Volume 17 Number 5
Accordion and Piano Con Brio
01 October 2004

A London-based former Vietnamese boatperson and his Japanese wife tell Kenneth Noble of their love of music, teaching and freedom.

Stunning! Technically brilliant,’ was the verdict of a top-flight professional musician after a concert by the husband and wife duo, Phuong Nguyen (accordion) and Miho Sanou (piano) during the Renewal Arts session in Caux this summer. Even I, a musical illiterate, could appreciate the verve and enjoyment with which Vietnamese-born Nguyen and his Japanese-born wife played pieces by César Franck, Noriko Motomatsu from Japan and Argentinian Astor Piazzolla.

In Nguyen’s case, the joie de vivre undoubtedly springs in part from his dramatic experiences—as a victim of
political oppression and, later, as a refugee. For this dapper, cheerful man of 31 nearly perished in a small boat in the China Seas at the age of 16.

‘Vietnam is a beautiful place with friendly people,’ says Nguyen. ‘It’s a wonderful place to live—in some ways.’ The reservation is due to the fact that, at the age of eight, he was talent-spotted by the government, taken away from his family and enrolled in a music academy in the capital, Hanoi, where he was forced to learn the accordion, rather than the drums as he had been promised. ‘They told us what to do, what to eat, what to play,’ he recalls. ‘I hardly saw my family after that. For the first two or three years life was tremendously tough.’ He was only allowed to visit his parents twice a year, and had to do his own cooking and washing as well as be responsible for his homework. But he did enjoy playing ‘the squeeze box’.

Nguyen’s father, a well-known actor and playwright, also came under ‘tremendous pressure’ from the authorities after ‘speaking his mind’. By the time he was 16, Nguyen had had enough, and decided to flee the country.

His family arranged his escape, and one day in the summer of 1989, as he was hanging out with friends, the word came: ‘We are ready’. Nguyen and 79 others were put aboard a 27ton boat and covered in salt. The plan was to pass the vessel off as a fishing boat. They travelled overnight and were nearly suffocating by the time they reached Chinese waters.

Their troubles were just beginning. The China Sea is notoriously rough, and a great storm blew up. ‘The waves were enormous,’ Nguyen recalls. ‘We burned our clothes and blankets and cried for help.’ At one point they were convinced that they were going to perish. ‘We all tied our hands together thinking that it would be easier for people to find all our bodies that way.’

Nguyen, whose doctor mother had taken him to temples at a young age, started praying to God, to Allah, to Buddha for the first time. Eventually, they spotted some dark dots, which they thought might be fishing boats. As they steered towards them they ran onto some rocks and stuck fast. Although this was by no means a safe situation, once the storm abated they were able to make some repairs and when, seven nights later, the flood tide lifted them free, they continued their journey.

Nguyen had a strong sense that someone was watching over him— and he did eventually make landfall on a small island in Hong Kong. This was the beginning of almost four years’ detention, with up to 63,000 boatpeople waiting for the British authorities to process their asylum applications.

Nguyen eventually found himself in a camp sharing a large hut with 250 men, women and children. They slept on bunk-beds and had no privacy. Music was something of a life-saver as people used any old instrument they could get their hands on. Nguyen remembers performing at many weddings in the camp.

His talent attracted the attention of Marie Myerscough, a British volunteer with the UN international social service. Home in London, she spoke to Sir Cameron MacIntosh, who was staging the musical Miss Saigon in the West End, and he paid for an accordion to be sent to Nguyen. Later Myerscough recorded Nguyen and arranged for the tape to be heard by a professor at the Royal Academy, the only institute in the UK which offered a course in the accordion. The professor was so impressed that he got the Academy to send a letter of support to the authorities in Hong Kong and, with additional help from John Major, Sir Edward Heath and other political figures, Nguyen was finally admitted into the UK to study.

It was at the Royal Academy that Nguyen and Sanou met. Sanou’s background could hardly have been more different. As the child of a well-to-do family she studied the piano from the age of four. She began by playing the tunes from TV cartoons by ear, and progressed to the point where she was accepted to study in Britain for three-and-a-half years. She then went home to Japan, returning two years later to the UK to marry.

Nguyen and Sanou have eight degrees between them—and combine their love of music with a love of teaching, through which they both earn their livelihoods. Nguyen teaches at Blackheath Conservatory, a private school, and also at two schools in poorer neighbourhoods—‘I believe passionately in helping people from all backgrounds.’ Sanou teaches one-toone at two schools in south-east London and also gives private lessons. They also find time to further their concert careers. Since graduating in 1999 Nguyen has toured the UK with Pimlico Opera and given concerts in Spain, China, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, France, and the USA. Sanou completed her Masters at Goldsmiths College, London, in the same year—with a much-acclaimed interpretation of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto with Goldsmiths’ Sinfonia. Together, they often do concerts for good causes—at one charity performance they raised £3,000 for needy Vietnamese children.

It was on the day of the London Marathon in April 1993 that Nguyen managed to contact his family for the first time since leaving Vietnam. This was the result of a message that he had broadcast on the BBC World Service. A family friend in Vietnam happened to hear it, and told his family where he was. Somehow a message was sent to Nguyen, telling him the family’s phone number.
Since then Nguyen and Sanou have visited both Vietnam and Japan, appreciating all the gifts that he and Sanou have been given: ‘Thanks to music, art and enormous luck, I survived. Not many of my fellowcountrymen have the luxury of being free and being able to share creativity.’

Phuong Nguyen and Miho Sanou’s visit to Caux was sponsored by Gillian Humphreys and the London-based Concordia Foundation, whose website proclaims: ‘building bridges through music and the arts’. Nguyen echoes this thought: ‘At our wedding there were people of 20 different languages. Music is a way of bridging between languages, and of expressing things that you are not allowed to speak. We see ourselves as ambassadors for peace through music and the arts.’