How ‘Paris By Night’ Became The Bedrock Of Global Vietnamese Culture

After moving to Pasadena, California, to attend university in 2009, Toc Tien was contacted by Tô Văn Lai and invited to perform on
After moving to Pasadena, California, to attend university in 2009, Toc Tien was contacted by Tô Văn Lai and invited to perform on "Paris by Night." Photo courtesy of Thuy Nga / "Paris By Night" Archive

It’shardto remember the first time I watched “Paris by Night.” Maybe it was at home, where my parents had several of the show’s DVDs. Maybe it was on a nondescript screen at any of the dozens of nearby Vietnamese restaurants we visited in Houston’s sprawling Asiatown neighborhood. Or maybe it was at a relative’s house, a hair salon or the Vietnamese auto shop.

In truth, I can remember “Paris by Night” playing in all of these settings. Like many other first-generation Vietnamese Americans, I grew up with the show in the background of my childhood ― its plaintive love-in-wartime ballads and campy pop numbers playing at my parents’ friends’ weekly get-togethers, and its comedic punchlines eliciting howls and cackles of laughter.

A colorful, six-hour variety show complete with folk music, modern pop, vaudeville-style comedy and fashion shows, it was, for decades, the only such Vietnamese-language program of its kind, catering to thousands of far-flung diaspora Vietnamese (called Việt Kiều) seeking a connection to their culture. 

I used to think “Paris by Night” was super sến, or cheesy. I enjoyed it mostly in secret, watching from behind my parents’ shoulders and pulling up clips on YouTube. But as I’ve come of age, I have a newfound appreciation for it. After all, in that bygone era before Asian Americans, let alone Vietnamese Americans, had any sort of representation in film or music, “Paris by Night” offered a glimpse of what it meant to be Vietnamese on screen.

Now, as the show celebrates 40 years and Vietnamese talent gains a foothold in mainstream media, some are paying subtle tribute. I was recently surprised to learn that Netflix’s Beef cast Hong Dao, a “Paris by Night” comedic staple, as the mother of Ali Wong’s character. Meanwhile, HBO’s limited series “The Sympathizer,” based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel, cast longtime “Paris by Night” co-emcee Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen ― whose father, a former South Vietnamese general, inspired the book’s antagonist ― alongside Robert Downey Jr. and Sandra Oh.

All of this to say: As much as “Paris by Night” was created by and for our parents’ generation, its lasting presence and salient nostalgia in the collective memory of young Vietnamese people, both abroad and in Vietnam, offers some hope for its future staying power.

To tell the story of “Paris by Night” is to tell the story of the Vietnamese diaspora. The show was the brainchild of the late Tô Văn Lai, a onetime schoolteacher and member of the artistic avant garde in Ho Chi Minh City, also referred to as Saigon, in what was then South Vietnam. His wife, Thúy, ran the couple’s record store, which was named after her.

A lover of music, Tô produced beloved records for Vietnam’s iconic Southern divas Thái Thanh and Thanh Tuyền. According to Saigoneer, their music “resounded in every bus that ferried people to and from their hometowns in the countryside and floated down the streets of Saigon.”

After the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, Tô moved his family to Paris, bringing along his treasured collection of cassettes. He continued to record music with Vietnamese artists in France, and in 1983, he created “Paris by Night.” Soon after, looking to target the burgeoning Vietnamese diaspora in the United States, Tô and his family relocated to Westminster, California, where “PBN” and its production company, Thúy Nga, have been based ever since.

The show would see its heyday in the ’90s and early 2000s, during which Tô’s daughter, Marie Tô, and her co-producer and husband, Paul Huynh, took the reins and shepherded “PBN” into the modern era — adapting to changing tastes by incorporating more pop music, and digitizing its content amid the advent of the internet. Tô Văn Lai passed away in 2022, having witnessed 132 episodes of “Paris by Night” produced in his lifetime.

But he never saw “Paris by Night” filmed in Vietnam. Throughout its history, the show has technically been banned from shooting in Vietnam, due in part to the political views of several key cast members, as well as the show’s preoccupation with pre-war music ― which often fell under the label of bolero, a Spanish-influenced genre introduced during the French colonial era and popularized by Vietnam’s most prolific composers, the late Pham Duy and Trinh Cong Son.

This folk-inflected music ― broadly falling under the umbrella of “nhạc vàng,” or “yellow music” ― was an emotional outlet during the ’50s and ’60s, dealing with themes of love, war and lost homeland. Today, it’s still central to the “PBN” identity, via the voices of classically oriented singers such as Khanh Ly, Tuan Ngoc and Nhu Quynh.

Growing up, I couldn’t understand many of the lyrics of songs like “Ru Ta Ngậm Ngùi” (Lullaby of Bitterness) or “Thà Như Giọt Mưa” (I’d Rather the Rain), nor the deep-seated emotions behind them. But as I’ve grown older, and my Vietnamese has improved, I’ve come to understand the songs’ significance in capturing the struggle, resilience and yearning of those who lived through the war.

