For Vietnamese, 'Paris By Night' is a mix of Vegas, nostalgia and pre-war culture

The World
Updated on

For many, the phrase Paris By Night might bring images of moonlight walks along the Seine. But for Vietnamese around the world, Paris By Night is a wildly popular cabaret show. Live performances sell out and Paris By Night DVDs are part of Vietnamese households worldwide.

At the Pechanga Casino and Resort in southern California, a full band plays in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 1,000, while Duy Truong and Huong Thuy, just a few of the show's lead singers, sashay across the stage as they sing a Vietnamese love ballad.

Crystalyn Le traveled more than 80 miles with her husband and two young children for the show. "We like to keep their Vietnamese culture, that’s why we bring them," Le said.

But she was clearly her family's most excited fan, rattling off the names of her favorite singers. “I love Toc Thien. Mai Thien Van. I love the voice!,” Le said.

Like most fans, Le started out watching Paris By Night on videocassettes sold in virtually every Little Saigon around the world. Now, they are on  DVD’s. Throw one into a player, and you’re transported to a Vegas-style variety show entirely in Vietnamese. 

Paris By Night is one part comedy sketch, one part song-and-dance. Some numbers are traditional Vietnamese songs, while others are big and flashy. Even with the show's running time of four hours, audiences can’t seem to get enough.

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

He soon moved the production company, Thuy Nga, to Orange County, California, with its large Vietnamese community. His daughter, Marie, is now the show's executive producer.

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

"Vietnamese Americans celebrate by getting together, maybe eating Vietnamese food, and popping in a Paris By Night DVD," 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 also allows older immigrants to share the country's history with younger generations. Shows are full of nostalgic songs about pre-war Vietnam. "There is such an attachment to the homeland, and not necessarily an attachment to the Communist politics or the government," Duong said.

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

And the show is just as big in Vietnam, said Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, a long-time Paris By Night emcee, as well as the daughter of Nguyen Cao Ky, the former leader of South Vietnam.

"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? Through a  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 DVDs, and tightening the budgets for the live shows.  

They are also considering charging a fee for viewers to stream shows online, a la Netflix.

The Internet isn't the show's only challenge, though. As its older core audience ages, Paris By Night needs to attract new fans. Duong said that younger Vietnamese Americans, especially the ones born here, "tend to reject [the show] and see it as really kitschy 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 so corny, that’s so stupid,'" Nguyen said.

Justin Nguyen, 30, said he could barely understand Vietnamese. He moved to California as a kid and grew up listening to punk — not  traditional Vietnamese ballads.

But after dancing for several Vietnamese productions, 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 in 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?'"

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, Ton is one of the new kids on the block, but he likes to sing the old standards.

"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 DVDs.

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

During the show, Ton performs 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.

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

Update: A previous version of this story noted Duy Truong and Huong Thuy as the lead singers of the Paris by Night show. They are both just one of several singers in the show. 

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