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Paris by Night: Performing Vietnamese and Vietnamese American - Dorothy Nguyen
 
 

Losing patience with her two year-old's lack of cooperation, my cousin pointed at the television screen and said, "Look!  Ông Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn is not going to be very happy if you don't finish your dinner!"  I was astonished to see what happened next: the two year-old, after taking a look at the benign-looking figure on the screen, one of the two emcees of the Vietnamese musical production Paris by Night, opened his mouth and ate the spoonful of food that he'd so adamantly refused to eat for the last five minutes. 

 

This scene, which I witnessed at a family reunion in northern California several years ago, exemplifies the extent to which musical productions produced outside of Viet Nam such as Paris by Night have become a part of the everyday life for Vietnamese diasporic communities.  It would not be an exaggeration to claim that every overseas Vietnamese household has seen or own at least one installment of this serialized production.  Produced by Thúy Nga Productions, what began in 1989 as a humble music business aimed to offer emotional consolation to the Vietnamese refugees in Paris has now moved its headquarters to southern California and claimed for itself international recognition among worldwide Vietnamese diasporic communities.  Four- to five-hour-long performances are held approximately once every three months in cities that claim sizable Vietnamese/Vietnamese American populations, and these performances are in turn edited into digital videos available for purchase in Vietnamese music/video stores.  Loyal audiences in the United States, France, Canada, and Australia (as well as in Viet Nam, although Paris by Night is not legally made available there due to conflicting political ideologies) eagerly await each new release, and the faces which regularly appear in the shows have become a familiar addition to Vietnamese family living rooms, as witnessed in the case of my cousin. 

 

But aside from the amusement that this memory provokes, I feel impelled to answer some questions that it raises:  How did Paris by Night provide what these Vietnamese immigrants needed?  What kind of connection exists between these productions and the children of these immigrants, the first generation of Vietnamese Americans, and what does this reflect of the relationship between these two generations?  How do these productions perform Vietnamese/Vietnamese American identity?   What is at stake in these performances, and what has been or must be done in order to sustain cultural dialogue between Vietnamese immigrants and their children, as well as with the future Vietnamese American generations?  Due to the conditions under which most Vietnamese immigrants left their country in and after 1975, the year South Viet Nam fell to the northern communist regime, I argue that the performances put out by Thúy Nga Productions, in the first decade or so since its inception in Paris, articulated a desire widespread among the majority of the Vietnamese forced to leave their country to cling to their memories of a glorified culture of a pre-1975 past.  In this formation, cultural identity for this group of exiled peoples was conceived to be a static, bounded entity, specifically defined and intentionally fixed on a goal of "preserving" rather than innovating.  Paris by Night provided exactly what the soul thirsted for: cultural production by displaced people nostalgic of the past, as opposed to by the threatening regime that forcibly took their country.  With the aging of its target audience and the need to sustain the livelihood of the Vietnamese music industry abroad, however, Thúy Nga necessarily revised this concept of cultural identity in order to extend its cultural dialogue to Vietnamese Americans.  In doing so, these performances also opened communication between Vietnamese immigrants and their children.

 

The spring of 1975 bore witness to a mass departure of Vietnamese refugees from their motherland.  With their beloved country under the command of an authoritarian government, who would claim the right to produce "Vietnamese culture"?  Furthermore, what would become of these refugees' sense of national identity, and how was this sense of identity articulated by and through cultural production outside of Viet Nam?  While recognizing the historical specificity of each situation, I find it helpful here to refer to Daphne Lei's research of Cantonese opera. 

