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A St. Louis woman discovered her mom’s secret past — as a Vietnamese rock star

Phương Tâm on the front cover of Đẹp magazine in 1965.
Phương Tâm
Phương Tâm on the front cover of Đẹp magazine in 1965.

Dr. Hannah Ha knew her mother loved to sing. When Ha was growing up in San Jose, her mom, Nguyễn Thi Tâm, always stole the show at family karaoke parties. Her parents would invite other Vietnamese refugees to share food, companionship and music for hours.

“We knew that she had a great voice,” said Ha, now a physician based in St. Louis. “Growing up, we would hear her singing so many great American songs.”

Her mom would even reminisce about her teen years performing for American and Vietnamese troops in Saigon. But it wasn’t until decades later that her mother casually mentioned something about a movie wanting the rights to use one of her songs in a scene. They had sent her a long contract to sign.

Ha was convinced her mother, now 77, was being scammed.

“So I said: ‘Mom, you have to be very careful. Don’t give any information to people you don’t know,’” Ha said.

Her mother ended up ignoring the inquiry. It wasn’t until months later, when Tâm again mentioned the film, that Ha slowed down enough to ask questions — and she learned that not only had her mother recorded songs back in Vietnam, but that some had made it to YouTube.

“It was a shock for me, to look at the comments and to hear so many people writing positive comments [about] how wonderful these songs are,” Ha explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Far from simply entertaining troops, Ha learned, her mom had been a recording artist who worked with South Vietnam’s top composers in the scene’s 1960s heyday. She performed under the stage name Phương Tâm.

Phương Tâm’s daughter brings her music back to the spotlight

As Ha eventually learned, the song being sought for the film wasn’t one of Tâm’s (the recording had been misattributed). Yet that discovery led to further discoveries — and new experiences for both mother and daughter.

“For me to discover that she had recorded these tracks in Vietnamese over 55 years ago was an amazing journey,” Ha said. “But I think what was really touching for me was to have her hear the songs.”

Of the decades-old recordings, said Ha, “She had no idea they even existed.”

For Ha, uncovering the recordings kicked off a crash course in the music scene that once thrived in her parents’ homeland, and the country where she lived until she was 8. Before the fall of Saigon, the country’s recording industry was vibrant.

“It went through the psychedelic phase, the go-go dancers, it got into the heavy acid rock, and ballads all along the way,” said Mark Gergis, the London-based producer of the 2010 album, “Saigon Rock and Soul.”

But everything ended suddenly in 1975. As the U.S. evacuated and Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, families like Tâm’s fled. Ha’s parents left for the U.S. three days before the fall of Saigon, escaping with very little. They didn’t take with them the magazine covers that Tâm graced as a rock star. And in Vietnam, the new Communist regime cracked down on Americanized music.

Between 1964 and 1966, Phương Tâm recorded a collection of hits — twist and surf styles, jazz tunes, and early rock songs.
Phương Tâm
Between 1964 and 1966, Phương Tâm recorded a collection of hits — twist and surf styles, jazz tunes and early rock songs.

“We're missing so much history in that sense, with lost master tapes, lost stories, lost lives,” Gergis said.

Busy raising three kids in the U.S., Tâm never mentioned her singing career to family and friends.

“I think it's very common for immigrants to come to their new country and to start over, to do a reset,” Ha noted. At that time, she added, her family was in survival mode.

“And I think the music now is starting to get recognition because we're no longer in survival mode. We're in a time where we want to know more about our past. We're curious, especially for the younger generations,” she said.

Vietnamese music from the war era is now being rediscovered by collectors like Gergis, who sees a global appetite for music from that time and place.

In 2020, Gergis agreed to help Ha uncover her mother’s story. The pair spent countless hours surfing YouTube, sourcing what they could from surviving 7-inch records and reel-to-reel tapes.

And now, one year after Ha’s discovery, and a half-century after they were recorded, 25 of Phuong Tam’s songs can be heard on both CD and digital album: a new release called “Magical Nights - Saigon Surf Twist & Soul.”

For Tâm, rediscovering her old recordings has given her a greater appreciation for Vietnamese music. Back in the 1960s, the American songs were always her favorite.

“Now I love [Vietnamese music],” she said.

She is especially fond of the song that reminds her of her late husband: “Neu Co Xa Nhau,” which translates to “If We’re Far Apart”: “Now I want to listen to that song all the time.”

Gergis said the new album is one of the most immersive projects he’s been a part of — “with so many twists, mysteries and locked doors to find keys for.”

He added, “And what makes it very special for me is that it is a family story. It's a mother-daughter story. It chronicles Hannah's incredible roller-coaster journey to uncover this legacy of her mother.”

Ha said her mother was one of the last people involved with the project to see the finished album.

“She did not get to see the final product until we had the actual CD,” Ha said. “She has so many friends, and I knew that it would be revealed before it was completed.”

Said Ha, “She cannot keep a secret.”

Phương Tâm performing at the Miss Vietnam Beauty Pageant with the Khanh Bang band at the Hung Dao Theatre in Saigon in 1965.
Phương Tâm
Phương Tâm performs at the Miss Vietnam Beauty Pageant with the Khanh Bang band at the Hung Dao Theatre in Saigon in 1965.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.