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Cai Luong: The Changing Face of Vietnam's

National Theatre

Candidate Number 928248

A Dissertation Submitted in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Bachelor


of Arts in Music Degree

University of Oxford

May, 2010
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Contents

Introduction 3

Chapter One 6

Chapter Two 15

Chapter Three 30

Glossary of Vietnamese Terms 33

Bibliography 35
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INTRODUCTION

Among the English-speaking world, Vietnam is undoubtedly more synonymous with a

theatre of war than with Vietnamese theatrical drama and its cultural heritage. The body of English-

language literature and film produced about Vietnam has, in recent decades, primarily focused on

the Vietnamese-American War at the expense of the country's indigenous culture and its larger role

within contemporary global society. This phenomenon is indicative of an Anglo-American bias

which can be attributed to the continual influence of a generation who experienced the Vietnamese-

American War first-hand. The war is still a relatively recent event in history and one which

contemporaneously received a great deal of attention by the global mass media; thus, the events of

the war are still, to a large extent, at the forefront of our social consciousness.

Nevertheless, several writers, particularly since the 1990s, have begun to challenge this

attitude in their own academic and journalistic articles. Ethnomusicologist Miranda Arana warns of

an “ultimately self-reflexive and self-serving” body of literature which approaches Vietnam one-

dimensionally, from the perspective of Vietnam as America's enemy (Arana 1999, p.1). She quotes

writer Dana Sachs in an article from the San Francisco Examiner: “Vietnam is a country, not a war.

A vet returning to Vietnam would have a mind full of memories. But I am not a vet. I come from the

next generation” (Sachs 1990). A decade later, Vietnam faces the same challenges regarding its
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global image, but has since benefited from significant economic growth1, and in particular the rapid

development of an international tourism industry2, which has stimulated global awareness of

Vietnam.

The context of Vietnamese studies and recent developments in English-language scholarship

about the country is, as such, of paramount importance to the academic integrity of a Vietnam-

related study. This essay is principally a musical study of cai luong, a genre of musical theatre

which originated in Vietnam, and documents the development of the genre from its origins in the

early 20th century to the present day, relating the changing features and changing role of the genre to

chronological events and changing socio-cultural patterns in Vietnam's history. In this essay I hope

not only to incorporate recent developments in Vietnam Studies (and indeed to accept the challenge

of presenting an objective viewpoint on a controversial topic), but also to incorporate recent ideas

and methodological principles from the field of ethnomusicology.

As far as I am aware, this essay is the first English-language article about cai luong which

attempts a comprehensive outlook of its historical development and considers the genre in terms of

ethnomusicological methods. I am nonetheless indebted to Dr. Duane Hauch, whose doctoral thesis

has provided an insight into the early history of cai luong (Hauch 1972), and Dr. Philip Taylor who

has written a chapter relating cai luong to modern urban life in Ho Chi Minh City (Taylor 2003).

International academics have been able to visit Vietnam freely since 1992 – the Vietnamese

government's “open doors” policy on international borders came into effect in 1990, and the United

States government lifted a ban on citizens travelling to Vietnam the following year, in November

1 For a discussion of Vietnam's economy since the 1997 Asian finanancial crisis, cf. Vuong Quan Hoang and Tran Tri
Dung, 2009
2 The United Nations World Tourism Organisation identifies a 286% rise in international visitors to Vietnam between
1998 and 2008. cf. http://www.unwto.org . Web.
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19913. As such, most of the research on Vietnamese music which comprises my secondary sources

is from 1992 or later. Several ethnomusicologists have considered specific Vietnamese genres in the

decade; whilst the musical genres discussed are quite distinct from cai luong, I have found recent

articles about neo-traditional music (Arana 1999), popular music (Gibbs 2008) and ritual music

(Harris and Norton 2002) of interest.

This essay is presented in three chapters. In the first section, I describe my own fieldwork in

Vietnam as an introduction to the technical and performance features of cai luong. The second (and

main) section is a reading of the development of cai luong as it relates to Vietnam's history from the

French Colonial Period to the present day. Finally, the discussion of cai luong is considered from a

global ethnomusicological perspective: the study of Vietnam's cai luong genre is considered in

relation to musical studies in other world regions. A glossary of Vietnamese terms with English

definitions is provided at the end of the paper4.

A note on Terminology and Anachronism

The official names of many Vietnamese terms and geographical locations have undergone

numerous changes in past decades. In this essay I have erred on the side of simplicity of expression

and use modern official names when referring to any time period during which names have changed

(for example “the growing population of Ho Chi Minh City in the 20th century” rather than “the

growing population of Saigon”5).

3 Dates from the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the USA - http://www.vietnamembassy-
usa.org/us_vn_relations/timeline/ . Accessed on 01/04/10. Web.
4 The modern written form of the Vietnamese language is known as quoc ngu, and uses an extended form of the
Roman alphabet with numerous diacritic characters. In the main body of the dissertation Vietnamese terms and
proper names are written without diacritics, but are written in their full Vietnamese written form in the glossary.
5 The official name of the city was changed in 1976 by Vietnam's Communist Party government.
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CHAPTER 1: CAI LUONG AND MUSICAL LIFE IN MODERN VIETNAM

I first visited the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in March 2008 and followed an itinerary

travelling overland across the country. Beginning my journey in Hanoi, the administrative capital in

the North of the country, I travelled along Vietnam's trans-national highway over several weeks. My

final destination after 18 days and approximately 1700 kilometers was Ho Chi Minh City in the

South of the country.

My first encounter with Vietnamese music occurred in the immigration room of Hanoi's Noi

Bai airport, after a flight from Hong Kong; in the first instance, this was a propaganda song with a

male vocalist accompanied by synthesised strings and percussion, played over loudspeakers. The

only indication of the song's Vietnamese identity other than the language of the singer, the physical

setting and a certain nationalist fervour portrayed in the music was the “Eastern flavour” of the

largely pentatonic melody. Whilst this song was not a typical representation of the musical genres

which I subsequently encountered in Vietnam, it left an impression which was reinforced by my

later experiences. The song introduced two truths crucial to my understanding of music-making in

Vietnam. Firstly, many genres of Vietnamese music today display aspects of the Western musical

tradition, and in some cases are hybrid forms of Western popular or classical genres and indigenous
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Vietnamese genres6. Secondly, the Vietnamese government frequently employs its power to

influence, control and censor music as a public form of expression.

