One lazy morning a week before Christmas in NYC, I woke up to an uninspiring day with no reason to smile. With no sign of a white Christmas, the concrete jungle was subdued with a soporific mood. Beneath the comfort of my blanket I nestled my curled up body from the empty cold outside my window. By 2 pm, I unwillingly forced myself up to make a cup of fresh coffee. Glancing at Science Time’s front page, a section from the New York Times, I noticed an image of a corpse’s remain buried in fetal position. The article written by James Gorman headlined, “Ancient Bones That Tell a Story of Compassion.” I read on to learn the corpse was of a disabled Vietnamese man who lived 4000 years ago in Man Bac. Before reaching adolescent, the young man was paralyzed from the waist down. His arms ineffective, making them impossible to feed himself. He spent 10 crippling years or so laying in the helpless position he was destined to be buried in. The scientists concluded his motivation to live was inspired by the community’s love and compassion toward him. And in his death, it was this blanket of compassion from the community that kept him significant.
The unconditional compassion the village of Man Bac demonstrated for the young man reminded me of the inherit beauty Vietnamese possess. My parents not only taught me this beauty, but they have demonstrated remarkable compassion toward those lost and homeless souls we came to house in the early 90s. Compassion is part of our gift, a treasure from our gentle ancestors. Whether through legend or tied by historical and cultural bond, from Buddhist selflessness or Christian love, our sense of community and compassion has outlived all chains historically shackling us. The fact is, even through the eyes of the world today: Vietnamese are a group of compassionate people.
Gorman’s article made me contemplated Vietnam, my parents’ separate journey to America, our broken family, and my experience of the war’s residue as a young child. So when Vietnam ran through my thoughts, I envisioned a breathless country painted by the reminiscent lips of my parents. They often dreamt of returning home, but now only one of them is left with that dream. Like many members of the diasporic community, my parents yearned for their native land. Their hearts ached for her beauty, the gentle colors of her idyllic body, and the romantic air she disseminated with each waking dawn. Vietnam lived in them. Even if she lays dormant, her sweet laughter continued to echo along the electrifying streets they once walked on, ran though, and fell in love with; the familiarities she brought them with each sunrise and the gentle resolves of each sunset.
In the movie of my mind, I often romanticized their memories, holding on to the little pieces of Vietnam they’ve shared. I would dream cool breezes sweeping through narrow roads and city parks courting lovers and inspiring artists. I would see children sweetly singing and dancing in her delight. Freedom perfumed the air and leaves clapped to mimic people’s laughter. My parents, though still young during the 60s and 70s, had dreams only possible under a free state. And in my mind’s movie, I sometimes heard them humming sweet melancholy tunes Khanh Ly had sung into their lives. Then suddenly the iron curtain descended, the cinema in my mind turned bleak gray. And all I felt was a void, like the emptiness one feels from a distancing lover. I felt lonely, the kind that doesn’t sadden you, but changes you; the kind where nostalgic youth hung on sadden lips.
That same void followed me in 1997 when I left home for the east cost. Shortly after, the growing distance between my family and me caused a deep loneliness, the same loneliness my parents felt when they left Vietnam for America. And so after completing my Master’s degree and ending a long dance tour to Europe and Australia, I slowly crafted my journey home in 2009 (not in the physical sense because a flight home to visit the family was easy and would have been disappointedly anti-artistic, instead I explored my way home metaphorically).
Initially, I felt lost in the wilderness of my own culture, but I was able to find a good starting point through food and music. Everywhere I traveled, I would try every Vietnamese restaurant in close proximity and surrendered to the songs seeping through the speakers. I even lined my shelves with different genres of Vietnamese music. As if each dish and song patched together a bridge that would bring me closer to home. Some CDs were unbearable, many tolerable, but a few struck an exceptional chord. Among these CDs, an unpolished but raw collection stood out. It was Khanh Ly’s Ca Khuc Da Vang, which opened my eyes to a world so tragic, yet forgivingly beautiful. Each song had a personality tinged with a deeply wounded soul. The honesty Khanh Ly brought to the songs allowed me to confront the truth and vulnerability of my own void. Each song uncovered new perspectives, paving together the forgotten road that continued to haunt my parents and many like them. Now, I understand the sentimental value Khanh Ly’s music has for them. In them, the songs cradled their pain, nurtured their hopelessness, and gave them back a voice once lost in a shattered humanity.
Climbing the hills of my language barrier, I found a small road leading home in Quiet Imprint, a ballet I conceptualized in 2009 for Khanh Ly and Ballet Austin funded by the Princess Grace Foundation. Quiet Imprint was a personal project I wanted to share with the world, but importantly a platform I used to bridge the cultural gap between my family and me. I wanted to establish a cross-cultural dialogue so that they could understand the career path I had chosen. It was the first ballet I choreographed using Vietnamese music to depict the arduous journey faced by our diasporic community.
