Calvin chances upon what may be HCMC's last Cai Luong collective under the Phu My Bridge of all places
Ngoc Bich (left) and members of what may be Ho Chi Minh City's last functioning cai luong collective. They meet Saturdays under the District 2 side of the Phu My Bridge. Photo by Calvin Godfrey
A year ago this month, a group of thieves set upon a 28-year-old woman as she descended the Phu My Bridge into the desolate southern end of District 2.
In an attempt to steal her SH motorbike and a purse containing roughly US$250, they gruesomely hacked away at her right arm and spent a while chasing off passing motorists as the woman bled on the pavement.
Four days later, police arrested four men who confessed to the gruesome assault "and many other crimes."
The sleek steel and concrete arch was held up as a step toward a future characterized by swift traffic, glass towers and new possibilities. After the assault, it became disdained as "arm chop bridge," a place where desperate dope fiends gathered to viciously prey upon the newly rich.
Not everyone felt that way, apparently.
"I remember that night," said Ngoc Bich, a plump cai luong singer seated under the bridge on a breezy Sunday afternoon. "We left at six and a few hours later it happened."
Soon after it hit the papers, Ngoc Bich says scores of curious drinkers began filling the palm-frond shanties and open beer halls that sit in the cool shadow of the bridge.
Since the attack, business has been great and she never feels unsafe here"”even when she goes home in the pitch black of night.
"The police are around every night," she said, straightening her hair and preparing to sing Co gai ban Sau rieng (The girl who sells durian) to a table full of customers for tips.
Ngoc Bich grew up on the other side of the bridge in District 7. Without disclosing her age, she mentioned that she has a 21-year-old daughter who works in a nearby industrial park, can't sing, and hates the warbly ballads that once packed theaters throughout southern Vietnam.
During the height of the Vietnam War, cai luong singers were said to receive bars of gold and other extravagant gifts from their biggest fans.
Nowadays, entire operas are rarely performed; individual songs are sung mostly to tourists or guests at overproduced one-off concerts put on in television studios.
Most of the biggest stars have emigrated. Others remained with mixed results.
At the cai luong cemetery in Go Vap District, you can give offerings to the ones who met ends that were almost as tragic as the songs themselves"”two were murdered by a gang of kidnappers and assassins following the reunification of the country.
Many more of the former stars faded into poverty and self-imposed exile as the art itself withered into obscurity.
Ngoc Bich says she learned how to sing in the suburban environs of District 7 on her own and has been singing with a small cai luong collective that has maintained an open-air headquarters under the Phu My Bridge for about three years.
Every day, the ten or so members of the loose troupe begin gathering under the bridge by one or two in the afternoon. They set up hammocks, tune their instruments and work on their makeup. Sometimes they wander through the sea of beer drinkers at tin tables to sing for tips as the rest of the members file in from surrounding restaurants, gigs and concerts.
In the past, Ngoc Bich said they met at a bar and restaurant on Tran Hung Dao Street until, one day, the elderly slide guitarist told them all they'd be relocating.
When asked about the move, the old man only smiled and smoked. Then he plugged a dan sen (a sort of two-string banjo) into a battery-powered amp and began to pluck away as Ngoc Bich launched into her song, pitching high, powerful notes up into the concrete rafters and letting them fall down onto the tables below.
It's not hard to see why they chose the place.
The air is cool and cleanfiltered through the bright low jungle that spreads out in every direction. Every once in a while, a cement mixer from a distant construction site lumbers down the road kicking up a little light dust. Beyond that, the only movement comes from the singers, waitresses and the lumbering drinkers shuffling toward a distant pillar to pee.
The food supplied by a nearby canteen is good and cheap"”five dollars buys you a round of beer, a salad of morning glory stems macerated in sweet vinegar, some boiled okra, and a plate of stir fried instant noodles.
In the true spirit of the country, they pool their money and share whatever they have.
"On a good day we can make up to 300,000 each," Ngoc Bich said after finishing a triple encore for $5. "Sometimes, no one shows up."
Usually, they go home before sunset, when the entire place goes dark.
One day soon, I guess that all the trees will be gone and so will the collective. For now, however, it offers one of the city's true oases.
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