I Love Ngoc Lan

memories of a big sister, idol, and inspiration

| thienphu

(Bản Dịch Tiếng Việt)

I’d like to tell you a story about the Ngoc Lan I was so fortunate to know, love, and miss very much. I’m writing this in English for it is my primary language and much easier for me to express myself than in Vietnamese.
Let me first introduce myself. My name is Thien Phu. I also was involved with the entertainment industry for the Vietnamese community here in the United States. Throughout the Nineties, I tried my hand at singing, did a few audio recordings and performed for Vietnamese-overseas audiences throughout America and abroad with minor success. After a few years, I decided to put my singing career behind me to pursue a college degree. And that is what I’m doing now.
My story of Ngoc Lan began sometime in 1989 when I was just 16 years old. At the time I was in high school here in the States having primarily American friends and speaking very little Vietnamese. I was studying French and took a liking to French music. This is when I began listening to her music. At first I was interested in the recordings she had made in bilingual Vietnamese-French lyrics. Songs like “La Vie En Rose”, “Une Histoire D’amour”, and “Quelque Chose Dans Mon Couer” she had recorded enchanted me greatly. I would often listen to the original recordings done by French singers and compare their reditions with that of Ngoc Lan, and often found that I would feel more of a closeness to her interpretations. This is when I started to collect cassettes produced by various production companies with “Nhac Tre” themes containing varieties of other Vietnamese talents like Julie, Kieu Nga, Elvis Phuong, Minh Xuan, etc. all posessing singing bilingual Vietnamese and French abilities. As a result, this led to the transformation of my interest in Vietnamese music. I’d have to say Ngoc Lan and these artists are responsible for opening my mind to the Vietnamese culture and acquiring a sense of pride, consequentially.
My meeting with Ngoc Lan was on a Monday night sometime in the spring of 1989. I remembered I had just finished my homework and my mother had just gotten home from work. My mother was fussing that my hair had grown too long and insisted she drive me to the beauty salon to get a haircut. She called up our family’s hairdresser, Perry Zeild, who had a salon in Santa Ana for an appointment. Perry was not only our hairdresser, but a very charismatic guy who had become my friend. He knew how I idolized Ngoc Lan. Though it was late and he was about to close up shop, he went out of his way to give me a hair appointment. He told me not to be late and that he had a big surprise for me. That surprise was Ngoc Lan.
It turns out Perry had been offered to do freelance work on a video for Ngoc Lan. He would be her make-up artist for video shoots. In one particular video she planned to do covering a jolly French tune, “365 Dimanches”, needed a few back-up dancers. Perry also had a knack for dancing and would himself be in the video as one of her back-up dancers along with two other girls, Diem Thinh and Yen Trang, both models that have appeared on covers of such Vietnamese music cassettes and magazines. Ngoc Lan along with the other two dancers were supposed to meet up with him at his salon later that night.
When I arrived at the salon, there were no other customers. He had pretty much closed up shop and was just working on my hair. He then told me that Ngoc Lan was on her way and if I’d like I could stay there awhile to meet her. I was so excited, I jumped at the chance. But still I wasn’t sure if he was kidding me or not. He had known how much of a fan I was, that I had all her cassettes, and to meet a celebrity like her would be thrilling. So I thought he was just joking with me so I could stay around to keep him company. Then 15 minutes later, Ngoc Lan showed up.
I was shivering when she walked into the salon. I kept on looking at her to make sure if this was the same person I had seen so many times on television or not. As Perry introduced me to her, she said hi. Then she asked me if I spoke Vietnamese. (You see, for those of you who don’t know me I am half-Swedish and my looks tend to favor that of a Westerner.) I naturally replied with a yes. And as I studdered, I tried to tell her how much I admired her or as we say in Vietnamese “ai mo”. She just smiled and thanked me. Then I asked if it was okay that I stay to watch while she and Perry along with the two other dancers rehearsed. She replied with a welcoming yes but only if I would agree to be in the video with her. I told her I had never danced before, but she insisted that the routine was very easy to learn and since she thought I was very handsome I should definitely be in her video. Not knowing what I was getting into, I was very eager to be a part of it. But first I had to ask permission from my mother. She said okay and assured me that I had nothing to worry about. When my mother arrived to pick me up, Ngoc Lan approached her and asked for her permission. My mother was instantly overtaken by her charm and politeness, she readily agreed.
