Singer Phi Nhung, a charitable celebrity mired in controversies
Gone but not forgotten, singer Phi Nhung is one of the few Vietnamese artists whose name is still trending and triggering heated debates on Vietnamese social media after her death.
For the past couple of months, Vietnam’s Internet has become a hall of shame for local celebrities with allegedly seedy charitable activities – with singer Phi Nhung in the foreground. After two decades of doing charity work, she faced the greatest stigma in her three-decade-long career after netizens had accused her of abusing her adopted son for money. From the time of her Covid-19 diagnosis until her death one month ago, her personal life had been mired in one controversy after another.
In this article, we’ll bring you the story of Phi Nhung, one of Vietnam’s most well-received artists who recently died of Covid-19.
1. Singer Phi Nhung was a Vietnamese-American orphan
Image credit: Vietnamnet
Born in 1970 in Gia Lai, Phi Nhung was of mixed race and single-handedly raised by her mom in her earlier years. Her mother was a Vietnamese tailor, while her dad was a US citizen. When Phi Nhung was 11, her mother passed away and her financially hard-up family could no longer afford her education. So she quit school, moved in with her grandmother’s family, and earned a living as a tailor.
Phi Nhung in her 20s
Image credit: Giáo Dục Thời Đại
In the late 90s and early 2000s, she became a household name in many parts of Vietnam and her albums were among the best-selling ones of the decade.
At age 19, Phi Nhung immigrated to Tampa, Florida. While singing karaoke playfully at her acquaintance’s house, her crisp and melodic voice caught the ears of Trizzie Phuong Trinh, an influential local artist, who happened to be there. Heeding Trizzie’s advice, Phi Nhung moved to California, home to the largest Vietnamese population in the US, to pursue a career as a singer specializing in Vietnamese country music.
Image credit: Thuy Nga
Within a short time, she became famous among Vietnamese audiences all over the world thanks to her rare singing voice and stunning appearance.
2. She did charity work tirelessly and adopted 23 children
Image credit: Thanh Niên
Phi Nhung’s journey as a philanthropist started in 1997, when she returned to Vietnam for the first time. From donating money to the vulnerable elderly in nursing homes to funding the constructions of schools and clinics, Phi Nhung had travelled many parts of Vietnam for charity work.
Phi Nhung helping the needy in India
Image credit: Thanh Niên
As an orphan who didn’t have equal schooling opportunities like other kids had, Phi Nhung had long harbored a passion for helping vulnerable kids.
That’s why she was motivated to adopt and raise 23 underprivileged kids from different ages, most of whom were orphans. Some of them lived under the same roof with her in her home in Saigon. The others live in Phước Lạc Pagoda in Bình Phước where they have been raised like little monks.
Image credit: Sức Khỏe Đời Sống
For this reason, many people have had the impression that Phi Nhung didn’t have any kids of her own. In fact, she had one biological daughter named Wendy Pham, who lives in the US and is a well-trained nurse. According to Phi Nhung, she used her income from singing to support her daughter’s college tuition, while the revenues from her vegetarian restaurant in Saigon were used to raise her adopted kids.
3. She was accused of milking her adopted son’s singing income
Phi Nhung and Hồ Văn Cường
Image credit: Vietnamnet
Throughout a successful career that spanned over two decades, Phi Nhung hadn’t had any scandals until the final year of her life.
In early June 2021, messages from her adopted son Hồ Văn Cường to a fan were leaked onto social media. In his conversation, he allegedly said that his adopted mother was a devil in disguise and that she wouldn’t let him move out.
This incident shocked many people and set the Internet on fire for many months on end, because everyone had thought that their relationship, as mother and son or mentor and student, was perfect. Or at least that’s what they showed on their Facebook posts and on performance stages.
Here is some background information for your understanding.
18-year-old Hồ Văn Cường is not an orphan, but a talented singer from an underprivileged family in a rural part of southern Vietnam. Discovered by Phi Nhung at a singing contest in 2016, he was adopted by the late singer so that he could have a better future in Saigon. His parents were also invited to come live under the same roof with her, where they got paid for doing house chores and helping out at her vegetarian restaurant.
Performing on the stage of Paris By Night
Image credit: Thuy Nga
Red carpets started to roll out for Hồ Văn Cường, who went from a country boy to a well-groomed singer who performed with one of the top country music singers in Vietnam’s modern history. With her connections, Phi Nhung arranged for Hồ Văn Cường to perform with her in Paris By Night, the largest and most prestigious musical stage in the eyes of Vietnamese communities all over the world.
Therefore, many audiences had the idea that Hồ Văn Cường must have earned a lot of money due to his domestic and overseas gigs and that Phi Nhung had been milking Hồ Văn Cường for money.
Hồ Văn Cường and Phi Nhung held a press conference to address their matters immediately after that. Phi Nhung explained that she would let her adopted son move out at the age of 18 and even support him financially if he wanted her to, and Hồ Văn Cường apologized to her for his impulsive actions.
However, netizens wouldn’t let this issue go. One thing led to another, many even accusing her of using charity work for her own gain.
