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SEA Vinyl Society brings sounds of Southeast Asia's past to the present

Two people stand behind a table with turntables on it. One of them has headphones on and is wearing a grey cardigan with jeans and sneakers. The other is in a pink colored jumpsuit. Two speakers are on either side of the table and the album cover of the record they're playing is displayed in front.
Grace Madigan
SEA Vinyl Society held its second in-person event ahead of the Lunar New Year a coffee shop in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood. The first was in November at Mam's Bookstore in Seattle's Chinatown-International District.

Saturday marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year, or Tết as it's called in Vietnamese. But celebrations started as early as last weekend.

People gathered last Friday at Little Saigon Creative in Seattle, to kick off the holiday by listening to old Vietnamese records. People talked and laughed while enjoying a spread of Vietnamese snacks. The warm hiss of vinyl filled the room.

"I am so happy to bring... this is my personal collection of vinyl that I've been collecting over the past ten years," Thanh Tân said. "From travels to Vietnam, from searching — scouring the internet, eBay, Discogs — to try to find these old 45s."

Tân is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and is a vinyl collector. She helped start the SEA Vinyl Society, a group of people interested in preserving old records from across Asia.

The SEA Vinyl Society began as an Instagram chat last summer. Tân had reached out to a couple of friends asking about a stack of Filipino records she recently acquired. The chat became a place for them to share their latest vinyl finds and intel. Eventually, they added more people to the group, including KEXP DJ, Diana Ratsamee.

Months later, the two of them met in-person to put together the setlist for the Tết celebration. Tân brought her whole record collection, some with delicate album covers that are falling apart.

"Maybe we can talk a little bit about the event and go through the story that we want to tell," Ratsamee suggested.

"I'll try to pull out songs that could work," Tân said. "Songs that are sort of about spring coming because my vinyl, I don't have a lot of specific to Lunar New Year, a lot of this is general. It was pop music of the time."

Two people stand at a kitchen counter looking down at vinyl albums in plastic sleeves.
Grace Madigan
Thanh Tân, left, and Diana Ratsamee are part of the SEA Vinyl Society, a group preserving old records from across Southeast Asia.

Sitting in the kitchen, the two sorted through the stack of records, cleaning them one by one. Tân hadn't played some of them yet.

"Some of these I had for months and months and months and I don't know why, I was just like, 'I'm just gonna wait for the right moment' You know?" Tân said.

Ratsamee understood. Her family is from Laos and like Tân’s parents, they came to the U.S. to escape war. For both of these vinyl collectors, these records are pieces of their family history.

"These are treasures. Someone risked their lives to keep these so that we could listen to them today," Ratsamee said.

Tân explained to Ratsamee that a lot of the old music she has references the war and talks about soldiers.

"This song 'Thiên Thần Mũ Đỏ' is about 'angel from the sky,' which is about the red berets," Tân said. "The red berets were the paratroopers in the South Vietnamese army."

Other songs they considered for the event are much lighter like "Saigon, Saigon."

"This is a song that I heard at Lunar New Year as a kid, when you get together with a community," Tân said. "It's a love letter to the city of Saigon which is now called Ho Chi Minh City."

A couple weeks later, the crowd at the SEA Vinyl Society's second event was intergenerational, just as Tân and Ratsamee had hoped. There were dogs, kids, elders and even a little dancing. Tracy Pham and her sister, Christy, brought their parents.

"It’s been really nice kind of living…experiencing how they used to listen to music and live in Vietnam," Tracy said. "They came here after the war so it's really cool to have this opportunity to share this experience with them. You saw my mom she was dancing, we were too, it was fun."

Before they left, the sisters introduced their mom to the evening’s DJs. Tân asked Tracy and Christy's mom in Vietnamese what hearing the music brings up for her. Tân translated that the woman was in her 20s during the war and that she loves this sort of music. The woman thanked Tân and Ratsamee.

"This is what we do it for…the elders and the dogs," Ratsamee said.

Updated: February 9, 2024 at 4:48 PM PST
Clarified the second event was at Little Saigon Creative, not Hello Em coffee shop which shares the space.
Grace Madigan covers arts and culture with a focus on how people express themselves and connect to their communities through art, music, media, food, and sport.