Thursday, July 10, 2014

Memories of a Big Sister, Idol, and Inspiration 2014

I have told this story several times before.  Among the various blogs, social media websites and tribute sites that had been created by Ngoc Lan's many fans where I have told this story in the past, I believe it was when I had posted this story on sometime in the fall of 2004 that had reached the widest viewership audience.  I really enjoyed writing this story, as much as I still enjoy telling it over and over again to those around me.  Now when I look back, what I had written about my friendship with Ngoc Lan were indeed very fond memories that I will forever cherish and hold dear to my heart.  The image I would always like to have of Ngoc Lan is that from my recollections during my friendship with her.. The Ngoc Lan that I had befriended, looked upon as an adoptive older sister, and had grown to love was someone who was always in focus of exactly what she wanted in life, someone very beautiful, and someone who truly loved life.  Here is the story I had written of Ngoc Lan almost 10 years ago that I've partially revised and updated for this publication here on for our readers.  I hope you will enjoy reading this, and as always, I look forward to reading your comments.

Thien Phu

This poster I still keep hung on my bedroom wall was one that chi Ngoc Lan had autographed and given to me back in 1989.
Memories of a Big Sister, Idol, and Inspiration 2014

I'd like to tell you a story about the Ngoc Lan I was so fortunate to know, love and miss very much.  I'm writing this in English for it is my primary language and much easier for me to express myself than it is in Vietnamese. 

Let me first introduce myself.  My name is Thien Phu.  I had also been involved in the entertainment industry for the Vietnamese community here in the United States.  In the 1990s, I tried my hand at singing, did a few professional audio recordings, and performed for Vietnamese audiences throughout America and abroad with some success.  After nearly a decade working as an entertainer, I decided to put my singing career behind me and went back to school to pursue a degree in English at Cal State Long Beach.  Whether that had been the right decision or not remains ambiguous in my mind to this day.  But that's another story. 

My story of Ngoc Lan began sometime in 1989 when I was just 16 years old.  At the time I was in high school here in the States having primarily American friends and speaking very little Vietnamese.  I was studying French and took a liking to French music.  This is when I began listening to Ngoc Lan's music.  At first I was interested in Ngoc Lan's recorded covers of popular French songs, in which she would bilingually sing in both the original French lyrics, as well as the translated Vietnamese lyrics.  Songs like La Vie En Rose, Une Histoire D'amour and Quelque Chose Dans Mon Coeur that she had recorded enchanted me greatly.  I would often listen to the original versions recorded by the famous French singers and then compare them to Ngoc Lan's cover renditions, and usually I'd end up feeling more of a closeness with her interpretations.  This is when I first started to collect cassettes produced by various Vietnamese music production companies that would include this particular pop music genre referred to as Nhac Tre in the Vietnamese language.  Such compilation cassettes produced with similar Nhac Tre themes released back in the day would feature various other talented Vietnamese recording artists whom also had possessed abilities to sing bilingually in both Vietnamese and French similar to Ngoc Lan like Julie, also known as Julie Quang, Kieu Nga, Elvis Phuong, Minh Xuan, etc.  As a result, this would lead to my transformation of my music interests from primarily being interested in only what would be considered mainstream American to much broader interests in world music, which would include Vietnamese music, of course.  I'd have to say Ngoc Lan along with these previously mentioned artists were responsible in opening up my mind to the Vietnamese culture, thus acquiring for myself a sense of pride in being Vietnamese, as a result.

My meeting with Ngoc Lan was on a Monday night in the spring of 1989.  I remembered I had just finished my homework and my mother had just gotten home from work.  My mother was fussing that my hair had grown too long and insisted that she drive me to the beauty salon to get a haircut.  She called up our family's hairdresser, Perry Zeild, in Santa Ana for an appointment.  Perry was not just our hairdresser, but a very charismatic guy who had become my friend.  He knew all too well how much I idolized Ngoc Lan.  Though it was late and he was about to close up shop, he went out of his way to give me a last minute hair appointment.  Before he hung up, Perry instructed me not to be late and also told me that he had a big surprise for me.  That surprise would be Ngoc Lan.

It turns out Perry had recently accepted an offer to do freelance work on a video project for Ngoc Lan.  He would be her make-up artist for video shoots.  In one particular music video she had planned to do which was for a cover of a jolly French tune, 365 Dimanches, Ngoc Lan a needed a few back-up dancers.  Perry also had a knack for dancing and would himself be in the video as one of her back-up dancers along with 2 other girls, Diem Thinh and Yen Trang, both of which were familiar faces in the Vietnamese community as they were also models that had appeared on covers of such Vietnamese music cassettes, calendars, and fashion magazines.  Ngoc Lan along with the other two female dancers were supposed to meet up with Perry at his salon later on that night after business hours. 

