While most American teenagers growing up in the 1980s idolized Madonna and saved up their weekly allowances to attend a Flock of Seagulls concert, the Vietnamese American youth in Orange County obsessed over singers like Henry Chuc, Lynda Trang Dai, Tommy Ngo, Thai Tai and Trizzie Phuong Trinh––the pioneers of what has become known as Vietnamese new wave. And for many of these fans––most of whom are now in their 40s and have their own teens to worry about––their wildest dreams have come true. More than 30 years later, five of the biggest new wave stars picked up where their careers left off and reunited to form the New Wave Tour, performing for longtime fans around the globe and spreading nostalgia wherever they go.
American new wave referred to a radical mix of pop and rock music––perfect for listening to while teasing one’s hair and tearing through cans of Aqua Net in preparation for a Friday night out. But while just about every boombox in the U.S. was loaded with Blondie and Talking Heads cassettes, the music over at the house parties in Orange County––specifically in the Vietnamese-populated communities in Little Saigon––sounded a little different.
“Everyone else was listening to American new wave, but for some strange reason, all of us discovered European new wave, and we liked it better,” Thai Tai says. In Orange County, San Jose and over in Texas, where immigrant families settled after fleeing from communist forces in the Vietnam War, everyone was listening to CC Catch, Modern Talking, Sandra and Bad Boys Blue––popular ’80s German artists. European new wave was a softer mix of Eurodisco and Italo, and Vietnamese Americans went wild over it. “I have no idea how the music got here in the States, and to be honest, I don’t know if it was even that big where it originated,” Trizzie Phuong Trinh laughs. “But at the time, when I was 18, 19, everyone here was jamming to it. You’d be driving down Bolsa Street and you’d hear people blasting new wave from their cars.”
No one bothered trying to understand the cultural phenomenon––all they knew is that they wanted more. Lynda Trang Dai wondered why there were no new wave singers out there that looked like her. “At the time there were a lot of Vietnamese traditional singers and also the classic ones,” Dai says. “But for the younger generations there weren’t a lot of Vietnamese idols they could turn to, especially ones that sang in English, so I thought, ‘I have to bring something new into the community to make the music better and more relatable for us.’” In 1985 while still in high school, she began recording covers of popular ’80s hits like “You’re My Heart, You’re My Soul” and performing them at colleges like Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine, sometimes in Vietnamese but mostly in English, where her powerful vocals and short skirts earned her the nickname “the Vietnamese Madonna.”
The trend soon caught on, and throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, Vietnamese American cover artists began flocking to Little Saigon to book clubs and variety shows like Paris by Night. Chuc ventured from El Monte, Trinh came from Redmond, Washington and Tai moved from Dallas, Texas to finish high school. Eventually, even singers from Vietnam would have to come to America to catch their big break. “Orange County was the Hollywood for the Vietnamese music industry,” Trinh says. “Even the biggest Vietnamese production companies are here.”
Singers would book gigs at casinos and local clubs with flashy names like Rex, Ritz and Diamond. It was at these clubs that all the “new wavers,” as they called themselves, would meet one another. Some went on national tours together, while others recorded albums together. Some, like Dai and Ngo, would go on to marry each other.
And then, as all music revolutions tend to do, Vietnamese new wave slowly began to fade away. By the mid ’90s, new wavers had retired from singing and pursued other careers, though the strong community ties kept them in Orange County. Chuc, a Sinatra fan with a penchant for ballads, booked singing gigs at weddings. Trinh became a businesswoman and opened several lounges in Garden Grove. Dai never quit singing, but split her time between performances and running her own café, Lynda Sandwich.
Then in early 2015, Dai got a call from a longtime Vietnamese new wave fan who was organizing a charity event in Dallas. She wanted Dai to perform. “I’d been wanting a new wave reunion for a long time, so I thought of the most famous singers from back then off the top of my head and called them up,” Dai recalls. Everyone immediately jumped at the opportunity to join the revival tour, and to their surprise, the shows began selling out right away.
“I would look out into the audience and see everyone singing the words,” Dai says. “I was shocked at how much people still remembered and love new wave. They never forgot about us.” From Texas to Connecticut to Canada, the New Wave Tour completely packed each venue with their primarily Vietnamese fans, all reliving their 1980’s memories together with cover performances of songs like “In the Heat of the Night” and “Cherry Cherry Lady.”
“They swarm the tables afterwards to share their childhood memories with us,” Chuc says. “I even had a female fan come up and tell me she still has one of my ruffled sleeves she ripped off me from a performance I did 30 years ago––she framed it.”
For the singers, who are now married or divorced and have kids approaching the age they were when they fell into Vietnamese new wave, getting reacquainted with their stardom is a surreal experience. “This is very rare in the Vietnamese community that we managed a comeback,” Trinh says. “I think it’s rare for anyone to have a good comeback,” Tai adds.
Dai hopes the formation of the New Wave Tour not only brings happiness to the countless individuals who grew up listening to their music, but also serves as an example for the Vietnamese American community. “We’re all stars individually, so the the most wonderful feeling for me is that we’re now performing together because honestly, I’ve seen this whole community being unable to work together,” Dai notes. “I see other Asians like Koreans or Japanese remaining strong and united. My point in saying this is not to put my people down, but to show that teamwork––togetherness––is necessary for the Vietnamese.” “We’ve got to be a family,” Trinh adds. “Ooh! ‘We Are Family’––let’s add that song to our tour this weekend,” Dai laughs.
The New Wave Tour is part of the Grand Concert at the Tet Festival (Main Stage at the Alamitos Building) at the OC Fair & Events Center, 88 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, www.tetfestival.com. Sunday, Feb. 14. 5:30-10 p.m. $6 at the door (cash only). For details on buying tickets online, visit www.tetfestival.org.