2/3: Hoàng Đăng Minh & John Bạch: Revisioning the Script of Asia Entertainment
“Asia’s future…is open.
The coronavirus has illuminated stark disconnections in the work of Vietnamese artists and their audiences—and spurred new efforts to bridge them. Insights from two creative producers from Asia Entertainment during the pandemic offer some vision for the path ahead. What we learn from talking with them is that something remarkable has been lost in translation, dulled by repetition. The need for more lively interaction, immediacy, and connection is, above all, the call to action in the Covid season.
Immediately after a brief introduction by musician Trúc Hồ, a then 72-year-old Mai Lệ Huyền appears on stage for the final act of a live show in red denim jacket, red miniskirt, fishnet stockings, and knee-high boots. A veritable firecracker. She belts the first lines to the song “Who” [Ai]—a passionate tribute to the soldier and call to the front line. The band strikes up the soundspace with piano, horns and strings. The audience, composed of both young and old, is lit. Mai Lệ Huyền is grooving, riling them up with the shake of her hips, the leg motions of the twist, and her fierce voice. Nearly 50 years after Mai Lệ Huyền first crooned this wartime hit written by Trường Hải in the dance halls of 1960s Saigon, the “Queen of Rock and Roll” can still set entire room of hearts on fire.
If you haven’t seen the live tribute show “Asia Icons: Mai Lệ Huyền” (Asia Entertainment, 2014)—you need to. There’s a reason people call Mai Lệ Huyền the “Queen of Rock and Roll,” with a career that spans five decades. Not only is the tribute an extraordinary departure from the kinds of big-stage programs Asia Entertainment has been known for producing in its nearly 40 years, it contains the earmarks and signposts of the direction Asia is heading, as well as some steering vision for its future. What’s more impressive is that the show was entirely produced and directed by two of the youngest creative talents to ever take the helm of this massive ship: Hoàng Đăng Minh and John Bạch. You may or may not have heard their names before (they are often behind the scenes), but they are the two to watch in the coming years.
The homage to Mai Lệ Huyền, their first full collaboration, contains some remarkable features. Firstly, the show is a single-take, live performance before a small studio audience (of about 200 people). The stage is set with a 16-piece, big-band ensemble that includes sections of percussion, horns, and strings. The musicians themselves show an apparent ethnic mix of Asians, African-Americans and Caucasians, with a Hispanic Brian Morales conducting the band from his piano stand. A new generation of Vietnamese singers translate the spirit of the legend through their live renditions of her career-defining songs. From the opener, a medley [liên khúc] of the soldier’s insistence on “100 Percent” [100 Phần Trăm] and “A Soldier’s Passion” [Tình Lính], the show introduces musical genres we don’t usually hear in Vietnamese performances: in this first case, 1950s rockabilly and 1960s psychedelic surf rock carry the mobilizing vibe. The opener sets audiences off on a journey across the waters and across generations, with the sensation of riding the waves. The Mai Lệ Huyền tribute is a showcase of possibilities for more lively engagement, multicultural collaborations, and bridging generational gaps.
Nguyên Khang (with the vocal swagger of a Vietnamese Sinatra and a big band behind him) gives a juicy tribute to the original 1960s “Winter Sorrow” [Sầu Đông] recording of Hùng Cường (Mai Lệ Huyền’s singing partner for years). The dripping reverb and vibrato of the guitar intro by Korean artist David Dag Lee opens the stage for a brisk drum breakaway into the sproingy, quick, wet tremolo guitar picking, chunky bass lines, and minor chord progressions that are signatures of instrumental surf rock Vietnamese musicians (like the CBC Band) were experimenting with back in the 60s. Throughout the show, the beloved Vietnamese classics directly linked to Mai Lệ Huyền get unique stylings of rock and roll, a hark to jazz and blues, some bebop (or Big Bop), Pop Armstrong feeling, and deep nods to Italian composer Ennio Marcone’s cinematic spaghetti western scores (think “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”). Some songs get treated with a “reversed pop idiom” that turns anemic sounds into something “loud and fat and wild.” This is pure ear candy for the audience used to the standard synthesized deviations of these songs over the years.