Despite the latter fact, it is not difficult to locate performances of live music in Vietnam.

Professional musicians can be heard in the numerous jazz and rock-themed bars in Vietnam's urban

centres; throughout the country there are also formal concert venues and bars for performances of

traditional Vietnamese music, whilst a somewhat modified form of traditional music7 is performed

in many of Vietnam's tourist resorts. There is also a tradition of amateur music-making and there are

frequent informal performances of Vietnamese songs and chamber music in public areas. This

tradition is ingrained into Vietnamese culture to the extent that the most celebrated form of chamber

music is known as nhac tai tu (music for amateurs) although this genre is also performed by

professional musicians.

I thus discovered much of the highly visible and diverse musical culture of modern Vietnam

during my first trip to the country. However it was not until the last few days of my trip, in Ho Chi

Minh City, that I first saw a performance of the musical theatre genre cai luong. Fortuitously, Ho

Chi Minh City provides an appropriate point of departure for a discussion of cai luong as the genre

has had its most enduring popularity there, and was first conceived in the nearby Mekong Delta

region.

Furthermore, the dynamics of modern-day Ho Chi Minh City illustrate (and to some extent

explain) the various musical and thematic influences which comprise cai luong. Ho Chi Minh City

is the largest city in Vietnam with a land area of over 2,000 square kilometres and a population of
6 The concept of Western influences on Vietnamese music is discussed in detail in chapter two (as a historical
narrative) and chapter three (from a comparative global perspective).
7 See Arana 2001, p. 113 for a Vietnamese professional musician's perspective on perfomances for tourists in Vietnam
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over seven million residents8; it is also the country's main economic centre. Moreover, it is the site

of an unmistakable urban landscape, and the city's architecture appears almost like a history book to

the visitor: in the Central Business District there are modern glass-fronted high-rise structures

alongside imposing colonial-era buildings (including a large Catholic cathedral), Chinese pagodas

and brutalist architecture built by the Communist government in the 1970s and 80s, as well as

earlier traditional Vietnamese structures. A succession of political regimes have each contributed to

Ho Chi Minh City's idiosyncratic skyline and the physical structures which remain (and which have

succeeded the respective regimes) illustrate the cultural tensions in the city's history and

contemporary life.

The apparent syncretism of Ho Chi Minh City's architectural landscape is, as such, an apt

illustration of the different influences which have shaped the musical and extra-musical features of

the cai luong stage. The first cai luong production that I witnessed in March 2008 was an open-air

production on a temporary stage in central Ho Chi Minh City's 23-9 park. Whilst cai luong is an

eclectic form, this production illustrates some of the common features of the genre.

The production featured several actors and actresses who were clearly well-known to the

Vietnamese audience. The stage itself was vividly decorated, but with substantial sound and lighting

systems; the production was in a pseudo-historical style (known as cai luong tuong co or “ancient”

cai luong), the characters wore traditional ceremonial dress and painted faces (similar to the

costumes in Beijing opera), and were based on stock characters. The narrative included comic

elements but the tone of the production was primarily serious .

8 From the government census, April 1st 2009. Accessed from http://www.hochiminhcity.gov.vn . Web.
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The following evening there was another cai luong production at the same site (both

productions were part of a festival for rural cai luong troupes). Visually, this production was very

different to the first production I saw. Actors and actresses were dressed in modern casual clothes,

but the characters were more developed and multi-faceted than the caricatures of the first

production (this style, in contrast to the “ancient” style, is known as cai luong xa hoi, or “modern”

cai luong). Other elements of the staging were similar to the previous night: although the only stage

props were two chairs and a table, lighting and sound effects were frequently employed and

relatively complex. There was a serious romantic narrative throughout the production, but it was

primarily a comic affair.

These two productions demonstrated to me the two main stylistic approaches of

contemporary directors to the cai luong stage, as well as the flexibility within the genre in terms of

the themes and narrative. Despite the thematic differences (and the somewhat different approaches

to staging) between the two productions, the way in which music was implemented into the drama

was strikingly similar. Indeed, in general the use of particular musical structures and gestures is the

defining feature of cai luong.

In a cai luong performance there is both spoken and sung dialogue. There is a musical

ensemble which provides accompaniment to the sung sections, incidental music during scene

changes and episodes of dramatic action, and occasionally provides light accompaniment to spoken

sections. There are no fixed rules about what instruments are in the ensemble, but the core

instrumental group is based on the amateur chamber music (nhac tai tu) ensemble. Traditionally

indigenous plucked string-instruments are used, namely the following:


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 The dan tranh – a sixteen-stringed zither

 The dan kim – known as the “moon lute” in English, a two-stringed instrument with tall

frets, a round body and long fingerboard

 The dan ty ba – known as “pear-shaped lute” in English, a fretted instrument with four

strings

 The dan bau – a monochord where the single string is attached at one end to a flexible

wooden rod. The performer can bend the rod with one hand to manipulate the note, plucking

the string with the other hand (using a plectrum).

A two-stringed bowed instrument known as the dan nhi also features in the ensemble on

occasion.

In cai luong productions, these instruments often appear alongside their European

counterparts, such as the violin, electric guitar, electric bass, saxophone, drum kit, piano and

electronic keyboard. The instrumental ensemble in cai luong can vary considerably between

different productions and different troupes, but the organisation of the ensemble and the function of

each instrument is mainly based on the original chamber music tradition, and there are a number of

unwritten9 rules and traditions about orchestration in cai luong productions which ensure that the

ensemble complements the vocal techniques of the singer.

Vocal episodes in cai luong are largely improvisatory in nature: singers and instrumentalists

realise, and elaborate over, a skeletal melodic framework using its associated mode or dieu . In

9 An article on Vietnameese music in the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (Nguyen 1998) claims that there is
"no comprehensive Vietnamese music theory".
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Vietnamese music, there is a governing modal system which includes over a hundred different

modes, many of which are specific to different genres or regions. The modal system is sub-divided

into bac (“Northern”) and nam (“Southern”) modes, which are further sub-divided into hoi

(“nuances”)10. The majority of modes are pentatonic, but there can be between two and seven tones

(Nguyen 1998).

