Three Beautiful Roses
Three Talented Singers/Actresses, each in her own way…
The following three singers, each of whom is Vietnamese traditional music performer, one after another, brightened up and beautified the already popular theatrical arts of Cai Luong (Southern traditional folk plays). Three different characters, three singing voices, three completely different performing styles, yet they have two things in common – each became famous at a young age, and each possessed a unique talent that led them to their most glorious standings within the entertainment industry.
Up until now none of them have been awarded any titles in singing Vong Co (the singing component of Cai Luong), but no one can deny that their voices helped make Vong Co more popular than ever.
“My unique ability is to sing really low, with a deep tone,” My Chau said. She has had singing talent even at a young age, but it was in modern ballads instead of traditional music, which is what Vong Co is all about. Even to this day, she still prefers pop music. My Chau recalls when she was a young girl in the countryside, every time she turned on the radio she always heard Thanh Huong, a well-known singer at the time, sing. The first two songs that My Chau learned at the beginning of her career were Cô Bán Đèn Hoa Giấy (The Girl Who Sells the Paper Lanterns) and Tâm Sự Cô Gái Mù (The Innermost Feeling of a Blind Girl), which, coincidentally, were the same songs that Thanh Huong sang on the radio long ago. But when My Chau became a singer herself, she most admired actress Ut Bach Lan, who was also a famous singer.
As a young girl, My Chau would listen and obey her mom’s orders without having the faintest idea of what Cai Luong was all about or the difficult road ahead. “I was fortunate enough to be born with traits from which I can distinguish right from wrong. At the beginning of my career, I was able to figure out the right path. I remember the very first time I went to a recording studio to have my voice tested, they told me to go home and imitate the voice of a famous actress at the time. I just smiled with disgust and promptly left the studio. Luckily, when I joined the Asia recording company, no one had asked me to do the same thing; otherwise, there would not have been a My Chau as you know today.” She smiled happily when recalling the incident and one could sense the pride in her voice. How could she not be so proud when she was considered one of the finest actresses of all times? And apparently, keeping her own unique style many years ago at the recording studio, and not imitating someone else’s voice, turned out to be her greatest asset later on.
My Chau’s voice was so unusual for a female singer in such a way that she could sing low and deep tunes with ease, which is very rare among female singers, usually only male singers have this capability. She also enhanced her voice through creativity and proper techniques to make it even more mellow and soothing to the audiences. She said, “I realize my voice is very low and deep, which is quite unusual, so I use it to my great advantage. I have discovered some wonderful sounds and range of emotions at these really low, low notes. Since then, whenever I sing the first verse of a Vong Co song (a complete song contains six verses), I use two “huyen” (falling tone), or one “huyen” and one “nang” (falling-glottalized tone) accents. These low-toned accents really accentuate my unusual voice. However, I could not have accomplished so much if it were not for the talented team of song-writers such as Vien Chau, Loan Thao, and Trong Nguyen who took each singer’s unique voice into consideration and tailored the songs just for that particular singer. As a result, both the songs and singers could showcase their best and leave a lasting impression on their listeners."
My Chau’s voice was once called an “ethereal voice” because of its full range of emotions such as sorrow, sadness, etc. It is so unique that so far, no other singers have ever been able to duplicate it. She is very skillful at singing Vong Co, but the audiences remember her the most through her acting in Cai Luong plays such as Tieu Anh Phung, Trinh Nu Lau Xanh, etc.
My Chau explained, “No singers can start their singing career and be successful all by themselves without learning the skills from their idols or experienced performers. I myself learned so much from my older colleagues: Thanh Huong, Ut Bach Lan, Thanh Nga and, especially, Minh Canh who really took the time to teach and train me. However, no matter how much you learned and how much training you got, it would all become useless unless you have one very important quality – a good singing voice, and know how to take good care of your voice.”
THANH KIM HUE
“I want to put nonstop creativity into Vong Co songs.” That is what Thanh Kim Hue strives for when she sings or writes up Vong Co songs. She said passionately, “I want to follow Minh Canh’s footsteps so that the songs would not become monotone and boring. With every song, I try to find different ways to express it. But to do that, you would need a very good and strong voice.”