 

In Operatic China, Lei identifies the "contact zone" as a fertile ground for "staged identity," explaining that this is "a geographical, social, political, and ideological site brought into being in the clash of at least two cultures or two ideologies; it is the typical gray and muddy 'intercultural' area, which is nurtured by negotiation, assimilation, and conflict" (2-3).  When the Manchus established the Qing Dynasty in 1644, performing (Han) "Chineseness" [1] on stage was a way in which the Han people asserted and sought to defend their cultural identity, as well as a means through which they voiced their revolutionary desire of "overthrowing the Qing and restoring the Ming" (Operatic 147).  When the contact zone was later encroached upon by Western powers, "Chineseness" was renegotiated on stage as a result of being threatened by yet another ideologically and culturally conflicting entity.  This identity was again renegotiated when the Kuomintang lost the civil war to the Communist Party of China and retreated to Taiwan.  In all these cases, Lei asserts that:

 

Chinese opera is often figured as a lotus flower resisting hybridity and assimilation and used to represent a unique, intrinsic, pure, and stable Chinese identity.  Yet without the threat of contamination such purity could not be envisioned or celebrated.  The chaos of the muddy contact zone puts Chinese identity at stake, but it also provides the necessary medium for the elevation of Chinese opera.  Through Chinese opera, a staged Chineseness appears pure, authentic, unpolluted, and eternal against the background of its sullied but organic contact zones.  (Operatic 4)

 

This idea of a "pure, authentic, unpolluted, and eternal" Chineseness calls forth a rather essentialist vision of cultural identity, reminiscent of one of the ways in which Stuart Hall suggests cultural identity could be considered.  Of the two different definitions that he proposes, this one presents cultural identity to be a constant (and perhaps glorified) "truth," originating in the past and impervious to external influences:

 

Within the terms of this definition, our cultural identities reflect the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as 'one people', with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning, beneath the shifting divisions and vicissitudes of our actual history.  This 'oneness', underlying all the other, more superficial differences, is the truth, the essence, of 'Caribbeanness', of the black experience.  (Hall 223)

 

To think of cultural identity in this way is to imbue it with the power to unite a group of people, something especially important in times when unity is threatened.  Because Chinese identity was at stake, Chinese operatic performances sought to preserve a "pure" Chineseness in opposition of conflicting forces while it simultaneously negotiated exactly what that Chineseness entailed. 

 

Lei's description of the conditions surrounding the staging the Chinese opera and Hall's first definition of cultural identity shed insight into the understanding of Vietnamese diasporic performance.  Whereas the contact zones that Lei discusses was constituted of conflicting forces coming from Qing rule, Western imperial powers, and Han and/or "pure" Chineseness, the contact zone for Vietnamese diasporic communities was constituted of (a fear of/aversion to) communist rule, memories of a pre-1975 Viet Nam, and ideologies of the new world in which these communities settled (e.g. Paris, Orange County, Toronto, et cetera).  Staged fourteen years after the fall of Sai Gon, Paris by Night's musical performances clung to a cultural past as it negotiated Vietnamese identity in light of its anticommunist sentiment and new environment.  For these Vietnamese immigrants, and perhaps for other communities negotiating cultural identity as well, "[t]he only temporary escape from identity crises comes in performance . . . which offers an illusion of cultural stability and permanence" (Operatic 4).  In their cultural imagination, their identity was at stake, susceptible to being lost, hybridized, or tainted by the influences of communism.

 

For the first many years, however, these identity performances seemed to exist in a time capsule, revealing a mentality that favored Hall's first definition of cultural identity.  The same singers (most of who had long established their musical careers in pre-1975 Viet Nam) sang familiar pre-1975 tunes to an audience consisting almost entirely of Vietnamese, evoking fond recollections of a lifestyle that had ended so violently and abruptly.  These performances temporarily transported the audience away from their current lives and struggles and back to the glorified homeland of their memories.  In Caroline Valverde's words, "Music at this time had more meaning than just entertainment; it also served the important role of connecting refugees and exiles to the homeland they thought they had lost" (35).  Through the lyrics of the old love- and country-folk songs, through the familiar melodies, and through these performances, the singers and the audience reinvented themselves, perhaps more willing to identify with the "self" as seen on stage than the one in which they corporeally existed.  In this way, it could be argued that these performances reflected what Robert Ezra Park describes as "[their] truer self, the self [they] would like to be" (qtd. in Goffman 62).  In the end, this "truer self" resided in a past that the producers, performers, and spectators longed to preserve.  One of the Paris by Night producers confirmed this attitude, stating their mission in this way: "What we want to do is we want to conserve [my emphasis]" (Mui).