In cai luong each mode represents a particular sentiment or feeling (examples in Nguyen

1998 include “xuom – serene and lively”, “ai – lamentable”, “dao – serene but straight” and “oan –

plaintive”). The lyrics of each sung section are thus carefully matched to an appropriate mode.

When realising the appropriate melodic framework in a cai luong song, the original melody is

“stretched” and each note of the melodic framework punctuates the beginning of the musical

phrase. Between these moments of punctuation or “cadence” the melody is improvised both by the

singer and members of the ensemble, giving the music a recognisable heterophonic texture.

The Vietnamese modal system incorporates several different systems of temperance and

tuning: the intervals between successive tones are based on a several different ratios. Furthermore,

when playing certain scale degrees within specific melodic patterns, musicians may play a note

deliberately flat or apply a microtonal “bend” or glissando. For singers, the melodic contour and use

of microtonal tuning is also based on the spoken language. Vietnamese is a tonal language, and the

Southern dialect which is favoured in cai luong performances has five distinct linguistic tones. Cai

luong singers incorporate the tonality of the language into their improvised songs, so a rising

linguistic tone will correspond with a rising melodic contour, and may also be sung with an

ascending microtonal bend.

10 Detailed explanations of the various modal systems are found in Tran 1962, Trainor 1975, Nguyen 1998, Mac 2007.
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The most important melody in cai luong productions is called vong co, which translates as

“nostalgia for the past”. It is repeated several times in every cai luong production. It is usual for the

singer to perform the first phrase unaccompanied and in free time (known as the rao or

“announcement”); the penultimate note is highly embellished leading to the final note on which the

ensemble enter in unison with the singer. Vietnamese audiences who are familiar with cai luong are

able to identify which melody is being performed from this first phrase, and usually give a round of

applause to acknowledge both the well-known melody and the virtuosic delivery of the singer's

opening phrase (personal communication 2009).

The modal and tonal systems outlined are features of the unique sound world of cai luong

and Vietnamese music in general. In practical terms, it is these features primarily which dictate the

orchestration of the cai luong ensemble. In traditional sung sections of the production only the

indigenous Vietnamese instruments accompany the singer, as Western instruments are not designed

to perform microtonal melodies and cannot easily be retuned to the Vietnamese system of

temperance. An exception to this rule is the violin, which is fretless and easily retuned. A more

recent invention is a modified electric guitar called the vong co guitar – the frets are raised, the

fretboard is scalloped and the strings are loosened so that the pitch of a note can be raised by

applying more pressure to the string. For these reasons, the violin and vong co guitar often feature

alongside indigenous Vietnamese instruments in the performance of traditional melodies.

The vong co and other traditional melodies are an important feature of the music of cai

luong. However, cai luong includes a variety of other musical styles. During scene changes and

action scenes (such as battle scenes) the music performed may be a pastiche of traditional

Vietnamese music of Chinese folk music. However, in modern productions it is equally common to

have pastiches of Western popular music when there is no dialogue – the guitar, keyboard and drum
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kit are the principle instruments used during scene changes. Clichés associated with Western

classical music and film soundtracks are also common in cai luong, such as trumpet fanfares

announcing the entrance of a king, or tremolando strings and whole-tone scales underpinning a

character's hallucinatory experience.

There are typically several sung Western-style pop ballads in modern cai luong productions.

Vietnamese aficionados of cai luong distinguish between ballads that are based purely on Western

idioms and those that also have “indigenous” Vietnamese features (personal communication 2009).

Western-style songs that showcase traditional Vietnamese instruments, vocal techniques or well-

known melodies are known as que huong or “homeland” songs (Le Tuan Hung 2004). A popular

term amongst Vietnamese fans of cai luong is tan co giao duyen, meaning “modern and ancient

exchanging charms” (Mac Vu 2003). This refers to a cai luong production in which the different

musical idioms are tightly integrated . For example, between each phrase of a vong co melody there

could be a ballad-style instrumental phrase played by guitar, keyboard and drums.

In this chapter the essential musical and thematic features of cai luong drama have been

outlined, with an emphasis on the way in which indigenous Vietnamese features and foreign styles

interact in modern cai luong productions. In the following chapter the technical features of cai

luong are re-examined from a historical perspective. The cultural forces that are manifested on the

cai luong stage are re-considered and the multi-dimensional quality of musical and terminological

features is highlighted.

By means of an introduction to this new methodology, re-consider the term tan co giao

duyen. My hypothesis is that this term reveals a significant issue about the cultural tensions in
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today's Vietnam and how they are played out on the cai luong stage. The phrase “modern and

ancient exchanging charms” alludes to a belief that Western culture equates to modernity and

traditional Vietnamese culture belongs to an ancient time. The notion that “Westernisation” equates

to modernity and progress is frequently encountered in ethnomusicology, and is discussed in a

global comparative sense in the final chapter of this essay. However, the case of cai luong is far

more complex: whilst modern and Western musical forms are celebrated, the most enduringly

popular feature of cai luong is the traditional Vietnamese melody vong co – “nostalgia for the

past”. The endurance of traditional features alongside imported Western idioms is one of the most

striking features of cai luong, and it is equally remarkable that “ancient and modern” features are

said to “exchange charms”, suggesting that these features are entirely complementary, rather than

presenting a potential artistic conflict of interests. The questions that terms such as tan ca giao

duyen raise are, to a great extent, resolved by the following chapter's historical survey of cai luong

as the genre is considered from its origins to the present day.