Thanh Kim Hue is one singer who has that kind of luck! Even when she was only 13 or 14 years old, people have noticed her extraordinary voice. The young Thanh Kim Hue was often in the plays in children’s roles just to be able to sing Vong Co, even though she admitted: “I sounded very awful at the beginning, so bad that even I know it. Listening to Le Thuy and My Chau sing so well and getting the attention of the audiences, I was so envious. So I was determined to learn to sing as well as they did. I listened to many singers and tried to mimic their styles. Admittedly, I sounded a little like Le Thuy at first!”
Thanh Kim Hue recalled her earlier days with enthusiasm and sincerity. To her, anybody can sing with a little effort, but to sing artistically and skillfully, it is much more difficult and requires lots of effort. Hence, when her singing improved, she tried to create her own unique style. She recalled, “At the time, my older colleagues such as Minh Vuong, Minh Phung, Minh Canh, Tan Tai, Dieu Hien, My Chau, Le Thuy were all well-known and beloved performers. To survive among them, I had to find my own unique way. Besides, without a good singing voice to keep the audiences’ attention, the plays would be in ruin.”
Thanh Kim Hue was the leading actress for the Kim Chung company in 1974, and the two plays that she and the audiences liked the most were “Duong Guom Nguyen Ba” and “Lan va Diep.” In terms of Vong Co songs, she has recorded numerous ones, many of which have been imprinted in the listeners’ memory. Thanh Kim Hue possesses a very clear, high-pitched voice, and when combined with her artful singing techniques, her extraordinary voice really stands out, very similar to an already beautiful girl who knows how to use accessories to multiply her beauty.
Her voice has brought so much freshness and a youthful look to the stages and plays, and helped make the audiences happy and relaxed. She became famous in 1972 after recording the song “Yeu lam” (Mistaken love), written by Loan Thao, with the recording company Vietnam. Since the first song, “Sao khong thay anh ve” (Why don’t you come home?), she has incorporated the Hue’s accent into the songs to make them even more interesting. Hue is located in Central Vietnam, and no one had tried to sing Vong Co using Hue’s accent before as the Southern accent is usually used. Nevertheless, the listeners loved it!
Thanh Kim Hue’s voice remains the same to this day, still as clear as crystal, high-pitched, and exuberant. It is bringing joy and happiness to every family.
She is still recording for the radio and TV, but has refused to do any more videos because, according to her, “Making videos really limits and constraints the actors’ acting abilities, and I do not want my fans to be disappointed in me, so I no longer make videos.”
“For nearly 40 years, Le Thuy has been the leading actress. She still possesses the charms that make the audiences remember fondly about her,” said Diep Lang, a well-known actor, when speaking about Le Thuy. To her many fans, Le Thuy is their favorite actress because of her simple yet wonderful singing voice and her down-to-earth demeanor.
A mixture of alto and soprano, her voice once stirred the interest of the Cai Luong community with popular Vong Co songs such as Em Bé Đánh Giầy (The Shoe-Shine Boy), Cô Hàng Chè Tươi (The Girl Who Serves Tea), Nấu Bánh Đêm Xuân (Cooking Rice Cake for the New Year), Lương Sơn Bá-Chúc Anh Đài, etc. At that time, some people thought Le Thuy was influenced by Thanh Huong, an older-generation performer and a famous singer who sang the infamous song Cô Bán Đèn Hoa Giấy (The Girl Who Sells the Paper Lanterns), but Le Thuy injected freshness and enthusiasm into this same song, which helped link the two generations of listeners closer to their beloved arts of Cai Luong.
After nearly 40 years of singing Cai Luong, Le Thuy’s voice has never faded with time. She has not strayed away from her down-to-earth style, either; and one can still feel the warmth and sincerity in her voice. At 14 years of age, too young to understand the soulful and profound meanings of those Vong Co songs, yet Le Thuy was a much-sought-after singer by many recording companies that hoped to bring new voices to their listeners. One of those who brought fame to Le Thuy was writer/composer Vien Chau, who let the then-unknown Le Thuy sing Em Bé Đánh Giầy (The Shoe-Shine Boy) with Minh Canh, a very famous actor at the time. Thanks to this opportunity, Le Thuy became the top actress, and at a tender age of 16, she received the prestigious Thanh Tam award, similar to the Academy Award in America.
