By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
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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."
After a few minutes of banter in Vietnamese, they disappeared from the screens, returning attention to the stage. Overhead, Ky Duyen and Ngoc Ngan counted down in English:
"Lighting, sound, music, and roll tape!"
The voice of a classic Vegas ringside announcer read the title of the production. Curtains lifted. Keyboard arpeggios whirled, a triangle pinged. Nearly two dozen dancers took to the stage in pirouettes and leaps, silk sheets falling from their arms and elaborate metallic pendants bouncing on their chests. Drums kicked in; violins stabbed dramatically. From behind the dancing phalanx, three women rose into the air on narrow platforms. The audience hooted in recognition of the singers, who traded lines while being ferried up and down.
Backstage, Shanda Sawyer, the show's dance choreographer, operated the lifts from a control panel. "That was a little nerve-wracking," she says, laughing, months later, "because it's dangerous, getting these beautiful singers in their 6-inch pumps up and down and in time for the camera shot and in sync with the music."
Sawyer was used to the pressure, though. The Los Angeles–based choreographer has developed routines for events including the Academy Awards, Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, and Disneyland's Christmas parade. She's among the legion of experienced outsiders who have been brought into the world of Paris by Night over the years — she started in 1995 — to make it into what it is, and her experience shows: Paris by Night has the pacing and feel of an awards show, the splendor of a circus, and the diversity of a parade.
"Everything behind Thuy Nga is Hollywood," Ky Duyen says. "Only the singers are Vietnamese faces. But from the director, the lighting director, the union — these are professional guys. Some of our dancers, they're right now dancing with Beyoncé; they're on tour with Britney Spears — they're the best."
The best: That's the idea behind Paris by Night. Ask the average Vietnamese immigrant how Thuy Nga is distinguished from other production outfits such as Asia Entertainment and Van Son, each of which has its own line of variety-show DVDs, and the response is usually the same: the quality, the production values, and the prestige.
After performing for a few smaller companies, Le signed a contract with Thuy Nga in 2002. He remembers flying to Paris for his first taping and being surprised — and a little intimidated — at how strictly organized the run-up to the show was, from wake-up hour to makeup to curtain time.
What wasn't unexpected was the effect the show would have on his career. Being signed to Thuy Nga is akin to, in American singing terms, being signed to a major label and getting an MTV reality show. Singers put out solo CDs in addition to the work they do on Paris by Night, but it's usually the fact that they've appeared on the show that gets people to buy those CDs. And it's Thuy Nga that often earns singers the fans who show up for their solo concerts.
"I have been working with Thuy Nga for eight years now," says Le, who is known for singing traditional Vietnamese ballads. "Before, nobody knew Quang Le, but now all the Vietnamese recognize me. All of my life is connected to Thuy Nga."
Marie To spends much of her time in Thuy Nga's offices, but you're also likely to find her a couple of doors down. In the offices of RMI Cargo, To — usually dressed in black, with her hair cropped at her neck — gestures while coordinating her media empire through a Bluetooth earpiece. A few years ago, Thuy Nga started RMI Cargo to increase revenues. The money from the shipping company, whose work is unrelated to singing or dancing, helps subsidize Paris by Night.
This is Thuy Nga's biggest secret that it no longer wishes to keep: It isn't rich. Though the problem is worse than ever, it isn't new. In 1999, during a filming of Paris by Night at Long Beach's Terrace Theater, a representative for one of the national filmworkers' unions told To he would shut down the production midcourse — hours before a ticket-holding audience was set to arrive — if Thuy Nga didn't turn the production into a union shoot. That meant paying $150,000 worth of dues on the spot. Sobbing, she got permission from a group of singers to withhold their salaries. The crisis was averted, but just barely: At Thuy Nga, there's never much money in the bank. "They needed the cash right away," she remembers. "It was like a nightmare."
Since then, budget problems have manifested themselves less dramatically but more worryingly to To and her staff. It now takes $800,000 to $1 million to put on a Paris by Night show, and that amount is only set to rise with escalating union dues and costlier technology: HD cameras, elaborate lighting rigs, complicated set pieces. To had planned to start shooting in 3D soon.
