Singer Dam Vinh Hung, wearing a white doctor's coat with a name tag that reads "˜Dr. Cat Tuong', poses for a photograph at a Halloween party in Ho Chi Minh City last month
It is Halloween night at a Ho Chi Minh City bar and Dam Vinh Hung, as is his wont, makes a mark with his outlandishness.
However, it is the sheer understated way in which he does it that magnifies the horror of it.
He wears no make up amidst a sea of colorful costumes that seek to outdo each other in the bizarre stakes.
Mr. Dam, as the pop singer is popularly known, is just wearing a pink T-shirt with a white doctor's coat over it.
Any thought that he did not have time to prepare for the evening is quickly dismissed with a closer look at his name tag, which reads: "Dr. Cat Tuong."
That might not sound scary or ghoulish or anything at first glance, but Dr. Cat Tuong is the alias of Nguyen Minh Tuong, who was arrested in Hanoi last month. He admitted to dumping the body of a young woman into the Red River on October 19 after she died on the operating table while he was performing a breast enlargement surgery on her.
Dressing himself as a man who has earned considerable public hostility is yet another notoriety notch that Mr. Dam has become famous for collecting.
Yet again, the nation's culture czars intervened and demanded that the celebrity behaves.
The Department of Performing Arts under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism issued a statement last week, asking Hung to stop making "inappropriate statements and actions."
The statement listed previous misdemeanors including kissing a monk on the mouth at a charity event in November last year, making disrespectful responses to criticism by veteran songwriter Nguyen Anh 9, and cutting the queue of around a thousand people including war veterans waiting to pay tribute to General Vo Nguyen Giap at a memorial in Hanoi early last month.
His scandalous acts have a "continuous and systematic routine," the department noted.
For his part, the 42-year-old singer sent a note of apology the same day, taking blame for his "immaturity" and promising to maintain a good image hereafter.
Hung said he thought his Halloween costume would remind people "that the doctor is a monster that they need to avoid."
The department said Hung's act has upset the general public.
Hung had explained on local media that the doctor costume was spontaneous and was suggested by his friends at the party, and that his original intention was to be an autistic patient.
But the effort to win sympathy backfired with many people saying autism was nothing to make fun of.
Thanh Huyen, mother of an autistic child, said on news website Kham Pha that "Hung had proved to be a thoughtless person."
Hung is an experienced performer and his wide fan base means that his actions and statements can have a large influence, especially on young people, it said.
It warned that stricter action would follow if the singer crosses the line again.
The department had fined him VND5 million (US$240) the maximum penalty prescribed for taking advantage of public events to commit improper acts or make offensive statements for the monk kissing incident.
Hung has been among the most popular male vocalists in the local music industry the past year, and is usually referred to as the "King of V-pop" by entertainment media, but his real ability has been downplayed by several artists in the field. For a man who apparently revels in making scandalous statements in word and in deed, he has shown himself to be thin-skinned.
Songwriter Nguyen Anh 9, whose songs have been popular on local stages since the 1970s, in August made critical comments in an interview with VTC News about Vietnam's current pop singers including Hung.
He said Hung was not a "true singer," because he felt that the latter did not have a distinct singing style or even a clear accent. He called the singer, who came from central Vietnam and has Chinese plus French blood in his veins, a "superficial" talent.
The 73-year-old musician said Hung's performances of yesteryear songs, including those composed by Anh himself, were a total failure.
People's Artist Tran Hieu, a veteran performer, praised Anh's criticism, saying that the media were prone these days to launch artists into stardom easily, and that this was hindering development of the entertainment industry.
Hung's response was a Facebook message asking his fans to "stay calm and behave politely," followed by a long letter on his Facebook page, in which he called Anh a "hypocrite" who was using his influence in the Vietnamese music industry to oppress Hung.
The singer said the criticism had negated many awards he received and the musical perception of millions of his listeners.
He announced that he would never sing any of Anh's songs again.
Similarly, he said he would shun singer Thanh Lam, one of the leading female vocalists in the country, who he had once called his idol, after she questioned his musical ability.
Lam said last year said she could not imagine what Hung would have to offer as a coach on The Voice Vietnam, the reality singing contest adapted from the original Holland show. He has now been a coach for two consecutive seasons.
Hung has also been caught up in several scandals in which he mislabeled authors of songs in his albums.
He is being sued by one songwriter for changing the names of a song and its author in a recent album.
Lesser-known songwriter Nguyen Truong Nhan, who showed up last April saying he is the song's author, said he has filed a lawsuit after many attempts to settle the problem personally with Hung failed, and that the complaint was accepted by a HCMC court in May.
Vietnam's showbiz industry has been awash with scandals and bans this year.
In September, the performing arts department barred 18-year-old singer and actor Angela Phuong Trinh from performing on any stage in the country after she wore a skinny, beige-colored, underwear-like outfit while singing at a bar in Hanoi on August 22.
She also gyrated suggestively around a pole. The ban was temporary with no specific term, but Vietnamese laws say a performer can be banned from the stage for between six months and two years.
In August, the department placed a similar ban on Le Ngoc Huyen Anh, who is no professional performer, but created a buzz by posting erotic pictures and dances on the Internet, openly stating her wish to enter the showbiz industry by any means.
In June, it fined popular variety show "Dem Hoi Chan Dai" (Leggy Night) VND35 million ($1,660) for advertising liquor on their invitation cards and featuring women parading in undergarments, and canceled the Vietnam Beach Queen 2013 pageant days before its finale for violations including not publishing the contestants' scores, not setting up official judge panels, not organizing the semifinal round, and a failure to produce the profiles of all contestants when requested.
The department said its interventions have helped reduce violations in the showbiz industry by 80 percent compared to last year.
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