Le Thuy was born in Vinh Long, a small town in southern Vietnam. After her house was burned down, her parents decided to leave Vinh Long and moved the whole family to Saigon, a big city. Because her birth certificate was lost in the fire, she had to attend private schools. (Note: Public schools in Vietnam are hard to get in and, in general, are much better than private ones.) Her family was very poor, and being the oldest daughter, she had to help her mom make a living. She had to walk all over Khanh Hoi to sell snacks. In the afternoon, she looked after her many siblings so that her mom could prepare dinner.
Everyday, Le Thuy carried her siblings to the nearby Khanh Hoi market to play. There was a radio repair shop right by the market, and the shop’s owner would play one Vong Co song “The Girl Who Sells the Paper Lanterns” (Cô bán đèn hoa giấy), sung by Thanh Huong, over and over on his phonograph. Thanh Huong was a famous actress at the time, and the daughter of a well-known Cai Luong couple: composer Nam Chau and actress Ms. Tu Sang. Thanh Huong inherited the sweet voice from her mom; hence, she sang the song very well and beautifully.
It was Thanh Huong and that song that made Le Thuy yearn to be a singer, and she did! In her 40-year career, she must have performed hundreds of plays and sung thousands of songs. Fans have described her in loving terms such as “the singer whose voice is like a bell vibrating, cool as a breeze, and clear as crystal…” But to Le Thuy, her thoughts about being famous are this simple: “I try to stay with the basic, original, and straight-forward style. I do not use any fancy tricks in singing.” This might explain why she remains one of the most favorite actresses of all times. The audiences become “addicted” to her singing, which explains the record number of her performances, 60 plays a year!
Le Thuy, the beloved “daughter” in the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, became famous at a very young age, even before the two actresses that I mentioned earlier: My Chau and Thanh Kim Hue. So why do I write about her last? I just wanted to compare these three very different actresses and their singing voices.
Le Thuy does not have the mysterious attractions as My Chau, nor the fancy techniques as Thanh Kim Hue, yet her voice is pure, simple, sweet, and expressive. It gently enters the listeners’ hearts, spreads out like a cool breeze, and stays close to the loved ones. Her down-to-earth demeanor seems to carry the trace of the alluvium and scent of Tien and Hau rivers – her birthplace – which makes her so dear to the Southerners. As a result, the Southerners think of her as their own beloved daughter.
Being famous from 1963 with the two songs “Chuc Anh Dai” and “Co Hang Che Tuoi,” Le Thuy and Minh Canh remain the two most favorite performers to this day.
When asked about Vong Co, she shook her head: “I don’t know what to say. Since day one, I sing with all my heart, no need to make it fancy…”
If you happen to hear someone sing on the radio from a distance, once or many times over, you can be sure that it is Le Thuy, the one whom Diep Lang called “an exceptional singer” of the traditional music of Cai Luong.
Translated by lekt(www.cailuongvietnam.com)
The Three Legendary MINHs
of the Vietnamese Traditional Music
If the Vietnamese traditional music (Vong co and Cai luong) has three beautiful and talented actresses My Chau, Le Thuy, and Thanh Kim Hue, then it certainly has three male counterparts who are equally as well known and talented. They are called the three Minhs, for their first names all start with Minh: Minh Phung, Minh Vuong, and Minh Canh.
These three actors had already been famous in the 1960s and 70s. At that time, the Kim Chung company was expanding from 4 troupes to 6 troupes that performed in cities all over South Vietnam; hence, they needed all the good actors they could get. Minh Phung, Minh Vuong, and Minh Canh became the super-stars after they joined Kim Chung, and this was also where their performing skills really began to improve.
Minh Phụng – Success came from his looks and singing voice
Minh Phung came from My Tho, a city west of Saigon. He fell in love with Vong co and decided to follow his heart to become a singer/actor. Combining the two names of his best friend’s children, he came up with a stage name of Minh Phung. (His real name is Nguyen Van Thieu, but sometimes he had to change it to Nguyen Van Hoai to avoid being drafted under the previous regime.) Having a beautiful singing voice and handsome looks gave Minh Phung tremendous advantages early in his career. Regardless of which troupe he was with, Minh Phung was welcomed with open arms. After working for some small troupes, he gained popularity after joining Thu Do and performing with actress Hong Loan in such plays as “Than Nu Dang Ngu Linh Ky”, “Sau Quan Ai”, and “Hoa Chieu Huong Muon”.