This sentiment is shared by many other young Vietnamese people who grew up with this music but weren’t able to fully appreciate it. “I never really connected with my uncle’s music until I became an adult,” says Tiger Tran, the 25-year-old, Montreal-born, Saigon-based celebrity stylist and nephew of Trinh Cong Son. “Now that I’m old enough to understand, I’ve realized how special and personal it was. Hearing his music makes me super emotional.”

For many my age, it was a growing affinity for pop music that drew us into the program, especially in the Y2K era, when its fashions mirrored what we had seen on American shows and celebrities. I became enamored with younger singers like Lynda Trang Dai, Minh Tuyet, Nhu Loan, Bao Han and Anh Minh, who all embraced forward-thinking sounds and aesthetics, sometimes performing Vietnamese translations of American classics.

“My favorite era was the late ’90s and early 2000s,” says Celina Huynh, Marie Tô’s 28-year-old daughter, and a DJ and model in Saigon who also works in the family business. “They would always make sure to start the show with a pop song, or something celebratory and upbeat. The production was super theatrical, with Cirque du Soleil-style sets with huge pieces of flowing silk and chiffon. The fashion was also amazing: Think super low-cut denim jeans with big heels and tiny corset tops.”

“From the choreography to the outfits, ’Paris by Night’ had more freedom in their production. Some of the outfits they wore would not have been OK to show here in Vietnam,” Tran says. “Seeing Vietnamese people express themselves more freely changed our ideas of music. Saigon’s creative underground scene today takes a lot of inspiration from the show.”

Much of the literature on “Paris by Night” focuses on its relevance to the diasporic experience. What’s often left out of the conversation is the show’s importance to Vietnamese people in Vietnam, who, as I’ve learned since relocating to Saigon, went to great lengths to obtain its music, circumventing the ban by buying DVDs on the black market.

“’Paris by Night’ has always been part of my life,” says Kendall Nguyen, a Saigon-born talent manager and former “Vietnam Idol” contestant. “My parents would always put it on during my afternoon nap, so I consider it a core memory.” Later, when Nguyen studied and worked in the States, he would sing at small gigs in Vietnamese enclaves, in places like Texas and Boston, to feel connected to home. “I was surprised by how much Vietnamese Americans embraced the music from ’Paris by Night.’”

The cast of
The cast of "Paris by Night" in 2013. Courtesy of Thuy Nga / "Paris By Night" Archive

It’s clear that as much as this show helped bridge my generation with my parents’, it simultaneously, and perhaps unintentionally, brought together Vietnamese people abroad and in Vietnam. Today, although “Paris by Night” has yet to tape a show here in Vietnam, attitudes toward its music are far more relaxed. And significantly, many of its artists ― some of whom were once branded as traitors by radical Vietnamese Americans for returning to Vietnam ― now cater to both audiences in equal measure. Even my favorite diva, Minh Tuyet, has appeared on local Vietnamese television.

Minh Tuyet, one of the author's favorite
Minh Tuyet, one of the author's favorite "Paris by Night" performers. Courtesy of Thuy Nga / "Paris By Night" Archive

In the past two decades, “Paris by Night” has also become more open to artists from Vietnam ― most notably Saigon-born megastar Toc Tien, 34, who started her music career in Vietnam at 15. After moving to Pasadena, California, to attend university in 2009, she was contacted by Tô Văn Lai and invited to perform on the show.

“For my first performance, I wore an ao dai [Vietnamese traditional costume] and performed an old-school song,” she recalls. “After that show, one of the emcees, Nguyen Ngoc Ngan, called me on the phone and told me there were 10 promoters in the area offering to book me for shows. It totally changed my career, and helped me build my name in the U.S.”

Now, nearly 50 years after the first wave of Vietnamese refugees fled their homeland, the future of “Paris by Night” is unclear. As part of the new guard in the family business, Huynh says she’s strived to make it more accessible to younger audiences, noting that the YouTube channel has gone from 2 million to 6 million subscribers in her time working for the company.

She’s hopeful, having seen an increasing number of young Vietnamese audience members ― from all over the world ― at recent tapings of the show. She thinks it’s a sign that it’s not just people in our parents’ generation who yearn for a sense of belonging.

“I think the popularity of the show goes back to something deeper, and culturally maternal, for people our age,” she says. “There will always be a void that exists when you have displacement in your cultural history. ’Paris by Night’ is part of that emotional ecosystem. Many of us go for the same reason we want to go back to Vietnam to discover something about ourselves.”

Indeed, “Paris by Night” was created as a bridge for Vietnamese people, uprooted from their homeland, to stay connected to their culture. But I believe that perhaps its greater legacy will be as a bridge that goes both ways, helping to mend past wounds through a shared love for music that transcends generations and borders alike.