Pan-Asian Metropolis — Vietnamese Cabarets of North Orange County

INTRODUCTION

I’ve been aware of the Vietnamese American music scene based in North Orange County since at least the early 2000s. I had no idea just how big it was, though, until I stumbled across singer Thiên Phú‘s blog, VietCeleb, which has profiles of about 400 Vietnamese artists, with a large percentage of them associated with Orange County. There’s still a thriving scene in and around Little Saigon, supported by Vietnamese newspapers, radio, television programs, but it seems to me that the 1980s and ’90s were a real Golden Age.

Although there were Vietnamese in the US before, the mass exodus of Vietnamese to the US began after the 1975 Fall of Saigon. Roughly 175,000 Vietnamese came to the US in the aftermath and were processed at one of four refugee camps, with Camp Pendleton in San Diego County being nearest to Orange County. Within their ranks were many Vietnamese composers, musicians, and singers who — banned from performing Western pop music at home by the victorious Communist regime — continued their careers as entertainers in Orange County.

Venues arose in which the veterans, mostly from Saigon, performed. Labels formed to record and release their music. Production companies like Thúy Nga Paris and Asia Entertainment produced tours and revue programs featuring established Vietnamese stars as well as homegrown, up-and-coming performers. Record stores like Bích Thu Vân Music and Gifts, Bốn Phương-Trung Tâm Băng Nhạc, New Castle Laser Club, and Thùy Anh sold the cassettes, VHS, and later, compact discs. None of this much registered outside of the Vietnamese diaspora, however. Then as now, the mainstream media painted a picture of Orange County as an oasis almost exclusively white, suburban Republicans within a region that’s otherwise far more urban, liberal, and ethnically diverse.

Barely documented then, today North Orange County’s Vietnamese cabaret scene is in apparent danger of being forgotten.

Lê Uyên and Lê Uyên Phương

Before there were cabarets, it seems, there were more modest cafés, where aspiring performers could get their feet wet before hopefully graduating to the cabaret scene. Lê Uyên and Lê Uyên Phương, who comprised the popular hub-and-wife duo from Saigon, Lê Uyên & Phương, came to Orange County in 1979. They opened LUP Café in Santa Ana not long after. Lê Uyên was seriously injured in crossfire exchanged between gangs in front of the café in 1984 and afterward spent the next four years in recovery. LUP closed in 1985 but was followed by other cafés with live entertainment like Garden Grove‘s Tao Nhân, which featured performers like Jenny Trang and Quốc Anh. In the 2010s, there was even another café with open mic events called Lup Café, this time in Garden Grove.

The cabarets were the next step — both in the development of Little Saigon’s entertainment scene and in the career rise of the musicians who performed in them. The cabarets attracted a wide range but catered especially to adults with a taste for class and formality. Men dressed in business suits, women wore áo dài, and waitstaff wore black tie. Couples danced to various ballroom styles: the bolero, the cha-cha-cha, the foxtrot, the rumba, the tango, the waltz, &c. Cognac and French beer were the apparent libations of choice amongst the sophisticated set. Music ranged from cải lương to French chanson — both it seems inevitably sung microphones with the reverb turned up to 11. Some of the clubs also featured younger performers who were born in the US or at least raised here. Many of them sang covers of ’80s pop hits as well as obscure (to non-Vietnamese Americans, at least) Euro Disco that came to be known as Vietnamese New Wave.

All of the classic cabarets of the era have long since closed. In their place are informal strip mall quán nhậu, clubs with “Asian nights” like Rhino Room and Shark Club, meat markets popular with young Vietnamese like Heat Ultra Lounge and Sutra, and Vietnamese-owned nightclubs like Tu Chau‘s R3 Social Lounge. Aside from the preponderance of Vietnamese New Wave songs and, in some cases, almost exclusively Vietnamese patrons, — most are fairly indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill nightclubs of the sort one can find in Hollywood, Las Vegas, or Orlando.


