Little Saigon Teacher Keeps Vietnamese Opera Alive

Ngoc Bay purses her feet together and glides to the left, then to the right, guiding her eight-year-old pupil in the subtle movements of the centuries-old Vietnamese opera.

To the meandering tune of a high-pitched oboe and the rhythmic thumping of a drum, the 68-year-old opera singer with gray hair pulled back into a ponytail demonstrates for the boy in the Velcro sandals. He tries it, then his knees buckle, and he trips.

“I can’t do it,” Quoc Le moans in Vietnamese. He then slips off his sandals and tries again. This time, Bay’s hands steady his shoulders to help him shimmy across the carpeted floor. He breaks into a smile.

The beginner’s class in the heart of Southern California’s Little Saigon is a far cry from the theaters in Vietnam where a youthful Bay once crooned to the adoration of her fans. But it is inside this windowless room where she has embarked on a mission: revive an esoteric artform that animated her but is in danger of dying.

The poised choreography of Hat Boi (HACK-boyh) has lost favor in her homeland and failed to take root among the immigrants here in the largest Vietnamese enclave in the United States. Bay hopes to pass on the tradition to her students or at least give them a love for an art she learned to cherish as a girl.

“I hope they can become good like me, before I pass away,” Bay says, chuckling. “Here, nobody knows about Hat Boi. They like Western music.”

In Vietnam, Hat Boi actors recreate battle scenes and love stories from Vietnamese and Chinese history in brightly colored costumes and make-up using stylized dance moves and singing. It dates back hundreds of years and rose to prominence during the 18th century with support from the Vietnamese royal court.

But as modern cinema swept across the Southeast Asian country in the early 20th century, Hat Boi began to fade. In recent years, the Vietnamese government has tried to drum up support for Hat Boi by sponsoring training programs, but the opera is now performed only on commission, ethnomusicologist Phong Nguyen says.

Teaching Hat Boi is no easy task. It takes years of practice to master. Some scholars question whether it is even possible to learn it in the United States, given the lack of cultural and institutional supports to pass on the tradition.

Others say the United States is precisely where the future of Hat Boi lies as Vietnamese-Americans become increasingly successful and can afford to invest more time, and cash, in cultural preservation.

“The way the Vietnamese culture and art can be saved is by the Vietnamese overseas,” says Michelle Phuong Thao, executive director of the Viet Art Center Foundation in Orange County. “It is going to be us to do it, not them.”

As a teenager, Bay recalls singing along with her sister and cousin in nightly performances in her family’s Saigon neighborhood, raking in a small fortune with help from a microphone her father had bought her. She had always loved music, ever since she tagged along with her father to see a Hat Boi troupe perform near her home as a young girl.

But Bay’s aspirations did not always lie with Hat Boi.

With her melodic voice, she dreamed of performing in the modern Vietnamese theater, which was more in vogue with girls her age. After a dismal audition for the popular Cai Luong theater program at the Conservatory of Saigon in 1960, Bay says, she sat dejected, afraid she had missed her shot at stardom.

Outside the theater, her luck changed. An instructor caught sight of her and invited her to try out for a new, government-subsidized program aimed at boosting Hat Boi.

Bay immersed herself in the opera’s archaic poetry and music, despite ridicule by her friends in another theater program. Four years later, she graduated and became a successful artist performing across Vietnam.

After her husband died during the Vietnam War, Bay started teaching Hat Boi to another crop of star-struck youth — many who entered the conservatory to avoid the battlefield — and took a second job translating Vietnamese texts to English for U.S. army officials.

She would sometimes perform Hat Boi for free, thriving from the thunderous applause of the audience. They’d throw money tucked inside paper fans at her feet, she says.

After the war, the communist government took hold of the conservatory. Bay says corrupt officers tried to demand she sleep with them if she wanted to perform and threatened to take away her teaching job. But she refused.

In 1992, Bay emigrated to the United States. She packed cassette tapes, books and song sheets, hoping to start a Hat Boi class in the bustling Vietnamese community here. But when she arrived, her heart sank.

“When I came here, I didn’t see Hat Boi,” Bay recalls. “They said, Hat Boi? What is that?”

She eventually became a nurse’s assistant, saved up enough to retire and brought her daughters and their families to live with her in a small house in Orange County. Hat Boi had no place in her new world of suburban strip malls, Hollywood movies and blaring rock music.

Five years ago, she was asked to give a Hat Boi demonstration at the University of California, Los Angeles. The event inspired professors and advocates to search for funding to start the community’s first Hat Boi class.

It began last year in a practice room at the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association.

On Thursday nights, a handful of rambunctious 4-, 6- and 8-year olds cluster around a table sipping juice boxes before lining up to learn the opera’s carefully choreographed steps. The adult students then take the floor, clutching fans draped with red and yellow tassels. Some remember their teacher from newspaper snapshots back in Vietnam.

In late February, Bay’s class will give its first performance. The true test of the class’ success, however, will be whether the children learn to appreciate Hat Boi along with the latest band to hit the airwaves.

“Somehow, it will integrate into their lives,” says Ysa Le, the association’s executive director. “Once you learn something … I think it will be with you forever.”