Far-flung subjects of the King

Henry Newinn discovered Elvis Presley in Vietnam. Now, when he returns there, he'll be bringing an Elvis back with him.


June 11, 2000|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff

When he fled Vietnam in 1975, all Henry Newinn had were his wife, his infant son, the equivalent of two bucks in his pocket and a fierce love of Elvis Presley.

Now, 25 years later, he and his son are returning there for the first time -- and bringing Elvis back with them.

Henry Newinn (ne Nguyen), who lives in Houston, is the president of the Asian Worldwide Elvis Fan Club. His son, John, 26, is "Johnny Elvis," a professional Elvis "tribute artist," or impersonator, who performs locally and on college campuses. A few years ago, he placed in the top 10 in an Elvis impersonation contest held in Memphis that drew more than 300 competitors from around the world.

Vietnam is certainly different now from when the Newinns -- Henry, John and Henry's wife, Tania -- crowded onto a boat overflowing with refugees on April 29, 1975, getting out of the country a mere five hours before the last American. Henry is different, too. He was a young man who was leaving behind a professional career, his parents, siblings and other relatives for an uncertain future in America.

In Vietnam, Henry Newinn played the guitar. When he discovered the music of Elvis Presley, he became a huge fan. Once in America, Henry says, "we dreamed to meet Elvis sometime." But the family had enough on its hands struggling to make financial ends meet. Newinn, an engineer by training, spent years working such menial jobs as busboy.

Still, Elvis helped his morale when things looked bad. "Listening to his music was always like a big renewal, a moral recharge," says Newinn, who ultimately returned to his engineering career.

Now he is retired and spends much of his time on the Asian Elvis fan club, which claims about 100 members, of whom about half are Asians. Besides performing as Elvis, son John is in college studying computer science.

On the eve of their big adventure, the two Elvis-loving men spoke with The Sun about their swivel-hipped idol, their return to their homeland and how the late King of Rock and Roll might help bridge the gap between the United States and Vietnam.

Q. First you, Mr. Newinn. What first attracted you to Elvis?

A. I was a teen-ager, between 13 and 14, somewhere between 1955 and 1959 after the French were defeated in Vietnam and the Americans came over. They brought in American culture ... American pop culture. I was a teen-ager, heavily influenced. I can remember everyone imitated his big hair, white shoes. In one hand, I had a gun, in the other hand, I had a guitar. I kept him in mind. I've been influenced by Elvis for over 45 years.

Q. What about your son? Did you purposely raise an Elvis fan?

A. We planned to have him on Elvis' birthday! But it didn't quite work out that way. He came earlier. [John was born Dec. 14 1973; Elvis was born Jan. 8]. When he was little, we used to sing nursery songs and I sang "Love Me Tender" to him. And we have a lot of Elvis culture in our home. I wouldn't say that I brainwashed him. But he grew up around Elvis culture.

Q. Why are you going back to Vietnam now, after so many years?

A. After 25 years, I haven't been back, yet. I hope I'm not too late. My family is getting older. It's expensive to go back. I am going to Ho Chi Minh City [and two other cities]. When I left, there was chaos.

Q. Have you kept in touch with family members over the years.?

A. No, not really. I wrote my brother one or two letters over the last 25 years. When I called my brother and told him I was coming back, I was speaking Vietnamese, but he said my accent was different! After 25 years, I have a different accent. It will be like a cultural exchange. I hope to bring some American culture back to them.

Q. Do you think people in Vietnam are still fond of Elvis Presley?

A. Yes, they are a great deal. They are still listening. First he came out with the older generation, now the young generation are imitating him.

Q. So, John, are you looking forward to the trip back to Vietnam?

A. I'm very excited. I was 1 when I left, I don't remember it. I would like to see my grandparents.

Q. Are you going to perform while you are there?

A. I sure would like to!

Q. So can you remember when your Elvis fascination began?

A. Like my father said, he coached me. He raised me up like this! But you know, it was really while I was in high school performing at a talent show when it started. I actually did a Dean Martin song, "Everybody Loves Somebody." My friends said, "Wow, you actually sound like Elvis. You should do him." I was surprised.

Q. So now you are known as an Elvis impersonator. What kind of reaction do you get and do you do the big Elvis hair?

A. I get really good reactions. I do impersonation from my heart. I don't do the really big hair -- and I do no fat jokes!

Q. I hear the family enjoys traveling to Graceland on a regular basis?

A. We try to go twice a year. Once during [Elvis'] birthday in January and once during his death in August. That's his vigil, when there are many Elvis fans there.

Q. And your younger sister, Carol, is she part of your Elvis act?

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