When Our Bangs Reached The Skies: A Celebration Of Vietnamese New Wave
“So much of being Asian and an immigrant is to just ‘fit in’ and ‘not make too much noise.’ The Vietnamese New Wave scene was a total revolt against that.”
I still remember being a very small child visiting some of my parents’ Vietnamese friends in Silver Spring, Maryland in the 1980s. This family had a teenage son. He had cool spiky hair, wore white socks with shiny patent-leather shoes, and black-and-white colorblocked clothes. He listened to New Order. I thought: I want to be like him when I grow up! This was my introduction to the idea of the Vietnamese New Wave community.
Before the days of social media, my parents got culture from the exchange of analog media from their contemporaries during house calls. During this social activity (hanging out drinking, playing cards, eating and chatting), my parents were given bootleg VHS tapes as gifts from their fellow Vietnamese refugee buddies who were also finding their footing in a new country. These tapes were recordings of a flashy Vietnamese diaspora variety show called Paris by Night. Started by French-Vietnamese organizers, the show took place in rotating venues in cities with large Vietnamese diaspora communities a few times a year. Thanks to these shows, Vietnamese New Wave art reached the eyes and ears of Vietnamese-American refugees and got the attention of people outside this group as well. The key names in Vietnamese New Wave are people like Lynda Trang Dai (sometimes spelled “Linda” on bootleg items), Trizzie Phuong Trinh (now Trizzie Nguyen — sometimes spelled “Trizzy” incorrectly on bootleg materials), Leyna Phuong Nguyen, and Thai Tai, to name a few.
New Wave referred to the style of music that came from the genre “Eurodisco,” an early form of electronic dance music with sparse keyboard melodies that was popularized in the 1980s and 1990s by bands like Bad Boys Blue and Modern Talking. The term also covers the new wave of Vietnamese immigration from refugee resettlement. The songs and covers by these stylish newcomers were mostly sung in Vietnamese and English, or “Vietglish.” When they came, Vietnamese refugees not only brought their food and philosophy, but also their swagger.
Elizabeth Ai’s upcoming documentary New Wave tells the story about this world of Vietnamese hipness. The Chinese-Vietnamese-American director learned about Viet New Wave from her grandmother, who used to bring Paris by Night tapes to their family home in San Gabriel, California. Ai says she’s making her documentary to show her three-year-old daughter the Vietnamese diaspora stories outside of war. “I'm tired of the trauma porn stories about Vietnamese people told by white American men,” she says. “A humanizing narrative about the Viet American experience by a Viet American woman that explores creative expression and community is long overdue!” Ai also calls the Vietnamese New Wave movement “a safe space before safe spaces were a thing for BIPOCs” and aims to showcase that in the documentary. She hopes to release the film by late 2022. (In the meantime, check out some of the family histories and styles here at Ai’s film Instagram feed.)
Vietnamese New Wave is already reaching non-Vietnamese-American fans, many of whom are helping to keep the music and culture alive. Chinese-American DJ Alpha spins Viet New Wave online and in person. Before the pandemic, he played to packed houses at a party called “New Wave” at Mansion in Costa Mesa. Brandon Wargo is a white musician who says he’s drawn to this style of music because of the catchiness and the simplicity of the production value.
The genre is due for a proper resurgence. But in order to have a future, we have to understand its past. Learn about the magical layers of history of some of the most influential Vietnamese-American rock-and-rollers through their stories below.
How did Trizzie, a household celebrity among Vietnamese refugees, become a New Wave icon? “It happened by chance. I had a white friend who was a lead singer for a Vietnamese New Wave band,” she recalls “I used to come to rehearsal with her every week just to watch her sing. One day she didn’t show up and they didn’t have a singer so the band just sat around drinking. After everyone was a little buzzed, they asked me to come up and do a song. I was a very shy girl and never would have dared to come up if I had not been drinking, even though it was just one beer. Later, my friend quit the group and I became the band’s New Wave singer.”
Trizzie was born Trinh. She took the first three-letters of that name and made up the rest. When she was naturalized at nineteen, Trizzie became her legal name. “My mom sent me and my older sister on a boat in 1979 during the Sino-Vietnamese war with some people who she knew. A lot of Chinese-Vietnamese people were fleeing Vietnam at the time. I was ten years old and my sister was fourteen. My mom stayed back with my two younger siblings to take care of my dad, who was sent to a communist re-education camp. He was a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese Army.”
New Wave meant a third culture for this crop of new Americans. It wasn’t the culture of their parents or of the old country. It was wholly original. Trizzie sums it up: “Being part of the first generation of Vietnamese refugees in America, I have always felt like an outcast. So when the New Wave movement came around, it gave me, and those like me, our own identity with our own hairstyles, fashion and even our own styles of dancing.”