For the next few months, we rehearsed the dance routine relentlessly for hours four nights a week. On the weekends, “chi” Lan had to be out of town to do shows so we couldn’t meet for rehearsals then. But every weeknight was tiresome as we practiced until the late hours of the night at Perry’s salon which we used as a dance studio after he closed up shop and cleared away the chairs. It was hard work. This is when I learned how much of a perfectionist Ngoc Lan was. If any of the dancers missed a step, she would be the first to notice. She wasn’t arrogant or unpleasant ever at pointing out any mistakes. Instead she had a mild-mannered way of speaking and always kept her cool. During these months, I got to spend a great deal of time with chi Lan. We would go about town looking for costumes for the video shoot. Naturally, she drove me everywhere since I was still 16 and hadn’t gotten a driver’s license yet. At first we had trouble finding the right costumes. We tried Vietnamese boutiques, but they had very limited supplies and people would often waste time being in awe of Ngoc Lan, the famous singer, rather than treating her like a customer. The few places we would go to within the Vietnamese community, people would often ask her if I was her younger brother. She would just smile. One of those people, I had answered with a no explaining how could I be her brother, since I was part-White and she was full-blooded Vietnamese. Chi Lan just laughed and later told me to just say yes if anyone in the future asks me that and that she would be honored to have such a good-looking young brother. As the weeks passed, we finally accomplished finding the right costumes at some hole-in-the-wall shop in Los Angeles. A friendship between us had developed throughout the course of preparing for this video between her and me. Our relationship became like that of a brother and sister. She even one time, when I went to her house for a costume fitting, asked if I would consider her as an adoptive “big sister”.
A big sister, she was during that time. I didn’t realize how much I had learned from her. At times, I was in complete awe watching her determination and hard work. She was always on the run, working on some recording project, videos, or flying off to faraway places to do live shows. I was amazed how she kept it all together. Most of the time she had to be serious due to her hectic schedule. But she would also find time to talk with me, making jokes, and giving advice on life. On one occasion at her house, she showed me a photo album consisting of pictures she had taken from all over the world since in her line of work a great deal of travelling took place. To a 16 year old kid who had lived most of his life in Southern California, I felt like a kid in a candy store. For me to befriend someone like that who was older, wiser, and had experienced so much of life was a real treat.
Finally in May of that year, the day of the video shoot happened. We shot it at some large American-owned studio in Santa Monica. We all arrived at the studio at 6 a.m. We got ready for make-up and into our costumes. Shooting was to start at 9 a.m. Right before the camera rolled I realized I had left my pair of dress shoes behind. The director, Mr. Thuc, and the producer and owner of May Productions, Mr. Thang, were very disappointed in me, needless to say. As they proceeded to scold me, chi Lan pulled me aside and whispered to me not to worry and that she would take care of it. She slipped me a few twenties and told her friend, who I know now was Thanh Lam, the famous saxophone player, to drive me to the nearest shoe store to pick up a pair. This just goes to show how calm and cool-minded Ngoc Lan was as a person. After the shoes situation was over, the video shoot began. It was exhausting. We didn’t finish filming until the late hours of that night. Just before wrapping it up, chi Lan hugged everyone and thanked them for their hard work. When she hugged me, she said goodbye and that we should always keep in touch since I will always be her little brother.
