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For To, going back to a simpler life certainly would bring a kind of symmetry. She was 11 when her family left Vietnam for Paris among 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 worked as 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, the show's influence has grown with its scope. The production is now centered 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," she 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," Nguoi Viet editor Vu says. "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."
Younger Vietnamese-Americans in the Tenderloin seemed less concerned about the future of the show. Four young adults walking down Larkin said their parents would probably be upset if Paris by Night stopped producing, but it would have no effect on them.
Two of the group were quick to disassociate themselves from Paris by Night's cultural significance. They insisted that only the "older generation" watches the DVDs, while they prefer Hollywood movies. Vietnamese-Americans' relationship to the show depends on when they immigrated to the U.S. "If you came here before you were 18 years old, you probably don't care for it," one says. "But for anyone older than that, it's really important to them."
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. In the United States, many of them are now seniors, who have aged considerably since the great exodus from Vietnam. Paris by Night, with its traditional music and celebration of culture, remains comfortingly familiar in a world where little else is.
Thuy Nga understands that. The audience is why the shows pay such fealty to the homeland — reveling in Vietnam's 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," Lieu says. "There's this insistence on this memory of where they're from, and the war that is part of this experience."