Frequently Asked Questions
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Ha Phuong Talks About Her Work and Her Life
- You were and still are a very well-known singer and actress in Vietnam. Please give us an idea of your background and successes there.
Well, I don’t want to be boastful, but I was a finalist in a national television competition in 1991. Additionally, the movie “Ha Si Quan” (Translation: Officer Cadet), that I starred in won second prize in film festivals nationwide. In the United States I have worked with The Gioi Nghe Thuat Productions, Asia Entertainment and Thuy Nga Productions. I was the first to propose adding English subtitles to the Cai Luong DVDs overseas. They are a popular modern folk opera group in Vietnam. My main goal was to encourage the younger generations of Vietnamese living abroad to appreciate this form of traditional performance and in that way help preserve the culture and the native language.
- How many albums have you had? Do they still play your songs on the radio?
I am proud to say that my songs are still frequently played on the radio there. In all, Ha Phuong have released 12 solo albums and numerous CDs in Viet Nam and the US. While in the US, Ha Phuong has worked with three worldwide media companies: The Gioi Nghe Thuat entertainment , Asia entertainment and Thuy Nga entertainment.
- Do you have an American acting and musical debut planned?
Absolutely! I am excited to tell you that I recently recorded two singles, as well as two related music videos, and am currently working on my first English-language album. Right now I am also focused on Finding Julia, my first producing role and my first starring role in English. I am also working on my first English-language record album, single songs and DVDs.
- We understand that Finding Julia is partially about a young woman coming to America and struggling with the new language and maintaining her traditional culture in a strange land. Is this your story? Were these your experiences in coming to America
My goal was to make one film that incorporated aspects of Eastern and Western cultures in a way that was unique and accessible to a broad audience. Language is a nightmare for many Vietnamese who come to American not as small children but in their teenage or later years. This was my main struggle. It has been a nightmare to try to learn the language. This is the main character’s struggle as well. In that way, she is like me. Moreover, the difficulty in “her traditional way in a strange land” is also a difficulty for me, a singer in Vietnam that specializes in what we call country or traditional music. But it’s not enough to say that this is just my story. I used aspects of my personal experience, my family members’ experiences (particularly my mother’s), and the experiences of my friends. The movie wouldn’t have been able to show such a comprehensive story if I hadn’t incorporated their stories. In an audience interview with Alice Munro, the recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, someone asked her why she didn’t write more about the people in her life. As Ms. Munro responded, “It’s very boring. You always want your characters to be more interesting.” She said that as a writer you have the opportunity to make your characters personalities more dynamic than real people. That is what our script endeavors to do.
- What else is a main theme in Finding Julia?
I was very interested to learn about the Oedipus complex, which in females is also sometimes called the Electra complex. Julia loves her father in a way she knows is wrong. That’s all I can say about that—you have to see the film.
- What was it like working on a film in English with your famous co-stars?
I loved it! They were so professional and also so gracious and patient.
- Why do you want to reach an American audience with your film, your music and your public performances?
I think that music and movies promote mutual understanding in the best possible way. I love both my country of origin and my adoptive country and I want to do my small part to help people in both countries understand and respect each other.
- How has your life experience made you person and the artistic performer you are today?
I feel very lucky to have been able to work and perform in both Vietnam and the U.S., and while I’ve had so much experience, I never want to stop working. There’s always more to learn. I always want to keep growing as a performer and learn as much as I can. My goal is to be able to help the younger Vietnamese generation become as well-trained in the performing arts, so they may have the confidence to perform as well as anyone. I’ve even started a class called “Hollywood Acting Class.” It is a course in the TVI Actors Studio, a film drama school that has trained the most famous movie stars in the world. It was established in 1986 and has three branches, in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, and some other countries as well.
- How has your previous experience in Vietnam prepared you for U.S. stardom?
In my experience, singing in Vietnam is like having a conversation with your nation. We all share the same ethnicity, skin color, culture and language, so we’re like siblings in the same family, all sharing the same happiness and pain. In contrast, performing in America is like a big battle to erase the language and cultural differences in order to connect and sympathize with the human race altogether.
