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What to Do When You Discover That Your Mom Was a Superstar Singer in 1960s Saigon

In early 1960s Saigon, Phương Tâm was a star singer, performing every day in the city’s busy nightclubs and music venues.

After leaving for the United States in April 1975, Nguyễn Thị Tâm — Phương Tâm’s real name — left that life behind for decades, and not even her family knew of her pre-war identity.

Hannah and Tâm. Photo courtesy of Hannah Hà.

“My mom has always loved singing, and she would sing a lot when we were growing up,” Hannah Hà, Tâm’s eldest daughter, tells Saigoneer from her home in the US. “I would hear her in the kitchen or in the car when we went for long car rides.” When Hannah moved away to college, she would sometimes call her mom and ask her to sing: “And it would always be American jazz standards; she loved Patti Page, Louis Armstrong and the slower Elvis ballads. Rarely would I hear her sing Vietnamese songs.”

But it wasn’t until November 2019 that Hannah caught wind of the possibility that her mother’s singing had once been more than just something she enjoyed. “My mom mentioned that she had a contract sent to her by a company in Vietnam asking to use one of her songs in a movie, and it was a 25-page legal contract asking for private information,” Hannah recalls. “We of course told her that it’s a scam; they’re preying on older people, so throw it away. And she did.”

A month later, the movie discussed in the contract was released. It was Mắt Biếc, the Victor Vu-directed hit drama. Hannah was stunned, so she tracked down a copy of the movie and realized the production team had been serious about wanting to use one of her mom's songs. This began what turned into an ongoing, global journey to discover her mother’s past.

The hunt

“It became an obsession for me,” Hannah shares. “I was coming home from work, doing the bare minimum, and then just sitting down on my computer and searching.”

She struggled to make much headway through late 2019, as Phương is a common name, resulting in thousands of Google hits and hundreds of YouTube videos to sift through. But one image kept coming up: the cover of "Saigon Rock & Soul," the 2010 album compiled and produced by Mark Gergis featuring Vietnamese music from 1968 to 1974. The album includes a Phương Tâm song called 'Đêm Huyền Diệu' (Magical Night), and a picture of Tâm on the sleeve, providing Hannah with her first big clue, although her mother remained secretive.

Tâm on the cover of a 1960s edition of Đẹp Magazine. Image courtesy of Mark Gergis.

“Every time I would see something that resembled my mom’s face I would send it to her and ask if it was her,” Hannah says. “And she would say, ‘No, that’s not me, I never smoked and I don’t know who put that up.’ She actually got mad because people were telling her she smoked. So we needed to get confirmation.”

Gradually, Tâm began to open up, admitting that she had recorded a certain song, and as Hannah found more songs, Tâm said they were hers. However, some of her more popular work had more or less been stolen, with people posting her songs online under their own name or image. “She got really mad,” Hannah recalls. “She asked me to tell them to take it down, but I said that I didn’t upload it, so I can’t do that. But I went into the comments and said that the person in the images wasn’t Phương Tâm, but nothing happened.”

So Hannah went to her mom with a proposition: they would put together a collection and release it with some of her personal story so that people would know who the real Phương Tâm is. But Tâm, who is 76, resisted, preferring to avoid the complexities of such a project. However, Hannah continued to find videos of her mother’s songs that weren’t properly credited, and Tâm eventually became so irritated that she gave her daughter the green light. “Then I got in touch with Mark [the producer of Saigon & Rock and Soul] and it just took off,” Hannah says.

The result, the album "Magical Nights - Saigon Surf Twist & Soul," features 25 of Phương Tâm’s tracks, fully restored and presented together for the first time ever. The vibrant, diverse songs provide an auditory glimpse into a period of Saigon history normally experienced only through grainy film photographs.

The cover of Magical Nights.

Putting the album together

Mark, who is based in the United Kingdom, lived in Hanoi from 2014 to 2018, where he had immersed himself in Vietnamese music. Though he had previously created "Saigon Rock & Soul," that album largely focused on diasporic singers, and most of the tracks on it had been collected in the US.

In January 2020, Hannah contacted him out of the blue: “I got this email from St. Louis, and it was mind-blowing that by chance she had discovered that her mother had been this teenage rockstar and recording artist in Saigon with dozens of recordings to her name in the early-to-mid 1960s.”

“It was very inspiring to hear and I was excited for her, and I was curious and I signed up immediately,” he adds. “It was just an incredible journey we had making this record together. It actually gave us this anchor during the crazy tumult of the past couple of years, and I was very happy for that. It was an absolute joy to undertake with Hannah.”

But it wasn’t easy, with Mark describing the process as “finding a set of old books with most of the pages missing, or a lot of the pages glued together, and trying to unglue them without inflicting further damage.” The process of finding more of Tâm’s music became a painstaking, global effort, with Hannah and Mark scouring Ebay for records, while Mark dove into his expansive network of collectors from his time in Vietnam and his work on "Saigon Rock & Soul."

“This took many months and it’s still occurring now, as we received more tracks after we finished and we’re looking forward to receiving more feedback and stories,” Mark says. “And we’re talking here about one artist and her body of work. Imagine the myriad artists and stories from southern Vietnam at the time.”

The search also brought in German music producer and collector Jan Hagenkoetter, whom Mark had met in Hanoi. Jan is the mastermind behind Saigon Supersound, and the two had become kindred spirits over their love of pre-war Vietnamese rock.

