By April Nishimura
Northwest Asian Weekly
Music has always been a way for Ngo Thuy Mien to express himself and share his emotions with those he loves.
Born in 1948 in Hai Phong, Vietnam, Ngo began writing music at the age of 15. Growing up in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Ngo recalls, “I grew up among books, poetry, and music.
Although we were in the midst of a war, in the beginning, when I started to write music, I had chosen a path for myself and that was to write only love songs.”
Classically trained in violin during the 1960s at the National Conservatory of Music in Saigon, Ngo says he was very lucky during a period when not many people could afford to send their children to a music school.
Going to the conservatory allowed him to develop his musical style and spend time with his childhood friend and future wife, Van Doan, who studied piano at the school. After graduating in 1965, Ngo and Doan drifted apart. Ngo began writing love songs.
In 1970, Ngo headed the musical group Luan Phien, which played for the Viet Nam Army Radio in Saigon. At the same time, he began working as an air traffic controller in Vietnam’s largest airport, Tan Son Nhat Airport.
“I had to work to earn my living. I do not write music to live, but live to write music. Music was my only passion,” Ngo remembers. “Not very many musicians in Vietnam could live on music alone.”
Playing violin for the Viet Nam Army Radio meant that Ngo had the chance to meet famous singers. He called upon them years later when he produced his first album with a group of friends in 1974. The album was entitled, “Tinh Ca Ngo Thuy Mien.”
The album featured 17 songs written between 1965 and1972. Well known artists such as Thai Thanh, Khanh Ly, and Le Thu performed on the album. Ngo said training each individual singer and helping him or her understand how to best express each song was “the best time of my life.”
A year later, the Vietnam War ended and Ngo had fallen in love. Ten years after losing touch with one another, Ngo and Doan reconnected and planned to get married.
However, the reunification of the country under North Vietnam’s communist rule caused many changes. Music by South Vietnamese composers was banned.
Despite this, Ngo said, “a few of us still managed to have clandestine get-togethers to sing our new songs to each other.” Unfortunately, the end of the war affected more than just his music. Ngo’s sweetheart immigrated to the United States with her family.
During post-war Vietnam, Ngo only wrote one song. Titled “Em con nho mua xuan?” (“Do You Still Remember Spring?”) Ngo said the song captured his relationship with Doan. “Both the good times we had together and the painful experience I went through when she left with her family to the USA.” Ngo and Doan would not see each other for another four years.
In October 1978, Ngo escaped Vietnam. “It was a very tough time for all of us boat people,” he said. “I myself spent three days and four nights in a little boat with 20 people on the South China Sea with very little to eat or drink.”
After surviving an encounter with Thai pirates, the boat finally arrived at Pulau Bidong island in Malaysia. Ngo spent six months in a refugee camp as he waited for his family to sponsor his move to Canada.
In April 1979, Ngo arrived in Canada. In November, his former fiancé flew from the United States to visit him. “This time, I made sure we would not lose each other again,” Ngo said.
The two married on Thanksgiving Day and immigrated to California six months later.
In 1981, Ngo received a bachelor’s degree in computer science and began working for Washington state as a computer information consultant. The following year, Ngo released another album.
“There are not very many opportunities for foreigners to make it big [in America],” Ngo said. “We have no choice but to stay within our own community and even [then], you do not have adequate financial means. You still have to depend on big production companies.”
Despite this, Ngo continues to be recognized. In 1998, Van Khoa, a book center, published a book featuring Ngo’s accomplishments, titled “Goc Troi Ngo Thuy Mien.”
In 2000, the musical gala “Ngo Thuy Mien, 4 Decades of Love Songs” introduced his newest work at the La Mirada Theatre in California. This year, Ngo is being honored with the Asian American Pioneers in Music award to acknowledge his lifetime of musical accomplishments.
Ngo’s tumultuous career, spanning two continents and nearly half a century, is reflected in the growth of his music. Living in Saigon around family and friends inspired him to write youthful, fresh, and romantic songs.
“But now, in the USA, everything is rush, rush, rush,” he said. “Big houses, big cities … all so big, yet so cold. My music now reflects all the worries, headaches, and painful feelings about this new displaced life.”
Reflecting on the Vietnam War and the current U.S.–Iraq war, Ngo said, “During any war, people are the ones who suffer the most, regardless of who the winner or the loser is. I think music must be used to soothe souls, to bring hope and belief for a brighter future for everybody.”
Ngo has participated in events supporting disabled Vietnamese veterans, orphans, and the poor in Vietnam.
Reflecting on his extensive career, Ngo remarked, “Sometimes, I think I have written enough. But then, when an idea or an inspiration comes, I still have to write it down. … As long as my heart still has feelings, I will continue to write.” ♦
Meet Ngo at NWAWF’s Pioneer in Music Awards Gala and Banquet on Oct. 16. For more information, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org. For more information about Ngo, visit www.honque.com/ngothuymien.
April Nishimura can be reached at email@example.com.