4. She died of Covid-19 while doing charity work in Saigon
Image credit: Nld
Despite facing enormous criticism from netizens back then, Phi Nhung was adamant to continue doing charity work instead of leaving like many US passport holders in Saigon back then.
“Saigon is being hit hard. If I stay, maybe I can still be of use.” She explained to a friend.
While tons of people rushed to the airport before the lockdown order officially started, Phi Nhung fearlessly fired up her kitchen to cook. Hundreds of meals were made in her kitchen daily and were sent to both frontliners and the homeless. Her friends advised her to get vaccinated, but she said that she would get the jabs once she returned to the US, because Vietnam was “having a shortage of vaccines”.
And like many F&B workers who volunteered during this period, Phi Nhung contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalized in late August.
Image credit: Nld
When news of her conditions broke out, many netizens flooded her Facebook with harassing messages and cursed at her, wishing for her death.
On 28th September, she passed away from Covid-19 complications at Chợ Rẫy Hospital.
She was posthumously praised by President of Vietnam, Mr Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, for her heroic deeds during the Covid-19 pandemic.
5. Her funeral took place in the US
Image adapted from: Thuy Nga
Due to the Covid-19 safety rules, her body had been cremated before it was escorted back to the US.
On 13th October, her funeral was organized in Garden Grove, California, where thousands of people from all parts of the US attended it. Many of singer Phi Nhung’s colleagues shared their memories with her and talked about how genuine she was.
Some didn’t forget to lament the cruelty of numerous netizens, who had accused her of despicable wrongdoings. They noted that nobody who had participated in charity work with her had raised questions about her ethics, and yet many people were spreading rumors about her without evidence.
Phi Nhung’s mental well-being had been severely affected in the last months of her life, as her friend revealed later on in a talk with Thúy Nga Paris By Night, which could have significantly weakened her immune system. A few days before Phi Nhung’s funeral, extreme YouTubers and netizens were still harassing her family and manager about the issue of Hồ Văn Cường’s money.
6. Netizens are still divided over her case
Image credit: Tiền Phong
Just recently, Phi Nhung’s manager revealed that Hồ Văn Cường’s prize money, which amounted to VND180,000,000 (~USD8,000) after tax, had been kept by his biological mother since day one. Phi Nhung had not kept his prize money like what many people accused her of doing.
It remained unclear why Phi Nhung’s manager, who has been in charge of Phi Nhung’s money, didn’t reveal this information sooner. Many people also wondered why Hồ Văn Cường and his mother kept mum about this detail until after Phi Nhung had died, causing the singer to carry the blame to the grave. Therefore, many people have vented their frustrations on Hồ Văn Cường, calling him ungrateful. Meanwhile, some stand in his defense.
Phi Nhung’s manager announced that she had recently settled all the financial matters with Hồ Văn Cường and he would move out soon, according to Pháp Luật Plus. Hồ Văn Cường also received an extra VND500,000,000 (~USD21,977), a gift promised by Phi Nhung when she was alive.
Even until today, the scandal surrounding Phi Nhung and her adopted son is still causing debates on social media.
7. Her last dream was to build a Vietnamese school in the US
Image adapted from: Thuy Nga
Even though she moved to the US in her teenage years, Phi Nhung had always been fervent about raising her daughter to speak Vietnamese fluently and going the extra mile to ensure that her grandchildren speak Vietnamese while at home. She had always dreamed of building a Vietnamese school in the US where Vietnamese-American kids can learn the Vietnamese language and culture.
During the last years of her life, the late singer had been engaged in raising funds and planning the establishment of a Vietnamese school in a Buddhist monastery in California, where her family lives. For this reason, her family members have expressed their determination to carry on her legacy.
Speaking with Thúy Nga Paris By Night on 19th October, Wendy Pham, Phi Nhung’s daughter, offered more insights into the family’s plans. The total amount of contributions that the family received at Phi Nhung’s funeral amounted to USD72,000.
Half of the money would be donated to the construction of the Vietnamese school, while the remaining would be used to support Covid-19 patients in Vietnam.
The dead can’t defend themselves
As Asians, many of us believe we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead lest they can’t rest in peace. Nonetheless, singer Phi Nhung unfortunately became an exception. As people are still talking about her, even when she’s not around to defend herself.
No family is without conflicts or misunderstandings, so it’s tragic to see one’s private matters blown out of proportion and distorted by strangers.
This issue has also drawn attention to a darker aspect of social media – cyberbullying. In this digital age, there’s no escaping the harsh scrutiny and biased analyses of audiences and online streamers who thrive on hot scoops and even fake news. Let’s refrain from judging a person when we don’t know their full story.
May Phi Nhung rest in peace and her pending dreams be realized by her family members.
Also check out:
- 20 Vietnamese singers whom every millennial should know about
- Tô Văn Lai: from a penniless immigrant to the inventor of Paris By Night
- Being a dancer in Vietnam: the sacrificies we rarely talk about
- Doctor’s life inside Covid-19 wards: no toilet break nor water for 5 waters
- L’Amant (1992): a cinematic sensation based on a Saigon love story
- Indochine (1992): a historical movie about Vietnam that won an Oscar
Cover image adapted from: Soha, Phi Nhung FC Miền Tây, and VTC
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