NETWORK OF ENTERTAINING ASIAN AMERICAN TALENT
It’s probably fair to say that just about nothing in Kieu Chinh’s life has turned out as she expected. Ms. Chinh did not anticipate leaving her native Hanoi when she was 14. Certainly she could not have imagined that she would become, in the late 1960’s, South Vietnam’s most famous female movie star and television talk show hostess, voted, in 1972, the most popular actress of Asia at the Asian Film Festival. She didn’t know that she would come to Los Angeles in 1975 after the fall of Saigon and have to start over again as a bit player who was once a big star. She had no particular reason to think that, after 15 years of what can only be described as obscure struggling in the back lots of Hollywood, a real career would begin again to take shape.
But for Ms. Chinh, who says she lost everything twice, the abrupt surge of interest among film makers and television producers in the Vietnam era has opened up a new prospect. This fall, Ms. Chinh is appearing in two feature films. In one of them, ”Welcome Home,” she plays a Cambodian refugee separated from her American lover, played by Kris Kristofferson. In the other, ”Vietnam, Texas,” directed by Robert Ginty, she plays the Vietnamese mistress of an American soldier.
She has, meanwhile, been busy both as an actress and a consultant for television features on her native country, including the highly successful ABC network series ”China Beach.”
Ms. Chinh allows that even her recent roles are modest, and she forthrightly expresses the wish that better, bigger roles might still await her. Whether she gets them or not, there is paradox and irony aplenty in the latest turns in a life that has been full of turns. It is paradoxical because the promise of a better life as an actress in this country stems from a renewed fascination here with the very experience – the American failure in Indochina – that was her greatest personal tragedy. The most ironic element in the situation, however, is this: even as Ms. Chinh acts in Vietnam dramas and advises directors on how to portray her country with authentic detail, she harbors within herself a story just as dramatic, certainly as gripping, as any likely to appear on the screen.
”The other day,” she recalled in a recent interview at lunch in a French bistro not far from the movie lots of downtown Burbank, ”I went for an audition for an NBC television film on the last flight from Saigon. But that’s exactly what happened to me. In my real life, I was on the last flight from Saigon.”
Speaking in slightly French-accented English – Ms. Chinh belongs to that generation of Vietnamese that learned French in grammar school – she makes a statement about involvement in art that seems at times to be imitating her life. For, after all, what she has been doing lately in front of the cameras is playing roles devised by American film makers imagining things that she knows from experience.
”It’s easier to handle the work because I know exactly how it happened in real life,” she said. ”But the feeling is painful. It is painful to have to go through it again.”
These days, Kieu Chinh (the name is pronounced Kew Chin) lives in a modest stucco bungalow in Studio City, Calif., sharing it with her son, the youngest of her three children and the only one still at home.
She lives among Vietnamese art and artifacts – porcelain elephants, teapots, a small bamboo garden – as she tries to hold on to a few pieces of her former life. At lunch at a nearby French bistro, she ran quickly through a life story that began far from California. Two scenes at airports particularly stand out.
The first was in Hanoi in 1954. The French had just been defeated at Dien Bien Phu; and Ms. Chinh’s father had decided to go, with her and her younger brother, to Saigon, taking advantage of a 100-day period when, in accordance with the French-Vietnamese armistice, residents of North Vietnam were freely permitted to go to the South, still controlled by France. Ms. Chinh had lost her mother to illness years before. For two days the three members of her family went to the Hanoi airport trying, and failing, to get on a flight to Saigon. On the night before the third day, Ms. Chinh’s brother crept into her room and told her he was leaving to join the revolutionary forces. When, the next day, Ms. Chinh and her father were about to board their plane, her father pushed her aboard and told her that he would stay for a while to find her brother. Ms. Chinh never saw either her brother or her father again.
”Father said he would join me in 100 days,” she said. ”Every day I used to listen to the Voice of France radio, which was allowed to broadcast from Haiphong during that 100 days. But after 100 days, I never heard anything more about my father.”
