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By Chris Roberts
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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," Sawyer says. "At the same time, she is so respectful of her audience, really wanting to give her audience the kind of material that 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 in Orange County. "The product is good." He holds up a copy of the latest Asia Entertainment DVD: "This can't compare."
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,'" Ky Duyen says. "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 companies produce shows that blast the Communist regime, 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's father, Nguyen Cao Ky, returned to Vietnam and spoke with government officials. To many in Little Saigon, this was tantamount to betrayal — and she, as his daughter, was complicit. They flooded Thuy Nga with letters urging her dismissal from the show. But she 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," 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' financial troubles. An e-mail has circulated 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.
Marie To laughs off that rumor, noting that the singer whose family was supposedly buying the company has been conspicuously left off the list of performers 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, she says, this one will have 11. John McCain has even been invited to attend; the Arizona senator is a hero to many Vietnamese refugees.
Those involved say they're not thinking much about what happens after that performance. 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," 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."Additional reporting by Alex Wolens.