Phuong Tam's daughter discovers mother's past as 'Vietnam’s first rock star'

The drop of a needle on a decades-old vinyl record, and just like that, you are transported back in time, through the voice of a teenage girl growing up in 1960s Saigon.

Phuong Tam says she was "12 years old and one musician in my neighbor(hood)" taught her to sing. She says he also changed her name to Phuong Tam, a name he thought he was better suited for a singer.

By the time she was 17, Tam was singing every evening at the nightclubs. And now even at 77, Tam says when she closes her eyes she remembers.

"When I sing and my eyes glow," she says "and I think about and, you know, that's my feeling and my emotion."

Back then she says all anyone wanted to hear was American rock and roll.

"Some like a swing and some blues," she explains. Some of the most popular requests were "Fly me to the Moon" and "Mona Lisa". And "Tenderly". And then as "Time Goes by."

But she also spent time in the recording studio, although in the studio she only sang Vietnamese rock.

"The government," she explains "they said don't record American songs.".

In the mid 60s she met her husband and she says she thought that was the end of that part of her story. In 1975, she came to the U.S. "because the communists took over the South Vietnam. You know, that's why I had to go."

She settled in the South Bay where she and her husband raised three children, and her oldest daughter Hannah says there was always music in their lives.

"It was singing in the kitchen at the karaoke machine, in the car," Hannah remembers and she says when she moved away from college it was her mom singing "over the phone."

But Hannah says her mother never talked about her past, or the fact that she has been called Vietnam’s first rock star. In fact, she says it wasn't until 2019 when a movie producer wanted to use what they thought was one of tam’s songs that Tam told Hannah about her past life.

"I say before I am a singer," says Tam, "I have an album." She wasn’t sure that Hannah believed her.

Hannah says at first she didn’t and she says, "I was like, okay, tell me, okay, let's go back, let's rewind. Tell me all about the song and the movie and the recording. You recorded a song that they want to use, and that started me rolling and researching and emailing and spending countless hours online trying to figure out my mom's past."

Hannah says it was an unbelievable journey, "It was like, okay, mom, is this your photo? Yes, that's my photo. Where did you find that? And mom. Is this your recording? Oh, wow. That's. That is my voice. How did you find that? The whole two years, it was like that, incredible."

More incredible was the unbelievable collection of tam's music that had been preserved by fans from around the world.

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"I had no idea that this group of people were out there salvaging pre 75 music that has been destroyed by war and neglect and really erasure," she says, "What I have in the collection are collectors that have scoured Vietnamese flea markets and mom and pop antique shops, and they look at it and they bought it home. They purchased it. They bring it home."

But those vinyl records had been worn down by time, so she found London based independent producer Mark Gergis, who says he was floored by the story.

‘So Hannah reached out to me and I signed up immediately. I was sold," he says "What we're lucky to have are these documents that help us sort of piece this fragmented puzzle of Vietnamese music and cultural history, because understanding Vietnam’s music history is, in my opinion, still very much a work in progress. With so much, you know, left behind, untold, committed, and so much culture having been lost with the war. This is one of many stories, but it's quite a specifically special story."

It's the story of her mother, that Hannah has is just getting to know. She has created a CD that is more than just a curation of songs but also a story. "I translated all the songs from Vietnamese to English" she says so her children and future generations can enjoy it.

It’s a story told every time Tam closes her eyes and sings and every time the CD plays or this record player needle takes a turn. The story of the music and the girl.

The girl who kept her past a secret for 55 years, but a story that is a secret no more.