Ms. Chinh was taken in by a family that was on the same flight. She was sent to a French-run Roman Catholic school in Saigon, eventually marrying a son of her adoptive family. One day when she was 17, she went to a reception at the Continental Hotel for an American movie team that had arrived in Saigon to film ”The Quiet American.” Ms. Chinh, out of concern for the sensibilities of her mother-in-law, did not accept an invitation to audition for a part, since it would have involved a love scene. But she was invited later by Bui Diem, then a film producer but later South Vietnam’s ambassador to Washington, to audition for a part as a Buddhist nun in one of the first Vietnamese films ever made.
From there, she quickly became famous, playing opposite American actors in several Hollywood productions, including ”A Yank in Vietnam” (1964), with Marshall Thompson, and ” Operation C.I.A.” (1965), starring Burt Reynolds. She gave birth to her three children. She was host of a television talk show, interviewing American performers who came to Saigon to entertain the troops. For some 15 years, she was Vietnam’s official emissary to the annual Asian Film Festival. She made movies in Vietnam, Singapore, India, Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan.
”In March 1975,” she recalled, ”I went to Singapore to make a movie there. In the middle of April, I started getting telegrams from my family telling me to stay away because Saigon was going to fall any minute. But I had to go back.”
Ms. Chinh’s children were already studying in Canada, but she hoped to help friends and other family members escape from the country before the North Vietnamese arrived. In the end, only she was able to get away, pushed aboard the last Pan Am plane to leave Saigon by an airport official she knew. All she had with her was a pocketbook, with some lipstick, a handkerchief, some useless South Vietnamese piasters and a precious private telephone book.
Eventually, with the help of some of the performers she had interviewed on Saigon television, she ended up in California, where for 10 years she played the occasional bit part, taking the bus every day to a downtown office of the Catholic Relief Services, where she worked as a translator helping Indochinese refugees get settled in this country. Still, she remembers the airport departures that brought sudden ends to her two former lives.
”One time at the Los Angeles airport,” she said, ”I saw a father saying goodbye to his daughter. He told her he’d see her at the end of the summer. Right away tears came to my eyes. I don’t know what happened to that father and girl. My father said the same thing to me, and I never saw him again.”
She also remembers her first Hollywood role, a two-line part in a police film starring Lloyd Bridges. She showed up at the set at 10 A.M., half an hour early. At lunch, she got on the line for the caterer’s wagon until she was politely told to go elsewhere for a box lunch reserved for extras. When at 5 P.M. she was called for her tiny part, she was so nervous, she said, that she forgot her two short lines.
”They had to take a few takes for that scene,” she said. ”On the way home, I was crying like a baby. My son told me to forget it. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t an actress, he said. But that’s all I wanted to do.” Two years ago, about a decade after that precarious new beginning, she took the financial risk of quitting her job at the Catholic Relief Services to go back into full-time acting.
”I risked my life for freedom,” she said of that decision. ”I had freedom, but my goal wasn’t just to have a job to have enough money to pay my bills and survive for another day. So, I decided to quit. It was very risky because there isn’t enough work. So, I have to accept small parts here and there, but I hope there will be better ones.”
Given her identity, Ms. Chinh is likely to get parts calling for Asian women as the United States continues to explore its history in Vietnam. She is grateful for the opportunities and is glad that what she calls ”my country” no longer evokes such embarrassing and painful memories in this country that the collective national eye is averted.
And, at the same time, she says that she would like to see the movies portray the Vietnamese for themselves, rather than as mere props for an American experience. In this, she joins a growing number of Vietnamese refugees playing parts in Vietnam war movies, glad of the chance for their careers to develop and yet skeptical of the image of their country being forged on the screen.
”I’d like to see more stories based on the Vietnamese people, on our culture, so the audience will see more of the civilian side of life instead of just barbed wire, blood and bombing,” she said. She notes that, with the exception of ”The Killing Fields,” Americans, perhaps quite naturally, have concentrated on American suffering during the war, not the drama of the Vietnamese themselves. There have, she said by way of example, been no films on the boat people, even though there are tens of thousands of them, many still festering in refugee camps with little prospect of a bright future.
”None of the stories made about Vietnam portray the real tragedy of the fall of Saigon or of the war,” she said. ”No story could ever tell the tragedy of what happened to my country or what my people have gone through.”
Kieu Chinh as a Cambodian refugee separated from her American lover in ”Welcome Home,” starring Kris Kristofferson (pg. 15); Kieu Chinh with Robert Ginty in ”Vietnam, Texas” (pg. 16)