The ups & downs and personal & professional life of local celebrity Kyo York
It’s pretty easy to prise open a locked scooter compartment if you know what you’re doing—just force the seat up at the right angle, and there’s a distinct clack; everything inside is yours, and you’re gone well before the bike’s owner returns. On this particular occasion, the target is easily spotted-one of Dai Hoc Bach Khoa’s white American teachers, swarthy and unkempt, a touch overweight, nobody to think twice about. Perhaps just another rich foreigner careless with his money.
Some hours later, Kyle Cochran emerges from the classroom block, relieved to be finishing what is supposed to be one of his last-ever English teaching sessions. Vietnam has been a frustrating gig: he’s only recently completed a lonely year’s posting in a very, very small Mekong town as a volunteer for Princeton University. Once that assignment was finally over, Kyle pocketed his last 500,000 dong and took the bus up to Ho Chi Minh City with just one wish—to make a thousand bucks, buy a plane ticket home, and get the hell out of here. When he’d finally scraped those earnings together, he got the cash ready, stored it securely under his bike seat, and headed out to class.
Standing in the parking lot, the loss of that money is beyond painful, and there will be consequences. Kyle will spend months sleeping on the floor of his classroom without a home to speak of, and he will not be leaving Vietnam. Instead, he will become one of the most insanely famous foreign entertainers this country has ever known: 2 million followers on Facebook, appearances on numerous television game shows, and a standing on par with Vietnam’s A-list celebrities. He’ll have an army of haters too, bemoaning how easy it must have been for him to play the foreigner card and smarm his way into the industry. It may come as something of a surprise to those critics that the path between this crushing moment in the parking lot and standing in front of vast audiences under the national spotlight had very little to do with white privilege.
“The Vietnamese have a sentence like, cay ngay khong so chet dung, it means that if you’re not intentionally doing something wrong, then there’s nothing you have to worry about,” says Kyo York, a shadow of the downtrodden foreign teacher named Kyle Cochran he once was—well-styled, slender to the point of being buff, eminently confident and self-assured. “I think any sort of negative feedback that you get comes from some kind of misunderstanding… maybe they just don’t fully understand who you are, what you’re doing, what your purpose is. I’ve never intentionally done something to create any sort of negative attention. Everything I’ve done has just been like any other person fulfilling their job duties: How can I go out and give a quality performance, sing well, and leave the audience happy? That’s been my whole goal from the very beginning. I decided well, if it’s going to be this way, I’m going to do it the right way. I’m not going to just sing for the sake of singing in Vietnamese. I’m going to sing in Vietnamese and make people cry. I’m going to sing in Vietnamese like a Vietnamese person sings in Vietnamese.”
It can be said that the genesis of entertainer Kyo York has its roots in Kyle’s constant opposition to stereotyping, and that’s something that stretches back to those early days in the Mekong. The town had nothing going for it that passed as entertainment outside of class; no shopping malls, nothing at all beyond eating, drinking and karaoke. Singing was no problem—Kyle had been something of a theater club geek back home and had a solid voice—but with the range of English ballads on the KTV menu leaving much to be desired, he figured he may as well try to learn a Vietnamese song or two instead. His eerily fluent rendition of Tuan Ngoc’s Rieng Mot Goc Troi raised some applause, but after a while, the feedback started getting surprisingly negative: “Don’t bother learning our language,” his students would say, “you’re not going to be able to do it.” Of course, Kyle’s progress in Vietnamese came fairly quickly— partly because he had almost nobody to talk to in English, but mostly because he was determined to disprove those who assured him it was impossible.
It was during one of his attempts to shake up his students on just this issue— that nothing is impossible as long as you have the will and perseverance—that his students issued a dare: “That isn’t true,” they said, “maybe you can sing in Vietnamese, but you couldn’t just stroll up to a celebrity, someone like [then Vietnam Idol judge] Siu Black, and ask her to do a duet with you.” To prove his point, that’s exactly what Kyle did—at the time, Siu had a café performance venue here in Saigon, and so Kyle made the journey up to the big city and sought her out.
