Huntington Beach resident and award-winning actress Kieu Chinh has a deep knowledge of pain that she drew on for her role as a mother who has to abandon her twin babies in the film “The Joy Luck Club.” When Chinh was 6, her mother and newborn brother were killed in an air raid targeting Japanese troops in North Vietnam. Her father, Cuu Nguyen, a tall man with movie star good looks, never remarried. He doted on Chinh, taught her horseback riding, and they watched French movies on Sundays. While fleeing her war-torn country, a teenage Chinh was separated from her father and never saw him again.
In a career spanning six decades, the pain of loss, loneliness, and despair has been central to many of her roles, which mirrored her life off-screen. Chinh is a legendary star and a trailblazer in South Vietnam’s movie industry. She earned the Best Actress Award of South Vietnam in 1970 and owned a film company. In America, Chinh was among the first Vietnamese actors to break into Hollywood, amassing more than 100 credits in both film and TV, most notably on shows such as “M*A*S*H,” “Dynasty,” “ER,” and “NCIS.”
“Kieu Chinh is one of the icons of Vietnamese cinema,” says Bao Nguyen, an award-winning filmmaker of “Be Water,” whose works have been featured on ESPN, HBO, NBC, and PBS. “Her work is prolific and has made a great impact on Vietnamese representation around the world.”
Chinh’s memoir, “An Artist in Exile,” will be released this month. Writing the book has fulfilled a silent promise to her late father to share her story as a living witness to her country’s tumultuous and sometimes violent history.
Her childhood forever changed in 1954, when the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into two zones at the 17th parallel: the communists occupied the north; and the Republic of Vietnam ruled the south. Chaos broke out as 500,000 people tried to flee Hanoi during the partition. Her older brother, Lan, then 21, decided to join the North communist forces. The next morning, Chinh and her father were ready to board a plane, but he urged her to go ahead. He stayed to search for her brother and promised to join her in Saigon.
“That was the last time I ever saw my father,” Chinh says. Forty-one years later, she made her first trip back to Vietnam to see her brother. A film crew followed her and produced a documentary, “Kieu Chinh: A Journey Home.” On the trip, Chinh learned that her father was imprisoned in a communist re-education camp for more than six years. When he was released, he wandered the streets homeless, malnourished, and destitute. He died alone.
“My greatest regret is not being there for my father when he needed me,” Chinh says quietly. She is working in her home office surrounded by awards and photos from her acting career. Her skin is flawless, but for the fine lines that accentuate a deep sadness, even when she smiles.
When she’s not working, Chinh enjoys relaxing in her backyard garden or heading to the beach.
“I’ve always loved the ocean,” she says. “When I look at the ocean, I see that beyond the other side (of the Pacific) is where I came from. It’s a place where my loved ones are still there, but we’ve been separated by the ocean. It’s very nostalgic for me.”
At age 17, Chinh arrived in Saigon and waited for her father, but lost hope after a year. She married Te Nang Nguyen, the son of a family friend, and had three children. Chinh’s rise to stardom could be seen as fate. When Oscar-winning director Joseph Mankiewicz was in Saigon to film a movie in 1957, he spotted Chinh walking by and had her do a screen test. A Vietnamese producer working with Mankiewicz then cast Chinh in his next movie, “The Bells of Thien Mu Temple.” A decade later, Chinh commanded top salary, had her own TV talk show, and ruled the screen with more than 20 films in Vietnam and throughout Asia. At home, a staff of servants cared for her family. But it was not long before Saigon fell to the communists in April 1975. Again, she was forced into exile and lost everything.
Chinh eventually arrived in Toronto, Canada, where her three children were in boarding school. Her first job was cleaning chicken coops, wearing rubber boots in deep manure. Despondent, she called on her Hollywood friends and reached actress Tippi Hedren, who knew Chinh from her TV talk show. Hedren opened her home and sponsored Chinh to come to America in the summer of 1975.
Her first break came in 1977, on the hit TV show “M*A*S*H,” playing Alan Alda’s love interest. Initially, audiences adored her, but fans later objected to Alda falling in love with an Asian woman, so Chinh was written off. Her most well-known role came in 1993 with “The Joy Luck Club.” Her character was forced to flee her war-ravaged country—an experience Chinh had lived through twice.
Chinh was honored in 2019 by the Museum of the Republic of Vietnam, in Westminster. “She brings back proud memories of our past when Saigon was thriving with arts and culture,” says Quan Nguyen, the museum’s president. Her movie, “Warrior Who Are You,” won two awards in 1973. Nguyen says the film “honors the Vietnam war veterans, preserves their legacy, and helps educate future generations.”
After four decades in exile, Chinh is apolitical, preferring instead to speak of love and unity. In March, she received the Snow Leopard Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles.
“We’re all human beings, regardless of our skin color or the language we speak,” she said in her acceptance speech, referring to the anti-Asian violence that has surged across the country. “What we need now is the art of living, of love and peace.”