His handsome looks and captivating voice quickly began to get noticed from audiences and also caught the attention of many troupe owners. The Kim Chung company invited him to join and assigned leading roles to him to act alongside its then-famous actresses such as Ut Bach Lan in the play “Trinh Tiet Mot Loai Hoa”, My Chau in “Bich Van Cung Le Su”, Dieu Hien in many Chinese-adaptation plays, and later with Le Thuy.
After April 30, 1975, Minh Phung was given a lead position in the troupe “Tieng Hat Que Huong” in Ben Tre province. He sang and acted superbly in the plays “Luc Van Tien” and “Lua Day Phi Truong”, which got great applause from audiences, similar to the raves he got prior to 1975 when he was with the Huong Mua Thu troupe and acted with its leading actress Ngoc Huong in the plays “Con Co Trang” and “Ganh Co Song Han”. His career path also took him to other troupes such as Tran Huu Trang to partner with Le Thuy, and Van Cong where he sang with My Chau, which was voted by audiences as the most beloved artist couple.
His relationship with fellow actress Dieu Hue at the Kim Chung company produced a daughter named Tieu Phung who follows in her parents’ footsteps to perform on stage and act in films. Unfortunately, Minh Phung’s and Dieu Hue’s relationship did not last. He later married actress Kieu Tien and had another daughter Y Phung, who became a very talented pop singer and film star.
Minh Phung and Kieu Tien later founded the troupe “Tieng Chuong Vang – Minh Phung” and traveled to places to perform. Currently, he is still very devoted to the traditional arts of Cai luong.
Minh Vuong – First-place winner in Khoi Nguyen contest – A timeless and ageless golden voice
A young boy named Nguyen Van Vung left his hometown of Long An for Saigon to attend high school there, but he loved Cai luong more than anything else, so he went to musician Bay Trach to take lessons instead. His mesmerizing voice helped him win first place in a Vong co contest in 1964. His teacher then introduced him to the Kim Chung company’s owner, Mr. Long. After listening to Vung’s singing, Mr. Long was very pleased, but when he heard of Vung’s name, he laughed and said, “What the heck is Vung? I’m going to call you Minh Vuong from now on, and you’re going to be the king on stage.” (Note: Vuong means king in Vietnamese.)
The name Minh Vuong was born from that day. He became so popular in great roles in the various troupes of the Kim Chung company, and he acted alongside well-known actresses Le Thuy, My Chau, To Kim Hong, and others. In 1972, Minh Vuong and his wife founded the Viet Nam troupe and traveled all over to perform until April 1975.
Under the new regime after April 1975, he went to work for the Sai Gon 3 troupe and then Van Cong.
It was on the stage of Van Cong that Minh Vuong reunited with his former partner, Le Thuy. They were such a good match and audiences loved them so much in the plays “Tieng Song Rach Gam” and “Khi Binh Minh Tro Lai”. His voice was already wonderful, and now his acting was improving as well. Minh Vuong knew that his hard work had paid off after receiving much praise from his fans. Yet he was willing to take on more challenging roles to broaden his skills and to become more versatile. Thus, when he joined the Tran Huu Trang troupe, he accepted a role that was so completely different from all of his previous ones.
Minh Vuong portrayed a historical character Nguyen Trai in the play “Rang Ngoc Con Son”, and his performance was very successful in representing a hero in Vietnamese history. Minh Vuong showed his solid acting skill in a role of an old man even though he was still quite young at that time. Likewise, he was very excellent in the role of Minh Luan, an innocent and naïve young boy, in the play “Doi Co Luu”. After that, he teamed up with actress Bach Tuyet in “Van Tien – Nguyet Nga”, which earned great reviews from both the local Vietnamese and audiences abroad. Having a tremendous love for Cai luong and being very committed to his profession, Minh Vuong always tries to find ways to add creativity to his performances, making the characters he portrays more artistic and realistic. The audiences were brought to tears when they saw him in the role of Minh in the play “To Anh Nguyet” or Loc in “Con Co Trang” on the Huong Mua Thu troupe.