I began this chapter describing my first visit to Vietnam in 2008. I recently re-visited the

country in December 2009 specifically to record some cai luong performances and to interview

local people about the genre. I spoke to students and professors from the Ho Chi Minh City

Conservatory of Music and the Ho Chi Minh City College of Stage and Cinema, and musicians

from the Hung Dao Theatre. However, I believe that the theories and ideas that I have formulated

about the genre are inspired most of all by street-level interactions with Vietnamese people outside

of the music industry. The conspicuously anonymous “personal communication” citations in this

essay are the result of my interactions with guesthouse staff, taxi drivers, curious high-school

students and other Vietnamese people who have offered me their thoughts about cai luong. In many

cases these interactions have provided me with new ideas and anecdotes and, as such, they have

been one of the most invaluable aspects of my research.


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CHAPTER 2: THE HISTORY AND HISTORIOGRAPHY OF CAI LUONG

The story of cai luong begins in about 1910, on the outskirts of Saigon (modern-day Ho Chi

Minh City) in the French colony of Cochinchina. The early twentieth century was a period of

significant cultural and political reforms in Vietnam, and the influence of the French colonial

regime was far-reaching. French Indochina was established in 1887 and the French regime

subsequently made immediate efforts to import and disseminate French music, theatre and literature

to the newly-acquired colonial region.

At the time two distinct genres of indigenous theatre existed in Vietnam – the folk theatre

cheo and the classical theatre tuong. Cheo is the oldest form of theatre in Vietnam, originating in the

eleventh century. Derived from folk traditions, cheo plays are mostly anonymously written and

orally transmitted between successive generations (Mackerras 1987, p. 4). The folk stories told in

cheo plays often contain satirical messages and comedic routines, and the structure is based on a set

of musical pieces with improvised sections. In this regard, the musical and thematic structure of

cheo is similar to that of cai luong, and specifically it is the first Vietnamese genre known to have

distinct musical modes and melodic structures to portray different moods and sentiments. In the

Grove Music Online article on Vietnam, the musical modes of cheo are described in more detail:
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The repertory includes various types of noi su (declamation of verse in a serious style): su
chuc for the prologue; su xusn, of a happy nature; su rsu, of a sad nature, and su van, of a
mournful nature. Noi lung is declamation of verse in a light style. There are also songs such
as the sap, which are for lively scenes, the ba than and hat van for sad scenes, the sa lech for
love scenes, the cam gia for courting scenes, the he moi for buffoonery and the chuon chuon
for mad women to sing. (Tran and Nguyen, n.d.)

The similarities between the musical principles of cheo and those in cai luong (as detailed in

the first chapter) are numerous. However, cheo has historically been popular only in specific

regions of Northern Vietnam, and there is no evidence to suggest a direct influence on early cai

luong productions. The emotive identity of musical modes is a feature of many other Vietnamese

musical genres (not to mention similar systems elsewhere, such as the ragas of Indian classical

music) ; the most remarkably similarity between cheo and cai luong is in the large number of

different modal nuances to portray quite specific emotional nuances. In this regard, I believe it is

best to consider cheo as a distant ancestor to cai luong, but not a component of the musical melting

pot of colonial Vietnamese society from which the form arose.

Tuong (known as hat boi in Southern Vietnam) is believed to have originated in the

thirteenth century during a war between the Tran dynasty of Vietnam and the Mongol empire.

Chinese theatre was introduced to the Vietnamese royal court by Ly Nguyen Ca, a popular Chinese

actor who became a prisoner of war in Vietnam (Mackerras 1987, p. 3). The Chinese style was thus

introduced to Vietnam and was adapted by travelling theatre troupes who altered the form to include

Vietnamese folk melodies and historical plots. Three stylistic variations emerged: tuong thay –

“masters' plays” which were original stories written by eminent local playwrights, tuong pho –

“long plays” based on Chinese stories, and tuong do – “varied plays” derived from Vietnamese folk

tales (Tran and Nguyen n.d.). Despite these stylistic variations, much of the musical and thematic

content in tuong productions is highly formalised, with archaic rules regarding the music, plot,

characters, stage design and costume design. Moreover, tuong plays are traditionally performed
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either in Chinese or in a classical form of Sino-Vietnamese. There was a feeling in late nineteenth-

century Vietnam that tuong was becoming obsolete, and this was accelerated by the French colonial

regime's influence on Vietnamese culture and education.

The French colonial power initiated several language reforms in early twentieth century

Vietnam. French, rather than Chinese, became the official second language taught in schools. In

1913, quoc ngu (the modern Vietnamese writing system, using the Roman alphabet) became the

official system of writing, displacing the Sino-Vietnamese writing system (“chu nom”). In terms of

Vietnamese theatre, tuong plays became not only increasingly irrelevant to the rapidly changing

society as a result of their highly stylised formality, but also became incomprehensible to their

audiences.

The colonial regime sponsored French theatre troupes to travel to Vietnam, and perform in

newly-built indoor theatres. The Saigon Opera House11, built in 1897 in the image of Paris's Palais

Garnier, was the original site for performances of French spoken theatre at the turn of the century.

These plays were originally for performed the benefit of the entertaining the French colonial elite,

but many of the indigenous Vietnamese were curious and attended these French performances

(personal communication, 2009). The first adaptation of a French play specifically for a Vietnamese

audience was in 1907, when Molière's L'avare (“the miser”) was performed entirely in Vietnamese

translation (Hauch 1972, p. 17).

The French regime also made an immediate impact on Vietnamese musicians. Nationalist

French songs such as La Marseillaise and Quand Madelon were the first to permeate the

11 The building was refurbished by the Communist Government in 1975, and renamed the "Ho Chi Minh City
Municipal Theatre"
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Vietnamese national consciousness; contemporary popular songs and dances from France also

proved popular amongst the Vietnamese. Western instruments began to make an appearance and

performances in Vietnam by Western classical groups were sponsored by the colonial

administration. Conversely, a group of Vietnamese chamber musicians were sent to Paris in 1910 to

perform for French authorities and observe concert performances of Western classical music (Hauch

1972, p. 18).

These early performances of Western music and drama in Vietnam introduced a major new

concept to Vietnamese artists in terms of performance context. The use of indoor theatres, with a

formal stage demarcating separate physical areas for performers and audience, introduced a

paradigm shift in the function of musical and dramatic performances in Vietnam. Prior to the

twentieth century, actors in Vietnam had performed in outdoor spaces with little or no physical

concept of a stage; instrumental musicians had never taken centre-stage literally or figuratively, and

secular performances usually occurred in private homes. When Vietnamese chamber musicians

were asked to perform in a Parisian concert hall in 1910, the formal concept of a musical or

theatrical performance was reinforced, as the situation demonstrated that the Western performance

context could also apply to Vietnamese musical forms.

