My last post notes a fire that I experienced in Minnesota back in the 1980s. After I posted the link on Facebook, a fellow former refugee responded that he remembers people ran out of the building that night and carrying “nothing but boomboxes.”
Funny, you say, but it is illustrative of two things. First, Vietnamese music was very, very important to the refugees. Second, after automobiles boomboxes were the most valuable possessions for many refugees back then, especially men in the twenties and thirties, some of whom populated the apartment building that was burned down.
In fact, I still recall perfectly one of the young men on the same floor who owned a JVC cassette player. Vietnamese had a soft spot for Japanese electronics since an influx of Japanese goods into South Vietnam during the early 1970s. Some refugees even saved money sent from relatives in the third countries and purchased a Japanese cassette player while waiting in Bangkok, Singapore, or Hong Kong for their flight to the U.S., Canada, Australia, or Europe.
In this case, the young man was very protective of the JVC that he removed the plastic fillers from the box, punched a bunch of holes on the front side, and placed it back into the box before he played a tape. (His roommate joked that the box was riddled with AK-16 bullets.) Another fellow, this one from the floor above us, owned the fanciest stereo system in the building, complete with big tall speakers. It must have cost him a small fortune, and he would proudly play music whenever I dropped by.
One of the tapes that he often played was an all-Elvis Phương album by the name Hát Cho Người Tìm Tự Do: Sing for People Seeking Liberty. I remember it well because I’d heard the same album while in refugee camp in Indonesia. The refugee representatives sought assistance from the camp authorities to have evening tea-and-music hours – I think it was twice a week – at the public “cultural” building. There wasn’t a lot to do, so many came, mostly men, young and not so young. My twelve-year-old self was around there sometimes, usually hanging out with friends, and heard the music but never listened to more than two or three songs at a time. It was different in Minnesota, however, as I stayed on the third floor and listened to at least one side of the cassette tape, sometimes both sides, before heading back to our tiny apartment downstairs.
The album is the fourth in the Paris-recorded Phượng Nga series. (The #7 song on my list also comes from this series, albeit the fifth album.) Recorded in 1981, it features Elvis Phương’s vocals and instrumentation from Phượng Nga’s house band and the France-based band Blue Jets consisted primarily of three half-French and half-Vietnamese brothers, including Jules Tambicannou who had gone to the same high school as Elvis Phương and played in the emergent “youth music” of Republican Saigon in the 1960s. Twelve of the sixteen songs came from Phạm Duy and two of his sons. This song, however, was written by another different refugee then living in Toronto.
The author was listed on the album as Vô Danh, No Name or Anonymous, and has since turned up to be Phan Ni Tấn. Incarcerated for a time after the Fall of Saigon, he escaped by boat to Thailand in 1979 and came to Canada four months later. He’d written the original version of this song back in 1972, when he was involved with the Du Ca movement. (The line about “older brother dead” in the song was based on his own soldier brother killed in action in Pleiku.) The song was known and sung among certain youth circles, but never recorded in South Vietnam. At least one former reeducation camp inmate remembers hearing a fellow inmate sing it in 1978. For reasons unknown, the song eventually made to Paris and into this album, although the “lyrics had been changed, and the pace was slower.”
In content, the lyrics reflect a significant relationship among Vietnamese: that between a teacher and his students. Even to this day, there is an elevated, even uncritical, respect accorded to teachers and professors among Vietnamese. In this case, the song is respectfully addressed to a male teacher – Vietnamese have different terms for male and females teachers. On the basis of lyrics, he is probably a high school teacher rather than a college professor.
Note that the title is sometimes listed as Bài Ca instead of as Bài Hát. They mean exactly the same thing, but I follow the listing in the original recording and keep it at Bài Hát.
This song is arranged as a rocking number – the only rocker on this list of mine – and the Blue Jets waste no time establishing the rawness. It opens with a twin arch of (a) loud beats from drums and tambourine, and (b) aching electric guitar lines. From top to bottom, Elvis Phương’s voice is pointed, even curt. It is accentuated by occasional leaping plucked bass sounds and frequent harsh pounding on drums and cymbals. From the opening moments to the ending of cymbal crashing and feedback-like bass, the recording is characterized by a raw and barely controlled energy. It is quite different from most refugee music at the time.
The lyrics open with one of the commonest schooling subjects: spelling. But schooling is used as mere background to the real subject, which is death and national division.
Kính thưa thầy đây bài chính tả của con,
Bài chính tả viết về nước Mỹ:
Con viết hai lần sai chữ “America,”
Con viết hai lần sai chữ “Communist,”
Con viết hai lần sai chữ “Liberty.”
Làm sao được, làm sao được, bởi anh con vừa chết?
My dear teacher, here is my composition,
An essay about the United States.
Twice I misspell “America,”
Twice I misspell “Communist,”
Twice I misspell “Liberty.”
How could I not? How could I not since my [older] brother had just died?
The composition motif continues in the second verse and offers a quartet of contrasts.
