Tô Văn Lai, the brain behind Paris by Night

If you ask me which decade was the best to live in as a Vietnamese music lover, my answer is, hands down, the 90s. That’s when I was first introduced to Paris by Night, a global Vietnamese-language musical show, through some smuggled analog videos that my aunt brought home. From fashion to music, the show captivated me, and it still does.

When I was in kindergarten, no Christmas party was complete without my family watching Don Hồ singing Mary’s Boy Child in Vietnamese. Entering primary one, I used hairspray daily hoping to look as chic as Nguyễn Cao Kỳ Duyên in her bouffant and beehive. Growing up, I grew my hair long to look as graceful as Như Quỳnh and took dance lessons so I could move like Minh Tuyết. As I’m nearing 30, I wish I could be as witty and knowledgeable as show host Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn.

Throughout my childhood, I memorized the names of all the artists who’d appeared on the shows. However, it was not until I grew up and read extensively about the Vietnamese arts scene did I learn the name of the man who created my Vietnamese “Disney Channel” – Tô Văn Lai.   

The birth of Thúy Nga Productions

Image credit: Nhạc Vàng Bolero

In 1972, Mr Tô, a secondary school teacher with a passion for music, bought a record store in the Crystal Palace Complex, also known as Thương Xá Tam Đa. 

He named the boutique Thúy Nga, after his wife, and brought forth the idea of producing music.     

Mdm Thúy Nga at her record store
Image credit: Nhạc Vàng Bolero

Mr Tô recorded singing tapes of Saigon’s most renowned singers at the time, such as Thanh Tuyền and Thái Thanh, and sold their records at his boutique. Without a strong grounding in music, Mr Tô had to learn the basics of production while consulting the artists he worked with for advice on songs and recording.  

Image credit: Nhạc Vàng Bolero

After the country’s reunification in 1975, Mr Tô and his family fled Saigon and emigrated to France in late 1976. 

Like many other families, Mr Tô started his new life with shattered dreams, which he managed to mend and realize when the time was right.  

He produced the first Paris by Night episode in Paris

Image credit: Nhạc Vàng Bolero

In the initial years of his settlement in Paris, Mr Tô made a living by pumping gas at a petrol station.

Despite his hardships in a foreign land, Mr Tô’s passion for music remained strong. 

His wife, Mdm Thúy Nga, opened a record store in a small lane in Paris where she continued selling movie and music records like she used to.

After his first 5 years working at a petrol station, Mr Tô saved enough money to realize his production dream.

Image credit: Thuy Nga Paris By Night Fandom Wiki 

In 1981, he brought his hard-earned savings to Euro Media Production, a French cable network company, to request a collaboration. He asked Jean Pierre Barry, a producer, to help with producing a music record in VHS form.

As the record was produced in Paris, he called it Paris by Night.  It consisted of 11 songs that were performed by other Vietnamese immigrants who happened to be singers, such as Julie and Hương Lan.   

The first episode of Paris by Night
Image credit: Wikipedia 

After half a decade in exile, Mr Tô’s love for music was again brought to life through his re-establishment of record label Thúy Nga and production of Paris by Night.

That was a high-stakes decision to betting his savings on his passion. Nobody has talked about how well the first Paris by Night was received or whether Mr Tô’s decision yielded returns. However, it was not until 3 years later that he collected enough money to produce the second Paris By Night.  

Most of the content featured in the first episodes of Paris by Night were traditional Vietnamese folk songs. After several more years of adapting to their new life and new waves of immigration that introduced more talented artists, the directors of Paris by Night had new ideas to develop the show and reach out to a larger Vietnamese audience. 

Mr Tô and his children
Image credit: Nhạc Vàng Bolero

In the late 1980s, Thúy Nga Production moved to Orange County, California, home to the largest community of Vietnamese immigrants in the US. 

Resounding success in the early 1990s

Tô Văn Lai (left) at Paris by Night’s 10th anniversary
Image credit: Thuy Nga Paris By Night Fandom Wiki

Show hosts, modern songs, sketch comedies, and dazzling fashion were heavily featured in the consequent episodes. The theme of each episode varied, yet geared towards the one and only goal – to promote and preserve Vietnamese culture, history, and arts. 

Paris by Night 99
Tóc Tiên
Image adapted from: Thuy Nga

To connect the Vietnamese communities in the US and Europe, Thúy Nga Production, spearheaded by Mr Tô, started filming direct-to-video shows selling tickets. Those who couldn’t make it to the shows could buy tapes from local record stores. 