Minh Phung & Minh Vuong
Currently, Minh Vuong still sings for the Van Cong (Tran Huu Trang theater) and helps other troupes in faraway cities when needed. He is still one of the most beloved actors with a timeless and ageless voice and very sharp acting skill.
In real life, Minh Vuong is a modest and honest person. He is very kind and considerate to his friends and is always willing to help the less fortunate. He always remembers his humble beginnings when he first started out and is very appreciative of where he is today. Minh Vuong – an extremely talented yet modest and down-to-earth actor.
Minh Canh – A voice that changed his life
“My life would not be good if it were not for the Vong co songs,” actor Minh Canh said with all his heart. That was so true! Many people fell in love right away with his voice the first time they listened to his song “Vo Dong So – Bach Thu Ha”. It was that romantic melody that completely changed the life of a poor young man.
He recalled, “I’m the eldest son in a crowded family of ten kids. My father was a taxi driver, and my mom sold fruits on the streets. I myself had to help out after school by selling steamed corn in a basket. In order to sell them fast, I had to shout out loud, and in doing so, I realized that I had a pretty good voice. I loved Vong co songs at that time and idolized the famous actors Ut Tra On and Huu Phuoc so much that I dreamed of becoming one. I listened to them on the radio all the time and memorized all their songs.
As luck would have it, I met Van Duoc, a great violinist, who taught me how to sing.
I also took lessons from Mr. Hai Si, a barber who played đàn c̣ (the two-stringed fiddle) very well. He introduced me to Mr. Ngoc Sau, also a famous đàn c̣ player, who happened to work for the Kim Chung company at that time. Seeing that I have a very unique voice, Mr. Sau took me to Mr. Long, the owner of Kim Chung. Mr. Long fell in love with my singing and let me sing in his shows, and advertised me as “the child prodigy of Vong co”. The nickname “child prodigy” had a funny meaning. Because I lived in poverty, I was very diminutive. At that time, I was a 22-year-old young man but looked like a 13 or 14-year-old boy. That was why Mr. Long called me a “child prodigy”, and he wanted me to handle the children’s roles. But the very first night when I sang the song “La Thu Nguoi Chien Si”, I received huge applause from audiences, and when I sang three Vong co verses in the play “Giot Le Đem Trung Hoa”, fans rushed to the Olympic theater to hear me sing. Mr. Long was so pleased. He immediately ordered his writers/composers to change the story lines to make me the leading character, bought special costumes for me, and let me act alongside his then-famous actresses. Thereafter I was assigned the roles of knight or martial-art heroes to utilize my extraordinary voice to attract audiences.”
But Mr. Long’s Kim Chung company, which consisted of six troupes, could not have an exclusive right to Minh Canh’s voice. Other recording companies wanted him to record for them as well. It was as if a magic wand had turned his life around as he was in big demand now. In the end, the recording company Asia had the most success in promoting his voice in the famous songs “Vơ Đông Sơ – Bạch Thu Hà” , “Tu Là Cơi Phúc”, “Mục Liên T́m Mẹ”, “Sầu Vương Ư Nhạc” and “Lương Sơn Bá – Chúc Anh Đài”.
After huge success at Kim Chung, Minh Canh formed his own troupe “Minh Canh Kich Doan” to perform in many cities, and it attracted a large fan base. His troupe had generated good reviews in such well-known plays plus his signature roles as Bách Kiếm Vương – Hồ Vũ (Mùa Thu Trên Bạch Mă Sơn), Phi Phi Nhạn Nhạn (Kiếm Sĩ Người Dơi), Mă Khắc Sinh (Mắt Em Là Bể Oan Cừu), Cao Nguyên B́nh (Đêm Lạnh Chùa Hoang). He was also the first one to perform the dangerous flying stunt on stage to entice more excitement from audiences.
Minh Canh is now in his golden years, but his voice is still very good. He no longer works for any troupes. He started his own business by opening small restaurants in Saigon and Vung Tau. “The Vong co songs really changed my life. They brought me glory in my career and much love from audiences. I want to stay with them to my very last breath,” expressed Minh Canh.
Source: The Gioi Nghe Si
Translated by lekt
tancogiaoduyen (Theo CLVN)