The performance of French spoken plays translated into Vietnamese appealed to the local

audiences for several different reasons. Principally, there was a much greater degree of realism in

French spoken plays than in tuong plays, with theatrical plots, characters, costumes and set designs

that bore more resemblance (and indeed relevance) to contemporary life. I suspect, however, that

the strong reception for plays such as Molière's L'avare was due to the similarities between the

features of French and Vietnamese theatrical forms as well as the respective differences. The

characters in Molière's plays are highly influenced by the masked stock characters of the Italian
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Commedia dell'arte, and are comparable to the stock characters which appear on the tuong stage.

There are also frequently narrative elements which challenge social conventions, instances of divine

intervention and the use of visual and verbal humour; these theatrical elements are also typical

features of tuong productions.

French spoken plays were also the first instance of non-musical theatre in Vietnam.

Vietnamese academics and playwrights experimented with the form, and two new genres of theatre

were born in Vietnam. Kich tho plays took the form of a philosophical dialogue in poetic verse

form. These plays often considering the conflict between traditional Confucian values in Vietnam

and the modern cultural reforms instigated by the French administration, and were performed

throughout the 1910s. The popularity of the form was limited: Duane Hauch explains that “local

audiences [wanted] to listen to some music with their philosophy” (1972, p.18).The more general

term for the Western-style spoken play was kich noi – the first instance of a full-length Vietnamese

spoken drama occurred in 1921, with a performance of Vu Dinh Long's A Cup of Poison (“Chen

thuoc doc”) at the Hanoi Grand Theatre (Diamond 2005, p. 208). Kich noi plays have been

performed regularly since this time, but their popularity has been limited compared to musical

dramas.

Nevertheless, French spoken plays were an influential factor in the birth of cai luong in

terms of vocal qualities. In the 1900s and 1910s the classical tuong theatre was in decline for

several reasons. At special events such as weddings, tuong theatre troupes had often been invited to

perform; in the early twentieth century this practice was changing, and since the idea of the musical

concert was introduced to Vietnam in 1910 it became usual to invite singers and nhac tai tu

chamber musicians to perform instead (Hauch 1972, p. 20). Tuong plays involved several different

categories of vocalising, such as “giong oc (falsetto), giong gan (‘liver’ voice), giong ruot
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(‘intestine’ voice) [and] giong hom (‘jaw’ voice)” (Tran and Nguyen, n.d.), whereas the new style of

singing with chamber musicians involved only the “natural” voice. The use of a vocal tessitura and

timbre which imitates natural speech was undoubtedly influenced by the realism and spoken prose

of French plays as well as the vocal qualities of French popular song.

The style of singing with nhac tai tu chamber musicians became increasingly common in the

1910s. Performances included Vietnamese folk songs as well as contemporary popular songs from

France and Vietnam. There are several anecdotal theories about how this form evolved from being a

concert performance with a series of songs to being a principally dramatic narrative form (described

in Hauch 1972, p. 21-22 and Dao 1998, p. 113); the end result was that singers began to add

gestures to their performances, and improvised spoken and sung dialogue between individual songs.

What was originally a concert performance of popular songs progressively became a cohesive

theatrical form known at first as ca ra bo (“singing with gestures”). The form also absorbed

dramatic elements of the classical tuong theatre (in particular the ceremonial costumes) and

incorporated melodies from the Hue court tradition (nha nhac Hue) and by 1918 it was widely

known by its modern name cai luong (Hauch 1972, p. 27).

The literal translation of cai luong is “renovated theatre”, suggesting a conscious desire

among the Vietnamese academic and artistic community to reform Vietnam's national theatre. In an

online article, Vietnamese scholar Ham Chau explains that theatre troupes in the early 1920s often

introduced shows with the two-line slogan Cai cach hat ca theo tien bo / Luong truyen tuong tich

sanh van minh, meaning “Reform singing to be progressive / Adapt stories to be civilised” (Ham

2002). Whether the slogan was derived from the term cai luong or vice-versa is unclear; however,

regardless of its causation the meaning of the slogan reinforces the early sentiments of cai luong as

a “renovated” theatrical form both in its musical and narrative elements.


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The birth of cai luong can demonstrably be accredited to a complex and varied number of

influences. The cultural hybridity of the form was established at the outset through a critical process

whereby an absorbtion of Western features was counterbalanced with a reaction against other

Western features and a redefinition of indigenous features. Above all, the birth of cai luong serves

as a refutation to a traditional theory of colonialism that suggests the colonised country passively

absorbs and imitates the culture of the coloniser. In the case of cai luong the opposite is the case –

the introduction of French music and theatre provided the catalyst in a process by which the

Vietnamese were able to challenge both indigenous and foreign artistic forms.

In the 1920s and 1930s the influence of cai luong spread from its origins in the Mekong

Delta region to the rest of the country – the first cai luong troupe in Northern Vietnam was

established in Hanoi in 1926 (Hauch 1972, p. 31), and by the end of the 1920s the dissemination of

cai luong was on a national scale. Interestingly, the Southern dialect was considered an integral part

of cai luong's identity – singers from Northern or Central Vietnam usually adopted the Southern

dialect in performances and were judged by audiences on their accent and use of regional language

(personal communication 2009). The genre became extremely popular across regional and class

boundaries as the language and musical form was comprehensible and appealing to the many

different social strata of Vietnamese society.

The themes of cai luong plays became rapidly more diverse in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Troupes incorporated features of foreign music, drama and film as they continued to experiment

with the boundaries of the form; exoticism and spectacular features such as martial-arts displays

became increasingly important in cai luong productions as an increasing number of troupes

competed for audiences.


