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Fans of the bittersweet music of loss and longing that has unified millions of war-scattered Vietnamese refugees are warming to songs and stars from a homeland many still mistrust.
Government censorship guarantees that exports from Vietnam's booming music industry boast themes of love and patriotism — not the political undercurrents that swirl through songs by Vietnamese exiles in the United States, whose plight is a common theme.
What these divergent branches of the same music long have shared is style, with soaring songs that sound like sentimental Western-style ballads. Now, after three decades of independent evolution, they are growing closer still — a reunion that reflects warming U.S.-Vietnamese relations.
Artists on both sides of the Pacific once beholden to political calculations say they are more free artistically, and that the beneficiary is the music. The new dynamic is clear in Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam.
Singers living in California who once were boycotted by anti-communist activists for performing in Vietnam can tour their homeland with little worry.
And expatriate Vietnamese who saw Vietnam's music industry as the long arm of a government they despise are slowly moderating their views. So many starlets from Hanoi and Saigon now perform in the United States that some fans can't be sure who comes from where.
Loc Nguyen, a 64-year-old San Jose resident and music fan, was a fighter pilot for South Vietnam and spent time in a communist re-education camp. Like many expatriate Vietnamese, he fled after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
He recently went to see the aging Elvis Phuong, a star who made his fortune in the United States, but was equally excited to hear two baby-faced Vietnamese divas who recently arrived in California.
Nguyen said that after many years expatriate Vietnamese are beginning to realize performers should be judged by the music they make, not where they're from.
"If I was to hear a beautiful Russian song, I'm not going to hate it because it's associated with the Soviets," Nguyen said.
Orange County's crowded Little Saigon district is the Nashville of the expatriate Vietnamese music industry. Production houses such as Paris By Night and Asia Entertainment Inc. churn out thousands of CDs and DVDs by exiled stars.
The DVDs in particular — recordings of live concerts and variety shows featuring dozens of singers and comedians — are a common touchstone for a community of about 3 million Vietnamese living in dozens of countries. Inside the brightly colored cases is music that reflects the pain of families torn apart by violence.
As recently as five years ago, the anti-communist zeal of expatriate Vietnamese caused trouble for artists on both sides of the Pacific.
When Elvis Phuong (an old-school heart throb famous for his bouffant hair, open-chested suits and on-stage gyrations) toured Vietnam in 2000 for the first time since 1975, promoters canceled 12 shows in the U.S. in protest, according to Caroline Kieu Linh Valverde, an Asian-American Studies professor at the University of California, Davis.
Now, Phuong lives most of the year in Saigon and regularly performs in the United States and other Western nations. A mainstay of the American Vietnamese pop scene, Phuong found fans in Vietnam hungry for live performances after buying pirated copies of his CDs and DVDs.
This year Lynda Trang Dai, aka the "Vietnamese Madonna," returned to her homeland for the first time since 1979. She's planning a three-city "Lynda Live in Vietnam" tour for August.
"Sometimes I have to hold back from crying because it's just so touching the way the audience responds to me. They idolize me, like the real Vietnamese Madonna," said Dai, 35. "They've been waiting for so long for me to come back."
Music has not, however, eased all tensions.
Some producers still shun certain artists for political reasons, and some expatriate singers won't tour Vietnam because they say the government will censor their songs. Indeed, some artists have been able to return to Vietnam only if they agree not to sing certain songs. And others aren't welcome at all.
The 34-year-old pop diva Thu Phuong, who was trained by the Vietnamese government, defected to the United States in 2001 while performing in San Jose. A rising star when she left, Phuong hasn't returned.
"Music and culture are part of the politics. When I came over, that's the price I had to pay," she said.
Still, the musical exchange is in full motion.
As many as 50 Vietnamese artists a year travel to the United States to perform for an expatriate community hungry for new sounds and stars, said Clarence Taylor, a promoter who's half-Vietnamese. Taylor uses almost all Vietnamese singers at his company, D&D Entertainment, because "most of the talent here is what I call a residue of what's left over since 1975."
Some divas, such as 28-year-old Ha Tran, now live in the United States and split their time between the two countries, where they are equally in demand. Tran moved to Orange County several years ago after meeting her Vietnamese-American husband while touring Northern California.
At a recent concert in Santa Ana, Elvis Phuong shared the stage with Tran and Thu Phuong to perform the "timeless classics" of expatriate Vietnamese music. A live band with an energetic drummer and an electric violin moved through jazzy tunes, slow ballads that recalled prewar Hanoi and lost loves and a classic war song about a South Vietnamese soldier who falls for a civilian girl.
Backstage, Tran said blending new and the old artists was the best way to reconcile the past with the present — both politically and musically.
"It's more like a culture exchange and that's how we bridge the gap," she said. "The exchange is really good."