The Writer & MC: Nguyen Ngoc Ngan
Anyone that has ever read Nguyen Ngoc Ngan's books or watched him host Paris by Night knows that he is a man that tends to follow his heart.
A yearning for freedom helped him escape to Vancouver in the late 1970's, a passion to showcase Vietnamese culture led him to become a revered novelist and MC, and a love of Toronto brings him to the CNE stage at Hoi Cho Tet on Februrary 10th, 2007.
"At first when the organizers asked me, I said no. However, I eventually accepted because for the first time in history, Hoi Cho Tet will be at the CNE. That makes it a momentous event. Over 10,000 are expected to come and a lot of the Paris by Night singers will be there. In addition, the Liberty Band asked me and Dr. Terry Van-Thua Ho of the Vietnamese Association of Toronto asked," said Mr. Nguyen, who went on to explain that the Feb. 10th Toronto event conflicts with his hosting duties for Paris by Night in California.
"I'm skipping the Paris by Night show because I promised to do the CNE show. It's not about business or money; it's about being loyal to the community that I love."
Although Mr. Nguyen has built his reputation on unwavering integrity, he's often had to sacrifice several financial opportunities in order to stay true to his principles. For instance, not only is he losing close to $20k by skipping the Paris by Night show, he'll also miss another Hoi Cho Tet show in San Diego.
Even Mr. Nguyen is the first to admit that he's not much of a business man. For all the opportunities he has to use his name to create a franchise around his image, Mr. Nguyen has resisted countless business proposals over the years. He has turned down offers to invest in cafes, restaurants, and book stores for fear of damaging his reputation, or quite simply, because the time was not right.
"I don't have any business ventures. I like to create. I like artistic freedom. I'm always thinking about what to write for my next book or what stories or speeches I'll say at my next hosting job. If you start thinking about business, then your writing suffers. I am a writer first, an MC second, and a business man last," said Mr. Nguyen, who has even turned down opportunities to turn his books into movies.
Despite little ambition for business opportunities, Mr. Nguyen has still managed to forge quite a lucrative career in the arts over the past two decades. A visit to his home in North Toronto reveals a house that is very similar to the man himself. He lives in a nice, yet not extravagant, house in a modest looking neighbourhood. However, one step inside the front door and the large home is impeccably decorated and beautifully arranged, full of style and substance. Not bad for someone who started in Canada as a dish washer and sold his first book for only $5k. The basement is filled with volumes of Mr. Nguyen's novels, exquisite art work, and is also brimming with Vietnamese culture. He wishes more youth would appreciate the Vietnamese arts.
"When I decide to turn my books into movies, I want to do a movie that introduces our beautiful culture to the world. A lot of young Viet directors just want to make another kung fu film or horror film. These types of genre films can't compete against glossy Hollywood or Hong Kong movies. Why not try something different and show off Vietnamese culture instead?" says Mr. Nguyen.
"I try to use Paris by Night to get youth interested in our culture. You'll notice when I'm hosting, I'll try to slip in some old Vietnamese stories or history."
But that's not to say Mr. Nguyen doesn't like today's music. Of the new, young rising stars on the Paris by Night tour, he thinks Quang Le and Minh Tuyet shine the brightest.
"Being around so many talented young people on the tour has helped me feel young. But despite how much talent is out there, we are still waiting for the first Viet singing star to break out in the mainstream. Look at American Idol, so many kids try out every year and barely any Vietnamese audition, even though there are some amazing Viet singers out there. I think it's because we are afraid to fail and get laughed at. Our culture makes it hard for youth to take risks, even if they are very talented. At least Paris by Night provides an opportunity for them to shine."
The Paris by Night tour has been very good to Mr. Nguyen, even though he doesn't get a percentage of DVD revenues as many assume. Of all the shows that he's hosted, he still remembers the time when he performed at the John Bassett Theater with the lion from the movie The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas. It was Mr. Nguyen's first time seeing a lion in real-life and he remembers looking into the great beast's cold, menacing eyes. But the show must go on, and Mr. Nguyen still put his arm in the lion's mouth, just like how the director asked him too.
Now it's time for someone new to enter the lion's den, so to speak. Mr. Nguyen would like to cut back his hosting duties to only three times a year in 2007. He's currently part of a team looking at potential replacements and audition tapes. He would love to offer hosting secrets, but he can't.
"When it comes to MCing, you can learn techniques, you can study the masters, but you either have the gift to speak or you don't. It's as simple as that. It's not as easy as it looks," said Mr. Nguyen.
"I've always admired great MCs such as Dick Clark, Bob Hope, and Billy Crystal. I like it whenever Billy Crystal hosts the Oscars and does that funny montage at the beginning showing him in all the movies. I'd love to try that for Paris by Night one day. But I am a writer at heart and MCing doesn't last forever."
It then dawns on me that I'm sitting beside our own Vietnamese Johnny Carson. And just like Johnny, we better appreciate his final few shows, before he has a change of heart and decides to one day put down the microphone, write full-time, and walk off into the sunset.
Picture of Nguyen Ngoc Ngan, a Vietnamese MC and Writer
Written by Thien Huynh
Thien Huynh is a reporter for 24 Hours and appears on SUN TV every Thursday. If you would like to nominate someone for Pride of the Vietnamese or have a story to tell, contact him at email@example.com or Thoi Bao at firstname.lastname@example.org