From the Dung Phat Plaza at Eleventh and Washington to its sister space at Sixth and Washington and beyond, bustling businesses cater to Viet-Chinese immigrants with colorful posters advertising all manner of services, from restaurants to plant shops. “This part of South Philadelphia is a true home away from home to the Vietnamese community,” says Cuong La, who runs the New Asia-America Travel Agency in Dung Phat Plaza.
The most prominent vibrant posters, however, boldly advertise the wealth of Vietnamese concerts in the Philadelphia/Atlantic City area featuring native Vietnamese artists. These concerts host a range of performers — a show on Sunday at SugarHouse Casino boasts seven artists, including famed Vietnamese pop songstress Lệ Quyên, and a two-day affair July 3-4 at Caesars Atlantic City highlights 20-plus artists. “Some artists are A-plus, the best. Some A, which is very good, and some B-plus, and up-and-coming, but none below that,” says La, who is ethnically Chinese and who was born in Vietnam.
These shows are catering to Philadelphia’s Chinese and Vietnamese populations, which have grown, according to census data. Nowhere is that better reflected than in South Philadelphia’s Washington Avenue area.
La’s second job is head of event planning and booking for Global Entertainment & Marketing Planners, which handles the region’s biggest Vietnamese-based shows at casinos such as SugarHouse, Parx, Caesars, and Harrahs. La’s shows average about 1,000 attendees, but a recently opened venue – Chùa Phật Quang, the Phat Quang Buddhist temple, on South Fourth Street between Christian Street and Washington Avenue – allows secular music in its sacred halls for smaller audiences of 200.
Anh Ly has lived and worked in the South Philadelphia Vietnamese community for more than 20 years. She no longer has much to do with the Phat Quang temple or its holy caretakers since they turned to making music as Chùa Phật Quan, but she understands that the monks need to raise money to tend to the property as its “community is small, and the temple is huge,” she says. Ly aided in getting the temple open because “the Buddhist community in Philadelphia — those with a spiritual need – is as strong as the Vietnamese community. They both deserve a home and to have their needs fulfilled.” After 20 years in the travel business – first in Chinatown, then in South Philly – La began promoting concerts six years ago at the urging of his most fervent customer.
“They were thrilled with the interesting packages I put together, and urged me to try my hand at music-based events,” says La, who often works with Atlantic City’s Lien Pham in bringing specific artists to the States. “That sounded exciting. And I love the music.”
Community-based independents such as La are bringing music to the Vietnamese people, a segment of the population unserved by larger music promoters like Live Nation and AEG.
“The Vietnamese community is small – not like with Britney Spears, who has millions of followers – but it is strong and supportive,” says La. His shows are often filled with repeat customers and familiar faces, and La says he bases artist booking on casino feedback (“who brought in the biggest numbers”) and fan requests, including for Vietnamese artists his travel clients heard while visiting their homeland.
“When someone tells me they like a certain native artist, I go to YouTube to see and hear for myself and I go to my booking person to bring them to the States.” From there, La gets each Vietnamese artist a P-3 visa for artists or entertainers “coming temporarily to perform, teach, or coach … under a program that is culturally unique.”
La’s events are culturally unique — not only are they about live music, but they include fashion shows, lectures, and “quieter time for those who spend their weeks working very, very hard to relax and share in community, maybe talk about the homeland, or their new experience in South Philadelphia,” says La.
A huge aspect of Vietnamese music’s multiculturalism comes down to the sound, some of it modern and geared toward younger audiences (the dance pop of Lệ Quyên), some of it easy pop for “people my age,” the fiftysomething La says of acts such as tuxedo-wearing Đàm Vĩnh Hưng.
Then there are the truly traditional Vietnamese ensembles in garb such as Áo dài, or long dress for women. “When the singers come out in traditional clothing, often so does the audience, an old crowd that craves the sounds they left behind,” says La. “They appreciate the attention to detail our shows have, because they miss it. And now, the nice thing about the mix of young and old – the audience as well as the musicians – is that the kids are beginning to be interested in the older traditions. Even my kids, who I make come to the shows,” he says, “they may speak to me in English, and my mother may speak to me in Vietnamese, but the younger ones are finally getting the old ways of music and culture within the Vietnamese heritage.”