by J.J. Jensen
Jimmy Nguyen, owner and chef of downtown’s House of Orient, has a full plate.
For example, there are the grueling 12-hour work days, constant desire to keep his customers happy and the current hassles of moving his business to a new location.
And, if that’s not hectic enough, there are also the pressures of being a beloved pop singer in Vietnam and the local Asian communities.
“I’m on the run all the time and kind of stressed out but it’s kind of fun,” said the peppy 29-year-old, during some rare free time on a recent afternoon at his restaurant.
Though he possesses the look and charisma of a star, the pearly toothed Nguyen, who’s releasing his second album later this year, never imagined he’d be known for singing.
It wasn’t until seven years ago, at the age of 22, he first realized he had some chops.
Right around the time Nguyen opened House of Orient, a former customer noticed the mounting stress the long hours of the restaurant business were having on him. To help him release some tension, he made Nguyen take a night off work and took him out for a meal in Vancouver, British Columbia.
It just so happened they went to a karaoke restaurant.
When The Passion, the band that was playing that night, was taking a dinner break, Nguyen was coerced by his friend into singing. He selected an old, sad Vietnamese song, “No,” and put his heart into it.
The experience, Nguyen said, didn’t exactly go off without complications.
A woman gave him a rose as he sang, and he was taken aback. Then, he accidentally knocked the microphone stand off the stage.
“I thought I was going to be done with singing. I was so embarrassed,” Nguyen said, blushing. “But the band said, ‘People like you. We want to keep you.'”
Soon, he was singing with the band and routinely appearing with it in Seattle clubs, like Club Majestic, or at private dance halls in Vancouver and popular restaurants there, like the Pink Pearl and Flamingo.
When the band broke up in 2001, Nguyen, who sings only in Vietnamese, decided to stick with singing and continued to perform solo, mostly at Asian clubs in Vancouver and Seattle.
In 2003, Nguyen, who was born in Saigon to an American father and Vietnamese mother, returned to Vietnam, where he hoped to find a larger audience.
He put together a six-member band and they recorded an album, “The Person Who Came From Trieu Chau,” in honor of his grandmother, who moved to Vietnam from China as a young woman.
The mix of 1960s and 1970s Vietnamese country and pop songs, such as “Dream About a Place Far Away,” “All My Love,” and “Last Night,” has since sold several thousand copies.
Nguyen, who is popular with an older audience, returns to Vietnam several times a year now to play clubs and coffeehouses over a three- or four-week spans. He also continues to sing in Vancouver and Seattle clubs and casinos two or three nights a week.
Though he spins through his days like a whirlwind of energy, Nguyen said he prefers to slow things down on stage so he can give his best effort covering other people’s songs.
As for singing old, sad songs, Nguyen, who’s never had any musical training, said he believes they evoke more emotion in people.
“I like the old songs because Vietnam has had to go through so much and there’s a lot of memory in the songs,” he said. “Everything they’re telling you in the songs is true and people take it very seriously. When people listen to the song, it brings them back to the past and makes them remember more. It makes a song very valuable.”
Locals who’ve heard Nguyen sing, either on his album, or in his restaurant serenading happy couples or singing to customers on their birthdays, say they can feel the passion he sings with – even if they can’t understand the language he sings it in.
“The music itself is an amalgam of dance, pop and some slightly Eastern rhythms. What I took away from the record is that Jimmy is very passionate about what he does, and that passion and joy are evident in his music,” said local musician Kasey Anderson.
Nguyen’s brother, Trung, 24, said his older brother enjoys the different experiences being a singer brings.
“When you go to Vietnam, lots of people know him,” he said. “He’s a pretty famous guy. People love him.”
Despite earning from $200 to $700 per performance, Nguyen said he may cut back on appearances for a few years so he can stay more focused on what’s most important to him – his family and restaurant.
When he’s singing, he said, it’s time away from his mother, Nguyet, and Trung, who both came from Vietnam to Lynden with him in 1990, and who’ve worked tirelessly with him at the restaurant he opened at age 20.
When he’s on the road, he said, he also misses the tight bonds he has forged with his customers.
“Most clients come in here and ask for me because of the relationship we have,” Nguyen said. “My customers are like family. We’re really, really close. They only know me by name, they don’t even know we’re called House of Orient. When I sing, I have to be gone for long periods of time and I can’t stay in contact with them. I actually miss work when I’m gone.”
Nguyen said he also has less time for singing right now, as he prepares this month to move his restaurant from 209 W. Holly St. to a building he recently purchased at 115 E. Holly St.
However, he said, he may build a stage in his new restaurant so he can sing there one night a week or so, or offer karaoke for customers.
While he enjoys the stage and limelight, it’s not singing Nguyen wants to be best known for.
“I like to be known as the owner of the House of Orient,” he said. “People call me ‘The Asian Ricky Martin’ but I say I’m not even close. Singing is fun but this is what I do – taking care of my family so I can be with them.”