 

Furthermore, Thúy Nga Productions monopolized the most renowned Vietnamese singers of the time.  The familiar images of these top-notch singers on stage signified a strong sense of tradition and authenticity.  Thus it was through the images and bodies of these singers and through pre-1975 lyrics and music scores that Thúy Nga (and by extension the Vietnamese community living overseas) claimed the right to producing a "true" Vietnamese culture over Viet Nam itself.  Caroline Valverde notes that "there are still many in the Vietnamese American community who will never accept music that originated in communist Viet Nam. . . . They see everything, even cultural productions, as propaganda tools of the Vietnamese socialist government" (43).  Similar disputes existed over the legitimacy and ownership of the production of "Classical Chinese culture."  After the Communist Party of China took over mainland China and ordered the destruction of people and things that represented traditional Chinese culture, Taiwan and Hong Kong "were free to claim their versions of authentic Chineseness through nostalgic reconstructions of classical Chinese culture in popular media" (Shih 4). 

 

Because of the desire to preserve a "pre-1975 Vietnamese culture," the first decade of Paris by Night performances saw very little innovation.  Although the musical repertoire grew to include patriotic songs and ones that recounted harrowing war images and memories of escape, few other changes took place.  With the aging of Vietnamese immigrants, however, Paris by Night soon had to revise its philosophy of cultural identity in order to continue its cultural dialogue with the maturing population of first-generation Vietnamese Americans.  Speaking from the perspective of the latter group, while growing up I rarely, if ever, identified with the 40 or 50 year-old bodies on the television screen that sang songs of discreet love or war-induced turmoil and death.  My parents often encouraged me to watch these performances, offering little explanation other than, "You are a Vietnamese person, so you should watch this to understand your culture."  Since they seldom discussed their past or refugee experience with me, I felt just as disconnected from them regarding these aspects of "our culture" as I did from the musical performances.  I venture that other Vietnamese Americans—those who are too young to appreciate the gloriousness of the pre-1975 past or feel the poignant loss of a beloved homeland, or those who simply have poor Vietnamese linguistic skills—are perhaps just as disposed to feel little connection with these performances.  The memory of pre-1975 Viet Nam, or lack thereof, often caused an emotional rupture between the refugee generation and their children, and the latter group's vague or nonexistent connection to these performances reflected this separation. 

 

It is noteworthy here to explain that the earlier Paris by Night shows usually took place on stages that, though showcasing modern architecture and lighting, did not incorporate much scenery that could clue outsiders into the content of particular performances.  As described above, all that was required to satiate the nostalgic hearts of first-generation Vietnamese immigrants was the familiar singers, lyrics, and sounds—signs that signified and brought them back to the past—no elaborate scenery was necessary.  But for the children of these immigrants, the faces, the lyrics, the songs, and for some even the language was not familiar, the visual and auditory signifiers had no referent, and the lack of scenery only further distanced them from the possibility of potential meaning.  Moreover, the manner in which the songs were delivered—with little descriptive background or expressive bodily movement, additionally discouraged connection to this younger generation.  Theatrical semiotics (Carlson 13-14) in these cases are thus rendered ineffective, as young Vietnamese American viewers are presented with visual and auditory signs that do not spark meaning.  To make matters worse, it is very possible that many of these Vietnamese Americans could experience something similar to what Lei claims some Chinese Americans experienced: "Some of [the ABC generation] have gone through the typical rebellion phase of second-generation Chinese Americans—first rejecting their parents' cultural heritage, then falling in love with the art at the college age" (Virtual 159).  However, to passively wait for the Vietnamese American population to "fall in love" with these Vietnamese cultural productions when they reach college age would be naïve and unpromising for the Vietnamese diasporic music business.