John Bạch in collaboration with composer Brian Morales rearranged those cult hits to inject life back into them. In order to revive the spirit of those songs, they had to return to their origins—early recordings in 1960s/1970s Saigon, before countless remixes and reiterations in large auditoriums abroad stripped them of vibrancy. John tells us: “People take the same songs and remix it in strange ways and keep doing it for decades. Eventually it just gets so watered down.” The early recordings embody a potent, concentrated moment: a dynamic contact zone. The songs were produced in a wartime era of new cross-cultural encounters, influences, and experimentation sparked by intimate, live engagement. Ray Charles, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix all entered the Vietnamese musical vernacular then. This idea of “revive” and “return” is in some ways the very direction Asia has needed to take. But we are not talking about wistful nostalgia for distant things, but the return to a moment of creative immediacy.
Đăng Minh and John were determined to give this program more life and dimension. While John and Brian worked to revive and modernize the lively energy of the original 60s/70s recordings to make the songs come alive, Đăng Minh reimagined a life story as experienced through the different music and the peoples involved. She wrote the show script and selected the songs. She also filmed interviews and edited documentary clips to highlight the many facets of Mai Lệ Huyền’s life and work, including her musical comedies [nhạc kịch hài]. In a clip featuring Hoàng Thi Thơ’s dedication to a bowl of soup, “Lady Rớt’s pork Hoof Beef Noodle Soup” [Bún Giò Heo Bò Mụ Rớt], Mai Lệ Huyền charms with her vocal range and brilliant physical comedy. She delivers (in a proper Huế accent): “How can a person without tendon (or toughness) be interesting at all?” [con người mà không gân răng sao mà hấp dẫn], as she bounces about on the stage. We see a versatile actor who doesn’t mind effacing the sexy singer image to stick a huge mole on her chin and wholeheartedly assume the role of an uncouth vermicelli hawker. The documentary shows Mai Lệ Huyền’s dedication to the many roles in her work and life, including as a caretaker of a daughter with Down Syndrome. The background documentary clips offer human glimpses into the ongoing creative process of a life, and not just the polished end-product.
Đăng Minh’s focus on telling more meaningful stories was obvious back when she worked for the Saigon Broadcast Television Network (SBTN) from 2006-2012. She conducted investigative journalism pieces for them and created a series of 3-minute documentary films, “A Day Through the Lens” [Một Ngày Qua Ống Kính]. These segments enlivened the hour-long, anchored news program with stories of social and political issues in Vietnamese communities. She was recognized for her engaging documentary lens on the experiences of the Vietnamese abroad, and in the process unearthed stories on human trafficking, human rights, and social justice. Later, in a month-long reportage stint in Vietnam, Đăng Minh gave voice to the stories of those who are most often silenced: street people, food hawkers, peasants, and the poor. 2012 was a turning point as she would then come to tell the stories of the most amplified voices.
Đăng Minh was told by her boss at SBTN that he wouldn’t be her boss for much longer; Asia Entertainment needed help so he was sending her over. She worried that she was being politely tossed, and considered that perhaps the transfer was their nice way of getting rid of her. John Bạch, her partner in work and life, interrupts: “Nope. She was requested.” “Who requested her? You?” “No. Not me. It was the boss of Asia.” The boss of Asia Entertainment is none other than singer Thy Vân, daughter of famed musician Anh Bằng. The boss of Asia, its executive director since 1992, also happens to be John’s mom. Đăng Minh was initially brought on to edit videos and conduct behind-the-scenes interviews that offered more intimate, human dimensions to the polished stage shows.
