Flowers for WanBi

It’s been an exciting and exhausting month which has kicked off what promises to be an amazing year. I was teaching at three different public schools in Saigon and met some awesome people through them who I remain friends with even after leaving. Christmas was incredible, teaching almost right through the holidays except Christmas day, dressing up in reindeer ears and playing We Wish You a Merry Christmas on guitar with grades one and two and getting gifts and hugs from my students. One little girl even wrote me a letter when I broke a bell off my reindeer ears telling me that she wanted to buy me a new one.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas !

We Wish You a Merry Christmas !

The coolest gift I ever got from a student.

The coolest gift I ever got from a student.

I guess my reindeer ears were popular

I guess my reindeer ears were popular

I spent a lovely new years in Vung Tau with some good friends and we drank a lot and were merry and made LOTS and LOTS of noise in my friend River’s hilltop apartment, far away from the city below. I always love going to Vung Tau and it’s my favourite holiday destination in Vietnam. Eating out and drinking lots was a great way to ring in the new year and relax.

Eating out in Vung Tau with River and Elyka Wolf

Eating out in Vung Tau with River and Elyka Wolf

I wrote an emotional and personal story about WanBi Tuan Anh and how on his birthday, I took the opportunity to teach one of my grade 5 classes about him by means of a guessing game and we listened to his music together in class when one of my students finally guessed near the end. I asked a friend to translate it for me into Vietnamese and I tagged Lý Minh Tùng of Yan TV, one of WanBi’s close friends.

When I first got the translation I showed it to my friend Quy who drinks across the street from my apartment in the afternoons to read it and see what he thought of the Vietnamese version. He said it was very beautiful and from the heart, so I guess my translator did a pretty good job. He told me “You know, I had no idea you wrote about Vietnamese music or WanBi. My little brother composes the music for Hari Won and has his music in the new movie about WanBi”. I corrected him about the movie, since as my friend Phúc from WanBi FC said to me… “A fan will never call that movie the WanBi movie”. I was fascinated to learn this because I had only discovered who Hari Won was a couple of days earlier and listened to her music. She’s a really cool and funny Korean girl living in Vietnam and singing in Vietnamese. Very pretty and quirky.

Sure enough, a day or two later my story was on the front of Yan TV’s website and all my friends and co-workers were messaging me to say “Wow, I just saw your story on Yan TV ! So cool !”. I was thrilled to have so many people talking about my story and telling me how much they loved to read my writing and how much they appreciated me writing about their idol. My story reached over 100,000 views in 24 hours and now stands at a bit under 200,000 a few days later. My previous story on Yan TV about WanBi got 355,000 but it took a year to do it.

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Having just been into the studio last week to help my friend Ngô Huy Đồng record a couple of songs, I asked him if he would go back in and record a WanBi cover for me. I said it was up to him which one he liked. My favourite is “Bat Song Cam Xuc”, but I told him he might prefer “Cam On”. In the end he chose “Vut Mat”, which was a good choice. We all went into the studio with him to record it and he did a really good job. Some of the vocalisation parts were difficult for him, but he was perfect at the verses and sometimes I had to remind myself that it wasn’t WanBi I was listening to when we were playing the song back during editing. I paid the studio a little bit extra to have them rush through the mixing in a day instead of the usual 8 days, but it was very cheap and they did a decent job.

In the studio with Ngô Huy Đồng and Nguyệt Lan

In the studio with Ngô Huy Đồng and Nguyệt Lan

We had a lot of fun in the studio with them. They had these two little mice in a cage, and while Đồng was recording, the mice would run around on the wheel squeaking and the second sound engineer lifted them out of the cage and played with them and let them run around the room. We laughed a lot at the mice and at Đồng trying to record the most difficult parts of the song. Everyone was trying to help him get the pitch right on certain bits and the studio was full of people humming (I was !) or singing (Yi was !) along to the melody. In good spirits, whenever Đồng messed up, we would all shake our head or yell at him and he’d laugh and go “ok ok” and he’d re-take the verse or vocalisation section.

