For 30 years, singer Thong van Dang, the 'Vietnamese Mick Jagger', entertained rock music lovers in Brussels. On Sunday 15 August 2010 he collapsed on stage after a concert and died instantly. He was 57.
Thong was born in Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 1952. When he was just 14, he started listening to American rhythm and blues on the radio in Vietnam, and it made an indelible impression on him. “I loved that music,” he once told an interviewer. “It was my music.” He moved to Belgium in 1970 to study economics, and set about carving out a career as a rock and R’n’B singer with a difference, a musical perfectionist who was always sure of what he wanted to achieve, but never satisfied – despite the success which ensured the loyalty of fellow musicians and audiences for decades.
Thong was the driving force who kept his band, The Witness, on the road since 1981. With gifted lead guitarist Eric Moens, Afrim Jahja and Thong's brother Vinh on rhythm and bass guitars, and drummer Marco Epis, the group often performed three times a week, playing in all the legendary Brussels blues venues of the 1980s and 1990s.
Thong was renowned for his style and elegance. Slim and wiry – just like his role model Jagger himself – he dressed for the part in drainpipe trousers, velvet collared jackets, winkle-picker shoes and a famous selection of patterned and coloured socks. His performances were an unforgettable spectacle: throwing every ounce of energy into the music, Thong climbed onto chairs, tables and balconies with a daring and agility that left audience members with their hearts in their mouths. The Witness performed every month as the house band at the Brussels Rhythm and Blues Club, at Sounds Jazz Club, for some eight years, and the only time Thong missed a gig was when visiting family in Vietnam.
He was also an able songwriter. Together with Eric Moens he crafted a series of numbers, both original and catchy, and the band was in the process of recording them on a first CD. His generosity to other musicians earned him widespread affection. Bai Kamara Jnr, one of Brussels' most successful home-grown singers, is just one of those whom Thong encouraged on their way in the music business. While known for his loyalty to friends and family, he was astute and pitiless in his judgement of those who didn't measure up to his own demanding standards. Thong had a pithy and perceptive nickname for every hanger-on.
One of eight brothers, Thong helped six of them to join him in Belgium. His parents came too, in 1981, but within four years he suffered the loss of both his mother and father. Thong supported and encouraged his niece Suong to complete her training as a dress designer, and to secure work back in Vietnam. “It was as if he thought, now I've finished my bit. You can go off and live your own life,” she reflects tearfully.
He embraced many passions with characteristic enthusiasm. He was a dedicated collector of bandes dessinées, and had a sketch book full of original drawings dedicated to him by leading artists. He loved to cook, especially Vietnamese style, and was a gardening expert, raising his own flowers from seed.
'Too late to be a rock and role star' was one of his often-performed numbers. But Thong was a rock star to the very end: “He died like an artist,” says Afrim Jahja. It would have been how he wanted to go.
Thong van Dang was an inspired maverick, a one-off. At his funeral ceremony, Moens and Jahja performed a song from his own repertoire that said it all: the Kinks' hit 'I'm not like everybody else'.
Kate Holman, 31 August 2010