Quốc Việt và ca sĩ Anh Dũng trong kỳ thi Tuyển Lựa Ca Sĩ do nhạc sĩ Ngọc Chánh và vũ trường Ritz tổ chức năm 1993. (Image: Thanh Thúy)

RITZ

Ritz (Pha Lê Ritz) was an Anaheim cabaret that, having opened in March 1983, was probably the first proper Vietnamese cabaret in North Orange County. Its original owner, Võ Văn Thưởng, sold it to musician Ngọc Chánh (formerly of The Shotguns) in 1984. It was also one of the longest-lived of the Vietnamese cabarets and many popular overseas Vietnamese singers performed there, including Anh Dũng, Carol Kim, Đài Trang, Dalena, Henry Chúc, Hương Thơ, Jimmy Joseph, Johnny Dung, Kenny Thái, Khánh Hoàng, Kỳ Anh, Lilian, Minh Tuyet, Mỹ Huyền, Ngọc Bich, Ngọc Chánh, Paolo Tuấn, Thien Kim, Trizzie Phương Trinh, Tu Quyen, Tuấn Anh, Vũ Khanh, and Ý Lan. It was also here that Lynda Trang Đài first performed with Anh Tai Music Band. It remained open at least until 2002. Most recently, the building was home to Hacienda Nightclub.


SAIGON CABARET

Saigon Cabaret, in Garden Grove, was owned by Wendy Vu Asano, who in Saigon had been part of The Loan Sisters. Wendy and husband Jeff Asano arrived in Southern California in 1979. In 1985, author T. Jefferson Parker came to the club during a police ride-along and was inspired to write the Orange County neo-noir novel, Laguna Heat. Amongst the venue’s celebrated performers were Kim Ngân and Thái Thảo. Laguna Heat was turned into a film in 1987 — although one in which all of the novel’s Vietnamese characters were replaced with a nearly all-white cast. Parker again drew upon the scene for inspiration with his second novel, 1988’s Little Saigon. Saigon Cabaret, however, closed in 1989. Before long, though, Wendy Asano and her daughter, Rebecca, would return with another cabaret.


CARAVELLE

Another of North Orange County’s early cabarets was Caravelle. Caravelle, like most of the Vietnamese cabarets that followed, was named after a hotel cabaret in Saigon of the same name. The Caravelle in Anaheim was owned by Nguyễn Kim Long, who opened it at least as early as 1985. Comedian Việt Thảo was the MC and host of the venue. Some of the performers who appeared at Caravelle were Băng Châu, Hương Lan, Nhật Hạ, Rick Murphy, and Tuấn Anh. It remained open at least into the early 1990s.


DIAMOND

John Quốc Thái Nguyễn and his wife, singer Phi “Connie” Khánh Nguyễn opened Diamond in Fullerton in 1986. Phi Khánh had been a member of Mây Bốn Phương, a family band that formed in Kansas in 1976 and relocated to Orange County in 1978. The band broke up with the Nguyễns opened Diamond in 1986. Many of the scene’s biggest stars performed there: Billy Shane, Johnny Dũng, Ngọc Anh, Ngọc Bích, Ngọc Đan Thanh, Thái Thảo, Trizzie Phương Trinh, Quốc Anh, and Vũ Khanh, to name just a few. In 1989, the owners opened an equally storied cabaret, Majestic Dancing, in Huntington Beach.

Not all of the stories about Diamond were positive. As with most nightclubs, violent incidents were not entirely uncommon — especially in the parking lot. In August 1993, a 21-year-old man was shot to death in his car. A week later, a 20-year-old was arrested for threatening patrons with a gun. In September 1993, a gang brawl involving an estimate twenty men left gang member Hà Tôn dead from multiple gunshot wounds. Naturally, all of this carnage brought heat from the city but Diamond soldiered on at least until 1995. By 1998, however, it was replaced by Red Velvet Lounge. The formerly glamorous nightclub is now an O’Reilly Auto Parts.


CHEZ MOI

Chez Moi was a cabaret owned and operated by Khánh Hà and the other members of her family band, The Uptight, who opened it around 1987. As it existed in Alhambra, it was in the San Gabriel Valley, not North Orange County. The San Gabriel Valley and North Orange County, although in different counties, border one another and share many characteristics. The San Gabriel Valley, like North Orange County, is home to several communities with prominent Vietnamese populations, including Rosemead, San Gabriel, South San Gabriel, Alhambra, Monterey ParkEl MonteSouth El Monte, and Avocado Heights. Orange County Vietnamese singers like Thanh Hà naturally performed at Chez Moi. It closed in the 1990s.


