Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass VSA’s 36th ‘VSA By Night’ shines with nostalgia, magic moments and guest artist Ylona Garcia

The annual cultural event shows no signs of slowing down
Ylona Garcia performing “Vibin’.” Photos courtesy of Andy Duong (@andyduong04) and Michael Chen (@_chenjamin_).

On the evening of Friday, March 31, the UMass Amherst’s Vietnamese Student Association’s “VSA By Night” show charmed a sold-out audience in the Campus Center Auditorium for the 36th edition of the signature annual event. The slogan “Uống Nước Nhớ Nguồn” (“when you drink water, remember the source”) aptly represented the event’s recurring theme of being grounded in one’s familial and cultural roots.

Patrons lined up around 6 p.m. for traditional Vietnamese cuisine like Vietnamese chicken with salad (Gỏi gà) and Vietnamese fruit cocktail (Chè Thái), consisting of coconut milk, jellies and fruit slices. The menu was well received, with eager guests running back for seconds and thirds. This is quite the victory for UMass Dining, whose takes on cultural foods can often run amiss.

As the audience took our seats, they were eased in with a promotional short film starring VSA’s executive board members. The film follows an executive board member from the year 1984 accidentally time-traveling to the year 2023 where they meet the present board. As they reason with this unexpected visitor, the film transports guests to VSA’s very beginning as it transitions to a vintage “found footage” aesthetic.

UMass VSA executive board. Photos courtesy of Andy Duong (@andyduong04) and Michael Chen (@_chenjamin_).

The official opening to the night, however, was a live stage skit that touched on aspects of the first-generation Vietnamese-American experience such as intergenerational trauma and the miscommunication between parent and child.

Despite nuances unique to Vietnamese culture, it was broadly relatable to its predominantly Asian audience, with a heartwarming message at its center. The parents, played by Sophia Nguyen and Andy Duong, pondered why their children, played by Phillip Tran and Ricky Huynh, would not return their phone calls. Feeling abandoned by their so-called “ungrateful sons,” the parents continued to maintain their stubborn point of view. “We gave up everything for you,” was a line that evoked reactions from audience members as it is often used by parents when challenged.

The skit, muddled by delivery issues and a few confusing narrative moments, remained a standout, nonetheless. When there is so much overlap among many other Asian cultural events at UMass, which often follow the same model, unique moments like these shake the table.

The night’s emcees, Kaitlyn Nguyen, Khai Gia Pham and Mcking (Minh) Truong were a playful trio, bringing a friendly energy. As well-prepared as they were, blips in the script and improvised moments emphasized their closeness and may have produced more genuine laughs from the audience than the actual jokes.

Performers with Vietnamese cultural sets included WYNX, a Vietnamese fan-dancing team; 4-piece student bands, Kevin’s Basement and CD²K; and Smith College’s VSA.

UMass KDC (K-pop Dance Club) and UMass TASC performed sets hailing from other Asian cultures.

Giveaways from the event’s various sponsors filled the spaces between performances and stage changes. To claim a prize, chosen members of the audience had to answer a range of questions and commands. Want a Shake Shack gift card? Name all the e-board members!

After some emotional senior send-offs, a fashion show and a brief intermission, “VSA By Night” headliner, Ylona Garcia finally hit the stage. Garcia is a 21-year-old, Filipino-Australian artist who had her start in the Philippines on the local version of beloved reality TV show, “Big Brother” or “Pinoy Big Brother 737” . She has since released a string of singles with the global label, 88rising. Though not Vietnamese herself, a Southeast Asian act was a fitting choice for the show.

Ylona Garcia serenading the crowd with her song, “Don’t Go Changing.” Photos courtesy of Andy Duong (@andyduong04) and Michael Chen (@_chenjamin_).

She performed hit singles like “Vibin,” “Entertain Me” theme from the popular online shooter game, “Valorant” and “Don’t Go Changing,” which is currently her most vulnerable and personal track of all, according to Garcia. “This song is where I’m at,” the singer remarked.

In between sets, Garcia was energetic, grounded and engaging. While her polished pop-star appearance and Aussie accent collected heart-eyes, she spoke casually like a friend. “Have you ever felt this way?” was a question Garcia continually posed, as if the response wouldn’t always be a collective “YES,” screeched by the crowd.

Speaking of, the crowd was initially quiet, spending most of the set firmly seated in their chairs. It wasn’t until Garcia was in the crowd passing out brownies from Yum! Bakery that the audience began to reciprocate her energy.

Ylona Garcia is no-doubt a powerhouse vocalist and her performance was one to remember, despite setbacks with the Campus Center Auditorium’s speaker system. Every so often, Garcia requested in-ear adjustments and asked to start over songs. At one point, many audience members marveled at these venue-related failures, with a student next to me whispering “someone has to be setting her up.” As many RSOs know, the University is often guilty of terrible A/V management for events plus obvious neglect of older venues.

VSA, Garcia and her stage collaborator, Dat Le, are commendable for their professionalism and adaptability. Nevertheless, Garcia persisted and triumphed. It’s sure to only be a short while until “Ylona Garcia” is plastered on the U.S. Billboard charts and across magazine spreads in Vogue.

She concluded the concert portion with a lively, problem-free encore of “Vibin’” and spent the rest of her set interacting with the crowd, which was now upright and smushed against the stage, eager for more. Garcia shared a sweet moment with a young fan, gave dating advice to the love-lorn and even invited me onstage to a duet of her 2016 song “Fly Tonight.” Talk about magic moments!

“VSA By Night” has solidified itself as a long-standing UMass tradition and this year’s rendition has shown that UMass VSA has created a real community they can rely on to return, time and time again. You can learn more about the UMass Amherst Vietnamese Students Association by visiting @umassvsa on Instagram.

James Rosales can be reached at [email protected].

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