It's been a politically volatile year for the residents of Little Saigon. There were mass protests surrounding the video store of Ho Chi Minh follower Truong Van Tran. The Clinton administration expanded trade with Vietnam. In September, county Republicans screwed up a Vietnamese outreach "summit," scratching Vietnamese-American speakers in favor of Anglo GOP hacks.
Hoping to tap the interest generated by such controversial events, Little Saigon activists gathered Oct. 17 for Rock-N-Vote, an MTV-like voter-registration rally at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center. Cong Thanh and his Australian wife, Lynn, worked the crowd of 4,000-plus with an altered take on Ricky Martin's "The Cup of Life" ("Vote! Vote! Vote! Ol! Ol! Ol!") belted out with profound, politically inspired zeal. If the music was bland, Lynn's ao dai (long gown) and leather hot pants inclined us to commit anew to the electoral process.
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The event was called Rock-N-Vote because MTV refused to contribute its Rock the Vote moniker. But after a few hours, we were still waiting for the rock in this extravaganza. We had fantasized about a surprise U2 set, with Bono wailing "Sunday Bloody Sunday" as we waved cigarette lighters and pumped our fists in a show of ethnic empowerment. Instead, we found ourselves trapped at a Power-Ballad-N-Vote, entertained by such local acts as the Moon Flower Band. It was like a Vietnamese version of a show headlined by REO Speedwagon and opened by Toto or Air Supply—a vapid, mainstream arena-rock event with all the schmaltzy trimmings.
The crowd went nuts for it anyway, stomping and clapping emphatically for each musician, comedian and television personality, no matter how awful.
There were more than 180 performers on hand, but the zenith of the show arrived with Tuan Anh, Little Saigon's most famous cross-dressing balladeer. Anh's vibe is best described as Little Richard meets Perry Como. He crooned for a short set while potential voters cheered in unison. It was a defining moment: Anh is the darling of the community's older generation; younger Vietnamese-American voters are just as likely as their non-Vietnamese peers to listen to KROQ.
It may have been a musical failure, but Rock-N-Vote was a political success. By evening's end, activists had collected more than 1,000 newly registered voters. But, really, Little Saigon still has a lot to learn about rock.