When a diva died, this Los Angeles Times reporter captured a story of grief and community in a pandemic

Thái Thanh 'is really a citizen of two countries, her career a merging of cultural ideals and of unity and separation.'

May 22, 2020

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to telling the stories of local journalists. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here

Right as the lockdown in southern California began, reporter Anh Do learned that legendary Vietnamese pop diva Thái Thanh had died. Her death wasn’t because of the coronavirus. But it was a huge moment, a loss previously that would have been met with mourners in the thousands in Southern California and thousands more watching from around the world.

“And I thought: What timing. How on earth will they honor her in the age of coronavirus?” said Do, a metro reporter with the Los Angeles Times who covers general assignment and Asian American issues.

Do learned through a source that family members were trying to get permission for a memorial service in a time of social distancing. Press wasn’t allowed. So Do got creative and used Facebook Live to watch about two dozen people gather, many in Thái Thanh’s favorite color, pink.

“This for a woman whose fame is likened to Elizabeth Taylor’s,” Do said.

She watched the service, noting the names of people who watched with her and commented, trying to track them down later on social media. Then, Do drove to Little Saigon in Orange County. At a community rice distribution line, she found longtime fans.

Thái Thanh was the matriarch of three generations of performers. Do’s more familiar with the music of Thái Thanh’s daughter. But while writing this story, Do listened to the elder diva.

The result is a piece that captures grief, grieving, community and the enduring power of music in the strangest of times.

The men playing mah-jongg and sipping iced coffee had retreated. Many Westminster shop owners had shuttered their stores, once filled with soybean milk and war memoirs and shiny Buddha statues.

Little Saigon was in lockdown; the sense of loss was palpable. And in the yellowing pages of a local Vietnamese-language newspaper, stories paid tribute to a beloved voice that also had fallen silent in the midst of the global pandemic.

Thai Thanh, the diva who reigned over Vietnamese American popular music for nearly six decades, died in virus-battered March, leaving her legions of fans unable to venture out to pay their respects. The 85-year-old icon started her singing career at age 14 in her native Hanoi, merging northern Vietnamese folk songs, French music and Western opera into a hybrid genre called “Tan Nhac,” the so-called New Music of Vietnam.

The story sparked a big reaction among grandmothers, mothers and daughters on Facebook, Do said, a popular platform for Southeast Asian immigrants.

“The diva at the center of our story is really a citizen of two countries, her career a merging of cultural ideals and of unity and separation. People who grew up in the villages she toured got in touch with me, along with those who grew up with her children and grandchildren.”

Do, who’s staying busy now covering the coronavirus, said she looks for ways to strike a balance between practical news, breaking news and something deeper, like service journalism.

She is proud of the work her colleagues at the LA Times have produced through the pandemic.

“I think this is just one small story in a gigantic and growing constellation of stories that we can offer,” she said.

Local journalists, what work are you excited/proud/devoted to right now? Share it with us and we’ll reach out if we decide to feature it. 

Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.