Jan with Phương Tâm records from his personal collection of Vietnamese music. Photo courtesy of Jan Hagenkoetter.

“We made lists we exchanged, where we would put in new songs from Tâm, or sometimes we would realize it wasn’t her, but we had these names of record collectors who we thought might have something, and we would go back and forth for months,” Jan says. “We tried to get a complete picture of what songs existed and who might have a copy somewhere in the world.”

“We really had it mapped out and we were keeping close track, getting multiple copies so we could hear which version we could patch in if one had a bad section,” Mark says. “Jan was an incredible resource, having already immersed himself for so many years in Vietnamese music and collecting and having a very detailed database of his own.”

At this point in 2020, Jan was in Germany, meaning he, Mark and Hannah were separated by thousands of miles each, and couldn’t physically access anything they discovered within Vietnam. At times, the hunt for Tâm’s music involved getting on FaceTime with Adam Fargason, a music collector in Saigon, as he scoured the city’s dusty antique shops. Nonetheless, the tracks slowly came together, but producing songs up to Mark’s demanding standards was difficult.

“Even the albums that were in good shape had their challenges,” he says. “These sorts of 45s were commonly issued as four-song compilations featuring various singers, but they would squeeze in all of this music and exceed the recommended four or five minutes per side and cram up to eight or nine minutes of songs onto these grooves, which can result in a very thin, over-compressed sound, which was compounded further by poor pressings or decades of wear.”

A collage of artifacts from the music scene in early 1960s Saigon. Image courtesy of Mark Gergis.

“So the restoration approach was a balancing act,” Mark goes on. “Really choosing to significantly reduce distortion and noise when possible, and as we worked to bring these songs back to life and the dynamic production qualities and details started to come into focus, it really felt like magic. It was like the veils of history were being lifted.”

Hannah jumped in at this point to state that it really was like magic, as the final product was unrecognizable compared to what they initially found, when some songs sounded like they had “popcorn popping” across them. “Mark would clean the first layer, then the second layer, and we’d get to the 99th layer and he would say ‘I don’t like it, let’s start from the beginning,’” Hannah shares. “And I would say ‘no, my mom’s getting older, we have to get this done.’”

“Welcome to our world,” Mark jokes in response, while also noting the key contributions of Cường Phạm, a London-based researcher and artist. But the laborious work was worth it when the group was able to share restored tracks with Tâm.

“It was a real joy personally to witness her reactions to hearing these,” Mark says. “In some cases, it was the first time for 50 or 55 years, and for some songs, she had actually never heard the playback of what she recorded in the studio, which can probably be attributed to her whirlwind lifestyle at the time.”

This entailed performances at multiple nightclubs per night, and her wide variety of singing abilities meant she could tackle rock, ballads and a number of other genres. She was in high demand and performed in prime time: 10pm–1am, sometimes every day of the week in roaring pre-war Saigon.

A young Tâm on stage in Saigon with the Khánh Băng Band. Photo courtesy of Mark Gergis.

Tâm had kept this lifestyle to herself for decades. When asked how she felt after discovering who her mom was, Hannah shared how the past eventually came to light.

“First of all it was a lot of ‘are you sure this is you? Not like 99%, I need 100% confirmation,’” Hannah shares. “And she would tell me she was sure, but it was one of those things where it happened so long ago, and sometimes I’m not sure if my mom’s memory is fading, but then she started to tell the stories in intricate detail, like who was her pianist, who was her saxophonist, and how many songs she sang at each place and what she wore each night. There were so many details that I knew it was real.”

While the discovery and revival of these songs was joyous for Hannah, Mark and Jan, they brought back a flood of emotions for Tâm, whose husband — Hannah’s father — had passed away eight months before the project began. “She loved every single song, and sometimes she would cry and remember my dad, and would say she couldn’t believe that he wasn’t there to hear this, and wondered why we couldn’t have found this sooner,” Hannah says.

A story completed

As amazing as Tâm’s story is, it is just one story, leaving Hannah to wonder how many more may be out there. “Adam [the collector] would take me on these shopping trips through his phone, and we’d flip through all of these song sheets,” she says. “I would wonder ‘who is this person? Who is that person?’ It’s a bunch of faceless people with no story behind it, but I’m sure there is a story; we just haven’t uncovered it. We were able to put one book together, but there are thousands of other pages waiting to be put into their book.”

“There are myriad stories to uncover and lost histories, it’s a very fragmented time to look back on and try to piece together,” Mark adds. “We have pieces of it, but there are large gaps. There’s that heavy weight of history and circumstance — life moves along and histories get shuffled or even erased.”

Tâm, for her part, was a prolific, pioneering singer in early 1960s Saigon, but her career didn’t last long — she stopped performing in 1966 — and history moved on quickly, with the music scene becoming even bigger up until 1975.

Hannah’s quest to discover her mother’s past, and the countless hours of work she put in with Mark, Jan and others, has resulted in an important part of Vietnam’s music history being uncovered, and brings a Vietnamese perspective to a type of music it isn’t always considered with.

“When we think of the war, we always hear American rock and roll like Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan,” Hannah says. “That music is at the forefront and it’s what comes up when you search online. This is from the perspective of the Vietnamese side. Even up until 1975, there was so much creation coming out of that small part of the world, and this puts Vietnam back into saying that it’s not all about American music.”

"Magical Nights - Saigon Surf Twist & Soul" is available for purchase on Bandcamp and for listening on livestreaming platforms. A vinyl version of the album will be released in 2022.

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