 

Since the livelihood of the overseas Vietnamese music industry depended on its ability to attract and extend its cultural dialogue to the younger Vietnamese population, Thúy Nga Productions chose not to wait.  Instead the company chose to revise its performance strategies.  While still striving to preserve the cherished past for the sake of the first-generation immigrants, Thúy Nga also adopted a new definition of cultural identity.  This concept of identity emphasized a "positioning" (to use Hall's word) in relation to the past and present rather than an essence originating in the past.  In this sense one can understand cultural identity to be constituted not of static, pre-formed truths derived from historically shared experience, but of actively forming and transforming, organic conceptions of the self in relation to the past as well as to experiences in the present reality.  It is something susceptible to change, something expressed through performance and not just something performance strives to capture: "Far from being grounded in a mere 'recovery' of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past" (Hall 225).  Although the two ways of considering cultural identity discussed in this paper are quite contrary to one other, Thúy Nga still strove to exercise both philosophies in its performances in order to maintain its older audience and to appeal to the younger crowd. 

 

Watching Paris by Night videos from the late 1990s, the audience begins to feel the effects of this evolving mentality.  While vigilant not to include material that could be interpreted (even if in the vaguest sense) as supportive of the current Vietnamese government, Thúy Nga scouted for new and younger singers and songwriters in an effort to relate to generation of Vietnamese Americans.  New song topics, sounds, and performance styles were introduced.  At times, this unfortunately resulted in an unnecessary stark dichotomy between the performances targeted at the older audience and those targeted at the younger generation.  For example, in one performance, the classic singer Khánh Ly appears in her classic áo dài ("long tunic" or "long dress"), solemnly standing while delivering the moving and metaphoric lyrics of beloved songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn in her robust, deep voice.  Immediately following this poignant yet sobering performance would be an airily clad young singer, provocatively shaking her stuff while delivering rather straightforward, "modern" lines.  Rather than facilitating cultural connection between the two generations, these performances perhaps widened the gap.  In the most severe cases, it could be argued that the producers lost sight of both concepts of cultural identity, and a few performances wound up portraying the younger generation as if they existed in a precarious liminal state (Turner 89), possessing neither the qualities of their cultural past, nor those of a realistic conception of their cultural future. 

 

After a few years of experimentation, however, Thúy Nga Productions has acquired fluency in its ability to incorporate Hall's second definition of cultural identity into its performances of Vietnamese American identity.  Although the company appears to still exhibits loyalty to its original mission of "conserving," new, protean singers, expert choreography, and new stage designs contributed to the company's efforts to move beyond representation of the past to find the voice of the Vietnamese American generation.  These performances filled the cultural gap that was created by the previous dichotomy of identities performed on stage.  Whereas the semiotics of earlier performances could only be decoded by those who knew pre-1975 Viet Nam or had experienced the war, the choreographies of the corporeal bodies on stage in these later years inspired meaning and feeling within the younger audience, perhaps through what Susan Leigh Foster calls "kinesthetic empathy."  Foster asserts that "[traditional dance performances in Europe and America] rely on a potential for some kind of empathetic connection between bodies that would enable a transfer of meaning from performing body to observing body" (245).  It is precisely because of this ability to sense feelings of the choreographed bodies onstage that Paris by Night's later performances bypassed the semiotic disconnections that prevented younger viewers from gaining meaning in earlier shows.

 