Besides being part of a family with a massive music legacy, John holds a degree in broadcast journalism from Chapman University (back at SBTN he was Đăng Minh’s cameraman and they would hunt down stories together), and he is a musician in his own right. At 14, John started playing guitar and later became part of several heavy metal bands before he discovered electronic music, sound software and digital recording consoles. This sparked his experimenting with music production. He now has some solid creative producer credits under his belt and has learned a lot through working with hired-hand musicians Asia brought on to play for the recordings of those performances. But overall, John had grown tired with the way the big-stage programs had been repeatedly presented over the years.
Đăng Minh recounts a day when she and John were utterly exhausted from endless hours of filming the same thing over and over. John dramatically collapses, exclaiming, “Xe đang hư ga nè!” [my gas tank is broken here], which resulted in eruptions of laughter among those who got the riff. Đăng Minh tells us in the “Behind the Scenes” of the tribute show: “You could say that the starting point for the Mai Lệ Huyền program was a line of poetry that was implanted deeply into Johnny’s heart: ‘Tôi đi Honda xe đang hư ga’ [I go by Honda (motorbike), my gas tank is broken].” Aptly, John relieved a moment of creative frustration comedic pop-cultural reference point that led them to dig deeper into the life of the icon who made the song “Get To Know” [Làm Quen] a cult hit. The premise of the original 90s New Wave-style duet is a motorbike accident, a chance crash encounter on the road that leads to a bold and perhaps inappropriate flirtation between two strangers. This was the song that sparked Đăng Minh to “get to know” Mai Lệ Huyền. And John tells us that the Mai Lệ Huyền show was “a crash course in production.” This would be the first time the husband-and-wife team would take on the monumental task of producing and directing an entire program on their own. They wanted to create something different from what Asia had been known for producing for decades.
Asia Entertainment had a found a successful formula in those direct-to-video music programs: an elaborate spectacle of dozens of big-names performing music they had prerecorded against a backdrop of epic grandeur. The several hours-long ceremonies were hosted by charismatic MCs in vast auditoriums before a formally invited and seated audience. Classy, clean and civilized. This format has been the model workhorse of iconic production houses for decades—but it had grown tired after so long. John admits that these shows sometimes felt like “glorified music videos.” In recent years it had grown obvious that there was disconnection between the audience and performers, as well as the songs performed and the original, gritty, lively spirit of the eras in which they were born. Context matters.
Undeniably, Asia Entertainment is a juggernaut. Like the other music production giant, Thúy Nga, Asia holds a monumental place in popular imagination because it filled a cultural void for the Vietnamese abroad who had fled Vietnam after the war, and lost their country, community and culture in the process. Immigrating and transplanting in foreign soil meant they were scattered and had shallow roots. The music reconnected them. With the advent of DVD technology in the late 1990s, Thúy Nga and Asia ramped up stage shows and video productions so that people could attend those performances or watch their recordings and imagine themselves as part of a larger Vietnamese diaspora. Asia Entertainment became a center of Vietnamese cultural consciousness, and a museum of nostalgia. While Asia did experiment early on with 80s/90s electronica and New Wave, the stage shows’ heavily emphasized golden/precious music [nhạc vàng]. This is understandable.
Nhạc Vàng is loosely defined as the music of prewar 1950s and 1960s South Vietnam, with popular lyrics set to the western-influenced, slow-tempo style of bolero, tango, or ballads. Most notably, nhạc vàng is characterized by poetic lyrics and romantic sentiments. Referring to its connection to the old Southern regime and soldiers (as well as their “bourgeois” western influences), the North Vietnamese state considered nhạc vàng the “music of the relaxing, weak and debauched,” or songs of “dance-halls and cabarets” and “maudlin sadness sown by the popular culture.” From 1975-1985, the communist state banned nhạc vàng completely. Despite the government’s public criticism, censorship and confiscation, the music remained. Its popularity later increased through new tapes of old songs produced overseas. Although prohibited from being performed on stage and broadcast over the radio, nhạc vàng later became the most popular music in Vietnam. It remains a site of cultural contestation.