Audience at a Paris by Night Show
Image adapted from: Thuy Nga

By the early 1990s, Paris by Night had become indispensable soul food for nostalgic Vietnamese immigrants around the world. Traditional songs, one-act plays, and features of success stories of fellow immigrants supply rare moments of delight for the first and second wave of the Vietnamese communities in foreign lands. Everything produced by Thúy Nga Production became a hit, from songs to documentaries to stories authored by Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn.

Paris by Night 99
Show hosts Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn and Nguyễn Cao Kỳ Duyên
Image adapted from: Thuy Nga

Through Paris by Night, immigrant artists could find their way back to the stage and continue their disrupted music dreams. In return, nostalgic audiences could find an emotional buoy to hold on to the moment Thái Thanh, Khánh Ly, and Tuấn Ngọc lifted their voices, singing good old Vietnamese songs. 

Before the post-war Vietnam reopened doors and the Internet was available, Paris by Night was like a lighthouse that brought Vietnam to Vietnamese who had neither the courage nor hope of returning to their homeland. 

Image credit: CD Nhạc Việt

In the mid-90s, the first Paris by Night tapes were smuggled into Vietnam by overseas returnees and caused a sensation inside the country.

The Paris by Night discs that my aunts brought from Canada became highly prized items that we hid carefully. No local discotheque could keep guests coming back unless they could blast the latest disco songs from Paris by Night. I owe my first English words, initial impression of Western lifestyles, and tidbits of old Vietnamese anecdotes to Paris by Night. Everything originated from Paris by Night, from music production to performing style, and became the standard for many local artists and music makers. 

Minh Tuyết
Image adapted from: Thuy Nga

Because of its widespread popularity, Paris by Night has become a gold rush for aspiring singers and comedy artists even until today. From this show emerged the young artists that later became household names such as Minh Tuyết, Bằng Kiều, Hoài Linh, Chí Tài, and Hồng Đào. 

It has become common knowledge that if you can put your foot on the stage of Paris by Night, your face and name will be known by millions of Vietnamese all over the world. 

Như Quỳnh PBN
Như Quỳnh
Image adapted from: Thuy Nga

Obviously, the late 90s and early 2000s were the heyday for Thúy Nga Productions. More money was poured into making each show, which could go up to one or two million dollars. Most of the expenses went towards the rental and creation of the stages, the making of costumes, and payment for hundreds of artists.  

Nonetheless, times changed, and content creation formats were altered.

Piracy, crisis, and resorting to YouTube

Tô Văn Lai Paris By Night
Marie Tô (center) 
Image credit: Nhạc Vàng Bolero

In the mid-2000s, Thúy Nga Production became a victim of piracy. Digital contents were illegally duplicated and edited from legitimate discs, causing enormous loss of revenues for the producers. Duplicated Paris by Night discs were sold everywhere in Vietnam at the price of VND10,000 (~USD0.44) each, which was at a fraction of the usual price of ~USD29.95 per original disc. 

Of course, none of the revenues coming from the sales of duplicated discs reached the content creators of Thúy Nga Production.  When YouTube and TikTok made their arrival in Vietnam, a majority of record stores around the country were closed. Seriously, who would go to a brick-and-mortar store to buy DVDs, VCDs, or Blu-rays, when everything’s available on YouTube?   

The Internet has become the greatest challenge for the producers of Thúy Nga Productions, now spearheaded by Mr Tô’s daughter, Mdm Marie Tô Ngọc Thủy, and her husband.

Tô Văn Lai Paris By Night
Image adapted from: Thuy Nga

To preserve the 3-decads-old production, Mdm Marie Tô made monumental changes by releasing all Paris by Night contents onto YouTube and earning revenue from video ads.

The producers of Thúy Nga Production still express their desire to continue with producing Paris by Night, in spite of enormous financial and physical challenges. The main reason and motivation, according to them, is to preserve and pass on the precious characteristics of Vietnamese culture to the next generation. 

Paris by Night is Tô Văn Lai’s larger-than-life legacy 

On the first day that Mr Tô opened his record store at Crystal Palace, he must have harbored big dreams for it. When he was en route to France as an immigrant, he certainly mustn’t have thought that his Vietnamese music dreams would still live on, for the next 38 years at least. 

As an audience, I have no idea how much longer Paris by Night will last. However, I think that the family of Mr Tô should be extremely proud that their creative contents have enriched at least 2 generations of the Vietnamese population all over the world. 

Not only is Mr Tô Văn Lai’s story a great example of a dreamer’s tenacity, but it also tells us how a man’s pride in his heritage can make him achieve phenomenal things and inspire other people.  

We wish Mr Tô Văn Lai good health and hope to see Thúy Nga Production prosper in many years to come.

You can watch Paris by Night and overseas Vietnamese-language shows by subscribing to Thúy Nga Production’s YouTube channel here.  

Also check out:

Cover image adapted from: Thuy Nga

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