CLUB REX

Club Rex was a cabaret named after the cabaret at the Rex Hotel in Saigon. It was located in the old Kono Hawaii — a wonderfully kitschy Japanese-owned tiki bar in Santa Ana. It was open at least as early as 1987, when Vietnamese fashion designer Pierre St. Tran exhibited some of his designs there at an AIDS benefit. Featured Vietnamese musicians included Lilian, Thái Thảo, and Tuyết Hương. Non-Vietnamese performers also sometimes graced the stage. Reggae stars Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Moses performed in 1988. Around 1989, it was purchased by renowned singer Duy Quang and Mỹ Hà, who re-opened it as Đêm Đông Phương. Quang was musical royalty in the Vietnamese community, as the son of singer Thái Hằng and songwriter Phạm Duy, as a member of the family band, the Dreamers, as a duettist, and as a solo performer.


DEM DONG PHUONG

Đêm Đông Phương was named after a famed cabaret in Saigon. Featured performers included Ngọc Bích. According to Quang, Ha had a gambling addiction which destroyed their finances, their marriage, and their club. Promoter Johnnie Liddi bought it in 1992 and revived the Kono Hawaii name. Duy Quang died of at the age of 61 in 2012.


AU BACCARA

Au Baccara was a cabaret named after a famous cabaret in Saigon. It was owned by Nicole Nguyễn who opened it in 1988. It seemed slowly to transform from a restaurant into a proper cabaret. First came a permit to serve lunch and dinner. The following year Nguyễn obtained permits to serve beer and wine and to allow dancing. Permits for DJs and live music followed. Fountain Valley officials alleged that it was also a hub of underage drinking, lewd conduct, gang activity, fights, car theft, and prostitution. On those grounds, the city thus denied it a liquor license in 1991, effectively kneecapping it. In its short existence, however, it featured Chi Thai Brothers, Lâm Thuý Vân, Ngọc Anh, Như Mai, Trizzie Phương Trinh, and more. Today, the former cabaret is home to the evocatively named Orange County Auto Repair Shop.


TU DO

Tự Do was a cabaret named after a street and cabaret in Saigon that was operated by Khánh Ly. It was infamously bombed in 1971. In that violent act, twenty or so people were injured and actress Thủy Ngọc was killed. The Orange County version of Tự Do, opened at least as early as 1989, had a less traumatic history, although no venue which featured live performances from Tuấn Anh was without color. It closed some time before 2001.


MAJESTIC DANCING

Majestic Dancing (Các vũ trường Majestic) was a cabaret located in Huntington Beach and named after a cabaret in Saigon. John Quốc Thái Nguyễn and his wife, singer Phi “Connie” Khánh Nguyễn, who’d previously opened the also legendary Diamond. Some of the performers who took the Majestic stage were Jenny Trang, Lynn & Cong Thanh, Phương Hùng, Thái Thảo, Thiên Phú, Trần Thái Hòa, Trúc Quỳnh, Tuấn Ngọc, and Vũ Khanh. There were theme nights, too, like Club Lunch (disco and 1970s music) and the Kitty Show (disco, funk, and house). Majestic Dancing sustained a quarter million dollars of damage in a 1993 fire. It reopened after several months of reconstruction. The re-opened Majestic soldiered on until 2010. The building later became Avec Nightclub.


THE PALACE NIGHTCLUB

The Palace Nightclub was a venue in Anaheim that catered to high school students and thus, served no alcohol. All was not entirely wholesome, however, and in 1990 owner Tsu E. Peng and head bouncer, Harold M. Blaich Jr., were charged with conspiring to hire someone to bomb or burn down The Ritz, which Peng reportedly felt was stealing customers that were rightfully his. Despite that minor misunderstanding and the unfair competition, the club remained open at least until 1995. The old Palace is now home to Chi Thuy‘s Mon Amour Banquet, an event space that has featured the occasional Vietnamese-beloved Euro Disco star, such as Ken Laszlo and Linda Jo Rizzo.


CAN ASIAN ENTERTAINMENT BAR & GRILL

CAN Asian Entertainment Bar & Grill was a cabaret in Garden Grove owned and operated by Wendy Asano and her daughter, Rebecca, who opened it in 1992, three years after the closure of the famed Saigon Cabaret. Its name was reportedly a reference to a type of explosive used in the Vietnam War. Featured performers included Anh Tu, Jenny Trang, Thanh Hà, Thien Kim, and ZaZa Minh Thảo. It closed around 2012. A banner hung announced the “grand openig” [sic] in 2013, but as far as I know, it remained shuttered.


