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A-list star Kieu Chinh is one of the first actresses of the South Vietnamese cinema (and also the first Vietnamese actress) to flourish in Hollywood, the world’s most competitive movie environment. Her acting career has spanned 60 years and very few modern Vietnamese actors can hold a candle to her.
60 years on screen
Speaking to Culture about her life, this gifted actress recalled the start of her career and the incredible hardships she faced at the height of Vietnam War. In April 1975, she starred in the film Full House, shot in Singapore. She returned to Saigon in the midst of the war’s chaos and luckily was able to fly back to Singapore. She was detained because her diplomatic visa was issued by the Government of the Republic of Vietnam, no longer in power. The cinema industry and the ambassador of the Republic of Vietnam in Singapore intervened to help, on the condition that she leave Singapore within 24 hours. At that time no country in the world would grant her an entry visa because of her invalid passport. She had to take a flight across the globe to buy time until her last stop in Toronto on April 30, 1975. When she set foot in Canada, Kieu Chinh became the first Vietnamese refugee in Toronto. After a month in the city, Kieu Chinh could not find a suitable job and wanted to escape her dilemma. She decided to migrate to the United States to start her life anew. In July 1975, thanks to the sponsorship of her old friend actress Tippi Hedren (whom she met in 1965 during her visit to Vietnam), Kieu Chinh was able to make the move.
When asked how she managed to start her acting career afresh and venture into Hollywood, the actress revealed: “When I migrated to the States, I had nothing except for the clothes I was wearing. I was put up by Tippi for awhile and lived with her family. It was Tippi and actor William Holden who introduced me to Hollywood. They helped her join the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and the William Morris Agency, one of the largest talent agency within the U.S. At a premiere party for the movie Jaws, I met Burt Metcalfe, producer of the popular 1980s TV series M.A.S.H.” He took an interest in me then and later, with Alan Alda, director and lead actor in the television series M.A.S.H, created the series episode titled “In Love And War” and invited me to play the female lead. At age 38, I started her Hollywood career through M.A.S.H.”
This was one of her favourite Hollywood projects, along with The Joy Luck Club. Non-Hollywood films was Journey from the Fall by producer Ham Tran. The Ringing Bell of Thien Mu, 1957 was the first film she starred in Vietnam. In her 60-year career, she has acted in more than 100 movies, 60 produced in Hollywood. She also worked behind the camera with the role of advisor and producer of “Unrequited Love” and co-producer the movie Ride the Thunder.
When asked about her career, she said: “I was rooted out from my motherland to migrate to a brand new country. I feel so grateful to God for granting me luck, my colleagues and friends who always support me, and for my own efforts and sacrifices.”
With her role in “The Joy Luck Club”, Kieu Chinh was voted one of 50 actors who moved the audience to tears the most in cinema. In 1968 she was named Top Actress of South Vietnam – Arts and Cinema Prize. In 1996, the American Academy of Television Arts and Science (AATAS) presented director Patrick Perez with an Emmy award for the documentary Kieu Chinh: A Journey Home. In 2003, Kieu Chinh was honored with a Special Acting Award at the Women’s Film Festival in Italy. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Diego Film Festival in 2006, and again in 2015 she received her second Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Francisco Global Movie Festival – Festival of Globe – an honour only 5 actors in the world hold, one of them being Jackie Chan.
Kieu Chinh is also known for being a philanthropist. She co-founded the Vietnam Children’s Fund with journalist Terry Anderson and received help from American veteran Lewis Puller. “Our aim is to raise funds and build new schools for children in previously war-torn regions,” she explained. The first school was built in 1995 at Dong Ha, Quang Tri, a location on the 17th parallel that divided the country during the war. To date, 51 schools have been built in various cities and provinces in Vietnam.
She is also with The Greater Talents Network and gives speeches to universities and other organizations.
Words from the heart
Looking back at her journey – whether they were times of hardships, happiness, or sorrow – all these moments in her life created the Kieu Chinh of today, Vietnam’s golden artist. Kieu Chinh shares, “
All of my past experiences, regardless of success or failure, are precious lessons to share with the younger generations, especially the seventh art enthusiasts – Cinema. Cinema is extremely challenging. In Hollywood, it’s even more difficult. Because we are not native, we speak another language and have another skin colour, it’s difficult to survive in this world famous cinema hub.”
She has praise for the young people who have been working and thriving in this second home. “I’m witnessing the unstoppable rise of the next generation. They have been trained in a professional environment that is almost perfect. They progress in every career, from politics to science to culture. Even for young Vietnamese females, the roles have expanded. There are female commanders, and female pilots who fly military jet-planes. I feel so proud of my young Vietnamese compatriots in every career. They are among the top in their fields.” She praised actors Charlie Nguyen, Tran Ham, Victor Vu, and Nguyen Vo Minh Nghiem who are rising stars in Vietnam and elsewhere. Also of note were Tran Anh Hung in France and Kim Nguyen in Canada with his film War Witch, one of the first Vietnamese movies to be nominated for an Oscar Award.
As more and more talent develops, Kieu Chinh has great hope for the future of Vietnamese art and film.
By the time this magazine arrives in the hands of readers, it should coincide with Kieu Chinh’s birthday. The editorial board would like to wish her a happy birthday and celebrate the “60th Anniversary of Kieu Chinh Cinema!”