Like the birthplaces of most empires, the houses on this street aren't much to look at: single-story, suburban starter homes with gray stucco, peeling door trims, and oil-stained, two-car driveways.
A cherub-faced 29-year-old named Quang Le enters one of these houses through a side door. In a living room that resembles a bachelor pad — style-on-a-budget black couches, a low coffee table, and a small TV on a stand — he 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 bedroom in this Orange County house. Now, though, the remnants of residential life have been ripped out to make way for a spacious but spartan recording studio with a mixing board. Behind a glass partition are microphones, chairs, and sundry instruments in a room whose walls are 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.
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 album of them. In Las Vegas over Independence Day weekend, they will perform "Chuyen Tinh Buon 100 Nam" onstage — 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 anywhere between $58 and $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 fall, 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 of Paris by Night since it 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. Coproducers 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, 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.
The show has certainly been popular in San Francisco's Little Saigon, an area recently recognized by the city as a few blocks of Larkin near Polk in the Tenderloin. Paris by Night is well known as one way for the community to stay connected with its culture, both back in Vietnam and in other international cities. Vietnamese parents teach their children about traditional holidays and the language by watching the DVDs at home.
But there is concern among local businesses that rampant piracy will further threaten sales of the show and possibly force them to stop selling Paris by Night altogether. Some store owners say piracy is already significantly cutting into their profits, and one DVD store in Little Saigon long ago gave up selling the series.
Due to piracy, the production company that is known for pushing the limits of Vietnamese entertainment may have finally have pushed itself further 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 of the Performing Arts with a sanguine female voice piped in overhead, providing the mock–safety video instructions as women in shimmering turquoise cheongsams stood in the aisles, demonstrating how to fasten seatbelt buckles, and then 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 emcees — 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 cocaptain. As Ngoc Ngan said in somewhat broken English that he had just graduated from flight school, Ky Duyen powdered her face and batted her lashes 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."