Each production is bankrolled with the profits from the last — both in live ticket sales and, more significantly, sales of the DVDs. And therein lies the problem: DVD sales from each edition have fallen steadily during the past two years, To says. Where the company once sold upward of 65,000 units, it's lately been moving little more than 55,000.
The suspected culprit? Piracy.
Like the rest of the entertainment industry worldwide, the Internet has cut sharply into Thuy Nga's operations. A short online search can deliver a link to a full, downloadable copy of nearly any Paris by Night production, which can then be burned to DVD and sold for far less than the official $25 price tag. So while the show is well known to millions of Vietnamese around the world, very few of them have purchased a DVD in recent years — especially in Vietnam, where it is illegal to sell the official product.
"In Little Saigon [in Orange County], knockoffs are pretty rare," says Hao-Nhien Vu, editor of Nguoi Viet Daily News, the largest-circulation Vietnamese-language newspaper in the U.S. "But if you go to other states, knockoffs are a lot more openly available. When it comes to buying Paris by Night in Vietnam, almost all copies are pirated. We're talking probably hundreds of thousands of copies in Vietnam."
Le remembers visiting Australia for a production and seeing that, among the huge population of Thuy Nga–loving Vietnamese there (Nguyen is the seventh-most popular surname in Australia), hardly anyone had original copies of Paris by Night DVDs. Everything was a forgery, sold on the street for $2.99 apiece. To, who was there with Le, was distraught. She still has the pictures she took of the stores filled with bootlegs. "If I go home and cry every time I see that, I couldn't live my life," she says.
Peter (who didn't want his last name used) is the owner of the Tan-Sanh Gift-Shop, a space in San Francisco's Little Saigon that is full of decorative paraphernalia, figurines, and a collection of DVDs that covers an entire wall. Among those DVDs are original copies of Paris by Night — but, according to Peter, they are being sold less and less. He suspects three businesses in the neighborhood are making money out of copying and selling the pirated versions.
Whereas his store charges $25 for an original copy in a shrinkwrapped, colorful DVD case, the pirates hand out plain discs in paper inserts for the considerably lower price of $5 or $6. Peter adds: "We have to pay taxes and they don't."
He worries that rampant piracy will inevitably force Thuy Nga to shut down. And if Thuy Nga discontinues the series, he will lose a lot of business.
Another San Francisco store owner has made attempts to deter piracy. Preferring to go by the pseudonym Tuyet, she has worked closely with To to create pamphlets encouraging people to buy the original, which have been passed out in the neighborhood.
She is concerned that the quality of Paris by Night will soon be compromised by plummeting sales. But she's also worried that the show's character has already been modified by the inclusion of modern music and efforts to appeal to younger audiences.
Like Peter's business, her shop — which she and her husband have owned for 20 years — has experienced setbacks since piracy proliferated in the neighborhood. When Paris by Night first came out, they sold more than 100 copies of each one; now they sell only 20 to 30.
The prospect for stemming the flow of piracy with the law is dim. Peter says that he reached out to the San Francisco Police Department several times, but decided to "stop a long time ago" after realizing that they could do nothing.
Lawyer fees are high, and so are the jurisdictional problems of trying to clamp down on crooks online and overseas. A year ago, Thuy Nga removed all the unauthorized clips of its products that had been posted to YouTube. But that might be the best the company can do. "Sometimes, you spend a lot of money to stop one, and another one comes up," Huynh says.
And so Thuy Nga's bind is classic. Revenues have fallen as viewers have cut back on spending during the recession, while costs have only risen. The company has tried to cut corners — speeding up production schedules and scrapping the pretaping performance — but To is absolutely opposed to cutting back in any way that will make a difference onstage. Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen remembers asking her why she wouldn't reduce expenses to survive. "Our next competitor is so far behind that you don't need to outrun them by that much," Ky Duyen had said.
To wasn't having it. Paris by Night, she said, is the best; if it's not the best, it's not Paris by Night. "If Paris by Night folds, I'd rather do something else," she told Ky Duyen. "I'd rather open a restaurant than open a cheaper product."
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."
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.