Viet Nam News
By Bảo Hoa
There is no cover of Canadian pop singer Justin Bieber’s hit What Do You Mean quite like that of the US-based video producer Kayla Nguyễn.
With a conical hat on her head, a pair of sunglasses, and a traditional Vietnamese long dress áo dài, she sings in a way that sounds nothing like the original, while playing a plucked zither (đàn tranh).
This is Kayla’s Vietnamese reformed opera (cải lương) version of the song, which has garnered some 1.7 million views and become her most viewed video since it was uploaded to her personal YouTube channel, Vietglish Fun, three months ago.
Kayla Nguyễn (Nguyễn Thiện Như), 25, is a Vietnamese American born and raised in Philadelphia, the US. She recently rose to virtual stardom when the videos of herself providing spontaneous, word for word translations of English pop songs into Vietnamese, spread over social media.
A video and media arts graduate, Kayla wrote, filmed and edited all the videos herself. Her YouTube channel was started in 2014 as the result of a translation challenge from her younger sister.
“She asked me if I could translate the lyrics of Britney Spears’ song Oops I Did It Again, word for word, into Vietnamese,” Kayla said in one of her first videos on the channel. “I did it, and she started laughing like crazy.”
Since then, she has posted numerous videos of herself translating English songs into Vietnamese on the spot and vice versa, and recently, some instructional videos of Vietnamese pronunciation.
Kayla’s appreciation for her heritage came from her parents, who only allowed her to speak Vietnamese at home.
“Growing up I loved my language, but it saddened me when I saw my cousins unable to speak any of it,” she told Việt Nam News.
Global hit: Kayla Nguyễn in her music video cover of British singer Adele’s song "Hello". The Vietnamese text on the image reads "Hello, it’s me" - the first line of the song’s lyrics. — Photo courtesy of Kayla Nguyễn
“When I first created this channel I was targeting Vietnamese Americans,” she said. “I wanted to encourage everyone to learn the language since I feel like no one is focusing on it.”
With 29 videos uploaded, the channel has attracted some 83,000 subscribers. Kayla’s social media page of the same name, where she interacts with her admirers on a regular basis, has also gained some 172,000 followers.
“Now I see that people all over the world are interested in learning Vietnamese. It makes me so happy and proud,” Kayla said.
Finding joy in what she is doing, Kayla said she admires the Jubilee Project and Wong Fu Productions, and that she would love to create a TV or online series one day.
As she wrote on the Vietglish Fun website, her vision is “to create positive Vietnamese media that will influence a whole nation”.
“I remember growing up there were these skits that talked about having a ‘vợ bé’ (mistress) that seemed so normal,” she explained to Việt Nam News. “To me that was absolutely unacceptable! Marriages seemed so dead in the media.”
“I wanted to redefine family and create a world where people can love each other more and trust each other more.”
Kayla’s younger sister Lindsey Nguyễn (Nguyễn Hoàng Uyên), 21, said she “couldn’t be any more proud”, seeing her sister becoming an internet sensation from the challenge that she started.
“I don’t need to speculate on whether or not her channel has had an impact since I can already see it in the comments and how [her viewers] talk about her videos,” Lindsey said. “It’s mainly just how proud people are to be Vietnamese, and how they have regained and renewed a love and respect for Vietnamese culture by seeing how fun it can actually be to learn the language.”
“Kayla has many strengths, but the main one I believe that keeps her going is her faith and optimism,” she added.
“There was definitely rejection she experienced in the past, especially when she was just starting out with 10,000 subscribers, but she always knew the potential Vietglish Fun had and never gave up on it,” she said.
Phạm Nguyệt Hằng, a final-year student at Tôn Đức Thắng University in HCM City and a long-term fan of Kayla’s videos, said she loved Kayla for the spontaneous spirit that she expressed in her videos.
“She doesn’t force herself to be pretty or to use her appearance to attract sponsors, which I can easily relate to. And her interpretation of the songs is so unexpected and hilarious,” Hằng said.
“Through her videos I’ve got a new perspective on the life of the young generation of Vietnamese born in foreign countries,” she added.
“What touches me most is that even though she has spent most of her life abroad, Kayla still turns her heart towards home,” she said.
Having worked as a store manager for a global clothing chain, now Kayla focuses on producing videos and content for Vietglish Fun.
She spends most of her time working on the most popular subjects – videos called Thông Dịch Tuesday (Translation Tuesday – translating English songs into Vietnamese) and Switch It Up Saturday (translating Vietnamese songs into English), as well as some other music videos.
“Being organised” is what Kayla aims to do in order to realise her vision.
“An idea isn’t useful until you execute it. One step at a time,” she said. — VNS