That was a meeting he remembers well. “It was in the evening,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘you know, I want to sing a song with you, is that OK?’ And she said, I mean it, ‘I’ve never sung with a foreigner before, and I really don’t know how that’s going to be, but I guess so, if you really want to.’ So she dragged me up on stage and we sang a couple of her songs, Ly Ca Phe Ban Me and Doi Mat Pleiku. This was right when she was judging Idol, and so she was like, ‘you know, you’ve got a great voice, your Vietnamese pronunciation is very good.’ At the time I couldn’t speak Vietnamese very fluently, but I could sing very fluently. She said, ‘if you focus on your pronunciation more and try a little harder, you could potentially become something big here.”
Kyle From New York
Born to a lower-middle-class American family, Kyle’s childhood was complicated and difficult. “I was teased a lot in high school,” he admits, “I mean I guess everybody was, but I was… much more than others, I think. My parents got divorced when I was 13, I lived with my father, and I had two older brothers. The whole family sort of fell apart, everybody was really upset, and my father was depressed. So I had to hold things together even though I was the youngest in the family, because everyone was kind of a mess except for me, maybe because I was so young that it didn’t really penetrate deep enough. So I had to do things to take care of my older brothers; pack their lunches, help my dad out with the housework and stuff like that.”
Shouldering the family burden was perhaps what engendered Kyle’s passionate force of character. “One thing I will say for myself is that I have a very strong will,” he says, “and that comes from a lot of failure in my early life as a child and a young adult. I’ve fallen down so many times. I’ve actually been, you know, suicidal. There have been moments in my life when I’ve just wanted to end it all. They say that failure is the mother of success; the more times you fall down, the stronger you stand in life. So I have a very strong will, and I persevere in a lot of odd environments.”
This inherent willpower is what put Kyle back on his feet after the theft, while his determination to master vocal performances in Vietnamese eventually gave rise to a career as a singer. After moving to Saigon from the Mekong and working intense hours to make his plane fare home, Kyle balanced his teaching jobs with regular appearances on the phong tra (tea room) circuit, shuttling between his live music sets on a barely- running Honda Wave while dressed in full traditional Vietnamese costume. He soon became a phenomenon—frequently requested by his stage name (which he adopted from Siu Black’s endearing mispronunciation of Kyle from New York), his sets became a lucrative draw for the venues he performed at—which in turn brought on criticism from envious local musicians with whom he shared the stage. It was a time when he was constantly reminded that he was a foreigner; he was told he was fat, that he was faking it, and that as an expat, he couldn’t be taking things seriously.
“At the time I could only sing like four or five songs,” remembers Kyle. “It wasn’t a lot, so I would sing on repeat at a couple of coffee shops, until Siu Black invited me to do a live show. That just took the nation by storm. It gave me more energy to continue in that direction, and so I did. Then a lot of people said to me, ‘you know, when you sing in Vietnamese it sounds almost exactly like a Vietnamese person, but then when you speak in Vietnamese, nobody understands what you’re saying! So I decided to start polishing my Vietnamese skills, written and spoken.”
“In that process, I became somewhat of a comedian as well,” he continues. “During every set in a coffee shop, there are three songs, and for the first song no one was listening to what I was singing, because quite honestly they were just shocked that a foreigner was actually on stage singing in Vietnamese. So I would make the first one my worst song, and then I would tell a couple of jokes in broken Vietnamese just to win over the audience, and then I would go on to my second song—and then my third song would be like this aria, this anthem, that would move people to tears, some sort of crescendo in my performance.”
The transformation from phenomenon to national icon was cemented the moment Kyle decided to take a career in entertainment at face value. “One thing led to another,” he says, “and then one evening I did a [legendary balladeer] Trinh Cong Son performance at a small coffee shop. I met this gentleman my age who was the MC, and he said to me, ‘you’ve got a great voice. You’ve got a lot of character and charisma, and you’re great on stage, but you’re not so good looking, and you’re kind of fat. If you said smarter things on stage and were a little bit more polished and you dressed nicer, you could potentially be something more than you already are. If you want to, I can guide you in that direction.’ So I decided to partner up with him—he became my official manager, and he still is to this day.”