CHEZ MOI RESTAURANT AND SPORTS BAR

Chez Moi Restaurant and Sports Bar, as the name suggests, began life as a restaurant — at least, that’s what the permits allowed when Lộc Huy “Alphonse” Nguyễn took over the space formerly inhabited by a Cask ‘n’ Cleaver in September 1993. However, by June 1994, the restaurant had amassed over 101 code violations — mostly involving the sale of liquor after the midnight cut-off and for allowing live music performances on weekdays (performances were only permitted on Fridays and Saturdays). There were also fashion shows — also prohibited by Fountain Valley’s bureaucrats — and more serious allegations of fights and gunshots in the parking lot. The venue closed in June 1994 in exchange for the city dropping all charges against that venue’s owner. Today the former site is home to Starfish Restaurant.


QUEEN BEE

Stanton‘s Queen Bee was one of the last classic Vietnamese cabarets. Owner Larry Nguyễn and manager Huy Khánh (an actor and singer) opened it around 1995. Featured performers included Quynh Huong, Thái Thảo, Thanh Thúy, Thiên Phú, and Tuấn Anh. Its business license was revoked in 1996 for failing to establish a restaurant and for exceeding capacity. It was required, by zoning regulations, to establish a restaurant because it was located in Stanton Plaza and thus within 500 feet of a pre-existing bar. Ironically, such anti-bar density ordinances, by ensuring that few bars are within walking distance of most residents, maintain car-dependency and thus inevitably result in increased incidents of drunk driving.


AVEC NIGHTCLUB

By the time I moved to Southern California in 1999, the era of the North Orange County Vietnamese cabaret was coming to a close. In their place, mostly, were places like Avec Nightclub — the sorts of nightclubs similar to those in Hollywood, Las Vegas, Miami albeit featuring Vietnamese entertainers and patronized, almost exclusively, by Vietnamese. The club’s most striking was the large tree in the center of the bar, which seemed to drip crystals and was designed by Julie Khuu. Avec occupied the space formerly belonging to Majestic Dancing and featured Euro Disco performances from the likes of Fred Ventura, Ken Laszlo, Miki Chieregato, Tom HookerMiki Chieregato (the latter two being the producer and voice behind “Den Harrow). Avec closed around 2014.


BLEU RESTAURANT & DANCING

One that seems to be at least somewhat in the tradition of the classic cabarets is Bleu Restaurant & Dancing, a nightclub in Westminster opened by Connie Nguyễn around 2007. Fittingly, it took over the space formerly occupied by Shark Club and, before that, MVP — a sports bar modeled after Dave & Buster’s by owner Vincent Định but the name of which patrons jokingly claimed stood for “Many Vietnamese People.”

Karaoke Night (Image: Joseph J.)

It was at Bleu, in 2009, that DJ BPM (Ian Nguyễn)’s Keep On Music threw the New Wave + ’80s Reunion that provided my introduction to many of my Vietnamese New Wave-loving peers. Bleu has proven the most successful of the newer generation of Vietnamese clubs and has featured the likes of Hoài Tâm, Khánh Hoàng, Khánh Trần, Kim Phượng, Lam Anh, Leyna Thanh Nga, Lilian, Minh Chiến, Phi Khánh, Quỳnh Hoa, Quỳnh Tram, Sher’e Thu Thuy, Thanh Hà, Tuấn Anh, Tuấn Ngoc, Trúc Quỳnh, Việt Hương, and too many more to mention.

Having not lived here in the 1980s or all but the last few months of the ’90s, I can’t really say how Bleu compares to the cabarets of old — but on the occasions that I’ve been there, I’ve seen older patrons, still dressed to the nines, cutting a rug alongside middle aged New Wavers and much younger clubbers alike.


If you have any photos or memories of the Vietnamese cabaret scene, please share them in the comments and — with your consent — allow me to add them to this piece.


FURTHER READING

“Ballrooms Stay in Step with ‘National Hobby'” by Zan Dubin, Los Angeles Times, 1995

“Orange County: Nashville of Vietnamese Music Scene” by Rick Vanderknyff, 1995, Los Angeles Times

“How Little Saigon Got Its Groove” by Quyen Do, Orange Coast Magazine, 1998

“A Different Beat” by Vivian LeTran, Los Angeles Times, 2001

Vietceleb by Thiên Phú, since 2009


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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.
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