- What have the highlights and challenges been during your time in New York?
It was difficult to cope with American society at first. I was teased because of my accent, and found it hard to put up with the cultural differences. Even in a place as multi-ethnic as New York, it was hard to blend in at first. I realized quickly, though, that New York is a unique city full of unique people, and the point wasn’t to blend in, but to stand out.
- What advice can you offer both women and men who make their home in a new culture?
Be patient with yourself. Everyone has hard journey in life, whatever they do. We also have that internal negative voice that tells us we’re no good, or less than the other person. I say, be kind to yourself and take things a step at a time. Everything worth doing takes time. And nobody is good at everything. Nobody is perfect—least of all me! (Laughs).
- What do you think the biggest issue for those who want to begin again in a new country?
Well for me, hands down, the language. After that it’s the culture. People in different countries have different habits, different ways of looking at the world. We need to respect each other and be tolerant of each other’s differences.
- Which other female performers do you admire and why?
It’s hard to name just a few. But for me, Celine Dion and Sarah Brightman are two amazing talents. As an actress, and as a humanitarian, Audrey Hepburn has no equal. Princess Diana was another great woman and role model for her dedication to make the world a better place, especially for children, our future generations.
- How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It’s a constant struggle to arrange time for classes, performing, and charitable endeavors without neglecting my responsibilities as a wife, mother, sister, daughter and daughter-in-law. My family is the most important thing in my life, so I make sure to make time for them, no matter what.
- Charitable work is a large part of your current focus: which areas most warm your heart?
I am very passionate about helping children. Last year I produced a CD for an orphanage called Lam Hong Phoi, which cares for blind children. All the proceeds from the CD are going directly to this orphanage. In 2010 I also presented a New Year’s parade for Vietnam orphans. I am also spearheading my family’s Ha Phuong Foundation and Vietnam Relief Effort.
- What do you want us to know about Phuong Foundation and Vietnam Relief Effort?
I started the Ha Phuong Foundation in 2008 in Huntington Beach, which is in Orange County CA. It reflects my passion for music and supporting children. We made an initial donation to build a multi-media arts center in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Garden Grove. Specifically, the art center puts technology into the hands of young people and allows them to creatively express themselves while providing them with market-ready job skills by training them to use professional equipment and software. The Foundation focuses on musical teaching/career development programs for blind children. The program provides musical instruments, curriculum, and arts-based vocational training for these underserved youngsters. The Foundation also provides aid to underprivileged children directly by building small houses and paying for necessities such as surgery, food, clothing and education. Additionally, the Foundation also provides support for artists who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to develop their talents. Already we have opened free schools for artists, enabling the underprivileged or disabled to pursue their dreams. I have pledged 100% of my future earnings. Including DVD/CD sales, concert revenue and royalties from my music and acting career to the Foundation. I also help run the Vietnam Relief Effort, a non-profit that my husband, Chinh E. Chu, formed with his sister in 1999. This organization is dedicated to giving back to some of Vietnam’s poorest citizens. This charity has funded the construction of schools and footbridges across rivers in rural communities as well as subsidized surgeries for war veterans and the disabled. Another primary mission of ours is to bring Vietnamese doctors to the U.S. for training. My husband and I return regularly to personally deliver money and supplies. I try to give generously elsewhere, and this year I have graciously been awarded the honor of becoming a “top donor to UNICEF.”
- How has your philanthropy made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Using my gifts to help others is the best feeling in the world. It brightens everything I do and gives me a real reason work as hard as I do. Without that any success would be a selfish joy.
- You have young children. What are the challenges that face them and what do you want them to know about their heritage?
I want my daughters to learn how fortunate they are, how many others are suffering all over the world, and how important and soul-satisfying it is to help others. To that end they often come with me to help out with the orphans in Vietnam and to help feed hungry families, there and in the U.S. They also both already love to sing and perform, so I take them to some of the music programs we have for underprivileged kids in California. They see how wonderful it is for these kinds to be exposed to music and the arts, just as they are. My husband and I make “giving back” a big part of our lives. We are determined to be role models and inspire our daughters so they will do this too, and pass it on to their children as well.