Squeak ! We called one mouse WanBi and the other Sky :)

Squeak ! We called one mouse WanBi and the other Sky :)

Yi had no idea that recording was such hard work !

Yi had no idea that recording was such hard work !

We spent about two hours recording it and then went back to my place to cook a celebratory dinner. Nguyệt Lan loves to cook but has no facilities at her house, so we all went to the supermarket and bought different things and she cooked an awesome creamy mackerel soup and I cooked grilled salmon steaks with a lemon and pepper cheese sauce and Yi cooked a traditional marinated pork meal and we drank Chilean red wine and Korean fermented ginseng soju and watched videos of Khởi My and Rain and WanBi and Hari Won and IU and all our favourite Vietnamese and Korean singers, taking turns on YouTube and Zing with my big speakers turned up pretty loud for a small apartment.

Those are pretty big speakers for a very small apartment :D

Those are pretty big speakers for a very small apartment :D

Too many cooks ? Never !

Too many cooks ? Never !

Barely room to eat amongst the music and computer equipment !

Barely room to eat amongst the music and computer equipment !

When we got the CD master back from the studio, along with the unmixed version that I pleaded with them to give me so that I could edit or remix it later, I captioned it and uploaded it to YouTube along with some outtakes of us all in the studio and posted it on my wall and to the main two Wanbi Fan Club groups. As expected, everyone was really happy and said things like “Thank you so much for your tribute ! Thank you for loving WanBi and keeping him alive !”. It felt good to be doing something that people liked and made people happy. People told me how they’d had bad weeks and how my story had lifted them up when they were down. Well, it did for us too. We got our feelings out through writing about and singing and listening to music. I’m happy it also inspired other people and made them happy again.

Thank you !

Thank you !

Then there was to be the WanBi live show. Oh my god. So many things WanBi related in one week… his birthday, my school lesson, the “That Guy” movie release, Đồng’s tribute recording, and then there was to be a live show in his honour. I asked my friend Phúc from the fan club for 4 tickets so that Đồng and Nguyệt Lan could come with us and she arranged to meet me. I asked “Where ?” and she said “WanBi’s house”. I blinked at the message and wondered if she meant his mother’s restaurant, Soi. She said “No, his house. I am going to buy flowers for his mother. You can come with me and get the tickets”.

So exciting !

So exciting !

I cannot tell you how nervous I was. I still hadn’t met Nguyễn Minh Tâm, WanBi’s mother. I’d been meaning to go to her restaurant for ages but I hadn’t gotten around to it and I wasn’t sure if we could talk if I met her. I met Phúc at the Zoo in the morning so that we could go and pick up flowers. We decided on 40 white roses because she said that white roses were WanBi’s favourite and an old woman arranged them and sprinkled water and glitter all over them. Then we rode to WanBi’s house.

But it wasn’t a fancy high-rise apartment we arrived at. In the depths of the hem off Nguyen Thi Minh Kai, not far from the Saigon Zoo, we arrived at an unassuming house with large green doors at the end of a labyrinthine maze of alleyways. I smiled a little and wondered what was going to be inside. When the doors opened, the first thing I saw was Minh Tâm and WanBi’s dogs. We came inside and took off our shoes and I looked at the dogs warily. One was barking at me. Little dogs don’t always like me and I’m used to them being a bit vicious so I didn’t dare pat them yet. Phúc said simply “WanBi is upstairs”. I followed her upstairs into a side room with old paintwork that was a little faded and mouldy on the walls. In front of it was a shrine to WanBi with incense and food offerings and a large cardboard cut-out of him standing nearby. It had a ticket to the show for him too.

WanBi has his own ticket to his show.

WanBi has his own ticket to his show.

I felt strange getting a photo of myself beside a cardboard cut-out of Wanbi but Phúc insisted. We took a stick of incense each and she lit them both and said to me “You can talk to WanBi. He will listen” and we bowed our heads and shook the incense and put it in the bowl of sand with the other sticks as I contemplated what it was like to live here with WanBi.

