In the late 70’s and early 80’s, as the major wave of Hmong refugees from Thailand resettled in the United States, a young man’s music emerged to capture the story of his generation’s experience. Painting with lyrics an emotional portrait of how Hmong people lived in isolated communities throughout America-how his generation dealt with the complications of long-distance dating and love, Tou Ly Vangkhue has become one of the greatest and most influential legends in Hmong music history. His songs have inspired generations of vocalists and musicians, not only in the United States, but also in Thailand and Laos and many other countries throughout the world. But for a quarter of a century, the man has kept the story of his rise to stardom in the dark. He’s rejected all media coverage on his celebrity profile, and has been successful at resorting to a quiet, humble life behind the ten albums and one music video collection. Now in the production of his final album, after 27 years in the Hmong music industry, he’s finally stepping out of the shadows. Even if you’ve never listened to his music, you’ve definitely heard his name…This is his story in his own words.
The Early Years
He recalls his early love of music as a student in Sayaboury Province, Laos. “At seven, I was already a known singer in my school. Most of the students were afraid of the spotlight, but I was different, I craved attention, at least in terms of singing.” Often, before recess, his teacher would take the class outside and have each student sing individually in front of their peers. A young Tou Ly took advantage of the dreaded activity with his boyish, unflinching voice. “Unlike my friends who went first to avoid a large audience, I waited until recess when all the students from the other classes were released into the open. I wanted to be seen and heard by everyone.”
An early source of motivation for his singing came unexpectedly. “I was about ten years old when I entered my school’s New Year’s song competition. There were a lot of competitors, but I knew I’d claim 1st place. I wanted to win badly, and I’d been confident throughout the contest. When the judge announced the winner-it was someone else! I was shocked. So I convinced myself that I’d be the runner-up, no doubt. But then it wasn’t me either! At least I’ll take 3rd place, I told myself. Of course, I was wrong.” Unfortunately, Tou Ly’s fledging performance that day had gone unnoticed by the judge. “I walked away surprised and disappointed. However, losing the competition only made me realize then how much I’d have to do in order to shine. From that situation I wanted to try harder, accomplish more.”
In Thailand, after his family had fled from a collapsed Laos, Tou Ly, twelve years old, picked up guitar playing. “In the refugee camp, there was only one guitar-so everyone shared it. We passed it from one person to the next. Up until then, I had only been exposed to music and lyrics by Laotian artists.”
Strumming the much coveted six-string instrument under the thatch roof of the camp’s makeshift school, he began listening to songs composed by Hmong singers on the rise, such as Lis Pos, Lis Zeb, Lis Pheej, Lis Toj, Loj Leeb. “I was playing ‘Ntuj No Tuaj Lawm’ and ‘Siab Dub.'”
Finding His Story
“The focus on music was gone by the time my family resettled in America, in Utah,” Tou Ly says. “There was no Hmong population there, we were isolated, and I was trying to learn English.”
Living in Provo, UT, the community began to grow and eventually established an annual New Year celebration. The event was an open invitation for arts and entertainment, allowing exposure for Hmong vocalists and musicians. Tou Ly returned to his musical roots with his first purchased guitar, a Yamaha acoustic guitar.
“I practiced, and I continued listening to the wave of early Hmong singers from Thailand and Laos,” says Tou Ly. “But the more I listened to these singers, the more I realized something was wrong. The songs written by Lis Pos, Lis Zeb, and Lis Pheej were about a love story from a different time, a different country. It was not my generation’s story. It did not represent me. I wanted to hear about what was going on in America. I wanted to tell my generation’s story.”
He began dabbling in song writing, and soon found he was struggling to produce lyrics that-unlike the predecessors he’d admired-would represent his generation. “Leeg Txoj Kev” composed in 1979, was the result, and although it did not fully reveal his story, it contained the line “vim kuv nyob deb deb ntawm koj nplooj siab,” which bleakly shed light on what was happening to his generation in terms of romantic courtship. “You see, during 1979 to 1982, the Hmong people were scattered all over America. It was a time of long distance relationships and piling phone bills. 80-90% of relationships were like this. Also, out of cultural politeness, you didn’t publicly claim that someone was your boyfriend or girlfriend, which could make things hard in a relationship. I wanted to capture all of that.” “California 1979” followed, a song written after his visit to the New Year celebration in Santa Barbara, California. Still, it did not encapsulate the essential features of the complicated romance his peers were experiencing. The song he’d been seeking would arrive in 1980.