Khanh Ly’s voice and her interpretations of the late Trinh Cong Son’s music serve as the inspiration for Quiet Imprint; perhaps because her transcendent voice has lived in my heart and mind decades before I knew the name Trinh Cong Son. Many people feel she was Trinh Cong Son’s shadow. Even Khanh Ly believed this public projection. However, I believe it’s a lopsided projection reflecting a patriarchal gaze. There was no doubt Trinh Cong Son was a poetic genius, who contemplated philosophical questions, painted human experiences, and communicated universal peace through his music. He used powerful metaphors with seeping melodies to transport listeners into a suspended world and taught us about love and empathy while taming our inner hatred and fear. But Khanh Ly was the medium by which these songs became alive, relevant, and memorable.
During the initial phase conceptualizing Quiet Imprint, I spent countless hours listening to various renditions of Trinh Cong Son’s music. Nothing could compare to the hauntingly romantic sound created by Khanh Ly and Trinh Cong Son before 1975. Her somber voice contains the colors, timbres, transitions, contexts, and nuances of a mesmerizing storyteller. Khanh Ly’s mellifluous sound powered by strong technical efficacy gave us wings to glide toward the heavens in one note and descend into our own river Styx in the next. She is not afraid to scratch the surface and crack the glass. Her voice strips away the pristine ideals we’ve carved to show us the hidden beauty within our flawed humanity. She awakens the soul of each song, giving each an identity, a musical story, and most importantly, a life beyond our time. Like other singers of her generation such as Thai Thanh, Le Thu and Elvis Phuong, Khanh Ly brought honesty, narrative, and poeticism to her music. In my opinion, Khanh Ly and her contemporaries were among the most generous of artists who used their gifts as vehicles to carry songs into our hearts and found them each a home.
I confess. I’ve heard many interpretations of Trinh Cong Son’s music in the hands of other performers. Few could bring to life the body and soul Khanh Ly manifested; others have cheated the songs by stripping away meanings and beauty with selfish vapidity and misguided vocal chops; and an unfortunate some are blind and deaf to the underlying nuances and poeticism each note and word carries. Khanh Ly and Trinh Cong Son represent a symbiotic relationship, each a master and muse to the other, an artistic harmony like that of the great Pham Duy and Thai Thanh. They gave a musical legacy that will keep us loving, living, and singing.
Therefore, I am thankful for the beauty Khanh Ly has sung into my life. I am thankful for her because her music gave my parents the crutches to walk through their dismal journey and blanketed them under dark skies. I cherish her for her gift of songs spreading love, compassion, and a hopeful humanity. Her gift is my personal treasure. I have searched for them, fell in love with them, and have shared them with close friends. They’ve taught me to savor our ephemeral existence, treasuring our time here on earth; that our time is all we have today and can evaporate the next. That in this time, if we don’t learn about humanity and the coexistence of differences, we will slowly imprison ourselves and our children in emptiness, darkness, and hatred; that there is more beauty to the world than we allow ourselves to see instead of self-blinding through complacency, hatred and fear. Therefore when I love an artist such as Khanh Ly, I value her work for the vibrant colors she has sung into my sometimes darken world. I could never betray her for the beauty and inspiration she disseminated around me. Today or ten years from now, an honest work will remain honest, and I will continue to love it the same way I fell in love with Khanh Ly’s songs the first time they let me in and whispered their quiet truths. So I hope my unwavering love, admiration, and appreciation for Khanh Ly will keep her motivated to keep spreading her gift of songs beyond senseless walls.
Unfortunately, the Arts sometimes attracts spoiled politic, because in a way the Arts is a body of politic—I guess no notion of good can exists without its counter-part.
But how we use the Arts to connect and engage people is where the politic lies. In my opinion there are to kinds of artists: those who use their gift to spread beauty, cultural growth, and enrich humanity by provoking thoughts, ideas, and questions about our existence; then there are those who use art as propaganda to forward an excluding sometimes prejudice agenda. The former group, the true artists guide us toward understanding one another and the coexistence of differences and tolerance. The latter group, pirates and propagandists, hide behind the Arts mask to rob us, stripping us slowly of our beauty, humanity and value. They infiltrate and impede our cultural growth. These insidious pirates pillage our artists through character assassinations. Khanh Ly has been the subject of political sabotage driven by cancerous voices and opportunists. Many times she is defenseless to these insidious and manipulated attacks. It is a game that often leaves the artist waving the white flag. And when an artist loses, a limb of our cultural body becomes crippled. The pirates and propagandists succeed and we’ve become guilty and complicit in their wrong doing, because we’ve ignored our responsibilities as members of society to protect our artists. Protecting their freedom to write, sing, dance, paint, and create, in essence to breath. Then as a community, not only have we failed, we’ve imprisoned our artists, ourselves, and our future.
Because Khanh Ly is an icon, she has been subjected to character assassinations and contentious diatribes surrounding her allegiance. To many she represents the voice of a scarred generation, to others a traitor, while the disrespectful few a couple dollars profit into their empty lives. The truth is Khanh Ly, like every artist, belongs to no one and nowhere except the Arts. Her rightful home is the stage. No matter which crevice of the world that stage exist, it is there she is most alive. A home is a conceptualized space we create to feel protected, safe, and loved. It is different from a house, a physical structure we build to demarcate boundaries. Therefore a house is not necessarily a home, like the house in America my parents reared us in, and the home they yearned for in Vietnam. So a home is where you find your heart still beating, still loving, protected and alive. Khanh Ly’s home is on the stage of the world.
