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In Little Saigon, Impresario Has Big Plans for Music

Vietnamese American violinist and promoter is near his goal of opening a performing arts center.

January 16, 2006|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

For years, Thomas Nguyen has been saddened, even embarrassed, by the venues where he could hold performances -- local restaurants, dingy clubs or rented halls that set him back way too much money.

He hopes that's changing.

Nguyen, 43, a violinist and entertainment promoter, plans this summer to complete his five-year effort to open a 600-seat performing arts center for local entertainment groups and Vietnamese American artists.

Sure, it's an old Edwards movie house that's been boarded up for eight years on the outskirts of Little Saigon in Fountain Valley. Stripped of its red seats and matching carpeting, it looks a little bare. But to Nguyen, it might as well be Carnegie Hall.

"This is all my dream," said Nguyen, raising his arms while standing in the middle of the vacant theater. "We can finally show our culture and talent to the Americans after we've been here for 30 years now."

Little Saigon has long been the commercial hub for the Vietnamese who live in Orange County, the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam. But in recent years, it has also become an entertainment district. There are about a dozen studios in Little Saigon recording Vietnamese-language pop and classical music.

There are scores of clubs and cabarets. And one local entertainment executive estimates that about 100 singers live, record or perform locally.

Nguyen's project, however, would be the first place in the community that could accommodate large crowds.

"The performing arts center is something we've needed for a very long time, but there has never been any space, or no one has come forward to take on the huge task," said Son Thanh Duong, 44, a Garden Grove resident who owns Van Son Entertainment, which produces music videos and entertainment acts. He usually puts on shows at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center or the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Nguyen said his 18,000-square-foot facility near the intersection of Brookhurst Street and Edinger Avenue would allow newcomers to debut their music, authors to sign their books or politicians to speak.

"They don't have to go to restaurants to perform and get distracted when someone drops a plate or calls for a waiter," Nguyen said. "That makes them lose their momentum."

Shopkeepers who do business near the former movie theater said the performing arts center would help bring life to the strip mall, filled mostly with mom-and-pop shops. A lack of foot traffic and an upswing in crime has been a problem there for several years, merchants said.

"At night, there's a lot of homeless people and loitering in the area because it's been vacant for so long," said John Marynak, 47, who took over his mother's vacuum cleaner and sewing shop, which has done business at the center since 1976.

"The shopping center has really died, so I think it will bring us up," he said.

Nguyen's dreams for an entertainment venue are rooted in his upbringing. His father was a guitarist. His three sisters play the piano, his brother is a drummer, and Nguyen plays the violin and keyboards. As a family, they played classical music in Vietnam before they escaped as boat refugees in 1975, the year Saigon fell.

The family lived at Camp Pendleton in a refugee settlement for three weeks before moving to Topeka, Kan., to live with their sponsors, parishioners of Faith Lutheran Church. There they rekindled their love of music.

"There wasn't much to do, so we sang and played music all the time," Nguyen said. "We were very lonely and sad, especially because it was snowing and there were no other Vietnamese families around."

"Amazing Grace" became the first song they played at their church. Their tunes captivated audiences at other churches. They formed a band, May Bon Phuong, or Four Directions, and began traveling out of state to perform for Vietnamese immigrants who found sentimental joy in hearing the tunes of their homeland.

Nguyen, who is also known by the stage name Quoc Thai, finally gave up on the Kansas weather and moved west, where he gravitated to Little Saigon. He now owns a radio show on KALI-FM (106.3) that can be heard throughout Southern California and in San Jose, and has produced talent shows, including the annual Vietnamese American Beauty Pageant.

He said the movie theater-turned-performing arts center was in the midst of a major renovation. The place is being gutted, and new red carpeting and decoration will be added. His biggest challenge, he says, is coming up with a name.

His radio listeners have supplied several suggestions -- the Fountain Valley Performing Arts Center, the AmerAsia Performing Arts Center and the Lotus Performing Arts Center. But he's still thinking.

"This will be the place," Nguyen said. "We have so much good talent that has not been discovered, but that will change. I can't wait."

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