Chinh kept trying to pick up the pieces
TO STEP INTO KIEU CHINH’S HOME IN Studio City, Calif., is to step across several countries and lifetimes. The two-bedroom bungalow is filled with Vietnamese and French furniture. There is a photograph of her in a 1977 episode of M*A*S*H, and a poster from a 1982 Paris festival celebrating 25 years of Kieu Chinh (pronounced Ku Ching) films. In her garden, a carefully tended willow brushes a stand of rare black bamboo, and a persimmon tree shades the statue of Buddha.
Chinh’s home could be part of the set of The Joy Luck Club, in which she stars as Suyuan, one of four Chinese mothers with American-born daughters and harrowing pasts. Fleeing China in 1944 during the Japanese occupation, racked with dysentery and certain that death was imminent, Suyuan, in what is perhaps the film’s most powerful moment, leaves her twin baby daughters under a tree hoping against faint hope that someone wall claim them.
Critics have praised Chinh’s performance, calling it “superb” and “powerful.” These are hardly her first raves. Though she has lived quietly since leaving Vietnam in 1975, Chinh was once a kind of Oprah of the Orient. During the ’60s and early ’70s she hosted a talk show, ran her own movie production company and starred in some three dozen Asian feature films. “She had it all,” says a good friend, actress Tippi Hedren. But Chinh lost it all too. “I did not know she had been a famous actress or anything about her background before she read for the part,” says Joy Luck Club director Wayne Wang. “But knowing she was from Vietnam, I could guess she must have some kind of story.”
She does. “Suyuan’s life is close to my own,” says Chinh, 54. “I identified with her.”
For Chinh, the youngest of three surviving children born to a wealthy Vietnamese landowning family, the pain began early. She was only 5 when the hospital where her mother, An, had just given birth to a son was bombed by Allied planes during World War II. Her mother and newborn brother died in the raid, and the family’s home was destroyed.
The following year, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent of France, and war broke out. By the time a cease-fire was declared in 1954, and the country was divided into North and South Vietnam, Chinh’s father, Nguyen Cuu, who had been a minister with the French colonial government, had lost nearly everything. He made plans to move with Chinh, then 14, and her 19-year-old brother, Lan, to the South. (Her sister, Tinh, had married and settled in Paris.) Then early one morning Lan woke Chinh and told her he was staying behind to cast his lot with Ho Chi Minh. “Take care of father,” he said, as he disappeared on his bicycle into the fog. “That was the last time I saw him,” Chinh says.
Chinh and her father went to the airport for their flight south later that day. But when they were about to board, Nguyen Cuu pushed her forward and told her to go with a friend’s family, the Nguyens Dai Do, who were also there. “I will stay and look for your brother,” he said. Says Chinh: “That was the last time I saw him.”
The Nguyens settled in Saigon and accepted her into their family, and Chinh set out to be a devoted daughter. She was perhaps a bit too successful. When the eldest son of the family, Nang Te, a Vietnamese army paratrooper, was scheduled for training in Fort Benning, Ga., in 1955, Mrs. Nguyen Dai Do was so afraid he would marry an American and never return that she arranged for Te and Chinh, then 16, to wed. “That way he would have the duty to return to his wife and his family,” says Chinh, who felt obliged to honor the woman’s wishes. She subsequently had three children with Te before they divorced in 1980.
Shortly after her first child, Vanessa, was born in 1956, Chinh learned that an American movie company had arrived in Saigon to shoot the film version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. She tried out for a part and wound up being offered a lead. She lost her chance, though, when she couldn’t locate her husband, who was still in the U.S., in time to get his approval. Later, she met a producer who offered her the part of a Buddhist nun in a Vietnamese-language movie. That led to parts in more than 40 features, among them 1965’s Operation C.I.A. with Burl Reynolds, and a talk show, on which she interviewed stars traveling through Southeast Asia on location shoots and USO tours. “She was very beautiful,” says Hedren, who met Chinh when she appeared on the show. “She had a lovely home and children.”
Chinh had everything, in fact, but a peaceful homeland. As the political situation in South Vietnam deteriorated, the actress sent her children, Vanessa, 16, Paul, 14, and Jean-Pierre, 12, to Toronto, where they lived with one of her husband’s sisters. Chinh left Saigon eight months later, on April 24, 1975, on the last commercial flight—one week before Saigon fell to the Vietcong. Once in Toronto, Chinh decided to settle in the U.S. and sent an SOS to Hedren, who responded with airline tickets and an invitation for Chinh and her husband to stay in her Sherman Oaks, Calif., home. It was several months before the family was reunited and almost two years before Chinh got an acting job—a guest spot on M*A*S*H. Chinh and her husband often had to work two jobs. “I was just in awe of her,” says Hedren. “She was so strong.”
Chinh needed that reservoir of strength when she learned in 1978 that her father had died destitute in Hanoi. Seven years later, Chinh had to call on her strength again when her then 24-year-old son Jean-Pierre was in a car accident that left him with severe burns on half his body. Chinh nursed Jean-Pierre through the painful recovery alone.
Then it was Chinh who became ill. “I had a breakdown,” she says. “I’d been trying to be strong so long.”
Slowly, Chinh recovered. Then, one day while assisting the casting director on Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth, the story of a Vietnamese refugee, she noticed a room full of Chinese women and was told it was a casting call for The Joy Luck Club. Chinh had loved the novel and called her agent to arrange an audition.
Chinh’s performance has led her back home. She’ll be heading to Vietnam early next year to play a villager in the war movie Fields of Fire. Before shooting begins, however, Chinh is planning to see her brother, Lan, with whom she has only exchanged brief notes since their parting 39 years ago. “I’m very excited,” she says.
Meanwhile, Chinh is living a quiet life near her children in L.A. “I have my own world in my house,” she says. A lonely existence? Yes, she admits, “but I choose it.” Too often, others have made choices for her; now Chinh is in control. As she says, “It is time.”
LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles