On November 26, 1978, an eruption of gunfire followed by the roar of a Honda 67 engine escaping into Saigon’s busy streets left one of Vietnam’s most famous cải lương singers, Thanh Nga, and her husband dying outside of their home on what is now Le Thi Rieng Street in District 1.
On that November night, Thanh was at the height of her fame and had been returning home after a performance at the popular Hung Dao Cinema. Dubbed the “Queen of the Stage,” her murder at the tender age of 36 shocked the nation. Police quickly launched an investigation that included looking into more than 3,000 foreign-born residents of Saigon, as the assailants were believed to be from France. They also dug into her past, exploring the lovers, affairs, and drama one associates with celebrity.
Police first suspected that Thanh Duoc, with whom Nga had an affair during her first marriage, had committed the crime after their love soured and she rejected him. He, however, was able to provide an alibi. Police also questioned several high-profile artists, including photographer Tran Trieu Binh — a backstage theater worker — and a Frenchman living in a nearby temple.
Ultimately, police reasoned that Nguyen Thanh Tan and Nguyen Van Duc, a pair of local career criminals, were attempting to kidnap the couple’s five-year-old son, Pham Duy Ha Linh, for ransom, and the slayings were the unintentional outcome of a crime gone wrong. Thankfully, the child was spared. The pair was found guilty and sentenced to death.
For days after Thanh Nga’s death, tens of thousands flocked to the artist’s mourning, creating lines that stretched all the way from 81 Tran Quoc Thao to Turtle Lake, over a kilometer away. People continue to honor her legacy today with celebrations and performances on her death anniversary every ten years. Fans also make pilgrimages to her headstone at the Artist’s Pagoda in Go Vap District. A recent documentary film and 2010 photo book reveal continued interest in her life and talent.
Thanh Nga was seemingly destined for fame upon birth. Born Juliette Nguyen Thi Nga on July 31, 1942 in Tay Ninh Province, talent ran like sap in her family tree. Her mother and father, Nam Nghia and Nguyen Thi Tho, owned the popular cải lương troupe Thanh Minh-Thanh Nga, which toured extensively in southern Vietnam during her childhood.
Thanh first took the stage before she was even 10 years old and, by the time she was 15, had landed leading roles. Renowned for her beauty as much as her graceful voice and dancing, she quickly became one of the pioneering cải lương actresses in the country. During her life, she performed in more than 50 shows and earned accolades including the 1958 Thanh Tam Award for Promising Artist. Eight years later, in 1966, she clinched another Thanh Tam award for Outstanding Artist.
As Vietnam’s film industry developed in the 1960s and 1970s, she took her talents to the big screen, acting in dozens of films. In 1973 she won Best Film Actress at the Asian Film Festival in Taiwan.
While Nga was reported to have said she made the move to film because she wanted the challenge of a new medium for her creativity, in reality, movies represented greater economic stability. Cải lương singers at the time had to work multiple jobs, while films provided full-time income. Despite her fame, she is said to have maintained a simple and frugal life out of necessity.
While Nga’s popularity made her a public symbol of beauty, femininity and the cải lương art form, friends and family have made efforts to preserve her legacy as a person by sharing intimate details. For example, she was forever terrified of cockroaches and loved durian but had to sneak out to eat it because her husband warned her it was too “hot” a food to consume in sweltering Saigon.
In 2015, the Vietnamese government decided to honor eight artists with street names, including Nga. Her District 9 stretch of road is a far cry from the glamorous sections of Saigon where she lived, performed and fraternized with socialites. Similar to many streets in districts beyond the city center, the short stretch of road is a smattering of humble homes and shops. Such relative anonymity seems fitting for one of the nation’s most famous cải lương singers. The genre continues to decline in popularity and visibility thanks to changing tastes and the emergence of alternative forms of entertainment. Yet, in the same way fans and loved ones are dedicated to keeping her memory alive, impassioned individuals are working to preserve cải lương.
For some, there is nothing exceptional to lure them to the street, but cải lương fans might find it provides for an enchanting afternoon strolling with her music playing in their headphones. The genre itself is one that aims to capture nostalgia for a distant, simple way of life that perhaps never quite existed as beautifully as presented. Is such glamorized recollection not a bit like how posthumous celebrity exists when preserved in monuments and names?
Does the grace and talent of the individual matter, or does our collective memory of what’s important? Regardless, Thanh Nga’s quivering voice floating above zither strings will transport you from one of Saigon’s commotion-filled neighborhoods to idyllic countryside rice fields illuminated by candlelight and fireflies. It’s a scene worth indulging in, real or otherwise.