie remembers. “It was like a nightmare.”
The budget problems in the years since then have manifested themselves less dramatically but more worryingly to To and her staff. It takes between $800,000 and $1 million to put on a Paris By Night show in 2010, and that amount is only set to rise with escalating union dues and costlier technology: HD cameras, elaborate lighting rigs, complicated set pieces. To had planned to start shooting in 3D soon.
Each production is bankrolled with the profits from the last—both in live ticket sales and, more significantly, sales of the DVDs. And therein lies the problem: The DVD sales from each edition have fallen steadily during the past two years, To says. Where the company once sold upward of 65,000 recordings of a show, it’s lately been moving little more than 55,000.
The suspected culprit? Piracy.
Like the rest of the entertainment industry worldwide, the Internet has cut sharply into Thuy Nga’s operations. A few minutes on Google can deliver a link to a full, downloadable copy of nearly any Paris By Night production. And that copy can then be burned to DVD and sold for far less than the official price tag of $25. So while the show is well-known to millions of Vietnamese around the world, very few have purchased a DVD in recent years—especially in Vietnam, where it’s not legal to sell the official product.
“In Little Saigon, knockoffs are pretty rare,” says Hao-Nhien Vu, editor of Nguoi Viet Daily News, the largest-circulation Vietnamese-language newspaper in the U.S. “But if you go to other states, knockoffs are a lot more openly available. When it comes to buying Paris By Night in Vietnam, almost all copies are pirated. We’re talking probably hundreds of thousands of copies in Vietnam.”
Le remembers visiting Australia for a production and seeing that, among the huge population of Thuy Nga-loving Vietnamese there (“Nguyen” is the seventh-most-popular surname in Australia), hardly anyone had original copies of Paris By Night DVDs. Everything was a forgery, sold on the street for $2.99 apiece. To, who was there with Le, was distraught. She still has the pictures she took of the stores filled with bootlegs. “If I go home and cry every time I see that, I couldn’t live my life,” she says.
The prospect for stemming the flow of piracy through use of the law is dim. Lawyer fees are high, and so are the jurisdictional problems of trying to clamp down on crooks both online and in foreign countries. A year ago, Thuy Nga removed all the unauthorized clips of their products that had been posted to YouTube. But that might be the best that they can do. “Sometimes, you spend a lot of money to stop one, and another one comes up,” says Huynh, who co-produces with To.
And so Thuy Nga’s bind is classic. Revenues have fallen as viewers have cut back their buying during the recession, while costs have only risen. The company has tried to cut corners wherever it can—speeding up production schedules and scrapping the pretaping performance—but To is absolutely opposed to cutting back in any way that will make a difference onstage. Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen remembers asking her why she wouldn’t reduce expenses to survive. “Our next competitor is so far behind that you don’t need to outrun them by that much,” Nguyen had said. To wasn’t having it. Paris By Night, she said, is the best; if it’s not the best, it’s not Paris By Night.
“If Paris By Night folds, I’d rather do something else,” To told Nguyen. “I’d rather open a restaurant than open a cheaper product.”
* * *
For To, going back to a simpler life certainly would bring a kind of symmetry. She was 11 years old when her family left Vietnam for Paris as one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees after the North’s triumph over the South in the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, her father had been a music producer; in France, he was a gas-station attendant. But he saved the money from the tip jar at the station until he had enough to approach a local video-production company about his idea for a film, inspired by French cabaret but created with the intention of entertaining and connecting Vietnamese abroad. And so was born the first edition of Paris By Night.
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.
“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.
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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.
“Paris By Night still wants to continue to be in business,” Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen says. “It’s not as if we’re closing because we’ve lost a love of it. We still want to do it. It’s just that, now, it’s up to the people.”
For a slideshow of additional Paris By Night images, please click here.