I'm only a little taller than the man himself ! :)

I’m only a little taller than the man himself ! :)

I guess I imagined that as a famous singer he would have an apartment with his girlfriend Kang Ha Neul, “Sky”. But he lived here, in this old but friendly house with a smiling mother and his younger sister. It was easy to see why he had such a kind soul, meeting his mother and seeing the love in her heart. It was nice to know that he was humble too. Phúc left me alone for a moment and I walked around the room and looked at photos of his father and his grandparents and other family members on the higher altar and then at some of his own family photos. I had not seen the photo of him with his father in the family photo before and when Phúc returned I asked her how long ago it was taken. There was also a photo of WanBi back in high school. I chuckled and said “I guess he was even handsome back then”.

Dep trai !

Dep trai !

We went downstairs and I stood politely while Phúc chatted to Minh Tâm like they were mother and daughter. One of the smallest dogs approached me and proudly put its foot down down on top of my sock-covered foot and looked up at me. I cautiously leaned down and patted it, wondering if it would spin around and snap at me. But it jumped up on my leg and began licking my hand like crazy. I guess it sensed I was a friend. I took the opportunity to pick up Sushi, the largest of the dogs and WanBi’s favourite and he liked me too and tried to lick at my face as I held him and scritched his back. I asked Phúc to take a photo of me holding WanBi’s dogs. It was sort of surreal to me. When my brother died, his dog was the most enduring and constant memory of him, so to be standing there holding WanBi’s favourite dog was really amazing. I felt so close to him.

Everyone on Facebook knew whose dog I was holding !

Everyone on Facebook knew whose dog I was holding !

Minh Tâm poured tea for us and we sat down and chatted. She didn’t speak English so I mostly talked to Phúc and she translated a few questions or comments for Minh Tâm. When she heard me talking about his songs and the order the continuing stories of Vut Mat, Dau Vet and Tim Thay went in and how Tim Thay was my favourite, she understood what I was saying and she smiled at me a little. I thought “Now she knows I am fan, not just a journalist”. I asked her about Sky and whether WanBi really drank lots of iced green tea and she looked happy to answer my questions. I talked about Hari Won and how I thought she was a very good actor to play Sky in the movie.

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Sitting there having tea with Phúc and Minh Tâm while Cream (I think that is the smallest dog’s name, but someone else said it might be Cherry) clung to my leg licking my hand, I felt happy and honoured to have been involved in WanBi’s life story from the first week I arrived in Vietnam, seeing it through the good times and the bad, his death, and meeting his family and then to be attending his tribute concert later that night. I tried to express to Phúc how strange it was that when I arrived in Vietnam, long before I or the public knew WanBi had a fatal diagnosis, I had chosen him to follow. Out of all the singers in the country, why had it been WanBi, I wondered out loud. She just said that WanBi lives forever in our hearts. Some would say it was fate. I like to think I just sensed a special person.

When we made to leave, I said goodbye to all his family and gave Sushi and Cream a last pat as all four of the dogs followed me to the door. I left first, riding down the maze of alleys, past old Vietnamese couples outside their house playing Chinese Chess or just sitting and talking. What had felt strange and unexpected about where he lived now felt exactly the way it should. I now knew more about WanBi than I could have ever learned or imagined from a documentary or interview.

I went home and completed the final stages of convincing Yi to let me dye purple streaks into her hair as she had a very cute black and red dress with purple highlights all over the top part, and as I hoped, when I did her hair, it turned out a perfect match. The VIP tickets Phúc had given me specifically said on the back in Vietnamese that you should dress well. I guessed that meant that we weren’t in the fan club section (I had told Phúc she wouldn’t be able to find me a WanBi t-shirt in my size, hehe), so I went in full suit and tie. I looked like a total baws, and Yi put on some lovely high heels and hung off my arm glittering as we entered Queen Hall that evening.

Cute couple, right ?

Cute couple, right ?

Nguyệt Lan chuckled as the last of the crowd filed into their seats or on the floor and said “You know, you are the only foreigner here tonight”. I said “Hari Won’s a foreigner. Besides, at least half the people here know who I am from my Facebook picture now”. We were seated on the Hari Won fan club side, opposite the WanBi fans, which meant that we could see their signs really well, but I couldn’t actually see any of my friends.

