She's an accomplished singer. She's released a music video. She's produced and starred in a film that will be released this Spring. She's the mother of two school-aged daughters. And she has promised to donate 100 percent of her future profits from her singing, acting and producing projects to help kids in need.
And it all started with one little girl's dreams of the stage and screen.
Vietnam born Ha Phuong grew up in Ho Chi Minh City and has always dreamed of being a performer despite the fact that, she says, she was quite shy and timid as a kid. “Having this personality made me cautious in interacting with new acquaintances. However, once I got to know people I would be friendly and sociable. Today my best friends are from my school days."
Her desire to be a performer came from her family, she explains. “When I was little, my brothers and sisters were all fascinated by Vietnamese Musical Broadway because those gorgeous actresses sang beautifully and they always got to dive deep into their love lives. After watching, it we would recreate the musicals at home. I was cast as the protagonist. That memory lives in me forever."
After graduating from high school, Phuong enrolled in dance and music classes at the College of Arts and Culture, District 10 Culture House, taking private vocal classes and studying Vietnamese Broadway Musical. When she first came to the U.S., she studied acting at TVI Actors Studio in New York and engaged a private acting coach and vocal teacher.
Before long, Phuong became a professional singer, performing nightly at entertainment venues. But it wasn't all it was cracked up to be, she explains. “In Vietnam, being a professional singer doesn't mean you're a star or a diva. Therefore, when I first started I had to wait to sing after big stars finished their performances. If no big stars were there, then it would be my turn.
Sometimes when I was ready for the stage a big star who sang the same style as me arrived and insisted to perform first. When she finished, another big star arrived. I waited for hours. The unbelievable thing was it happened almost every day, not at only one venue but also other venues! On my way home, I cried a lot and told myself to work hard to become a star so my words could be valued. I was determined. Once I performed and won over the audience those big singers who sang the same style as me didn't have any chance to bully me like before."
But when she finally did garner some level of fame, people began spreading rumors about her, gossiping presumably to undermine her. But it didn't work and it soon became clear that those rumors simply were not true. “Then and there I realized integrity, humanity, and talent have got me where I am today."
Photo Courtesy of Hoàng Hồ
As if being a success wasn't enough, Phuong is also the author of a book titled "Finding Julia," which is inspired by Phuong's own life. The book, she explains, “tells the story of Julia expressing love for her father in a way that later she recognizes is wrong."
Her book has since been made into a film scheduled for release on May 11 in New York, Houston, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Orange County, California. Phuong produced the feature film and stars in it with Andrew McCarthy and Richard Chamberlain. Her English language song from the film, “Lost in a Dream," has already been released in a music video.
The whole experience has been quite a ride for Phuong.
“It's been a journey to discover the treasures of technology and culture in this multinational country. Looking back, I do not know if I was a fool or brave. Imagine a foreigner who comes to the U.S. speaking little English but accepting challenges in different roles as an actor, singer, producer, screenwriter, and editor."
In fact, her biggest challenges along the way, she says, have been acclimating to American culture and mastering the English language. Plus, she adds, “I completely forgot the fact that this is not my Vietnam and nobody knows who I am. Not to mention all of the difficulties while shooting and writing the screenplay, but I had already gone too far to go back. Have you ever experienced the dilemma of making progress yet unable to go back? The feeling was that I was lost in the ocean. It was a truly horrifying nightmare! Ha Phuong and Julia in the movie both have nightmares. And we both tell ourselves 'Where there's a will there's a way and I won't give up.' My journey is still ongoing and it is a valuable experience in my life as an artist."
Despite it all, Phuong fondly recalls the moment she would call her big break more than twenty years ago. “Everyone in my country loves soccer. When the 1994 World Cup took place they played my song 'Hoa Cau Vuon Trau' during halftime and it was broadcast by Vietnam Television every day. The audience had discovered me and said, 'This singer is lovely and charming.' When they found out that I had relocated to the US, they were disappointed. Remembering that moment makes me feel like I am on cloud nine."
The notoriety is something Phuong is thrilled to have. But the money, for Phuong, is all about being able to give back. All profits from Phuong's work go to the Ha Phuong Foundation, paying for their housing, surgery, food, clothing, and education for underprivileged children. Musical instruments, vocational training, and career development are also provided for children who are blind.
Phuong's charity work goes back nearly a decade. In 2008, she founded the Ha Phuong Foundation in Huntington, California with a $1 M donation that helped to build a multi-media arts center in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Garden Grove. She also sponsors the Ha Phuong Young Female Filmmakers Initiative.
In addition, she assists in the Vietnam Relief Effort, a non-profit organization created by her husband, Chinh Chu, and his sister. The Vietnam Relief Effort aids in school buildings; funding surgeries for war veterans and disabled people; and bringing Vietnamese doctors to the U.S. for training. She's done so much work that in 2016, Phuong was named a “top donor to UNICEF."
Photo Courtesy of Lý Võ Phú Hưng
Why Phuong does so much charity work, particularly with children, is simple. “When I was five-years-old. I was critically ill to the point that drove my family to bankruptcy. My parents had to sell our blankets to pay for my treatment.
When I grew up and we gathered for family dinner, my father would tell the story about when I was sick and how they could not pay for the hospital bills and had to borrow money, sell everything in the house, and leave behind only one black and white television. When the due date of the debt came they still could not pay and the television was collected by the creditor. When I heard that, I ran and hid in a dark corner to cry. I prayed that I would be blessed with good fortune in the future. I pledged to help people who were less fortunate than me."
At the very least, she hopes the money that she donates “will let underprivileged children know that they are not abandoned. They will receive love from other people, not only me. Therefore, they should always try and not give up."
Along with her charity work, movie projects, and plans in the music industry, Phuong is currently sponsoring a contest called “Lost in a Dream." She is inviting “amateur singers, professional singers, karaoke lovers, men, women and young people everywhere to send us a video of your version of the song 'Lost in a Dream' from the soundtrack of the soon-to-be-released movie 'Finding Julia' to win $20,000.
The contest ends March 15, 2018 with a live performance by the final five finalists. Judges are music producers Jay Messina and Jack Douglas; singer and voice coach Alissa Grimaldi; soundtrack composer Milosz Jeziorski; and myself. All out of state finalists will be flown to New York and hosted as they prepare for their live performance."
If you ask Phuong if this is how she imagined her life might one day be, she'll simply laugh. If you ask her what she imagines for her future, she'll simply tell you that she is not a prophet who can see the future. But if you ask her advice for finding your own success, she'll tell you to “Do what you won't regret in the future but is helpful to society."
Being stared at by strangers is something I have become very accustomed to. Not because I am a beautiful, ethereal being that catches everyone's attention (but I will take it if that's what you're thinking), but in the way that I am a Black woman, a Black person, and people tend to notice my presence. I don't think there is a Black person out there that can deny knowing what it's like to be stared at by a random person.