So why are people cornering the singer in a political forum? I believe for reasons they cannot see past their fear and hatred to differentiate between the artist and the person. Khanh Ly is a singer with politics shaped by love, compassion and empathy. Then there is Mai Nguyen, Khanh Ly’s protector and defender, who is entitled rightfully to her thoughts, opinions and beliefs as much as each one of us. Mai is a member of society and Khanh Ly a member of the Arts. It is Khanh Ly’s politics of love, compassion, and empathy echoing in her music that I prescribe to, not the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of Mai ‘s life off stage. Though it is possible that I see many things from the same lens as Mai, but am certain that I do not share all her views. And that is the beauty of a democratic ideology.
I believe many people use Khanh Ly’s name and symbolism to project their own politic to masquerade the songstress with a false political front. I’ve seen and heard through the media many thoughtless questions and offensive attacks aimed at Khanh Ly. Rather than engaging in a dialogue about her illustrious career as a performer, many people have used her platform to show their false patriotism and imposed ideologies. If I were Mai, I too would emerge and defend Khanh Ly vociferously in these exasperating circumstances. Khanh Ly is not interested in hateful politic, she lives to share her songs with those hearts and ears opened to let her in. And when she feels the trust from the people she sings for, Khanh Ly will hand them her soul.
So why are there oppositions to Khanh Ly singing in Vietnam? I’ve heard many performers returning to Vietnam to work without a scratch to their name from our community. Yet, rumors of Khanh Ly’s intention of a tour to her native land have aroused harsh criticisms and hostile oppositions. As an artist of the diasporic community, I am proud of my Vietnamese skin and blood. I yearn to take in the sights, sounds, and scents of my ancestral ground, embracing the beauty of my heritage and culture. But that does not mean I agree with the ideologies dampening that ground. We must learn to differentiate these issues and not group them into a box of matches, or else we risked getting destroyed by our own imposing flame.
Between the1950s-1980s, a group of Saigonese luminaries in music, art, and literature sparked, inspired and carved a cultural map establishing artistic relevancy. The free atmosphere nurtured these artistic voices. From each contributing voice, a cultural identity arose that has bound us together. One of these voices belongs to Khanh Ly. So how does her return to Vietnam to perform affect us? Can we contribute and maintain our cultural legacy if we can’t engage with our roots? Do we lose a part of our democratic identity when we engage with a society whose ideologies differ from ours? No matter what answers derived from these questions, when a democratic community such as ours censors our own artists, that community has committed a far greater hypocrisy than the ideology they oppose. That community has committed a cultural crime.
We have thrived in the open arms of freedom then and now. We have grown, blossomed, and metamorphosed into unique yet complimentary entities because of it. I know for a fact, if Khanh Ly is left alone to sing, she will sing until she finds your heart. Maya Angelou knew why a caged bird sings, and so should we. She poignantly discerns, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” Khanh Ly doesn’t have answers, but she carries endless songs she hopes to share. Some living in us, singing along with us while others are waiting to be born. And in these songs we may see our flaws, find our light, and perhaps the answers we have been searching for.
I love Victorian birdcages for its beauty and coiled arches. Though for me, they are a symbol of containment, like prisons, except the only difference is the projection we’ve placed on them. Unlike prisons, we turn cages into homes for these gentle birds whose crimes are possessing beauty and songs. We hold these winged-creatures captive for our own selfish pleasure. This is how I see Khanh Ly and other artists in our community. Rather than give them the world to fly through, we caged them in mediocrity and politic. We show them a desolate sky, when there is a teeming firmament. We stagnate their growth and dull their beauty. We injure their wings by holding them captive. We turn our backs on them from toxic voices and hostile pens, leaving them defenseless to harmful attacks. Of all the beauty and joy they have poured into our lives, all they ask in return is for our love, compassion, and protection. Let’s remember the paralyzed young man of Man Bac cared for by his compassionate community. In return he taught them about compassion and gave them purpose. Let’s not forget the warm cradling songs Khanh Ly sung to us on those broken nights. Thus we should not forget our roles as civilized members of society to safeguard our treasures against cultural pirates. Because we will lose when we let our songs die and words stolen. We will lose when there are no more dialogues encouraging tolerance, differences and most important of all, cultural growth. When that happens, we endanger our future with no foundation to build on. And at the end our children lose for there are no roads left to take them home. Hillary Clinton once said, “We can either think about the past and be imprisoned by it or we can decide we’re going to have a better future and work to make it.” We must not be imprisoned by our dark past but remember them to inform a brighter future.
I finally bought a steel birdcage for its deceptive beauty and symbolism; and in that cage, no bird sadly perching, instead an English ivy sits with tendrils that could climb beyond the prison grid. Watered and left alone for some time, the ivy—like compassion—, will one day spread its tendrils to consume the metal frame. The cage is a profound symbol that no matter what forces attempting to imprison us, we can always find a way to subvert and defeat them with freedom, beauty and our inherited compassion.