Nhạc vàng (and its dominant form of bolero) took on greater political dimension overseas. For the Vietnamese abroad, the emphasis on nhạc vàng became a kind of Southern nationalist stance; its inherent nostalgia embodied a politics of resistance. The emotionalism of those songs enacted a dissent against forgetting the deep ties and happy memories of the land and lives they left behind. The focus on nostalgia for the homeland, for bygone eras and lost loves seems apropos—given the experiences of exile, separation and immigration after the fall of Saigon. The Vietnamese music producers abroad had a captive audience; nostalgia sells. For several decades Asia catered to this mass appeal. After a while though, the songs lost their vibrancy. Some see nostalgia as being responsible for stagnating the creative energy and innovation in Vietnamese music overseas.
John and Đăng Minh tried to address some of these issues in their next full-concept project, the 2015 production of “Asia Golden 4: Khúc Nhạc Tình Quê” [Homeland Love Songs/Village Love Songs]. The point was not to abandon connections to the past, but to make the musical heritage more present and dynamic. Sometimes this requires juxtaposition: things that seemingly don’t go together but when combined, cause people to look and listen again. With that in mind, the two set out to revive the deeply-felt landscapes of Vietnamese mountains, fields and forests captured in the lyrics of those songs. They paid special focus to the temporal and spatial qualities, the atmosphere, of these folk ballads to evoke their sensual geographies. Đăng Minh and John collaborated with composer Brian Morales once again to create a cinematic quality through the lens of new musical arrangements and mixing.
For example, the arrangement of “Highland Moon” [Trăng Sơn Cước] performed by the beautiful, young singers Thùy Hương and Ngọc Anh Vi, evoke the moody, mesmerizing landscape of mountainous stretches draped in moonlight—thanks to the sultry Spanish flamenco guitar, horns, flutes, violins, cello pulls of Judy Kang, one of Celine Dion’s cellist, and the agile key work of award-winning pianist Michelle Do. The lighting direction of Duy Minh also helped. Likewise, the creative team rearranged “Horse Hooves on Tender Grass Hill” [Vó Ngựa Trên Đồi Cỏ Non] (performed by Thế Sơn) to give it a dustier edge and emphasize the prodigal son return after ten years. Through new sound arrangements, they conjure images of the outlaw riding tall in the saddle on a dark, lonely stretch of open range, the dust and the wind. Audiences hear more of the spaghetti western influences, with the fuzz guitar and reverb, the taut standing bass walks, and drums that create the sensation of the horse trot, canter and gallop. The mariachi-like orchestra also helped enliven the Vietnamese cowboy narrative. By reaching for outside influences, they accomplish what the song’s closing lyrics of redemption suggests: “We escape the nightmare and carry each other home” [Ta thoát cơn mê cùng dắt nhau về].
Đăng Minh and John Bạch knew that they couldn’t just redo a song; they had to revive it of they wanted to make it come alive for modern audiences. This meant introducing new musical influences and broadening collaborations. They pushed in this direction with their next production of “Asia 79: Còn Mãi Trong Tim” [Forever in the Heart] (2017) also, and despite much positive online reception, their efforts were not always well-received at the home gate. Attempts to do something different were met with resistance by the “old guards”—those who insist on doing things the way they have always been done and working only with “their people.” The team’s creative efforts stirred the waters. They were challenging the status quo of a massive industry that grown immobile under its own weight.
The two young producers didn’t approach this work from a place of arrogance though: “We came from a place of necessity,” John admits. “We were on a boat that was leaking and we were just trying to patch up the holes.” The truth was, DVD sales had declined over the years as media and audiences moved online. The elaborate, costly stage programs didn’t captivate audiences as they did years ago. The original fans were aging, gone, or had grown bored with the same material year after year. The effort and resource is took no longer made sense as a business model, especially as there was low output and little new creative content.
