The singing dissident

Nguyen Qui Duc

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Photograph: Morgan Ommer

There’s the trademark dimple, a coy, sometimes mischievous smile, a look of innocence and an expression of wonder in the eyes. Mai Khoi’s face hasn’t changed much since I first met her some fifteen years ago.

She’d just released her first CD. Love, losses and a fragile heart were the obligatory things she and countless other lounge singers in Ho Chi Minh City gave to their fans in search of clichés and other familiar tunes. Over the years, Mai Khoi gained a good measure of popularity, and for a while became more daring: the Lady Gaga look, the pink hair, the bra-less stage appearances, the sexy and provocative stage persona.

But her statements have now changed. In a recent concert in Hanoi, her adoptive city, the provocative outfits had been discarded, replaced by a traditional Vietnamese tunic. But she wears it with punk-era boots. It’s now the words in her songs that are provocative:

Let’s speak our voice
Step out from the fear
Step out from the silence
Speak the voice from our hearts
An awareness that erases all doubts
Step out of our exile
We have the rights to step out from ignorance
After the years of silence
Our voice,
Let’s speak our voice
Our strength … raise our voice, speak, sing, scream
Even as someone oppresses us
We still raise our voice.

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