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Spellbinder : Vietnamese Star Fights Communists in Song

October 26, 1989|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Inside the tiny home-recording studio, The Voice is busy. Forget that temperatures inside the cramped and windowless room hover in the 90s. Or that perspiration has beaded on his forehead and his clothes are starting to cling to his body.

The Voice moves rhythmically to the beat of a ballad called "Unknown Soldiers," a Vietnamese tribute to the war dead of that nation. He nails the song in four tries, leaving technicians and smiling onlookers tapping their toes and swaying to the beat.

The tune is part of an 11-song cassette that will be sold in Vietnamese enclaves in this country to help sponsor anti-Communist political projects.

Hung Cuong was picked to sing the soldiers' song because his voice and presence can excite a patriotic audience, causing women to swoon and men to dream of recapturing their homeland.

"He's knows what it's for, how important it is to the Vietnamese people," says co-producer Cang Nguyen. "That's why he decided to help us."

Cuong's singing and acting career has spanned decades--he has crooned to troops in South Vietnam and to the king and queen of Malaysia, and starred in more than 20 films. And the Garden Grove resident remains one of the best-known Vietnamese singers.

His dark hair, handsome features and powerful voice have kept him popular in Vietnamese exile communities worldwide, in which he is regarded as the equivalent of Frank Sinatra. Like Ol' Blue Eyes, Cuong has hundreds of female followers, but unlike Sinatra, he is only on his third marriage. She's 24, he's 53.

Vietnamese men lament that his singing carries a threat of "losing your woman's heart."

"I let my wife hear him, but I'd rather lock her up when he's around," admitted Phong Tran of Cypress.

Cuong's songs--a mix of romantic ballads and traditional Vietnamese songs that were introduced in Saigon before the capital city was taken over by the North Vietnamese--have become standards. His performances in Australia, Paris and Canada were sellouts. In July, more than 2,000 Vietnamese filled an auditorium in Zurich, Switzerland, to hear The Voice.

But what has set this singer apart from other Vietnamese entertainers has been his devotion to anti-communism. His political fervor--acquired in part through his country's surrender to the North Vietnamese and his years in a re-education camp--has made him an icon to nationalists in the United States and a patriotic institution to Vietnamese exiles abroad.

To facilitate a tour of Australia, Vietnamese there paid his fare, hotel and concert fees, then showered him with gifts. At a refugee camp in Thailand two years ago, authorities watched in alarm as hundreds of refugees stormed a stage, prompting a call for extra security and forcing Cuong to make a quick exit.

The camp reminded him of his own capture by the North Vietnamese after Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. "I was forbidden to act or sing, because they believed that it was propaganda. My picture was displayed on posters along with American war atrocities," he said.

He was put in a re-education camp, released, then arrested again. It was a pattern that continued until he escaped the country in 1980 by hijacking a police boat and sailing to Malaysia.

Cuong said the refugee camp incident had such an emotional impact on him that he has since donated money and supplies to aid Vietnamese refugees.

"These people, they escaped from Vietnam and now they can't go anywhere," he said. "I wanted to stay there, to help improve conditions (in the camp), which were so filthy, so unsanitary . . . so horrible."

Rick Murphy, a San Diego entertainer who accompanied Cuong to Thailand, remembered the thousands of adoring fans.

"He's like Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope wrapped into one. He can sing everything, from rock to patriotic songs, and then turn right around and sing classical music. He's a legend," Murphy said.

"The people at the camp were really very glad to see him. Conditions there were primitive. We heard mortar fire from a distance and here we were with no electricity on a makeshift stage, singing with megaphones," Murphy said.

On stage, Cuong's patriotic zeal, which has angered Hanoi and those who favor establishing U.S.-Hanoi diplomatic relations, often emerges during concerts. He sometimes wears the familiar dark green fatigues or uniform of South Vietnam's soldiers. Other times he paints his face with splashes of yellow and red--the colors of the South Vietnamese flag.

Cuong's open hatred of communism and of the current regime in Hanoi, which imprisoned him and his brother, Hiep Tran, who escaped and now lives in Fountain Valley, has presented problems.

Last year, while he was on a European tour, people began calling his home, which at that time was in Anaheim, and warning his wife to urge him to tone down his remarks or stop making public appearances. The threats continued until his car was set on fire.

"It left my wife very shaken. So we moved," Cuong said.

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