Up until that time, the Hmong population in Utah was comprised mostly of members from the Ly clan. If you were a Ly, majority of the single females were considered your sisters. And since it was taboo to develop any romantic interest toward a sister, you stood on the sidelines of the dating scene while young men from other clans played out their luck with the other sex. Into the summer of 1980, three well-known high school girls outside of the Ly clan-the only bachelorettes in Utah who were much desired and sought after by every young Ly boy-got married. Many were devastated. “I took that experience and shaped it into lyrics,” Tou Ly reveals. “Diploma” surfaced from that incident. It was the first in a succession of songs that, after many attempts, had finally epitomized his generation’s courtship challenges. “Tsis Muaj Tug” and “Tu Siab Kuv Nyob” came right after “Diploma”. These would be the two songs that uniquely identified Tou Ly with the decade of the 80’s.
Rise to Stardom
In the winter of 1981, Tou Ly began working on his first album with Dave Eyer, his producer and keyboardist. “I was eighteen years old and a senior in high school. I needed money for the project. My father borrowed ,000 from the bank to help with production costs. We hired professional musicians and held recordings at Audio Visions’ studio. I still remember listening to the songs and hearing something new and special. The ,000 covered all production and recording fees and got me 1,000 cassette copies.” By the summer of 1982, “Tsis Muaj Tug” was released.
The success of Tou Ly’s debut album came as a surprise, especially with regards to the limitations he had with distribution. “There were no Hmong stores or booths at special events like the New Year celebrations to sell my album. I had a few out-of-state friends and relatives here and there, so I sent them boxes of my cassettes. I was quite worried about sales.”
Unbeknownst to him, his music was spreading quickly to the small Hmong communities pocketed throughout the United States. His songs were obviously different from the artists before him in terms of style and lyrics-one could describe his work as a snapshot of the intricacies of romantic relationships in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s.
A few days after the release of “Tsis Muaj Tug”, Tou Ly drove to Salt Lake City to visit a girl. Standing outside of an apartment complex that was mostly occupied by Hmong, he was surprised to hear one of his songs coming from one of the apartments. Up on the second floor, someone else was also playing his album. He decided to take a walk through the complex, only to discover that more residents were listening to his music from their apartments. A shaken Tou Ly returned to his car. “I sat there…and really thought about my music-and right then and there-I knew I was going to be popular, perhaps more than any Hmong vocalist before me. I was nineteen.”
News of his sales came back two weeks after the album’s debut. The minimum wage at the time was a measly .25. “Tsis Muaj Tug”, was selling at on audio cassette tape. He had sold all 1000 copies.
Work on his next album, “Qeeb Rau Kev Hlub”, began in August of 1982. In nearly three decades, eight more albums would follow: “Best of 82”, “Yuav Pib Qhov Twg”, “Li Bau Suav”, “Mus Zoo”, “Poj Ntxoog”, “Nws Tsis Paub Kuv”, “Nco Txog the 80’s”, and “Duab Ntxoov Ntxoo”. “My Story”, a music video collection, was released in 2005.
“Hmong music started to quiet down as the 80’s ended,” Tou Ly says. “Hmong singers usually ended their music careers after they got married. I was married in ’87 and had not recorded anything for three years. In 1990, I went into recording again to break out of this mold. ‘Mus Zoo’ was the album.” At the Hmong Year celebration in Fresno, Tou Ly sold 470 cassettes in one day, a startling number within the scope of the Hmong community for a single album. “I calculated a five-second exchange of cassette and cash between me and my supporters. My parents were there to assist with sales. That year, it was just me and the singer, Maly Vue, who had debuted with her first album. There were no other vocalists or musicians present. The one-day sale record I received for ‘Mus Zoo’ has remained unmatched.”
