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A big Little Saigon star

Minh Tuyet went to the U.S. to chase her dreams. Now, she and her sisters are part of a thriving music scene.

May 10, 2008|Quyen Do | Special to The Times

Call it a musical fairy tale. Minh Tuyet grew up nearly destitute with her six siblings in Vietnam. The family barely had money for food, and "new" clothes were sewn together from scraps of fabrics. In tough times, she and her siblings would find comfort and happiness by singing their favorite songs while pretending they were stars.

Today, Tuyet is among the top-selling artists on the thriving Vietnamese music scene. Her sister, Ha Phuong, a singer who married a wealthy entrepreneur she met while on tour, has her own part in the fable. From her penthouse with a panoramic view of Manhattan, Phuong now oversees a charity foundation she has created for the underprivileged.

Tuyet and her sister once were among the thousands of Vietnamese singers who arrive in Little Saigon in Westminster every year in search of fame and fortune -- much the same way aspiring rock 'n' roll stars gravitate to Los Angeles and country singers descend on Nashville. This weekend, the Tran sisters -- Tuyet, Phuong and their sister Ly, who is a star in Vietnam -- will perform at two sold-out concerts at Knott's Berry Farm's Charles Schulz Theatre in nearby Buena Park.

"If you want to be a star in the Vietnamese music scene, you want to be in Little Saigon," said Tuyet, a petite singer known for her soulful voice. "The recording studios are here. Promoters will come to Westminster to find new faces. Everything happens here.

"I told my mom that I just wanted a chance to pursue singing in America. We had no opportunity in Vietnam. At worse, I could be a wedding singer or wash dishes. Or if things get really bad, I'm young, I could get married and have someone take care of me."

With more than 200,000 people, Little Saigon has the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside Vietnam and is the epicenter of Vietnamese-language recording. Virtually all of the world's Vietnamese music is produced in a dozen or so recording studios along Bolsa Avenue. The industry here is estimated to be 10 times larger than in Vietnam, where recording technologies lag and Communist censorship prevails.

Thuy Nga Productions and Asia Entertainment are the two largest labels, known for their international distribution and multimillion-dollar productions. Thuy Nga's trademark is its extravagant sets and lighting, and Asia is more overtly political, said Van Son, a comedian who has his own popular music and DVD production company that ranks third in distribution.

In 1997, Tuyet's parents mortgaged their modest home in Vietnam for her school tuition in San Diego. When the money dried up, she began singing on weekends, driving two hours to Orange County to sing at weddings and clubs in Little Saigon. A promoter at Tinh studio soon spotted the singer and signed her in 1998.

A year later, Tuyet got her first hit with the album "Lang Thang" (Wandering). She sent half of her earnings to her family. But tough times lay ahead. Without steady singing jobs, she slept on a sofa at a girlfriend's apartment and went hungry most of the time. A friend who saw Tuyet reported her condition to her family.

"We cried and cried when we heard that our daughter was suffering like that," said her mother, Cam-Van Huynh, who is visiting from Vietnam to watch her daughters perform this weekend. "She never told us how bad things were."

Tuyet's parents have had their struggles too. Her father had to put aside his passion for music to sew clothes to make ends meet. Tuyet was too young to understand but said she never forgot the sadness in her mother's eyes. Tuyet's story about her mother was depicted in a music video last year as part of a tribute to extraordinary Vietnamese women.

In 2000, Phuong received an invitation from a Westminster music studio to sing in the U.S. She accepted so she could be closer to her sister. Reunited, the two settled in a small apartment in Little Saigon.

Each carved out a niche: Tuyet, with honey highlights and a provocative wardrobe, evokes modern pop a la Beyonce. Her sister, with long, sleek black hair, prefers to wear the ao dai, a long Vietnamese traditional dress, when she performs folk and country classics. Recording requests began to pour in for the sisters. A year later, Tuyet purchased her first three-bedroom home in Westminster.

"I asked my Realtor, 'How much do I need for a down payment?' Then, I counted in my head how many concerts I needed to do to pay the mortgage each month," said Tuyet, laughing.

The year 2002 marked a turning point for the sisters. Phuong met and married a New York businessman, and Thuy Nga signed Tuyet. She began appearing on "Paris by Night," arguably the most famous Vietnamese music video series since its inception in 1985. Produced by the big studios, the DVDs showcase a medley of music, including pop, old country and favorite pre-1975 Vietnamese classics that speak of love and war. Comedy skits are also featured. The videos provide Vietnamese singers worldwide exposure to fans and promoters.

"The DVDs that sell the most are those with at least 50% of the classic songs included. People still hold special memories of the old Vietnam before the war," said Nam Loc Nguyen, an emcee for Asia Entertainment and a well-known social activist.

Despite the popularity of the DVDs, piracy cuts into their potential profits. Songs are downloaded on the Internet, and counterfeit copies are available the very next day.

"When we break even, that's considered a huge success," said Marie To, chief executive of Thuy Nga. Ten years ago, there were about two dozen music studios, now only three labels are active, she said.

"Our motivation is that Vietnamese music will continue to thrive for the future generations to appreciate their language and culture," To said. "We hope they will partake in preserving the music by listening and buying the authentic recordings."

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