22

A wave of immigrants arrived in Vietnam from Southern China (present-day Guang Dong

province and Hong Kong), exposing the Vietnamese to modern Cantonese opera. A style of cai

luong known as tuong tau was developed in response to the Cantonese stage performances – the

elaborate costumes and set designs of the Cantonese opera were replicated, and the traditional

Cantonese stories modernised and retold in modern Vietnamese. The musical accompaniment was

largely unchanged – Cantonese melodies and modes were occasionally used for an exotic effect but

popular Vietnamese melodies remained at the heart of the cai luong dramas (Hauch 1972, p. 34).

The tuong tau or Cantonese-style cai luong was the first exotic pastiche style developed to

entertain Vietnamese audiences. In the 1930s the influx of Western culture increasingly featured in

Vietnam, with popular songs, dance forms and films from Europe and North America imported into

Vietnam. Numerous Western dramas were re-written for the cai luong stage: examples in Colin

Mackerras's article Theatre in Vietnam include “an adaptation by Ngo Vinh Khang of La Dame aux

Camelias under the title To Vuong Den Thac and a version of Schiller's Maria Stuart by Nam

Chau”, as well as a cai luong version of Hamlet staged in 1939 (1987, p. 7).

French popular songs were also increasingly adapted for the cai luong stage – the term bai

ta theo dieu tay (“our songs following Western melodies”) was coined to describe French melodies

with Vietnamese lyrics (Gibbs 2003, p. 69-70). The lyricist-translators of these melodies were

considered to have a specific artistic ability in creating Vietnamese lyrics which were faithful to the

meaning and sentiment of the original French and where the linguistic tones of the Vietnamese

syllables matched the song's melodic contour (personal communication, 2009). Dance forms, such

as the rhumba, tango and foxtrot were used to accompany Western style songs as well as traditional
23

Vietnamese melodies such as the famous vong co (Loan 1999, p. 114).

Cai Luong is renowned for its flexibility and for the use of disparate musical and dramatic

influences. The anthropological context of Western influences on the form as part of a global trend

(as well as a specific Asian trend and post-colonial trend) is considered in the final chapter; in the

context of cai luong's history in Vietnam however, the main effect of Western-style plays in the

1930s was in diversifying the dramatic form which continued to adapt in the face of imported

fashions in film and popular music. From the late 1930s onwards, cai luong productions variously

depicted historical or modern pastiches from Europe, China or Vietnam. Exotic scenery, costumes

and stories borrowed from different world cultures became increasingly in vogue after the Second

World War as foreign films became readily available in Vietnam. Pham Duy, a famous Vietnamese

musician, describes the period between 1945-61 in more detail:

Cai luong was influenced readily by these foreign products. Films like Samson and Delilah
and Rashomon were shown on the cai luong stage. Crossbred plays dominated at this time.
The troupe Thuy Nga began its cancer with the presentation of Japanese plays, and Indian
films also influenced the genre. Later plays with Mongolian, Egyptian and Montagnard
origins also climbed onto the cai luong stage and led this theatrical genre to a disorded
period. (1975, p. 148)

I believe Pham Duy's concern that cross-cultural influences compromised the integrity of cai

luong has since been refuted by the genre's enduring popularity and its scope for reinvention. More

recent writers have discovered that cai luong productions continue to employ a multitude of themes

based on different pastiche styles: for example Colin Mackerras writes about “a renovated drama set

entirely in ancient Arabia […] entitled Legend of Love (Chuyen thuyet ve tinh yeu) – the sets

included mosques and other Arabian scenes”. During my fieldwork in Vietnam (in 2008 and 2009) I

discovered that these foreign pastiche dramas are increasingly diverse and continue to be popular –

cai luong performances that I have watched have included an Bollywood-inspired Indian setting, a
24

spaghetti western pastiche and a cai luong adaptation of the Nativity story.

Cai luong performances have thus always delighted audiences with their combination of

nostalgic melodies and exotic settings. However there is a more serious political side to cai luong –

throughout the twentieth century the genre has been guided by the country's turbulent political

dynamics – the form has during various periods reacted against the political regime of the day, and

at other times been controlled or subdued by the political regime.

From the outset, there was a style of cai luong known as xa hoi (“modern” cai luong ) which

featured actors dressed in plain clothes and staging which depicted a contemporary Vietnamese

home or office. These plays became a vehicle to present a social critique of contemporary

Vietnamese life. Cai luong became an important political voice in the 1920s as other forms of

public communication, such as political debate and the press, were heavily censored by the French

administration. Musicologist Loan Dao explains that the early xa hoi plays “dealt with socially

controversial issues such as educational rights for women and uprisings against corrupt

governments” (1999, p. 114). Whilst there was not typically an explicit political agenda in these

early plays, narratives alluded to aspects of the French colonial regime, bemoaning (or occasionally

welcoming) the challenge of importeed French culture to traditional Confucian values in Vietnam.

The politically-charged xa hoi plays became an undercurrent of Vietnamese life in the 1920s

and early 1930s, although they were not initially as popular as the exotic tuong tau (“Chinese-

style”) and tuong Tay (“Western-style”) plays in Vietnam's urban centres. From the 1930s until the

end of World War II, cai luong became more explicitly a form of political propoganda, as the

political undertones of the plays suggested an increasingly overt message of anti-colonial

mobilisation. Troupes would typically borrow stories from Chinese and Vietnamese popular fiction,
25

depicting a popular uprising against an oppressive regime. To the Vietnamese masses the allegory

was obvious in these productions; only the French administration remained oblivious to the political

power of the cai luong stage (Hauch 1972, p. 50).

After the Second World War and the rise of the Viet Minh, the political message became yet

more explicit in cai luong productions. In his Ph.D. dissertation , Duane Hauch describes patriotic

plays “such as Long Me ('Mother's Love') […] written to arouse sentimental feelings for the

immediate family relationships [and] plays like Con Tam Con Cam ('Tam and Cam') [which]

emphasised the the idea that blood relatives should be bringing people closer together than

ideologies” (1972, p. 52-53). By this time the French administration had become conscious of cai

luong's political power and, under orders from Governer-General Petain, the colonial police force

interrupted cai luong plays and dispersed audiences if a play was considered to have a strong anti-

colonial message (Loan 1999, p. 114). The popularity of cai luong in Vietnam's urban and rural

regions, and the large number of cai luong troupes, was such that the efforts of the French

administration to contain cai luong's anti-colonial message were in vain.