I didn’t realize that would be the last time I would ever see her in person alive or speak with her. The years that followed, I guess I couldn’t blame her for losing contact since she would obviously be busy with her hectic schedule, and I would be equally busy with finishing up high school. As I approached adulthood, I came across a few chance meetings with chi Lan but these would never come to be. In the summer of 1990, she was performing for the Miss Vietnam Long Beach Pageant show, “Dai Hoi Hoa Hau Ao Dai Long Beach ’90”. I was chosen to be one of the male models to escort the contestants and handing them roses on stage. Ngoc Lan performed during the musical segment of the live show. I stood and watched as she sang. Then I had to fulfill my duties of escorting another contestant on stage. As soon as I returned backstage, I went looking for chi Lan as she just had finished her set of a couple songs. Unfortunately, she had already left. That would be the first of several chance meetings I would miss with my big sister, Ngoc Lan.
In 1992, Ngoc Lan did a show at Diamond Nightclub in Fullerton. I had bought tickets and arrived early. Unfortunately, I wasn’t 21 yet and was not let in by the guards at the door. In ’94, I was now a paid singer at cafes and small clubs around Orange County. I had caught the attention of some interviewer for Vietnam Performing Arts Television and been asked to appear on his television show for an interview. The day I showed up at the studio, I learned that chi Lan had just left less than five minutes ago. She had been there earlier to be interviewed for some upcoming show she was performing in at the Marriott Hotel in Anaheim for May Bon Phuong. Three years later, I was in the processing of recording my first album, “Tiec Nho” with Anh Tu, Julie, and Thai Thao for Bien Tinh Productions. On one of the tracks in that CD, I would sing Vietnamese lyrics translated by Ngoc Lan. The song was called “Magic Boulevard”, or “Ngay Vui Nam Ay” translated by Ngoc Lan. I had gotten a hold of her telephone number and called to ask for permission to use her lyrics in my recording. A woman had answered, I explained my reason for calling, she took down my phone number and that same woman called back the following day to say that it was okay for me to go ahead with those lyrics with Ngoc Lan’s blessings. It wasn’t chi Lan that I spoke to. That same year, I had a booking to perform at some casino outside of Atlanta, Georgia that consisted of a gala of Vietnamese top performers like Thanh Tuyen, Henry Chuc, Dalena, and Ngoc Lan whose pictures were all included in the poster flyers to promote the show. I was so excited that one of my dreams in being able to share the same stage with chi Lan, an idol and of course, “big sister” of mine during a performance was about to come true. Unfortunately, this chance meeting would also not come to be. When I arrived in Atlanta, I was told Ngoc Lan was not going to be there due to health reasons. This saddened me. In the years to come, I would release my CD and perform at many more shows throughout the United States working with many other singers. Through the circle of other performers, I would hear many horrific rumors about her health. I heard from one person she had a brain tumor, another said she was a bedridden diabetic, then she was suffering from multiple sclerosis, to even parkinson’s disease. No story seemed to be the truth. And some rumors were just downright vicious. But one thing for sure, she was ill. In 1999, I was working on my second album, “Ngay Em Di”. Before the release, I had been referred to Kelvin Khoa, a musician, to remaster some tracks off the CD by singer Ngoc Hue. I then learned he was her husband. I tried many times to ask anh Khoa about her condition but never went through with it fearing he might think I was prying into her business. I did, however, tell him about my past friendship with her and that I miss her very much. When he finished with the re-mastering work for my songs, he did tell me that he did speak of me to her and that yes, she did remember who I was. He also said that together he and she listened to my CD that he had re-mastered and that her favorite song that I had recorded was “Lemon Tree”. That made me very happy.
I guess like with all singers, I had idols to look up to before I went into the profession. One of those idols was indeed Ngoc Lan. In a selfish way, I had always wished for my idols to see me sing and receive feedback or critique from them. Sadly, this occasion with Ngoc Lan for me never happened. But I can be thankful she did get to hear me sing via audio. I’m also sad I didn’t get the chance to thank her for all that she taught me, and her generosity to me when I was just a 16 year old dancer. She will always be a true inspiration to me.
As for that video we shot together 15 years ago, I was told by Mr. Thang when I bumped into him at her funeral in March of 2001 that some footage had been damaged and what was left wasn’t enough to make a releasable video. So all I have now are memories of her and her voice. Thank you chi Lan! Who knows she might be listening now.

Thien Phu