When I arrived at the salon, there were no other customers.  He had pretty much closed up shop and was just working on my hair.  Perry then casually told me that Ngoc Lan, the famous Vietnamese singer, was on her way over to his salon and if I'd like I could stay there awhile to meet her after my haircut.  I was beyond excited.  So naturally, I jumped at the chance to meet my idol.  But still I wasn't so sure if he was being honest or just telling me a fib.  Afterall, he had known how big of a fan I was, that I had all her cassettes, and to meet a celebrity like her would be totally thrilling to me.  So I thought he was just joking in order to trick me into staying after just to keep him company.  Then about 15 minutes later, Ngoc Lan showed up.  I was shivering when she walked into the salon.  I kept on looking at her to make sure if this was the same person I had watched on television so many times.  And yep, it sure was.  She was definitely Ngoc Lan, my idol.  Wow!

As Perry was introducing me to her, she turned to smile at me with a, "Hi!" And then she asked me if I understood any Vietnamese.  (You see, for those of you not familiar with who I am, I am half-Swedish.  Therefore, my looks tend to favor that more of a Westerner than an Asian.)  I naturally replied with a yes.  And as I stuttered, I tried to tell her how much I admired her or as we say in Vietnamese, "ai mo".  She just smiled and thanked me.  Then I asked if it was okay that I stay to watch while she and Perry along with the 2 other dancers rehearse.  She replied with a yes but only if I would agree to also be in the video with her.  I told her I had never danced professionally before, but she insisted that the routine was quite simple and that she thought I was very handsome and should definitely be featured in her video.  Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I was very eager to accept her invitation to be a part of the video.  But first I would have to ask permission from my mother.  She said okay and assured me that I had nothing to worry about.  Ngoc Lan had also in her very cute way, nudged me that from now on I should always address her as "chi" Lan, which in Vietnamese means older sister. When my mother arrived back at the salon to pick me up, she was delighted to be approached by Ngoc Lan and was instantly overtaken by Ngoc Lan's polite mannerism and charm, she readily agreed to let me do it.

This photograph was taken at Perry Zeild's beauty salon where Ngoc Lan, myself and the other dancers for the music video, "365 Dimanches", would rehearse nightly for months prior to the day of shooting for the video would take place in May of 1989.  Perry Zeild is photographed with his back faced toward the camera.  I'm facing him with one arm raised waving in the air, since this snapshot had caught me while I was doing the dance routine.  And to the right, behind Perry would be Ngoc Lan.

For the next few months, we rehearsed the dance routine relentlessly for hours on 4 nights out of each week.  On the weekends, chi Lan had to be out of town to do her live shows so we couldn't meet for rehearsals then.  But every weeknight was tiresome as we would practice our dance routine for the video until the late hours of the night at Perry's salon which we had used as a dance studio after he closed up shop each night and cleared away the chairs.  It was really hard work.  This is when I first learned how much of a perfectionist Ngoc Lan was.  If any of the dancers missed a step, she would be the first one to notice.  She wouldn't react by being arrogant or unpleasant whenever she pointed out anyone's mistakes.  Instead she had a mild-mannered way of speaking and always kept her cool.  During these months, I got to spend a great deal of time with chi Lan.  We would go about town looking for costumes for the video shoot.  Naturally, she drove me everywhere since I was still 16 and neither had a car nor had gotten myself a driver's license yet.  At first we had trouble finding the right costumes.  We tried Vietnamese owned boutiques first, but they had very limited supplies and people would often waste time being starstruck upon meeting Ngoc Lan, the famous singer, rather than treating her like every other customer.  The few places we would go to within the Vietnamese community, for some reason, people would often ask her if I was her younger brother.  She would just smile.  One of those inquiring people, I just went ahead and answered flat out with a "No!  What are you thinking?  How could it be possible?  My father is a
White man.  And both of chi Lan's parents are full-blooded Vietnamese, which means she is 100% Vietnamese.  How could you people not see that?"  It was quite obvious that I was getting rather frustrated at such questions by some rather oblivious Vietnamese folks.  At that point, chi Lan cleverly softened the situation by flashing a friendly smile at the inquisitors.  She would later bring this up during a conversation between just the two of us and also advised me that I should just say yes if anyone else asks me that same question in the future, because, as she put it, she would be honored to have such a good-looking younger brother.  As the weeks passed, we finally accomplished finding the right costumes at some hole-in-the-wall shop somewhere in downtown Los Angeles.  A friendship between us had developed throughout the course of preparing for this video between chi Lan and myself.  Our relationship became like that of a brother and a sister.  She even one time, when I went to her house for a costume fitting, asked me if I would consider her as an adoptive big sister.

