The development of the favorite art form ‘Đờn ca tài tử’ in southern Vietnam has gone along with famous stars and ‘super’ rich figures. Many of them fell in love with each other but their love stories often did not last for a long time.
One of the biggest stars of the traditional art form is Phung Ha, who is considered the founder and ancestor of the singing industry.
Phung Ha (1911 – 2009) was famous for her beauty, singing voice and acting talent but her marital life went through ups and downs.
She married actor Tu Choi when she was only 15 years old. They divorced after less than two years and soon after she got married to Phuoc George, one of the two richest men in southern Vietnam at the time.
Phuoc was sent to France for western education but he had a great love for the traditional art form “Đờn ca tài tử”.
Phuoc invested a big sum to set up Huynh Ky, a band of ‘cải lương’ which is a type of ‘Đờn ca tài tử’ with acting.
It was the unique ‘cải lương’ band at the time in Vietnam touring around the region by big motorboats while other bands had to row their boats.
The leading boat which was like a yacht now with storeys was used for the owner Phuoc, his wife and housemaids, recalled Vietnamese icon musicologist Tran Van Khe.
The band was escorted by Filipino and Vietnamese bodyguards who were boxers.
Nguyen Thi Bich Hoa, 52, is a living witness to the life story of the star Phung Ha, her grandmother since she followed her band from her young age. She said she is also the biography writer of Phung Ha.
Phung Ha married Phuoc George at her age of 16 (in 1928) and she had a very happy marriage which lasted for seven years, Hoa recalled. The couple had two children but they died a few months after birth.
“The only thing she was sad about her husband was that he led a loose life, spending money with a free hand. However, she found relief in her biggest joy in life, singing and acting,” Hoa said. “She didn’t care about the income of her band’s shows although they were always crowded. People had to buy tickets a day in advance to watch her.”
In 1935, the group disbanded and Phuoc George and Phung Ha also separated. She later joined the Tran Dac band in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho and Phuoc George died in 1950.
Besides, Phung Ha was reported to have had a affair with Nam Chau, a talented composer and artist, amongst other affluent men.
Actress Phung Ha
Composer Nam Chau
His full name is Nguyen Thanh Chau, born in 1906 in My Tho. He joined a ‘Đờn ca tài tử’ musical band at the age of 16 and became a leading star a year after that. Nam Chau created over 50 plays and numerous songs that were well known then and remain so now.
But, similar to Phung Ha, he had great suffering in his own life with family break-up.
He married Sau Tram but she left him not long after that and so, he went to another artist, Tu Sang. After having a child, Tu Sang also left Nam Chau.
In 1948, Nam Chau established his own musical band Viet Kich Nam Chau and married artist Kim Cuc. With six children, they lived together happily despite the fact that he had an affair with Phung Ha. He died in 1977.
Before his death, he became one of the first theater professors of the Saigon National Music School in 1962.
In the memoirs of his student artists, Nam Chau was always well-dressed and calm and quiet.
This female artist, born in 1908, was famous for her role of Bang Quy Phi in the play ‘The trial of Bang Quy Phi’. The role led her to the peak of honor, according to composer Nguyen Ngoc Minh, director of the Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in the southern province of Tien Giang.
“She sang and acted so perfectly that the audience got angry and jumped up to the stage to ask for mercy from the king [on stage] to save her character from death,” Minh recalled.
Thanks to her outstanding role, she and her musical band Phuoc Cuong were invited to perform at a Paris fair in 1931.
A journalist of the La Comedia newspaper wrote after watching her performance that, “This artist can lead us anywhere she wants.” She was certainly honored with an eternal award in the heart of people, he confirmed.
She was awarded four medals by four nations in which she performed but no medals were given by Vietnam.
More importantly, she received 186 letters from fans declaring their love to her and 1,009 postcards with compliments from fans.
It was calculated that by performing the only role of Bang Quy Phi, she was paid 230,000 piasters, equivalent to thousands of taels of gold then. (One tael = 37.5 grams)
She fell in love with Nguyen Phuoc Cuong, the owner of Phuoc Cuong band, but later married lawyer Huynh Van Chin.
But her happiness did not last long since she died in 1954 at the age of 46.
Now, a downtown street in the city of My Tho, Tien Giang is named after her, Le Thi Phi Street.
Actress Nam Phi