The Curious Memoirs of the Vietnamese Composer Pham Duy

Article excerpt

Pham Duy, a noted Vietnamese composer, has published his memoirs in four volumes. (1) These memoirs have not, to my knowledge, received much attention, which is surprising because he is one of Vietnam's most famous song composers and has leda colourful life, marked by some remarkable transformations. In the late 1940s, for example, he was composing songs for the anti-French, communist-led Resistance; in the 1960s he was attending hootenannies with the legendary American CIA agent Edward Lansdale and writing songs for the anticommunist Rural Reconstruction Program.

The lack of critical attention to Pham Duy's memoirs is not, however, the only thing that is curious about them. I will consider other curious aspects, including: Pham Duy's insistence that he had to have lovers to create, which becomes his justification for committing adultery; his love affair, while he was married and in his late 30s and early 40s, with a young woman just entering puberty--a relationship which inspired his most famous love songs; his failure to reveal any awareness that his glorification of Vietnamese womanhood could be seen as self-serving; and his remarkable outspokenness about his love affairs and other matters.

I am well aware that what I, an American student of Vietnamese culture and language, find 'curious' or 'remarkable' about Pham Duy's memoirs might not be considered so by Vietnamese readers. His memoirs may not have provoked much reaction because Vietnamese readers find little that is remarkable in them. They may find them to be the story of a fairly typical Vietnamese male artist, certainly more talented and more widely travelled than most, perhaps a little more hyperbolic in his personal behaviour than most, but otherwise not too different from the general type. After discussing some things I find curious about Pham Duy's memoirs I will return to this question of how far Pham Duy departs from cultural norms.

A brief overview of Pham Duy's life

Pham Duy Can, known as Pham Duy, is now in his nineties. As a young man in Hanoi in the 1930s, he became intrigued by what was called 'new music' (tan nhac) or 'renovated music' (nhac cai cach)--songs with Vietnamese words and Vietnamese melodies. Before this new music arrived, Vietnamese singers who wanted to sound modern sang French or American melodies with Vietnamese lyrics. Pham Duy played a leading role in popularising this 'new music' and throughout his life has composed hundreds of songs in this style, including some which are known by many Vietnamese, particularly those from the South. (2)

Some of his best-known works, songs like 'Remembering the wounded soldier' [Nho nguoi thuong binh] (1947) and 'Mother of Gio Linh' [Ba me Gio Linh] (1948), were written when Pham Duy belonged to a performing arts group attached to the anti-French Resistance movement. Partly for artistic reasons, partly for personal reasons, Pham Duy broke with this communist-led movement in 1950. He did not like it when its leaders, influenced by their Chinese advisors, told him that some of his songs, including 'Mother of Gio Linh', 'lacked positivism' (tieu cuc) and others--'By the border bridge' [Ben cau bien gioi], for example--were too 'romantic' (lang man). Also, his wife, Thai Hang, was then six months pregnant with their first child and he worried about her having to give birth in the mountain hideouts of the North. They therefore left the area controlled by Resistance forces and made their way first to Hanoi and then to Saigon, where Pham Duy continued to compose songs, including some immensely popular love songs that were, according to one observer, 'heard almost every day on the radio and in the tea houses; they were the songs on the lips of everyone who had ever been in love'. (3)

When the American-backed Saigon regime fell in 1975, Pham Duy and his family came to the United States where he lived for 30 years. In 2005, however, he moved back to Vietnam to live because, as he explained, as a falling leaf returns to its source, (4) he wished to return to the land of his ancestors. …