Following that year, other bands began to scale the ladder in the Hmong music industry. Sounders and Voltage were among some of the leading names. “Sounders established this whole new take on Hmong concerts with a big sound stage and expensive lighting versus the traditional intimate, small building concert people were accustomed to,” says Tou Ly. The change quickly drew in massive crowds to these engagements where fans could see their favorite Hmong musicians and vocalists perform like never before.
“In 1994, at the Aldrich Arena where I was to perform, 3,400 tickets had been sold out.” He remembers watching the parking lot fill up with cars and feeling mesmerized by the amount of attendees. The number of security guards and officers doubled that night, and fans stayed with Tou Ly until 1 A.M. in the morning. “But it wasn’t going to last,” Tou Ly admits. “Big concerts were too expensive. I can say that my career peaked in 1994.”
Half the amount of concertgoers had diminished by 1997. The big sound stages and costly lighting were gone. With the approach of the new millennium, many Hmong artists would suffer from the economic crisis, music pirating, and illegal sales.
“If money is what you’re looking for in the music industry, you should find a different career,” says Tou Ly. “For me, it’s a hobby I was passionate about and was able to maintain.”
The Mystery Girl
Most fans of Tou Ly Vangkhue are familiar with Nkauj Nyiag, a female persona who surfaces from time to time in several of his songs. Over the years, many have pondered whether or not she is a real person or a fictitious character. If you’re one of those curious fans, here’s what Tou Ly has revealed to Txhawb.
“People who think this is a real person are going to be disappointed. However, the name did come from a real person, but the stories about her are all imaginary. When I was a kid in the refugee camp in Thailand, there was a little girl, about eight or nine years old, who had this unique, innocent expression reminiscent of leading female stars in old Chinese romantic films. Her name was ‘Ab Nyiag,’ and all the boys liked her. In 1981, I wrote a song using the name ‘Paj Tag.’ But ‘Paj Tag’ wasn’t a name that belonged to a real person, so it didn’t mean anything to me. I decided to use ‘Ab Nyiag.’ I altered it to ‘Nkauj Nyiag,’ hoping no one would ever know. After 2005, I found out that the real ‘Ab Nyiag’ was living in French Guyana. Her relatives had come to visit the United States and had told me that they knew the girl I was singing about. They took pictures with me, and later, Ab Nyiab and I were able to reconnect as friends. It was interesting how people actually figured it out. Fans at concerts have questioned me so many times about the identity of Nkauj Nyiag. Now they know.”
Some people with fame and fortune will take advantage of their fans’ loyalty, seeking wealth and pleasure through the abuse of their star power. But having lived a quiet and mysterious life, Tou Ly says, “I’ve never used my fame to take advantage of anyone. It’s something I’ll never, never do.” For the last 27 years of his music career, he’s been able to separate his everyday life from his celebrity stature. Few will know that he currently lives in Merced where he owns a small business with his wife and has been teaching Computer Technology at a Merced middle school for the last ten years. Fewer will even know that he was one of the first Hmong graduates in computer science, having obtained his degree from Webster State University in 1986. He is also among the first Hmong to hold a California teaching credential. It was his music career that financed all his schooling, he reveals.
When asked about his musical influences, his list included John Denver, the Eagles, and Kenny Rogers. Working on his final album, which he’s hoping to put out at the end of this year, Tou Ly says, “I’m reuniting with Dave Eyer, my original producer and keyboardist. I’m closing my singing career with this one.” Tou Ly Vangkhue, who enjoyed the late 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s as the leading figure in Hmong music, leaves us with a note of encouragement, “We need a new superstar singer to lead the next generation of Hmong musicians-someone other musicians will look at for guidance, someone our kids will look up to as a role model. I hope and pray that God will grant us that superstar in the near future. There are a lot of talented young people out there, especially our own children, and we need to pay attention to what they’re producing. Hmong vocalists and musicians need our support. This is not the time to turn our backs on them. Let’s focus on our youth in this country. The future of Hmong music is here in America.”