“Then in 2013, I got invited to do a major game show on TV,” he continues. “That was more or less an historic event for Vietnam, to invite a foreigner on national TV to be a contestant on a game show that would be a series of ten episodes. And I knew the reason that they originally invited me was to get ratings, right? And I knew that their plan for me was to be an absolute failure, a laughing stock. That’s why they invited me to do the show. So I knew that going into it, that it would just be impossible for them to invite an American to do a game show and be serious about it. My manager and I decided that we would go into the show and take it very seriously. That’s where I got my initial claim to fame, and I actually became the draw for that game show. Even to this day, people know me through that show. Then right directly after that, I got invited to do a 25-episode sitcom with a bunch of very famous actors, and then another gig to be an MC for the show Do Re Mi on VTV3. So the year 2013 was an epic pivotal moment for me in my career. It was also a year full of failure—you have to imagine my Vietnamese at that time was nowhere near as good as it is now, and I still had the hot temper of a foreigner in a developing country. I had a big head, and all of this work. It was so much all at once for me, and then a bunch of people would shoot at me from all directions, because you know… ‘go back to your country foreigner, you’re horrible, you speak Vietnamese like sh*t, you sing like sh*t… the whole nine yards.’”
Despite Kyo’s rise to fame, the backlash hurt. “At the time I was very sensitive, because I didn’t know anything about being famous,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what that was. So my manager sat down with me and said, ‘OK. What you’ve done has been very good, above and beyond what I would have expected. You’ve gotten a lot of positive attention. If you’re going to be affected by what people say, you may want to think about this, because it’s only going to get worse from here on in. So you either ignore it and be confident with who you are, or take a step back and choose a different career.’ So I decided that I would listen to his guidance.
As Kyo York’s reputation as a unique entertainer grew, deeply sensitive Kyle Cochran became better at letting things go. “When you’re dealing with thousands of people,” he muses, “you read and you hear so much on such an intense scale that you actually become desensitized. It becomes just like anything else, like any other job, and it becomes OK, heard that one before. I mean, give me something new.”
Just as he promised his students, persistence paid off. In spite of his status as an outsider, Kyo York is now one of the most consistently booked and successful all-round performers in Vietnamese entertainment today. “The people who tell me that ‘you’re very lucky,’ or that ‘everything comes from a stroke of luck,’ they’re completely wrong,” he insists, “and they know nothing about me. They know nothing about the hardship. I’m not even exaggerating when I say that there were times when I had 100,000 dong to last me for a week. So the very thought that I come from a rich family, or that I came to Vietnam to become a singer, or any of that, it’s just not true. None of that, none of the implications that people make about me are right at all. If I have a message, it’s that every single person in this life has it hard. So the best thing to do is not to judge people and accept them for who they are, and understand that everybody is worthy of your respect. Everybody. I think a lot of people are defeated by themselves, especially in a society like this, and so I want to show people that you can do what you want to do, and you can be successful at it if you have the power, the willpower, the creativity and the gall to step up and be who you are.”
As for whether or not the character of Kyo York has overtaken that of the weary English teacher he used to be, Kyle couldn’t be more clear: “When I’m working, I’m Kyo York, and when I’m not working, I’m Kyle Cochran. Simple! It’s like Jekyll and Hyde. But honestly, there’s nothing like singing a song and living with people in a moment where everyone is so wrapped up in what you’re doing. It’s electric, and it’s awesome. I get to live in moments with people, and it makes me think, he’s a cool person, Kyo York. Cool guy.”
“From the very beginning it’s been about quality,” says Kyle Cochran, “and it’s been about magic and creating moments for people and changing the thought process behind an entire nation. Showing people that skin color, place of birth, native language, it’s all superfluous in life. Nothing is the ‘property’ of anybody. A lot of people say to me, ‘how can you speak Vietnamese the way that you do? That’s impossible.’ No! Because language is a free commodity, anybody can learn language to any extent, there’s no limitation, right?”
IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN