I am helping to build Vietnam’s creative ecosystem.
Thanh Bui is a musician, managing director of SOUL Corporation and founder of Embassy Education. His passion for music led him to early successes such as being part of Australian boy band North and becoming an Australian Idol finalist. Bui is also an international composer and has written songs for BTS, Arashi and TVXQ. Thanh Bui now lives in Ho Chi Minh City, where he is building a creative ecosystem and helping to nurture the next generation of Vietnamese creative talent.
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AP: Can you tell us about your family and what it was like growing up in Australia?
TB: We had nothing when we first came to Australia. We knew little English and had brought little with us. We had to be resourceful and my parents were relentless in the pursuit of a better life and were willing to die for it. I learnt a lot about resilience from my parents.
My family worked on a farm in Adelaide, my mum and dad first picked potatoes. Then we built a greenhouse and grew cucumbers, but in one season we lost everything because of a massive dew. But we had one lucky break. We didn’t have money, my parents needed a loan to get some sewing machines. A random stranger overheard our story at a bank and this stranger became our guarantor so that my parents can get that loan.
My whole family sewed. We were like a family sweatshop. At home, we had sewing machines. One stitch, double stitch, all the stitches.
All the kids had to do it, we had to survive. I’d get paid one cent for each pocket sewn. I used to sit there with my older brother, we would do the pattern and would stitch the pattern back on. The goal was to get to one hundred pockets. If I sewed one hundred pockets, I’d get a dollar. With that one dollar back then, you could buy a hundred jelly beans or twenty-five apricot drops.
But that bank moment, it changed our whole life. We were able to move to Melbourne and paved a new chapter in our lives.
AP: What was your passion or dream as a child?
TB: I loved nothing more than to make music. I started singing when I was five years old. The school in Reservoir, Victoria, allowed everyone that option to learn music. They gave me a recorder, and I had access to a free guitar. There were a lot of Italians attending this school. Italians like to sing and laugh. I found them to be very artistically-minded. I remember singing in classes all the time.
We had an audition, I got picked up somehow by the Victorian Boys Choir. I was one of the two chosen in our school, I had no idea why they chose me. The other was another Italian girl who got picked too. We got to perform in Melbourne and I loved the experience so much. After that, my parents put me into a junior talent school called “Johnny Young Talent School”. They had students like Kylie Minogue and Anthony Callea.
At the talent school, I learnt all sorts of things like singing, dancing, jazz and ballet. I also learned a bit of acting and group performance.
I don’t think you know something if you are not exposed to creative arts. I was fortunate that I was exposed to classical music and singing and was lucky enough to love it. That kind of exposure and calibre allowed me to grow as a performer.
AP: Were your parents against you pursuing music?
TB: My parents were traditional, they wanted me to pursue the pathway of stability.
My father is a particularly superstitious person, he dreamt about me and a music memo. This dream allowed me to gain access to learning music. Still, I remember my mother telling me “You’re an Asian kid, what makes you think you can be an artist or musician? Because I don’t see anyone that’s Asian in the whole world who is successful. So, what makes you think you can be successful?”
This was my reality. This was also during a time when we saw very few Asian actors on the Australian screen.
My parents actually wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer, whereas I always wanted to be a musician which was way off what they wanted me to be. In many ways, I had to fight for my dreams. I had to prove to them and to everyone that I can do it and be successful at it. While it wasn’t an easy pathway, it has definitely shaped me and allowed me to challenge the status quo.
They never thought this was something I wanted to actually pursue. They never saw the arts as a job. They wanted their kids to have stability. Their life was unstable and the trauma of the Vietnam War added to it. As their child, I absolutely get it and I appreciate what they have done for me. Still, they instilled in me the ability to fight for my own beliefs. They fought to survive and I fought for my passion.
Around the time I was 19 or 20, I got all my money together and bought my first little studio. I bought a compressor, amplifier, some speakers and a computer and started recording MY music.
I even set up a side business in my little studio and taught singing. My parents didn’t really want to support me in my career choice. I had to do this myself. They would tell me “Go and do it yourself, we’re not going to support you.”
They thought I would give up after three days and come back home. I didn’t end up coming home for another eight years.
AP: So what happened next while you were at university? Tell us about your experience of being part of the boy band, North?
TB: I went to Swinburne University to study a Bachelor of Business Information Technology. During that time, I was part of “North”, a boy band. I would study in the morning, and later I’d be writing music and practising.
It was mid-to-late tipping curve of boy bands. There were Five and Backstreet Boys. North was known for its pop music. We found success in South-East Asia and had three Number 1’s in Asia. We performed on stage with Ashlee Simpson and Jay Chou. We toured around Asia and sold a number of records, not enough, but tens and thousands of records. We had an amazing time. It was a highlight, as I had the chance to explore and grow up. North was together for two good years.
“Being exposed to this from a young age, I felt fortunate to find a pathway to music. I love music.”
AP: Tell us about your journey after North and before relocating back to Vietnam?
TB: After Australian Idol, pockets of the Vietnamese community came out, I received calls, emails and messages from everywhere in the world. Post-Vietnam-War, Vietnamese found refuge in America, UK, Scandinavia and around Europe. I had enormous support for doing and representing the arts. I went and sang in Paris By Night (PBN is a prominent overseas Vietnamese entertainment show) in 2006, and I sang Vietnamese for the first time there. It was such a different and surreal experience. I sang and performed “Mirror Mirror”. The performance went viral and became a hit song. It then led me to Vietnam.
I went to Vietnam with an open heart and mind. It was my first time there as an adult. I ended up connecting with who I am and found a purpose.
AP: Sounds like you went on a journey to find yourself.
TB: Absolutely. I lived my whole life growing in Australia and felt a sense of duality, a struggle even. From the moment I stepped out of the house, I felt Aussie. The moment I step inside my house, I was Vietnamese.
“It felt like I had two culture fighting inside my body. I didn’t fully understand who I was. It was only when I went to Vietnam did I found my identity.”
I was 28 years old when I visited Vietnam. I retraced the steps of my father and mother. I went back to my father’s place of origin. He lived on a mud floor. I went to my mother’s city of origin, Binh Thuan. I went down to the coast where my parent left on the boat. I’ve got goosebumps right now thinking about it. At that moment, I went “wow”, this is my country. Sure, Australia is my country, but Vietnam is also my country. I came back to Vietnam to come to terms of being Vietnamese.
I call it reconciliation. I reconciled inside and came to terms with my western side. I went from 180 west, then 180 degrees west. A complete 360 of who I am today.
AP: Tell us about your journey starting The Soul Music and Performing Arts Academy and your experience in Vietnam.
TB: It took me about seven months from idea to start executing the Soul Music and Performing Arts Academy.
There’s no straight line in Vietnam, whereas Australia is a straight line. All the rules are in place, everything is in a regimented and controlled environment. Vietnam isn’t. What we think are the rules in the West may not be necessary or contextualised in Vietnam. It’s not wrong or right. It’s just very different. The biggest challenges are the cultural nuances and understanding the Vietnamese mentality and psyche. Through this process. I’ve learned what it means to be the innovator.
Seven years later, SOUL continues to help parents and children about creativity and creative arts.
AP: What are you currently working on now in Vietnam?
TB: I am currently building infrastructure and the root level of infrastructure in education.
We are building schools and programs, that will help put Vietnam on the map. Creativity is the future. We have to share and educate parents that creativity is the future. When artificial intelligence takes over and it is already within our industries. The difference between us as humans and AI is our ability to be creative. We have to create new jobs in the future that don’t exist today. 70% of today’s job won’t survive. I think that once we build this creative industry, we build a different kind of thinking that will solve the problems of today.
For change to happen, we have to be patient. It’s understanding that we have to put one step at a time and having good people together with you. It’s developing thinking that creativity should be put at the centre and not on the peripheral.
“Vietnamese parents need to understand that kids can earn a living doing The Arts. There’s a mentality and misconception that if you’re a dancer, you’re a street kid, that’ you’re a nobody.”
AP: So what is your vision for Vietnam and creativity?
TB: For the next generation to have a vision of creating. For modern Vietnam to understand its position in the world. Where we can start to develop leaders that stand on the international stage. Where we contribute to all matters. Where the moment you mention “Vietnam”, Vietnamese will know who they are and where they’ve come from and their history.
We’re putting the Arts at the centre of every child. We are redefining the question of “what does it mean to be human?”
For example, take a bellboy whose job all day is to just open the door for a five-star customer at a hotel. I truly do not believe that a kid was born into this world to open a door for a person. If we can automate that, then there are more options for people to think about what they can do. What kind of values can we give our next generation, so they can navigate their way through uncertainty?
We need to build industries that will give opportunities to young people. In Vietnam, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. How do we change that? How do we democratise education so more people can have access to knowledge? How do we share music or knowledge in real-time? We established “Billboards Vietnam”, a platform for Vietnamese artists to connect with the world.
We can’t predict what’s going to happen in the next 20 or 100 years. But, we can give our kids the creative tools to prepare for this future.
“If you live in Vietnam, survive in Vietnam, and thrive in Vietnam.
You can live and survive anywhere on earth.”
AP: What allowed you to push outside your comfort zone?
TB: Travel gets you out of your comfort zone. Do things you’ve never done before. You live only once and I know it sounds so all cliche but there is a reason why it’s a cliche because it’s actually true. I think being comfortable is so dangerous. It makes us complacent. I can only speak for myself and my experience.
But for all Vietnamese and Australians throughout the world, what I’d encourage them to come back to our motherland, come back to our motherland and see what you can do to contribute to her. Because, I think whether you like it or not, the blood that runs through you is Vietnamese.
And, connect with that and I think you’ll have an experience that will make your life more holistic and more- and just more purposeful I think.
AP: What advice can you give to other young Asian Pioneers?
TB: Be multi-disciplinary. Imagine a world, where every artist had a bit of business mindset and every business person had a bit of an artistic heart. Can you imagine if Trump could play Mozart? The world would be different. Look at the Einsteins of the world and you look at the Da Vincis, you will find people that will push humanity forward. They are multidisciplinary.
Einstein is an incredible scientist and he was a wonderful musician too. Leonardo Da Vinci was a painter, an inventor, and a Renaissance man. We need to be telling that to our children, to this generation and to the older generation. Be creative. Be multi-disciplinary.
AP: And your plans for 2019?
TP: To continue on the pathway of building infrastructure for the arts, both on the industrial level and also on the global level. I also plan to return to music this year. I want to get back into my music and release some songs. And get back to the international and global scene.
AP: It’s been a pleasure chatting to you, Thanh. Thank you so much for your time and knowledge.