Wanbi FC Represent !

Wanbi FC Represent !

The concert was great. I’m happy to say thanks to Oppo for being the main sponsor, and yes, your 30,000 video advertisements for the new Oppo R5 during the show absolutely did make me want one so bad that I was ready to head to the nearest Nguyen Kim and scream “Give me an Oppo R5 right now.. that phone is AWESOME”.

Some of the songs were… a little off key. I know that Nguyệt Lan, as a singer and music manager sat there muttering through half the show “Oh my god, even I can sing better than that girl”. Whoever was mixing during Cảm Ơn should really have turned that off-key female singer waaaaay down *chuckle*. But most of the show was really well done. The choreography was awesome and I’m sure Đồng liked the dancing. Towards the end there was a lot of talking, which is common during a Vietnamese live show, but they kept the music going regularly and some great songs were sung, both WanBi’s and ones from other singers.

So great to be here !

So great to be here !

For me the highlight of the night was seeing Khởi My. I had been disappointed that Minh Hằng wasn’t there, since she was such a close friend of WanBi’s, but I was thrilled to see Khởi My because we had been playing her musical dramas and songs at the house just the other night, and only last week I had been telling my students that she is my favourite actress in Vietnam. She didn’t disappoint either. She sung well and she was cute as a button with her quirky striped suit and odd hair style.

Khởi My is so cute !

Khởi My is so cute !

In the final segment, after they did Bắt Sóng Cảm Xúc, she was the first one to let go of her balloon after joking about it all through the chat. It wasn’t until later that night when I was at home editing my photos that I looked more carefully at a photo of her holding the balloon, threatening to let it go that I saw her huge white watch and said “Yi ! Come and look at this. Check out Khởi My’s watch. It’s the same one she wears in the Gửi Cho Anh drama !” Yi commented “She’s such a strange girl” and I said “Yeah I know. She’s awesome”.

Let it go !

Let it go !

Thu Minh was also very impressive during the night, singing an ear-shattering powerful song in English that blew away all the Vietnamese audience.

Thu Minh singing in English

Thu Minh singing in English

After I corrected all my photos that I took with my phone and portable camera (I was there as a fan, not a journalist, so I left my Nikon at home and the photography for the people whose job was to do it) I uploaded them and then chatted to all the fans who’d either been there or seen it live on TV. I hadn’t realised that the TV station would air it live so it was really cool to get home and see people posting photos of a copy of Ly Minh Tung’s book or WanBi’s 0901 CD in front of their TV while watching it live and posting “<3 WanBi !". I actually made a couple of WanBi themed breakfasts for Yi and I. Korean BBQ and op la (omlette), and a Japanese curry. [caption id="attachment_1994" align="alignnone" width="510"]Start from the end Start from the end[/caption]

Bi !

Bi !

I keep watching the video of the concert finale when the confetti rained down over all the singers and everyone screamed and they thanked everyone for their support. It was great to see so many people so happy.

So yeah, that was a crazy month and a crazy start to the new year. I look forward to celebrating Tet, but I’ll be in Brisbane Australia, so I’ll have to go to Inala (the Vietnamese district) and find a park or hall hosting a Tet celebration if I am to walk around eating nem nướng on a stick and saying “Chúc mừng năm mới” to people. I’m told the year of the goat is going to be a lucky one for me and I’m looking forward to it. We started off 2015 with such an amazing week that I can only expect that great things are to come. In March Yi and I have a trip booked around Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia for a few weeks. Beyond that… who knows. I try not to plan too far ahead. Life brings you amazing opportunities sometimes and you have to be ready to grab them with both hands and not let silly things like “plans” get in the way.

Thank you to all my friends, fans, readers, co-workers and drinking buddies and everyone else in my local community. You’ve made this a great year already and we’re barely half-way through January ! Thanks especially to all WanBi’s fans for including me in their community and showing me such love.

Cảm Ơn !

Cảm Ơn !

I promise to keep it real and always remember;
“Be Happy. Always smile” – WanBi Tuan Anh.

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