Either that, I told myself, or she was just trying to amp the heat to sweat more.
After dropping off our four-year-old granddaughter to her summer camp, I went back to the exercise grounds to meet up with my husband, Joe. As soon as the young woman who had gotten off the machine heard us speak in Filipino, her eyes lit up as she said: “Ay, Pilipino pala kayo!”
That was how we met Janice (Buco) Phương, Vietnam’s 2016 Singing Idol.
Janice just turned 30 and was trying to shed some weight to put her career on track. “I’ve lost thirteen pounds,” she said matter-of-factly. To become an established singer, she said, she needed to improve her image for her fans.
She was 19 when she quit university to join a Filipino band bound for Vietnam. “Instead of putting me through school, I told my Papa to help my older sister to finish her course first.”
Their family had moved from Dauis, Bohol, to Pasig, Rizal, when she was 12 years old. Her mom was a cook in a carinderia while her dad worked as a driver. They were pressed for money, but her father encouraged his daughters to get an education to secure their future. Janice, who’d dreamt of becoming a singer since age five, decided she would try her luck overseas.
Although Janice had sung at church choirs and competed in singing contests, she still trained for her gig.
In Hanoi, she had to learn new songs fast—not within a week, but in a day. And, like fish to water, she also learned to speak Vietnamese.
Janice’s life progressed like a telenovela with its twists and turns: She fell in love with their lead guitarist who, it turned out, was already in a relationship. It was while nursing a broken heart that she came to know more about another guy who was also the classical guitarist for their Latin gigs. “He played flamenco music and had trained in music.” It didn’t take very long for Janice to fall in love with her quiet and gentle friend, Minh Khuê .
This was three years after a busy schedule prevented her from renewing her passport on time. That time, she had to exit via Bangkok, Thailand, to have her passport renewed. “I thought I would just stay in Bangkok for a day before my papers could be processed. Thai authorities delayed processing and I had to stay for another week.” She ran out of money so on the sixth day, while waiting for funds to be transferred to her account, she took a chance and asked a young Thai peddling close to her hotel to lend her 100 Baht to buy food. The young man took pity and gave her the money. When she paid for the burger, she found out she needed another 38 Baht to get a soda. To quench her thirst, she drank water from the tap in the restaurant’s washroom.
“I survived that disaster but it gave me hope in human kindness,” Janice said.
More complications ensued as Janice was told to go back to the Philippines and wait for three years to get back to work. By then Janice and her bandmate Minh were already a couple. He joined her in Manila during the waiting period. Soon after, they got married and ran an Internet shop.
Back in Vietnam in 2015, the pair decided to watch a movie in Times City, a new entertainment and financial development close to downtown Hanoi. They saw a huge tent with hundreds of people lining up. The tent turned out to be for Vietnam’s own version of “American Idol.”
With Minh’s encouragement, Janice decided to join the audition queue, and was selected.
“I didn’t even imagine that they would include me in the long list,” Janice said, but the judges chose her and 33 other contestants from all over Vietnam. Still, she was not convinced that she would make it.
When “Vietnam Idol” asked contestants to prepare for the three months of try-outs, she told herself, “I will be out of the competition any time soon.” For her, getting through the final 16 would be it. The more she competed, the more she doubted whether she would pull through, but she persevered.
The venues for the contest shifted from Hanoi (Vietnam’s capital city) to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the country’s business and financial center.
“When it went to the top six,” Janice said, “I knew that this would be it: THE END.”
But THE END never came. The competition tested her mettle in singing tough songs, in putting emotions to words, especially in a language that was totally new to her ears. Janice’s openness in embracing her adopted language worked its magic. Just as Janice learned “purong Tagalog” when they moved to Pasig, Rizal, in her early teens, she learned Vietnamese and its six intonations and 28 letters, as if she were born to it.
“When they asked us to sing three songs—one by a top composer, another one of our choice, and another original song composed for us—all in Vietnamese, I thought I might get through to the Top 3.”
What she wasn’t quite ready for, however, was besting the other two other contestants.
“I wasn’t expecting it. I was happy enough to be No. 2. I never thought they would choose a non-Vietnamese to win the ‘Vietnam Idol’ title.”
When Janice competed for the seventh “Vietnam Idol” season and won in 2016, the rules had broadened to allow contestants—whether Vietnamese citizens or expats—to compete.
As a young girl growing up in Dauis, a town close to Tagbilaran, Bohol’s capital city, Janice knew what being poor meant. “When I turned five and watched the May festivities with little girls dressed up as princesses, I wanted join, but my mom said we couldn’t afford the fee. Naku, 500 pesos! Pambili na raw ‘yon ng bigas (“It’s enough to buy rice.”)
As she chewed her disappointment, the festival’s organizer asked her: “Do you know how to sing?” She quickly said “yes,” and belted out ASIN’s “Pagbabalik.”
The daughter of Eutiquio Salarda Buco or Tikboy would earn her first 500 pesos singing in political candidates’ rallies in Bohol. She was eight years old when campaign organizers asked her to pep up the rallies. “It was the first time I earned money that huge.”
While her father encouraged her to succeed, it was from her mother, Honorata Aranjuez, though, that Janice took her singing.
“Kumakanta siya sa simbahan—She sang with the church choir. I remember all the Latin verses. She had a high soprano pitch. Mas mataas pa sa boses ko (She sang in church. Her pitch was higher than mine.”
She grew up learning songs from her favorite singer Imelda Papin. Then she graduated to Aiza Seguerra, Sarah Geronimo, and Lani Misalucha, and to a neo-version of Alicia Keys.
Later, Janice would be enthralled by Celine Dion’s songs and by Lara Fabian, whom she discovered while watching a Taiwanese tele-series.
Asked to describe Janice’s voice, she said the “Idol” judges pointed out how it was “buo na malaki” or “solid and powerful.”
After winning the “Vietnam Idol” title, with its 600 million Viet Dong (equivalent to 26,730 US dollars) prize money, Janice went on to produce her coronation single, “Love You in Silence (Yeu Anh Trong Am Tham), a song in Vietnamese and English about a woman nursing a broken heart. In 2017, Janice released a Vietnamese-language single titled “Tâm tư” (Feelings). Composer Châu Đăng Khoa said he wrote the lyrics to bring out Janice’s vocals, forte, and powerful vocal range: “The song talks about the feelings of a girl who is confused by overwhelming love.”
It’s been a long way since Janice sang her way through Hanoi’s club circuit crooning Whitney Houston-songs. Or when she did Adele and Tina Turner turns to quell “Vietnam Idol” judge Duang Qung’s doubts whether she had the chops to make it to the Top 6. Even jurors Thu Minh and Bằng Kiều were completely smitten. In the end, the girl from Bohol took 54.25 per cent of the votes to win the coveted “Vietnam Idol 2016.” The last “Vietnam Idol,” in fact, as the organizers staged their last season the year she won.
What does the future hold for Janice Phuong? “I want to improve my singing,” she declares. She has just returned from a mini concert, singing at The Raffles, the top hotel in Singapore featured in the Hollywood movie, “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Aside from holding singing workshops, Janice and her husband, Minh, organize singing engagements for Filipino singers and musicians.
Once she has achieved some success in her career, Janice plans to buy a piece of land in Agusan del Sur where her father, Tikboy, hails from. “I want to provide a peaceful retirement for my parents. They sacrificed so much to give me and my sister a better life.”
JANICE PHUONG AT REHEARSALS, VIETNAM IDOL:
Based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Patty Rivera writes from her recent visit to Vietnam.
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