A poignant example of these performances is included in the 77th Paris by Night: 30 Years in a Faraway Land [2] .  Như Quỳnh (born in 1970), a singer whose fan base draws from both generations, sings and acts in her performance of "Burying Fuel at Night to Cross the Ocean" [3].  In the eyes of the younger spectators, I suggest that the first act of cognition separates Như Quỳnh from the role that she plays.  This actor/role split is crucial in that it is the point of entry for the younger spectators—the first instance in which they draw connection to the performance (since this particular singer enjoys the adoration of countless young fans).  Thus, it is actually through acknowledgement of the actor that these spectators grant the actor's role legitimacy.  (Moreover, the actor/role split is encouraged from even before attention is drawn to the stage, when the emcees introduce the singer by name.)  Awareness of the actor throughout the performance could then not be blamed as inconvincibility of the actor's acting, but rather understood as the key to the connection between the young spectator and the role the actor plays.  Once the connection is established, and the spectator sees the other dancing/acting bodies on stage in their roles (as opposed to as their real life self), and becomes "engulfed by empathy" (Foster 248).  Drawn into the performance roles, and no longer dependent on the initial actor/role split, the spectators see wave-like, hesitant dance motions on stage and reproduce them in their imagination.  This creates sensations in their own body—they feel the ebb and flow of the water that will soon separate loved ones from one another, feel the (emotional and physical) heaviness of parting and hope of reunion. 

 

This performance transports both the older and younger Vietnamese spectators to a site of the past, but it particularly transforms those who had not experienced the trauma of the war.  "[I]nner mimicry" (qtd. in Foster 249) allows them to feel a shade of grief felt by their loved ones who made the journey. J. L. Austin's idea of performativity is appropriate here: this performance connects those who did and those who did not experience the escape; with regard to the ones who did not have the experience, it compels a renegotiation, or re-positioning, of cultural identity.

 

Another performance in Paris by Night 81: Music Without Borders [4] stages cultural identity to an entire other level.  Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn, an author and one of the two emcees of the production, explains that in light of the natural disasters that have caused tragedy around the globe in the past two years, humanity has come together in efforts to relieve the suffering of others.  The song "Lyrics of Prayer" [5] , performed by Ngọc Liên and racially diverse dancers [6], expressed cultural identity in a way rarely seen in Thúy Nga performances.  Contrary to Daphne Lei's idea of "Chinese opera as uniquely capable of stabilizing identity in various contact zones" (Operatic 5) and my suggestion that early Paris By Night performances grounded Vietnamese identity through references to the past, this particular performance presents a identity already stabilized.  Ngọc Liên delivers this song/prayer from an elevated platform that is narrow enough to hide under her long and exaggerated skirt.  Even though she stands significantly taller than the other bodies on stage, her demeanor is compassionate and humble.  Behind her is a large screen showing images of the aftermath of natural disasters around the globe.  While fifteen or sixteen bodies dance around her with heavy movements expressive of suffering, she remains tall and stationary, continuing in her appeal for humanity.  She represents a concerned Vietnamese voice, and the Vietnamese identity she performs does not present itself as defensive or threatened.  Unlike the varying degrees in which many Thúy Nga performances rely on a past to negotiate identity, or the other performances in which young singers take on the other extreme to perform a "modern identity," this performance presents identity already formed, unselfconscious, and not needing confirmation.  At the same time, juxtaposition of a cultural identity with images of global suffering blurs the lines between and within cultural divisions.  At the end of the song, all bodies on stage turn to face the images played on the screen behind them, hands clasped in unified prayer.  Empowering and humbling, confident and modest, this performance ultimately relinquishes cultural boundaries and urges spectators to negotiate their identity in a global context. 

 

From the past to the modern global environment—these are two points in the complex map that offers different versions of Vietnamese diasporic identity.  Since 1975, performed Vietnamese identity has traversed time and space, though not in a straight course and often revisiting already travelled paths.   In a new world and denied of any possibility of returning home, Thúy Nga began its articulation of transnational Vietnamese cultural identity with the hopes of "conserving."  For many years (and still today) the overseas Vietnamese mourned the loss of their country, and these articulations reached into the past to find inspiration.  The Paris by Night stage became the site of renewal for these immigrants as it breathed life into their sense of selfhood.  This fixation on the past, however, though its intention was to comfort and heal, prevented innovation and hindered cultural dialogue with the first generation of American-born Vietnamese.  New performance strategies have succeeded in opening this dialogue, as shown in the performances discussed above, encouraging the younger generation to rethink and renew their own identities.  Today, however, Thúy Nga Productions faces new obstacles as competition with other Vietnamese American music companies grow and the diasporic community begins to accept musical production from Viet Nam.  Perhaps without knowing, I believe that Thúy Nga has already planted the seeds that will sustain and propel its livelihood into the future: at once cliché and novel, the concept of "Music Without Borders" could be expanded by diversifying not only the performances, performers, and material, but also by inviting a more culturally diverse audience.  If Paris by Night has already succeeded in starting a meaningful cultural dialogue with Vietnamese Americans, perhaps it should extend this conversation outside their ethnic borders to others on the globe as well. 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Austin, J.L.  "How to Do Things with Words."  The Performance Studies Reader.  2nd ed.   Ed. Henry Bial.  New York: Routledge, 2007.  177-183.

