20/20: Vietnam's Pop Princess

ByABC News
December 12, 2000, 7:46 PM

Nov. 24 -- Rising from castoff to star is a compelling theme in show business myth-making, and it is what attracted us to the story of Phuong Thao.

Phuong Thao is one of Vietnams most popular singers, and her real experiences were far more dramatic than those often fed to us by Western public relations enterprises.

As the daughter of an American serviceman in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, she was teased and reviled. Amerasian children in Vietnam were commonly referred to as bui doi the dust of life.

To eke out a living, Phuong Thao and her mother peddled food in roadside markets near the town of Sa Dec, in the Mekong Delta where Phuong Thao was born. Many of her features were clearly Western, but her mother kept her fathers identity secret. Phuong Thao saw no photos and heard no stories through which she might identify with a father, although she constantly had to absorb the cruelties thrown at her by those who viewed her only as the child of a former enemy.

She says her grandparents gave her much of her identity her mother often traveled to seek work and a local music teacher helped discover the talent that eventually led her to stardom. As a teenager, she won a regional singing contest, then lived in the corner of a rehearsal room after moving to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to find work with local bands.

No one who has heard her dark, rich, expressive voice would wonder why crowds responded to her, regardless of her origins. Music, after all, is a great, common language, and Phuong Thao is remarkably gifted in it. In addition, more than half the population of Vietnam is now under the age of 25, born after the war ended.

For our story on 20/20, we reported on Phuong Thaos success as a singer and her first meeting with her father, a former serviceman named James Yoder. Yoder married his wife Ilene following his tours of duty in Vietnam, and adopted Ilenes children from a previous marriage. He didnt know he had a biological child until he was located and told about Phuong Thao 28 years after her birth.