In the comedy genre in Saigon before 1975, Phi Thoan was considered the very first comedian who invented the art of impromptu jokes. The laughter from the audience seemed to reflect the wholesome image of the hard-working farmers in the South, who are joyful and optimistic. Because he was born and brought up in the South, he thought of his hometown Tra Vinh as a cradle that nourished his dream, a true hick’s dream of becoming an artist.
|Phi Thoan & To Kieu Lan|
Recalling his childhood, he often told of an event: It was on his birthday, June 19, 1932, that the French launched a big ship in Tra Vinh river. The ship’s name was Phi Thoan, so his parents decided to name their only son after it, Nguyen Phi Thoan. However, it was difficult to raise him as a child because he got sick so often that his parents had to ask a Khmer witch-doctor to adopt him as his god-son. Few people knew that Phi Thoan had another name Sen, which was the connection between his soul and his hometown. Explaining his hard-to-raise childhood, he said with great pride that, “It might have been the near-death experience when I was little that I grew up to be a carefree man who sees things in a different light and turns them into jokes to make people laugh. When I was 16 years old, I already became known as “Sen - the joker” in my village. Once, my friends suggested me go to Saigon to apply at a radio station as a joke teller, so I packed up and left town to try my luck.
At that time, the Saigon radio station was holding a contest for young singers, and during intermissions, a comedian would come out to entertain the audience. I asked the owner of the show to let me try, but he refused. When I was about to return home, suddenly, there was a downpour, which made the owner change his mind and gave me a chance to try out. My joke was about a drunken farmer quarreling with his dog. I myself had to talk in two different voices; one was of the dog and the other the drunken farmer. It was so impressive that the owner hired me to work on his show. That was a turning-point in my life, and it was also how I started my performing career.”
Regarding Phi Thoan’s talents and contributions, one cannot forget the creativities in his performance. Because of his willingness to learn and improve upon himself, from a humble beginning, he quickly became the main comedian in many musical variety shows in Saigon. His name was considered a guarantee for the success of the shows. Together with such extremely well-known comedians as Thanh Hoai, Tung Lam, Thanh Viet, La Thoai Tan, Xuan Phat… he brought much exuberant laughter to the audience.
After working for some comedy troupes in Saigon for quite a while, he switched to acting in comedy films. In 1975, he joined Bong Hong troupe. He then moved to Van Cong TP and Saigon 2 troupes where his performance got rave reviews. In the 3rd comedy festival in 2000, he and his colleagues in the age group of 60s such as Tung Lam, Thanh Hoai, etc., volunteered to come up on stage to act with the younger-generation comedians to entertain the audience.
Comedian Phi Phung, the only one of his daughters who follows her father’s footsteps, said, “My father was very meticulous. If he saw that his performance was not funny enough or could cause some misunderstanding, then he would change the script or his performing style at once. He took his job very seriously. He told me that careless and lousy work would soon kill the creativity inside the artist.”
While confined to his bed from an illness, Phi Thoan watched a Gala comedy show on VTV3, and felt disappointed to see poor quality in the performance of his younger-generation colleagues. Obviously displeased, he still smiled and said, “That’s all right!” He believed that the reactions and comments from the audience would help the artists to re-evaluate themselves. They would then try to improve their performing style so that their jokes are easier to remember and harder to forget in the hearts and minds of the audience.
Phi Thoan appeared on almost every comedy audio cassette tape recorded before 1975. On Cai luong videos, he also participated in such plays as Giua Chon Bui Hong, Loi Tho Tren Tuyet, Nang Thu Ve Ngo Truc, etc.
Written by Th. Hiep
Translated by onlyyou & lekt
Remembrance and tribute from Phi Thoan’s colleagues
Actor Diep Lang: The death of Phi Thoan was a great loss to the comedy scene.
Reading the newspaper this morning, I found out about Phi Thoan’s passing, and I could not hold back my tears; we had not seen each other for ages. Although I do not know much about his family as we only met on stage or at the backstage, Phi Thoan made great impression on me. He was funny and friendly to others, and everywhere he went, you would hear laughter. Once he revealed a confidential story to me that before 1975, his family had helped and hidden a socialist who turned out to be Mrs. Ba Thi, which really caught me by surprise. He was a very talented and experienced comedian. His death was a great loss to the comedy scene, and I myself lost a soul mate.
Comedian Tung Lam: We have not even started our plan, and he is already gone!
Phi Thoan and I were not biological brothers, but we were very much like ones. Among such famous comedians as Kha Nang, Phi Thoan, Thanh Hoai, etc., Phi Thoan was the only one I called “anh”, which means older brother, because I respected him a lot. I was very touched to know that even though his daughter is following his footsteps, he left me all of his tangible and intangible assets. They do not have much monetary value but their sentimental value is priceless to me. Phi Thoan was an actor who devoted his whole life to the arts of comedy. He and I started our careers at the same time, and later we were both diagnosed with diabetes. Mine was treatable, but his was incurable. I knew his death was inevitable, but my love and affection for him was indescribable. I was about to ask him to join me, Nguyen Hanh, and Thanh Hoai to form a comedy group and participate in a game show called “Together” on HCM television. Alas, he is already gone before we could start!
Comedian Phi Phung (Phi Thoan’s daughter): How can I forget you, Daddy!
In my opinion, Dad was not only a beloved father but also a dedicated teacher. When I was a little girl, I would imitate his performing style, pretty much like hereditary - the offspring must follow their parents’ footsteps. He spent a lot of time to train me, and corrected every single mistake I made. He then took me to the Bong Hong troupe to sing in 1978. And he even took me along to all the shows in which he had a part so that I could watch him perform.
In the early days of my performing career, I did not have much experience, and my father made me rehearse one particular “fainting scene” over and over until it was perfect. Not only was he strict to me but also to all his colleagues. There are 7 siblings in my family. If any of us made mistakes, he would punish all of us by making us lie face-down on the floor, and then ordered, “Stay still until I come back from work.” After he left, six of us would remain on the floor, but one would stand by the door and watch for his return. If Dad came home then my sibling would shout, “Daddy’s coming! Daddy’s coming!” Most of the time, he was just wandering around, and when he got home and saw us still lying on the floor, he would smile and said, “OK, you can go now!” When we were old enough to have boyfriends, one time the whole group went for a day trip to Buu Long, a sightseeing place, my father insisted on going with us to make sure we would not do anything wrong. He was a very protective and old-fashion father. He would threaten us, “If I catch you go dancing, I’ll chop off your legs!” However, he was only difficult at home. To the outside world, he became “uncle Sau My Thuan”, a very friendly person. He was very nice to his friends, colleagues and neighbors. Whenever he was asked to perform in the neighborhood, he never refused. He even invited his colleagues to come to bring more laughter.
During the two months in the hospital and 9-month bed rest at home my father missed the stage and his colleagues so much. He often stayed up very late at night just to wait for me coming back from my performance, and asked, “Do you have anything funny or interesting to tell me about?” How can I ever forget you, my dear Daddy!
Written by Hà Đình Nguyên – Quang Thi
Translated by onlyyou & lekt
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