Thai Tai always knew that he wanted to be in show business. Besides being a Vietnamese New Wave idol and heartthrob, he also made appearances in Hollywood productions like Killing Zoe, The Waterdance, and Heaven and Earth, Oliver Stone’s film about the life of Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese woman refugee. Tai, whose family hails from Nha Trang, was put onto the last plane leaving Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on April 29, 1975 along with his two sisters and one brother. He says they all thought they were just going on a fun trip, not knowing that they were leaving their parents and five brothers behind.
Tai went to high school in Garden Grove, California by the Vietnamese mecca of Westminster (Little Saigon) and went on to study at FIDM in Los Angeles. As a teenager, he was inspired after helping his friend join a band. “Seeing my friend on stage made me want to start singing. I was hooked ever since,” he says. Tai’s fans are hooked on him as well. Tai says his favorite places to perform are Australia and Europe, along with Reno, Nevada, where most of the New Wavers are Cambodian and Hmong. He says, “During the craziest show there, a fan chased me on stage and wanted my belt. I’ve been pulled into the audience by fans. We were treated like The Beatles [in the 1960s].”
Tai met both Trizzie and Lynda Trang Dai because friends suggested that he take photos of them. Some of these shots became the women’s eventual album covers. Tai is most proud of singing the track “Black is Black,” what he calls his “anthem song,” and of his live medley with Bao Han for a Paris by Night production of which they choreographed the act themselves and Tai did their hair and make-up. New Wave continues to be one of his ultimate modes of expression.
“Aquanet was my friend,” recalls Natalie Vo. She was six years old when she arrived in the U.S. in 1980 from Vietnam after living in refugee camps. She hit her teenage years at the peak of Vietnamese New Wave and lived in San Bernardino and Redlands, both in Southern California. Natalie elaborates: “Viet New Wave definitely influenced my style back then. I permed my straight hair, burned my hair with hydrogen peroxide, and when it grew out, had to live with a 'Duracell battery look,' half orange and half black. I went through bottles and bottles of Aqua Net hair spray in order for my bangs to reach the sky.”
Vo adds that, as a girl, “I was so impressed that Vietnamese artists could be so 'American' at that time. They took risks with their music, their presentation, and their dancing within what was a very much conservative Vietnamese community. So many Vietnamese girls and boys wanted to dress like these New Wavers, but couldn’t because our parents would’ve killed us for being so risqué!”
Vo, who is now a jewelry designer with her own line called Bijou Indochine, says that New Wave helped her forget her pain. “As immigrants trying to assimilate into a new country and culture, I think so many of us embraced New Wave music because it took us out of our traditional Vietnamese ways for a minute. Now that I’m older and appreciate my heritage so much more, I embrace everything about my Vietnamese culture,” she says. “Back then, when I was teased for not being able to afford the latest style and for looking nothing like my non-Asian classmates, I wanted to run away from anything that associated me with being Vietnamese, and New Wave music was part of that outlet.”
Bao Tranchi grew up as the youngest of nine children. She says one of her favorite things to do was watch her older siblings get ready for school. For Tranchi, the Vietnamese New Wave scene was all about the individual. “Our style & personal expression, even within a subculture, was our own, and it mattered and was praised. So much of being Asian and an immigrant is to just 'fit in' and 'not make too much noise.' The Vietnamese New Wave scene was a total revolt against that. This was a big 'F you' to the stereotype of the nerdy math genius Asian immigrant.”
Tranchi now works as a fashion designer and makes clothing inspired by the rock-and-roll decadence of the '80s worn on red carpets by Nicki Minaj and Jennifer Lopez. “I was and am still so completely in love with all that decadence! More was truly more during this era. The depth of details- the layers upon layers is awe-inspiring, from the crystal brooches to the height of your bangs, to the points of your shoes, to the size of your dangling earrings, to all those pounds of metal belts and necklaces and bracelets, and all those gloves. Every detail had another detail on top. Growing up during this era of decadence was profoundly influential to my work as a designer. I saw firsthand how much voice and overall expression clothes could give you — how you could control the room that you walked into just by what you were wearing, and how you could leave an impression on a stranger without saying a word. That is power. And for a generation of immigrants, what a powerful weapon to discover: the ultimate tool of voice when so many of us back then still did not have a complete mastery of the spoken language of our new land.”
Asian Americans have been uniquely scrutinized in this pandemic year: Our elders are being targeted, our small businesses are closing, and geopolitical games between America and other Asian countries have threatened the safety and wellbeing of the diaspora. These events cast light on a fact about our Asian Americanness that’s rarely reckoned with: Within our overarching identity group are separate, isolated communities that rarely interact. Our fragmentation is our weakness. This year’s Not Your Token Asian interrogates who among us benefit at the expense of others, and how part of demanding justice for ourselves means demanding justice for each other.