By the early 1950s the Viet Minh had developed a significant anti-colonial military presence,

and the war was at the forefront of Vietnamese life throughout the country. A style of cai luong

known as tuong chien tranh (“war plays”) emerged – these plays depicted a war between two

countries with violent battle scenes and a strongly patriotic message. Duane Hauch describes these

war plays in more detail:

Staging techniques for these plays became more and more violent. Using a fixed setting in
front of a large screen, films of battle scenes were projected onto the screen while action
took place in front of the screen. The decks of ships were constructed on which were
mounted large anti-aircraft guns which were fired at the planes flying across the screen.
Skeletons of tanks were set on stage which would fire at the actors attacking in force, while
other battle scenes were being projected on the rear screen.
26

These war plays were ubiquitous throughout Vietnam until the Geneva Agreement and the

partitioning of North and South Vietnam in 195412. They have not been popular on the cai luong

stage since this time, even during the Second Indochina War13 (personal communication 2009), but

the pyrotechnics, special effects and loud amplified music that are a common feature of

contemporary cai luong productions originate largely from this period.

From 1954 until the reunification of Vietnam14 in 1976, the country was split into the

communist North and the non-communist South. During this period, cai luong developed into

distinct styles in the two regions. In the North, patriotic themes were encouraged by the communist

state, and the moralistic xa hoi plays remained popular. Southern Vietnam, on the other hand,

received much more exposure to Western culture due to its open borders and American occupation.

The exoticism of Western film and popular music and the perceived decadence of Western culture in

general continued to permeate the cai luong stage in Southern Vietnam, particularly after 1966 with

the advent of Vietnamese television.

Whilst serious and moralistic xa hoi plays based on traditional Vietnamese stories remained

popular in the North of Vietnam, exotic foreign plays were much more frequent in the South – only

one of the ten largest Southern troupes regularly performed xa hoi plays in the 1960s (Hauch 1972,

p.55). Music conservatories teaching Western Classical music were established both in North and

South Vietnam – the Hanoi Conservatory and Saigon Conservatory were both built in 1956.

However, Western instruments were more easily imported into South Vietnam, and increasingly

became a feature of the cai luong stage in the South (particularly recent inventions like the electric

12 The Geneva Agreement stipulated the sovereignty and independence of states within the former French Indochina. It
was signed on April 27, 1954.
13 Also known as the Vietnamese-American War
14 The end of the war in 1975 is variously known as the Fall of Saigon or the Liberation of Saigon from the two
different perspectives.
27

guitar and modern drum kit).

The onset of the Second Indochina War in the 1970s had a negative effect on cai luong

productions. There was a lack of funding and other resources available to urban theatres, and many

travelling rural troupes were immobilised by the dangers of travelling around the region. However,

after the reunification of Vietnam in 1976, cai luong was once again a cultural focus for the

Vietnamese people and the new communist government. The new government were able to succeed

where the French administration had failed decades earlier, and imposed strict controls on cai luong

performances.

The new Vietnamese government had a specific agenda in relation to the arts and its

function in society – the arts, and theatre in particular, had the primary function of re-educating the

masses and reinforcing a nationalist spirit. Senior politicians were outspoken about this agenda –

Ho Chi Minh City President Vo Van Kiet explained in a political speech in 1981 that “the

revolutionary artist's role is to light up dark and confused souls” (Taylor 2003, p. 145), whilst

Truong Chinh, the president of Vietnam from 1981-1987 declared that “every work of art more or

less bears the character of propaganda” (Mackerras 1987, p. 12).

Certain musical and theatrical genres, such as ca tru (a traditional genre which features a

female vocalist singing poetic lyrics with a small ensemble) were outlawed altogether for promoting

Western decadence and undesirable attitudes (Norton 2005, p. 30-31). Other genres, such as the folk

theatre cheo received special state funding to promote a national art in line with the Marxist-

Leninist ideals of the state.

In the case of cai luong, the government were clearly ambivalent. Cadres were appointed to
28

each troupe to ensure the integrity of productions, and the general sentiment among the political

elite was that the reformed theatre needed to be reformed anew. The melancholic character of the

cai luong narrative and the melodies employed in the musical structure were at odds with the

nationalistic spirit that fitted the state's artistic ideal. Various features of cai luong came under

attack, including even the vong co, the most popular melody in cai luong performances.

Anthropologist Philip Taylor explains this decision in more detail:

There was initially a suggestion that this component of cai luong be dropped as the melody
was weak, destroyed one's will and drove one into solitude. However it was concluded that
the vong co melody was too popular and central to the cai luong tradition to be dropped.
Next an attempt was made to set lyrics expressive positive feelings of struggle to the
melody, yet the result was so jarring that it was quickly dropped. Ultimately it was used for
certain characters to express sorrow or desperation at some predicament, providing the
opportunity for the hero of the play to counter such emotions with a martial melody full of
optimism and resolution to overcome the problem. For example, on seeing her son sent to
prison, a mother would express sorrow in a melancholic vong co refrain, but her son, a
communist militant would reply expressing his optimism for eventual victory and even
encouraging his mother to feel joyful. (2003, p. 150)

Audiences were quick to recognise the contrived ways in which cadres affected cai luong

performances, and the genre survived largely due to the significant amount of state funding during

this period (personal communication 2009). The economic reforms of 1986 (known as doi moi)

were quickly followed by a relaxation of political control over the arts and mass media. Since this

time, cai luong has once again embraced the exoticism and malleability that popularised the form in

the 1930s and 1940s. The influence of state controls over the genre remains, albeit to a much lesser

degree. One example of this influence is an anecdote in Miranda Arana's article on neo-traditional

music, which describes a state competition for cai luong singers in 1994, where the judges insisted

that participants sing using Northern pronunciation despite the overwhelmingly popular use of the

Southern dialect in cai luong productions (1999, p. 130). Neverthless, there remains a large

following for the genre among the overseas Vietnamese populations in Europe and North America

as well as a young generation of urban dwellers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
29

The future of the genre's success lies in its ability to continually reinvent itself as a form that

is relevant to its modern audience. Many aficionados of cai luong fear that the genre will not

survive globalisation and the rise of the internet, foreign television and film in Vietnam (personal

communication, 2009). Based on my own experience in the country, I do not think this will not

happen in the foreseeable future. There are several performances of historical and modern cai luong

dramas every day on state television broadcasts, and hundreds of cai luong productions filmed

especially for cinema and DVD formats. Particularly since the opening of the Ho Chi Minh City

College of Performing Arts and Cinema in 1999, which has provided a new generation of famous

cai luong actors, the genre has enjoyed a revival of interest and whilst much of its success today is

due to the introduction of the cult of celebrity phenomenon to the country, cai luong's future as a

national theatre and a national voice of modern Vietnam is assured.