A big sister, she was during that time.  I didn't realize how much I had learned from her.  At times, I was in complete awe watching her tenacious determination and hard work.  She was always on the go, working on some recording project, music videos, or flying off to faraway destinations for her live show performances.  I was amazed at how she had managed to keep it all together.  Although most of the time, chi Lan had to be serious due to her hectic schedule, she would also find the time to talk to me in private, crack a few jokes here and there, and even show her generosity by giving me advice on life.  On one occasion while I was at her house, she shared with me a thick photo album that consisted of many pictures taken of her at live performances at shows in different places from all over the world, obviously since in her line of work a great deal of travelling is required.  To a 16 years old kid like myself who had lived most of his life in Southern California, hearing her tell me stories of her many adventures and travels throughout her career made me feel like a kid at a candy store.  For me to befriend someone who was older, wiser, and had experienced so much of life really was a treat. 

Finally in May of that year, the day of the video shoot would come.  It was shot at some rather large American-owned film studio in Santa Monica, California.  The entire crew arrived at the studio at 6am.  Immediately, we all got ourselves ready for make-up and into our costumes.  That would be the first time in my life that I would have make-up applied onto my face.  When Perry was finished doing my make-up, I gave myself a second or two to check myself out in front of a mirror.  I was shocked, as I couldn't even recognize that it was actually me that I was staring directly at.  As corny as it may sound, all of the sudden I sighed to myself that perhaps it is true what some people have been telling me all along, in that I am indeed a pretty boy. 

Shooting was to start at 9am.  And just right before the camera was scheduled to start rolling, I realized I had left my pair of dress shoes behind.  The director, Mr. Thuc, and the executive producer and owner of May Productions, Mr. Thang, were furious with me, needless to say.  As they both were about to scold me, chi Lan took notice of how frightened I was and pulled me aside to whisper in my ear not to worry and that I should rest assure that she would take care of this matter.  She slipped me several $20 bills into my pocket and told her friend, who I now know was actually Thanh Lam, the famous saxophone player, to drive me to the nearest shoes store to pick up a pair.  What could have easily turned into a fiasco was prevented from happening due to chi Lan's calm and rational way of thinking.  Once my shoes situation had been resolved, the video shoot began.  It was truly an exhausting experience.  We didn't finish filming until the really late hours of the night.  Just before wrapping it up, chi Lan hugged everyone and thanked us for all of our hard work.  Perhaps it is my imagination, but I felt that chi Lan hugged me the longest.  During the long hug, as she said her goodbye to me, she stressed one particular reminder to me that we should always keep in touch and to never forget that I am her little brother.  I don't know why, but that brought a tear to my eye.

Thien Phu and Perry Zeild, 1993.  This is the only photograph I can find of myself with Perry.  Perry passed away in 1994 after many years battling with the AIDS epidemic.  This photograph had been taken when I went to visit him in the dressing room during one of his performances in Chinese opera.  Aside from being an accomplished hairstylist and make-up artist, Perry had also enjoyed a successful career as a performer of Chinese opera.

I didn't realize that that would be the very last time I would ever see her up close in person alive or even speak to her.  In the years that followed, I guess I couldn't really blame her for losing contact since she would obviously be constantly occupied with her grueling schedule, and I would be equally busy finishing up high school.  As I entered adulthood, right after high school I would come across the first of several chance meetings with chi Lan that would unfortunately never come to fruition.  In the summer of 1990, once again my friend Perry would introduce me to the promoters of a major beauty pageant live show event held in Long Beach called Dai Hoi Hoa Hau Ao Dai Long Beach '90 as he would put in a good word with them recommending me as a potential candidate to be selected as 1 of 4 male models that would be in the live show with duties of escorting the beauty pageant contestants as they make their entrances onto the stage, as well as when they would make their exits from the stage .  This would also be the first time I would come across a rising newcomer show hostess, who at first I found to be a little too talkative, by the name of Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen.

After I had been chosen to be 1 of the 4 male models for the beauty pageant live show, to my delight I would also learn that among the list of scheduled music performers on that night would be none other than Ngoc Lan, my beloved big sister.  On the night of the show, while chi Lan was performing her set of songs during the show's music segment, I stood there and watched her sing for as long as I could from backstage before I was called to get ready to escort another beauty pageant semi-finalist contestant out onto the stage. I didn't get to see chi Lan's performance of her last of 3 songs she did that night since I had to go change into a different tuxedo in the dressing room.  I tried to hurry so that I could catch another glimpse of her in person and possibly say hi, but it just wasn't in the cards.  By the time I changed into the next wardrobe, my hair would be next.  After Perry would finish checking if my hairstyle and stage make-up was okay, I ran toward the right backstage side entrance in hopes that I would catch chi Lan while she exits the stage.  But I was too late, since chi Lan had apparently already left the building.  That would be the first of several chance meetings that would almost, but still would not allow me to meet up with my big sister, Ngoc Lan. 

