How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'Paris By Night,' a bridge between Vietnam and adopted lands

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Playing would-be lovers, singers Duy Truong and Huong Thuy sashay along the stage at the Pechanga Casino and Resort, as a full band keeps beat.

They're two of the stars of the wildly-popular Vietnamese-language variety show 'Paris By Night'.

She in a canary-yellow silk tunic and pantaloons, he in a sporty outfit with a black vest - the two sing a Vietnamese traditional love song before a sold-out crowd of over 1,000.

Crystalyn Le had traveled from Garden Grove with her husband and two young children for the Lunar New Year-themed show. 

"We like to them to keep their Vietnamese culture that’s why we bring them," Le said.

But she seemed the most excited in her family, as she rattled off the names of her favorite singers.

Entertainment and history lesson

Like most fans, Le started out watching Paris By Night on videocassettes sold in virtually every Little Saigon around the world.

Now it’s DVD’s. Throw one into the player, and you’re transported to a Vegas-style variety show- entirely in Vietnamese. 

Paris By Night is one part comedy sketch, another part song-and-dance.  Some numbers are traditional Vietnamese tunes, others are big and flashy.

Even with the show's running time of four hours, audiences can’t seem to get enough. 

A trailer for the 110th Paris By Night DVD:

The first Paris By Night was produced 30 years ago in the French capital by an immigrant named Tô Văn Lai. He wanted to fill the cultural void felt by expatriates who fled the country after the Vietnam War. 

He quickly moved the production company Thuy Nga to Orange County, where much of the Vietnamese diaspora had settled. His daughter, Marie, now calls the shots as executive producer.

In the decades since, Paris By Night has become synonymous with tradition and family, according to associate professor Lan Duong who specializes in media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside.

"Vietnamese Americans celebrate by getting together, maybe eating Vietnamese food, and popping in a Paris By Night DVD," Duong said. 

Duong said she was raised on Paris By Night herself, and her family still watches them.

"We come together to laugh, to talk about the singing - how bad it is, how good it is, how beautiful some of the singers are,” she said.

Paris By Night, she said, also allows older immigrants to share history with younger generations. Shows are chock full of nostalgic songs about Vietnam before the war, before Communists took over.

"There is such an attachment to the homeland and not necessarily an attachment to the Communist politics or the government," Duong said.

Popularity, and problems

Other productions have tried to copy the show’s success, but there’s nothing like an original. DVD's of these shows are not only sold in the US, but in Canada, Australia, and Europe.

The show is just as big in Vietnam, said Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen who is famous for being Paris By Night's long-time emcee, as well as the daughter of Nguyen Cao Ky, the former South Vietnam leader.

"We actually give the Vietnamese audience in Vietnam a very high level of entertainment unmatched by what they have now," said Ky Duyen, noting that Paris By Night hires experienced Hollywood directors and choreographers.

But the Vietnamese government bans the sale of Paris By Night DVDs because of the political content. So how do the Vietnamese watch them?

An extremely vast underground market.

“All the copies in Vietnam are bootleg or through illegal downloads," said John Nguyen, production coordinator for Thuy Nga.

"It’s been hurting us as a company," Nguyen said. "Even the American market is having problems with bootleg, and we’re much smaller. It’s been tough.”

Nguyen said the company has tried to make up for lost revenue by adding more commercials to its DVD's, and tightening the budgets for their live shows.  

Nguyen said the company also is considering charging a fee for viewers to stream shows online, a la Netflix.

The new wave

The Internet isn't the show's only challenge. As its older core audience ages, Paris By Night needs to attract new fans.

But Duong said that younger Vietnamese-Americans, especially the ones born here, "tend to reject (the show) and see it as really kitcschy and campy."

That's how pop singer Justin Nguyen felt.

“When I was growing up I did watch Paris by Night, I literally thought, that’s that’s so corny, that’s so stupid," Nguyen said.

Justin Nguyen, 30, said he could barely understand Vietnamese, having moved to the US as a child and grown up in Alhambra, listening to everything from punk to dance.

But after dancing for some Vietnamese acts,  Nguyen decided he wanted to be a singer, and worked hard to improve his Vietnamese. Last year, he won an internationally-televised talent show called V-Star.

Paris By Night now features him to help draw younger audiences. And because of the show's reach, Justin has become an international pop star.

"It’s a dream come true," Nguyen said. " I still have to pinch myself, and say, 'Is this really happening?"

One of Nguyen's music videos:

Staying true to its roots

As important as it is for Paris By Night is to get young fans, it’s not ready to give up its roots. And that’s where Thien Ton comes in.  

At 29, the Anaheim resident is one of the new kids on the block, but he likes to sing the old standards.

"You know I’m kind of like an old soul for a young person. Not just Vietnamese music but American music. I tend to like the older stuff, you know," said Ton.

Production manager John Nguyen has included Ton in the last five Paris By Night DVD’s.

"He sings the music of the older generation and sings very well,"  John Nguyen said. "We need people like that to continue the tradition."

During the show, Ton stalks on stage wearing a traditional red tunic, as stage lights bathe him in a purple glow.

He sings the part of a man who’s moved abroad, and is missing home during the Lunar New Year.

Long-time Paris By Night fans know the song well. Now, Ton’s introducing it to a whole new generation.

Check out a performance of Thien Ton's here:

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