30

CHAPTER 3: CAI LUONG AND THE GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE

The dynamics of cai luong and the development from its early origins in the 1910s to the

present day have involved innumerable influences, both indigenous and foreign. The continuities

and discontinuities in the genre's history can be attributed not only to the decisions of musicians,

playwrights and directors, but to a succession of political regimes, cultural imports,

commercialisation, the rise of the mass media, and the globalisation of cultural trends.

There are numerous theatrical forms which originate from Asia (particularly former colonial

states) which include a combination of Western and Eastern features. Examples include ch'angguk

in Korea, bangsawan in Malaysia, bassac in Cambodia, and the plays of Siyuan Liu in Northern

China. In his article on Korean theatre, ethnomusicologist Andrew Killick considers ch'angguk (and

by implication cai luong also) to be an example of a cultural trend throughout post-colonial Asia,

providing the following statements:

Evidently, hybrid-popular theater in Asia is a phenomenon of polygenesis rather than pure


diffusion. Without direct influence, similar conditions in different places led to the repetition
of the same pattern: colonization brings economic change of which one symptom is the
commercial indoor theatre with its ticket sales, proscenium arch, and realist conventions.
New forms of theatre are inspired by the desire to emulate the colonist and to meet audience
demand for novelty. But familiar local elements, frequently musical, are retained to avoid
challenging the audience too much. (Killick 2003, p. 198).

Cai Luong is, in one sense, an ideal illustration of Killick's statements, based on the early

developments of the genre. However, Killick's description does not do justice to the complex
31

function of cai luong drama as a means of political mobilisation, or the absorption of many

indigenous and Chinese forms in its developmental process, as well as the Western theatrical

tradition. Vietnam's socio-cultural history includes features which anthropologists and

ethnomusicologists such as Killick can identify as generic to post-colonial cultures and trends;

however Vietnam is unique as a nation which has faced and fought imperialism (from Chinese,

Cham, French and American powers) for over a millennium and retained indigenous cultural and

artistic forms. In the case of cai luong the form's enduring popularity, its scope for thematic and

functional reinvention, and the remarkable continuity of musical features which can no longer be

merely attributed to “not challenging the audience too much” are the elements which distinguish the

genre from a global formula of hybrid theatre. In this regard, global comparative studies such as

Killick's are enlightening both in defining a trend and identifying in specific cases, such as cai

luong where musical forms have deviated from the trend.

In recent decades scholars, musicians and politicians have attempted to renationalise artistic

forms such as cai luong, as well as other forms in Vietnam; these issues of national identity and

cultural change which have been faced in Vietnam have been discovered by ethnomusicologists

worldwide – the global analogy of cai luong has been identified in the music of cultures as diverse

as Bulgaria (Buchanan 1995), Turkey (Stokes 1992), and China (Han 1979). The most important

element which arises from this global trend is the concept of multilateralism in the genesis and

development of musical forms. In the case of cai luong it is as much a misnomer to label the genre a

Westernised form of Vietnamese music as it is to label it an “Easternised” or “Vietnamised” form of

Western music. The search for national identity through music is increasingly of importance to

Vietnam and societies globally, yet in the contemporary sphere of cultural globalisation such terms

are increasingly fluid and increasingly elusive.


32

As such, cai luong is a form of music and theatre that is undefinable within the boundaries

of contemporary or historical Vietnam. My preferred definition is that invented by Vietnamese

scholar and musician Tran Van Khe, who defines cai luong as “modern music with Vietnamese

characteristics” (Taylor 2003, p. 144). Cai luong, as with musical forms globally, is neither static

nor following a single path – it is inextricably linked to a network of socio-political and cultural

dynamics and whilst it is representative of a national voice for Vietnam it is also one of many

musical facets within the global order.


33

GLOSSARY OF VIETNAMESE TERMS

bài ta teo điệu Tây – Western popular songs with Vietnamese lyrics, literally “our songs following

Western melodies”

ca ra bộ – literally “singing with gestures”, an early name for cải lương

ca trù – a traditional genre of chamber music, originating in Northern Vietnam, typically featuring a

female vocalist

cải lương – reformed theatre or reformed opera

chèo – a genre of folk theatre from Northern Vietnam

Đổi mới – literally “renewal”, the economic reforms which occurred in 1986 and which

accompanied a greater degree of political freedom for Vietnamese citizens

kịch nói – literally “spoken play”, a form of Vietnamese theatre largely influenced by the French

theatrical tradition, without music

kịch thơ – literally “poetry play”, an experimental form of Vietnamese spoken theatre from the early

decades of the twentieth century, taking the form of a philosophical dialogue

nhã nhạc Huế – the music of the royal court in Huế (the former royal capital of Vietnam), literally

“Huế elegenat music”

nhạc tài tử – a chamber music genre, literally “music for amateurs”

nhạc tộc cải biến – neo-traditional music

quốc ngữ – the modern writing system for the Vietnamese language, using the Roman alphabet
34

tân cổ giao duyên – integrating Western popular music and traditional Vietnamese music, literally

“modern and ancient exchanging charms”

tuồng (or hát tuồng) – a genre of Vietnamese classical theatre adapted from Chinese theatre in the

13th Century, known as hát bội in Southern Vietnam

vọng cổ – the most important melodic structure in cải lương productions


35

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