Asia Entertainment was figuring out new directions before the COVID outbreak. When the global pandemic shut down performance venues and event spaces this year, it only became clearer: big stage shows cannot survive in the environment of this day and age. This moment of deep pause and reset clarified some part of their vision ahead for Asia. The burden of legacy and a weighty reputation is not enough to keep going. Đăng Minh and John Bạch are figuring out ways to make Asia more agile, lean and limber, so that it could be muscled with creative momentum in the years to come. It’s still uncertain what the content focus may be just yet, but it’s clear to them that there has to be more immediacy and innovation in Vietnamese music. And sincerity. Đăng Minh and John Bach have this in spades. If the Mai Lệ Huyền tribute show is any indication, we can expect a drive towards more lively performances, multicultural influences, cross collaborations, and new modes of engaging through musical and visual storytelling.
Few people know that John’s father, Đông Bạch, a sound architect who has designed notable acoustic spaces, was one of the original founders of Asia Entertainment back in the 1980s. Đông Bạch started Asia with the goal of musical innovation. He wanted to bring in talented young musicians who would create new things. It was called “Asia” because he envisioned broader multicultural influences. In the early days, there they were even talks with the Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan about him coming on to work with them (Chan wanted to move into a music career at this point). Asia’s original vision encompassed ideas of collaborating with Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other artists from the Asia region as well as American musicians. John tells us: “That was the plan. That’s why they named it ‘Asia’: it was never supposed to be just Vietnamese.” Isolation and insularity could kill us. Vietnamese in America have access to rich multicultural influences. The potential is immense. “If we’re not tapping into that and keeping just to ourselves, we’re not using some of our best resources,” John remarks. This has always been the point of Asia: to create a more dynamic, multicultural and multigenerational experience. Revisiting the original vision for Asia may well foreshadow its future.
John shares his father’s lament: “Vietnamese music `has not shown progress here, at least not in America. They just kept pushing out the same songs for like 30 years, and it became more like a factory than a creative space.” John and Đăng Minh are hoping to change that. This reset was needed. On a practical level, they have been using this period of quarantine to do some house-cleaning. John has been busy rearranging physical space and building a studio at Asia’s home base that will enable new kinds of performances and collaborations. It takes a lot of work to build a proper studio with physical logistics, sound treatment, and now, Covid considerations. Rather than focus on the end-product, whatever that may be, they are prioritizing the creative space that will facilitate creativity and collaboration among older and younger generations of Vietnamese.
Asia’s future programs could well consist of quarantine concerts (musicians playing together from different geographical locations), or collaborations between Vietnamese artists and those from different musical cultures. They may even conceive of a program that invites audiences to be active participants in the music creation process. Or, Asia Entertainment might simply be a revived platform to allow existing talent to evolve, and to foster new talent in their many forms. While content may be moving more predominantly online with live streams and social media broadcasts, it doesn’t diminish the real, longstanding challenge: how to create greater intimacy, immediacy and liveliness. It’s a challenge they’re ready to accept. “At the end of the day, it’s whether you can be resourceful and creative and engage the audience in authentic ways.”
This moment of pause and reset is ripe for creativity. Whatever programs may evolve from this, the two insist that we need to “bring Asia Entertainment back to the Vietnamese people… They’re here. Bring it back to them. They should have been building talent here a long time ago. Let Vietnamese in America (and elsewhere), let the next generations, and the young that have something to say—say it.” The next evolution of Asia will likely focus on bridging gaps between generations, and giving new generations a platform to share their talents and creativity. The programs will “still have the heart of Asia Entertainment in there…but with a pulse on pop culture and what’s going on in the world.” To be clear: the programs have not been written yet and there’s great uncertainty about the path ahead. But the uncertainty of this moment also fills it with immense potential for real cultural shifts and exciting new directions. This period of closure has given them time to refocus on what’s important.
John bookends our conversation on a hopeful note: “Asia Entertainment’s future… is open.
Trang Cao PhD.