In 1992, Ngoc Lan did a show at Diamond Nightclub in Fullerton.  I had bought tickets and arrived early.  Unfortunately, I wasn't 21 yet and was not let in by the guards at the door.  In '94, I was now a paid singer at cafes and smaller clubs around Orange County,  I had caught the attention of some interviewer for Vietnam Performing Arts Television and been asked to appear on his television show for an interview.  The day I showed up at the television studio, I would learn that chi Lan had just left less than 5 minutes ago.  She had been there earlier and was interviewed to plug an upcoming show of hers at the Anaheim Marriott promoted by the band, May Bon Phuong.  3 years later, I was in the process of recording my first album, Tiec Nho with Anh Tu, Julie and Thai Thao for Bien Tinh Productions.  One of the tracks on that CD was called Magic Boulevard, a French song originally recorded and written by Francois Feldman and the Vietnamese version was entitled Ngay Vui Nam Ay written by none other than Ngoc Lan.  I had gotten a hold of chi Lan's telephone number and called to ask for permission to use her written lyrics for my recording.  A woman had answered when I called, she took down my phone number and that same woman called back the following day to say that it was alright for me to go ahead and record the lyrics with Ngoc Lan's blessings.  It wasn't chi Lan that I had spoken to.  That same year, I had a booking to perform at some casino outside of Atlanta, Georgia that had featured a gala of some of the top names in the Vietnamese music business like Thanh Tuyen, Henry Chuc, Dalena and Ngoc Lan whose photos were all included on the poster flyers to promote the show.  I was so excited that one of my dreams in being able to share the same stage with chi Lan; my big sister, my idol, and my inspiration, was about to come true.  Unfortunately, this chance meeting would also not come to be.  When I arrived in Atlanta, I was told Ngoc Lan was not going to be there and had to cancel due to health reasons.  This saddened me.  In the years to come, I would release my debut album and perform at many more shows throughout the United States and abroad working with many other singers.  Through the circle of other performers.  I would hear many horrific rumors about her health.  I heard from one person she had a brain tumor.  Another said she was a bedridden diabetic.  Some even claimed that Ngoc Lan's health was as a result fo her being a targeted victim of voodoo.  None of these stories seemed to be the truth.  One story did, however.  And that was what Glenn, a Vietnamese celebrity hairstylist and make-up artist who had worked on Ngoc Lan's last music video appearance, had told me.  He said that Ngoc Lan had revealed to him that she had been suffering from Multiple Sclerosis.  By the way, Glenn was my friend, a fellow Amerasian, and recently had passed away less than two years ago. 

Regardless whatever disease chi Lan had, I wasn't sure and I really couldn't sort out which of the rumors about Ngoc Lan was the truth.  And some of the rumors were just downright vicious.  All I know was, one thing was for sure.  Ngoc Lan was ill. 

In 1999, I was working on my next album, Ngay Em Di.  Before its release, I had been referred by another fellow recording artist, Ngoc Hue, to Kelvin Khoa, a musician, to remaster some of the tracks I had recorded.  I then learned he was Ngoc Lan's husband.  I tried many times to ask anh Kelvin Khoa about her health, but never could go through with it fearing he might think I was prying into her business.  I did, however, tell him about my past friendship with his wife and that I miss her very much.  When he finished with the re-mastering work for my songs, he did tell me that he did speak of me to chi Lan a few times and that yes, she did indeed remember who I was.  He also said that together he and chi Lan had listened to my CD after he had finished with the remastering work and that her favorite song I had recorded was Lemon Tree.  That made me very happy. 

I guess like with all singers, I had idols to look up to before  I went into the profession.  One of those idols was indeed Ngoc Lan.  In a selfish way, I had always wished for any of my idols to one day see  me sing and hopefully offer me feedback or critique.  Sadly, this occasion with Ngoc Lan never happened for me.  But I can be thankful she did get to hear me sing through my audio recordings.  I'm also sad I didn't really get the chance to thank her for all that she had taught me and her generosity toward me back when I was just a 16 years old dancer.  She will always be a true inspiration to me. 

As for that music video for the song, 365 Dimanches, we had shot together back in 1989, when I ran into Mr. Thang and his wife, singer Tra Mi, whom were owners of May Productions, at Ngoc Lan's funeral in March of 2001, they told me that much of the footage of that music video somehow had been damaged and the remainder left was an insufficient amount in order to make into a complete music video to release.  So all I have left now of chi Lan are the memories and, of course, her beautiful voice through her music.  Thank you, chi Lan!  I hope you can hear me say, I really love you and miss you, my sister. 

Who knows?  She just might be listening from above.

                                                                              Thien Phu

No comments:

Post a Comment