Caroline Valverde, Kieu Linh.  "Making Transnational Vietnamese Music."  East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture.  Ed. Shilpa Davé, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha G. Oren.  New York: New York UP, 2005.  32-54.

Carlson, Marvin.  "Semiotics and Its Heritage."  Critical Theory and Performance. Revised and Enlarged ed.   Ed. Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph Roach.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.  13-25.

Foster, Susan Lei.  "Kinesthetic Empathies and the Politics of Compassion."  Critical Theory and Performance.  Revised and Enlarged ed.  Ed. Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph Roach.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.  245-257.

Goffman, Erving.  "Performances: Belief in the Part One is Playing."  The Performance Studies Reader.  2nd ed.  Ed. Henry Bial.   New York: Routledge, 2007.  61-65.

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Identity: Community, Culture, Difference .  Ed. J. Rutherford. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. 222-37.         

Lei, Daphne Pi-Wei.  Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity across the Pacific.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

---.  "Virtual Chinatown and New Racial Formation: Performance of Cantonese Opera in the Bay Area."   Critical Theory and Performance. Revised and Enlarged ed.  Ed.

Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph Roach.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.  156-172.

Mui, Ylan Q.  "Culture on Rewind: Vietnamese Video Series Links a Far-flung People to their Past."   Washington Post.  (No date or section available.)  Thuy Nga Online.  n. pag. Internet. 25 Nov. 2007.

 

Available: http://thuynga.com/default.aspx?cat=79&ne=49&Page=0 .

Paris by Night 77: Âm Nhạc Không Biên Giới.  DVD.  Dir. Michael Watt.  Prod. Marie To and Paul Huynh.  Thuy Nga, 2005.

Paris by Night 81: 30 Nãm Viễn Xứ. DVD.  Dir. Michael Watt.  Prod. Marie To and Paul Huynh.  Thuy Nga, 2006.

Shih, Shu-Mei. Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Turner, Victor.  "Liminality and Communitas."  The Performance Studies Reader.  2nd ed.   Ed. Henry Bial.  New York: Routledge, 2007.  89-97.

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[1] The problematic nature of the term "Chinese" or "Chineseness" is cogently described by Shu-mei Shih:  "'Chinese' . . . is a national marker passing as an ethnic, cultural, and linguistic marker, since there are altogether fifty-six official ethnicities in China and there are far more diverse languages and dialects spoken across the nation" (24).  In other words, the term "Chinese" misleads as it homogenizes a diverse multitude of cultures, ethnicities, and languages, when it should only refer to nationality.  Aware of the problematic nature of the term, I am using it here to refer specifically to a sense of Chineseness as culture and identity shared by the Han people, who compose the ethnic majority in China.

[2] My translation of "30 Năm Viễn Xứ. "

[3] My translation of "Đêm Chôn Dầu Vượt Biển."

[4] My translation of Âm Nhạc Không Biên Giới.

[5] My translation of "Lời Hát Kinh Cầu."

[6] Although the dancers of Paris by Night are racially diverse, a trend of dying hair black or dark brown to create the illusion of "Asianness" is noticeable.  In this installment of Paris by Night, however, the effort to create this illusion was not made.

 
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