the “vietnamese beatles” are still going strong.
The CBC Band—a group of Vietnamese siblings and friends who formed the preeminent Saigon rock band during the Vietnam War—is alive, well, and still rocking as part of the global bar band sublime. The subject of Chapter Six in The Republic of Rock, the CBC continues to perform in the members’ hometown of Houston, Texas. In October 2013, the group also appeared at the forty-year reunion of the CICViet Combined Intelligence Center VietNam Veterans group in Las Vegas and live in concert in Orange County, California, performing once again for a mix of Vietnamese, Americans, and others:
Bonus material from The Republic of Rock, Chapter 6: “A Little Peace Message, Like Straight from Saigon”
In the September-October 1970 issue of Ken Sams’s Grunt Free Press, a photographic collage to rival the front of the CMTS scrapbook and the images Michael Herr glimpsed on the apartment wall of Davies the Marine spread across two pages (figure 6.1). Artist Tran Dinh Thuc turned pictures of the CBC Band, a Vietnamese rock group, into a psychedelic Mount Rushmore. The group, whose name stood for Con Bà Cu, “Mother’s Children” in Vietnamese, consisted of siblings in the Phan family as well as a number of other musicians. They wore their hair long and in t-shirts, sunglasses, and floppy hats they looked like Western hippies. In silhouette at the lower right of the collage, a young Vietnamese boy gave the “V” peace sign. Other pictures in the collage featured the musicians grinning at the camera and playfully raising their middle fingers. A peace symbol floated up from the images, like a sun shining above the chaos of faces. Splotches of black ink cast a more ominous mood, as if an explosion had occurred. Frilly psychedelic lettering curled out from the top of the collage, declaring: “Happiness is Acid Rock on Plantation Road.”
The article described how the CBC Band created a kind of Haight-Ashbury-in-exile at the Kim Kim Club. Playing covers of the latest rock hits from the West at venues on Plantation Road, the GI entertainment district by the massive Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base, as well as at other clubs, bars, and military installations around South Vietnam, CBC made a living in the wartime economy primarily by entertaining American GIs. But rock was more than just a means to economic survival. Part of American consumer culture imported to the war zone to give GIs a taste of home, the music also gave the members of CBC themselves access to what was becoming, by the end of the 1960s, a global counterculture. Performing for a mixed audience of Americans, nationals from other countries, and young Vietnamese, CBC reproduced rock’s aesthetics of hedonistic, individualistic personal expression. At their concerts, the band members and their audiences seemed to escape the Republic of Vietnam for the republic of rock.
This seemed, at first glance, to be an abandonment of their Vietnamese identity. But putting on the costumes of hippies and playing rock music was something more complex and daring. It was not an abandonment of being Vietnamese so much as a reworking of that identity. Like many young people around the world in the decolonizing context of the post–World War II decades, the members of CBC combined Western culture with their own heritage to fashion something new and hybridized. In their case, they were drawn to the countercultural ideals of togetherness and fellowship that they heard in rock. These values offered a way both to join the cosmopolitan modernity of the counterculture as individuals and, at the same time, to reaffirm the primary Vietnamese commitment to family as the building block of society. The CBC was, after all, a family band. Playing rock was a means of keeping the Phan family together even as the group embraced the countercultural ideal of creating a universal family. In the United States, they would have been part of Woodstock Nation. Taken from the famed festival in upstate New York during August of 1969, this was the shorthand name for the imagined utopian country of the counterculture. In Vietnam, it makes more sense to think of CBC as joining—indeed helping to constitute—what is more accurately called the Woodstock Transnational.
The story of CBC took place within the shifting dynamic of the war in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive of 1968. With the election of Richard Nixon in the United States later that year, and the growing sense in America that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, the actual number of American troops declined rapidly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This did not mean, however, that the side effects of the US intervention faded. American consumer products saturated South Vietnam as never before, and the American presence continued to undercut the development of a stable economy independent of American involvement. Moreover, after 1969, Nixon’s administration adopted the policy of “Vietnamization,” which sought to shift fighting responsibility to South Vietnam. For the men in CBC and other young male Vietnamese, this meant that they were under increased pressure of conscription into the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. In this context, rock, emanating from overseas, became a cultural way to address the continued influence of shifting American policy in Vietnam.
… For CBC, rock was neither the music of capitalism or communism; rather, within a nightmarish setting of war, it was a way to dream of peace and connect to a mass- mediated image of togetherness and imagined kinship. Woodstock Nation, they hoped, had a place for them. The CBC was not alone in using rock to seek out a countercultural alternative that confounded the existing political and cultural contexts of the Vietnam War. Nyugen Giang Cao, a musician who played many of the same venues as CBC, recalled “the feel of togetherness” when he learned about the Woodstock festival. Though he believed that he and his peers “weren’t real hippies,” they still “loved the look of hippies.” Most crucially, Nyugen remembered, “We can feel freedom as any other hippies.” He felt “that we are part of it.” For Nyugen, rock in Vietnam led to dreams of joining a worldwide youth culture in which he and other young Vietnamese could both be modern individuals and recreate a feeling of family togetherness. Rock may have arrived through the imperialistic channels of American consumer culture as part of the new military tactic of hip militarism, but for musicians such as Cao and the CBC, it also provided access to countercultural experiences of social belonging that tenuously but evocatively balanced old and new, tradition and modernity, individuality and community, freedom and obligation.
For more video of the CBC Band, join the group’s Facebook page.