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From 'Heat' to Deceit : Parker's Encore Novel Examines Underside of Vietnamese Venue

July 22, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

The Saigon Cabaret, a popular Vietnamese nightclub on the edge of Little Saigon, lies at the far end of a Garden Grove shopping center--just down from an appliance store and next door to a tropical fish shop.

On weekend nights, the nightclub is packed with people, mostly Vietnamese couples in their 30s, 40s, and 50s: a well-dressed, older crowd that likes to tango, waltz and do the cha-cha, and grows nostalgic listening to band singers who are more likely to sing in Vietnamese and French than in English.

But this was a Thursday night and, at 8:30, the parking lot beneath the orange-and-blue neon Saigon Cabaret sign was nearly empty when T. Jefferson Parker ducked inside the dimly lit club.

On the eve of the publication of his much-anticipated second novel, "Little Saigon," Parker had returned to a source of his inspiration.

His summer white pants and white shirt aglow under the club's black lights, Parker skirted the tiny round tables with the cane-backed chairs and headed for the bar.

"Things have really changed around here," said Parker, perching on a stool and eyeing the mirrored walls that had replaced the bamboo siding in the club in the months since he was a frequent visitor.

The decor and atmosphere of the Saigon Cabaret served as the model for the Asian Wind Cabaret, the fictional Vietnamese nightclub where the novel's gripping plot is set in motion:

Vietnamese singer Li Frye, a one-time spy for the Americans during the war and now a folk hero to her people, is kidnaped from the club by three hooded figures with machine guns. The occasion is the 38th birthday of Li's wealthy Orange County land developer husband, Bennett Frye, a Vietnam War veteran who gained a chest full of medals and lost his legs in the process. When Li is pulled, shrieking, off the stage after the gunmen spray the jammed club with gunfire, Bennett and his 33-year-old brother Chuck--the Frye family misfit who is the novel's protagonist--take off in hot pursuit.

The novel, as serious-minded as it is action-packed, deals with the underside of Little Saigon as well as international intrigue that stretches to Hanoi. Parker, who put Orange County on the literary map with "Laguna Heat" in 1985, populates his novel with Vietnamese gangs, expatriate resistance leaders and freedom fighters in Vietnam and Cambodia. It is laced with intrigue, corruption, deceit and murder.

Parker, a former newspaper reporter, did his homework to capture the exotic flavor of Little Saigon, a place where, as a character in the novel says, "There is always a feeling . . . that things may happen."

During the 2 1/2 years he spent writing the book, Parker visited Little Saigon about twice a month, meeting everyone from affluent Vietnamese professional people to the man on the street--and the guy in the bar.

In fact, it was during one early research trip in the fall of 1985 that Parker discovered the Saigon Cabaret while on a police ride-along. He returned on a Saturday night.

"It was packed," recalled Parker, 34. "I saw bow-tied waiters and about 300 Vietnamese dressed to the nines: The men were in suits, the women in dresses and skirts, and there was a lot of Vietnamese music. But it was the look on their faces. It just about floored me: They seemed nostalgic, homesick. It was just so obvious they craved this music and craved the company of being together. This is as close to being back in Saigon as they could get."

That night, Parker met Wendy Asano, the club's owner and sometime singer, who came to this country from Vietnam 18 years ago with her two children. Like many of the people Parker met in Little Saigon, the Asanos have become his good friends.

Yet Parker is not sure how his multihued portrait of Little Saigon, due to hit bookstores in late August, will be received by Orange County's Vietnamese community.

"I'm very curious; It's kind of wait-and-see at this point," he said, drawing on his cigarette and then chuckling. "I don't know how anybody is going to react to it."

The first thing you notice when you get to Jeff Parker's two-story, wooden, ranch-style house on a gravel road in rustic Laguna Canyon is the green-and-white souvenir street sign over the carport that says, "Jeff Boulevard."

Parker, who keeps a boogie board and swim fins in the trunk of his car and sprinkles his conversation with '60ish surfer slang (the word "bitchin' " is a favorite), appears much as he was before "Laguna Heat" turned him into what he describes as a "semi-public figure."

But the car in the carport--a 1987 black Thunderbird that replaced his little '82 Plymouth Champ--and the house itself are symbols of the changes in Parker's life since "Laguna Heat."

Parker made the down payment on his house with money from the movie sale of "Laguna Heat," and he bought the car with royalties. But, more than anything, "Laguna Heat" gave Parker the financial freedom to be what he had always wanted to be: a full-time novelist.

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