Photo Courtesy of letoan.com


Le Toan & The Live Rhythm Band

Pop to Pop


A well-dressed Vietnamese couple — the man with his hair slicked back, dressed in what appears to be an Armani suit; the woman is adorned in shining jewelry and a dress that might have just been flown in from Milan — enter through the front doors and are quickly directed to a table in the rear.  A nameless DJ blasts a mixture of Techno and Top 40 Pop hits, as people writhe along to the rhythm on the dance floor.  The main room resembles a scene from a modern day mobster movie, as though it would not be strange to encounter people making shady deals in the back rooms and bars, discussing new hits and money owed.  

This is not a movie set.  It is the Shark Club, located in Costa Mesa and famous for attracting a heavily Vietnamese crowd.  It is a potent concoction of fashion, music, and dance, and a physical incarnation of everything that goes into the DNA of Pop Culture, in regards to the Vietnamese-American community in Orange County. 

The transformation of Pop Culture from the Vietnam War to the present day within the Vietnamese-American community is an interesting one.  Popular music originally bloomed from traditional and classical pieces — pieces that are now viewed as national anthems, of sorts, for those Vietnamese refugees who fled the country after the Fall of Saigon.  It has only been just recently that modern Pop music has been able to assert itself within the Vietnamese-American Culture. 

Le Toan (real name Antoine), a popular Vietnamese Pop singer currently residing in Orange County, CA, has been a part of the music industry for almost 40 years.  Throughout this time, he has seen, firsthand, the Pop Culture changes that the Vietnamese-American community has experienced. “During the Vietnam War, many musicians, including me, started to change the way we wrote songs,” Le Toan said.  “A lot of times [we] tried to sound more like American music.  The lyrics and melodies used to be much more complicated in the 50’s.  Then we simplified things to make it easier for fans to absorb.” 

Growing up listening to mostly French and American music in the late-‘60s, Le Toan discovered a taste for classic Rock n’ Roll when his brother accepted a gig as an entertainer for the American troops.  “I was so lucky that my older brother was playing in the band for the American GIs then,” he said.  “I joined my family band after I graduated high school, and we started performing songs by the Beatles, Jackson 5, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Eagles, you name it. We did not play any Country music until we settled in Honolulu after the fall of Saigon and started to play some Johnny Cash.” 

While the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival are still popular among today’s young music aficionados, there is no doubt that Le Toan’s music and stage show is meant to cater to an older generation—a generation who, themselves, grew up listening to Frank Sinatra and now turn to contemporary crooners like Michael Bublè to fill that void left after Sinatra’s death. 

If Le Toan represents where popular music among the Vietnamese-American community has come from, then Pop entertainer Ryan Truong, a graduate from the University of California, Irvine and a practicing chiropractor in Santa Ana, represents where it currently stands, especially in regards to the Vietnamese-American youth.  Everything about him -- from the way he dresses, to the way he sings and dances -- is contemporary, and is a direct reflection of the current wave of popular fashion and popular music that has infiltrated the ears and radio-waves of today’s Vietnamese-American youth. 

Specifically catering to a new generation of club-going Vietnamese-Americans raised on modern American Pop singers, Truong says that no Vietnamese singers can influence him because he is “more of a Westernized singer.”  He is, however, very much influenced by American singers, specifically Madonna, Britney Spears, and Lady GaGa, the last of which serves as Truong’s main source of inspiration.  “Just like Lady GaGa and Madonna, I’m very creative,” Truong said.  “They are my idols and I model my shows and creative ideas—along with shocking things I do when I perform—after them.” 

Truong feels that the Vietnamese community can often come across as being too “prim and proper,” but he believes Pop music has the power to change that, if they would only open up and truly embrace it.  “I love being creative and outrageous,” he said.  “I want the Vietnamese audience to be more open-minded and know that [they] can be as outrageous as the American singers.” 

In addition to being at the forefront of Pop music, Truong -- like many Vietnamese-American youth -- can always be found clad in the latest American styles.  He said that popular retail stores for Vietnamese youth to shop at do not at all differ from those stores that are popular among American youth.  Clothing from Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, and American Eagle are very popular, and are especially prevalent with Vietnamese-American youth.  “American clothes and fashion have [allowed] the Asian community to be free from their inhibitions and restraints,” Truong said.  “[It is] a form of visual art… not so much dirty or trashy, but a creation and illusion to please the minds.” 

For young Vietnamese-American women, fashion styles are all about comfort.  Cardigans and flannels are seen most often, as are t-shirts and hoodies; few will wear traditional dresses, but this is not preferred among the majority.  Most Vietnamese-American girls wear their hair extended slightly past their shoulders, and straightened, with little to no curls or waves. 

Young Vietnamese-American men tend to dress in a more kempt style, as opposed to many of their American counterparts.  Influenced by popular television shows such as Mtv’s “America’s Best Dance Crew,” many Vietnamese-American men wear Urban, or Skater styles featuring baseball caps cocked to one side of their head and black t-shirts with bright, almost neon, images on them—the most popular colors on these t-shirts were pink and yellow.  The majority of the Vietnamese-American men are clean-shaven and wear their hair in short, closely cropped styles. 

For both sexes, shirts displaying the logos of sports teams or band logos are not popular like they are among American youth.  However, designs from mainstream cartoons and comic books—such as Transformers and Super-Man—are popular.  There is also a negative stigma surrounding tattoos, as many Vietnamese youth have been brought up to believe the body must remain clean for religious reasons.  Piercings are more accepted, but even the most rebellious-looking Vietnamese-American youth only sport minimal piercings, all of which appear on their ears instead of on their face, like many of their American counterparts. 

In recent years, dancing has also become very popular among young Vietnamese-Americans.  Apart from the obvious American influences such as Madonna and Britney Spears, “America’s Best Dance Crew” can most easily be credited as sparking this interest in the Hip-Hop and Street styles of dance.  “It makes them want to dance ‘B-Boy style’,” said Hanh Ly.  “They dance to look cool.  It gives them a sense of ‘Asian solidarity.”   

The influence of Pop Culture upon the Vietnamese-American can be strongly felt in the music they listen to, the styles they dress in, and even the way they express themselves through dancing and singing.  Just as it has done for so many years, Pop Culture continues to shape and mold people, giving them a sense of identity and pride.  Of those who were interviewed, perhaps young Ly said it best: “Pop Culture is changing people.”  Clearly, it is a change for the better.