Kính thưa thầy, đây bài luận triết của con:
Một căn nhà và một trái phá,
Một đám cưới hồng bên cạnh một đám ma,
Một nếp sống tàn bên cạnh người no ấm,
Ôi tiếng hát nào bên lệ em tuôn mau.
Làm sao thuộc bài con học để vinh thân đời sau?
Dear teacher, here is my philosophical essay
About a house and about a bomb,
About a wedding next to a funeral,
About an impoverished life next to well-off people,
About a singing voice next to quick-falling tears.
How could I study to advance my life?
The third verse moves from composition to mathematics. It plays upon the word đường, which could mean either “line” or “road.” Americanization is duly noted – again, this song was started in the early 1970s – and the juxtaposition of American GIs and Vietnamese young women shows a glimpse at the anguish of social and cultural urban problems. The next line notes warfare in the countryside, and the last line gives a heart-breaking point about hate and weapons.
Kính thưa thầy đây là bài toán của con,
Những đường cong đường thẳng đều có gài mìn,
Đường vào thành phố có bar, có Mỹ, có con gái học trò,
Đường vào làng có hầm hố cá nhân,
Đường vào đời có đao kiếm căm hờn.
Dear teacher, here is my math solution,
The bent and straight roads are lined up with mines:
The road to the city with bars, Americans, and high school girls,
The road to the hamlet with underground hiding spots,
The road to life with weaponry and hatred.
The refrain slows things down in pace, tone, and thought. The anguish of national division is not merely acknowledged but also interpreted as a lasting reality. The refrain is probably the most depressing portion in a song full of pessimism. The Dalat Officer Academy was the most prestigious national military institution in South Vietnam. At the time, the prestige of a military officer almost rivaled that of a physician or engineer, both of whom are duly named as well.
Con đã chứng minh nhiều lần
Đường ngằn ngoèo qua Mỹ, qua Paris thật ngắn
Nhưng không thể nối liền Sài gòn, Hà Nội,
Nhưng không thể nối liền thành phố với làng quê.
Con không đậu tú tài để đi sĩ quan Đà Lạt.
Con không đậu tú tài để làm bác sĩ kỹ sư.
Many times have I demonstrated
The crooked lines to America or Paris may be short
But they cannot connect Saigon and Hanoi,
They cannot connect cities and the countryside.
I didn’t pass high school exams to attend the Dalat Officer Academy.
I didn’t pass them to [study and] become a doctor or engineer.
The rocking beat is picked up again in the fourth verse, and the lyrics play up familiar nationalist tropes. They are not points of pride, however, but points of pain.
Kính thưa thầy đây bài thuộc lòng của con.
Tổ quốc Việt Nam bốn ngàn năm văn hiến,
Một trăm năm Pháp thuộc,
Hai mươi năm đọa đày,
Làm sao con thuộc được truyện Kiều Nguyễn Du?
Dear teacher, here is my lesson of memorization,
The Vietnamese fatherland for four thousand years of civilization,
Plus a hundred years of French colonialism,
Plus twenty years of shameful suffering.
How could I memorize the Tale of Kiều by Nguyễn Du?
One could say that the song reaches its crescendo and climax in the last verse. On the other hand, it’s not impossible to consider any of the previous three verses, even the refrain, the high point of the lyrics.
Kính thưa thầy đây là quyển vở của con,
Suốt một năm không hề có chữ,
Con để dành ép khô những giòng nước mắt
Của cha con, của mẹ con, của chị con, và của chính con.
Dear teacher, here is my notebook,
Without words for an entire year,
For I used it to keep dry streaming tears
Of my father, of my mother, of my [older] sister, and of my own.
This song is interesting for looking at the entirety of the Vietnamese experience, and not exclusively at the refugee experience or even at the postwar era. The timing of its recording, however, made it thoroughly poignant for the refugees such as the men sipping tea and listening to it in the semi-darkness of refugee camps, or other Vietnamese after settlement such as my upstairs neighbor.
This context was another reason that Vietnamese grabbed their boomboxes before running out of the building under fire. It was the boombox, yes, but also the music it played for them. (In case of my upstairs neighbor, I believe he moved to the Twin Cities before the fire, saving himself from the anguish of another loss.)
Given the constraints at the time, I found the original quite terrific. It was the lone recording of this song in circulation for nearly a quarter of a century before another was recorded. There is some change in the lyrics in the last couple of verses. There isn’t a video on YouTube, but both lyrics and recording could be found in this link from the website hopamviet.com.
Remarkably, the new record improves upon the impressive original. The arrangements of the new recording take after the original in basic contour but also update it in instrumentation. Thế Sơn, a frequent participant in the long-running Paris By Night video series, gives one of his most impressive performances in one of the series’ most emotional programs recorded and released in 2005, or around the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Saigon. (The song list is a solid sample of “refugee music.”) If one listens to Elvis Phương for memories of refugee life, one listens to Thế Sơn for musical prowess about Vietnaemse anguish over the larger Vietnam Conflict, including the aftermath of refugees from 1975 onward.
In case the above link to the Thế Sơn version does not work: