'Homeless among the clouds': My journey from movie star to faceless fall of Saigon refugee

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Kieu Chinh, who co-starred in "The Joy Luck Club" and guest-starred as a love interest to Alan Alda's Hawkeye in "M*A*S*H," has released a memoir, "Kieu Chinh: An Artist in Exile." In English, French and Vietnamese, the book recounts her rise to film stardom in her native South Vietnam, her flight when Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, and her new life in America under sponsorship by actress Tippi Hedren.

Kieu Chinh and her family now reside in Southern California. But toward the end of the Vietnam War, she had sent her children to live with relatives in Canada. In the spring of 1975, when people started escaping Saigon, Kieu Chinh was filming a movie in neighboring Singapore. This is an excerpt from her memoir of her harrowing journey 47 years ago to reunite with her children.

"Full House" was a movie about the youth culture in Singapore, focusing on lifestyles, fashion, partying and so on. Every day I did my work diligently and professionally. But at night my mind was a mess. I read news and analyses from international media sources. It was depressing to hear all of them agree that the collapse of South Vietnam was imminent. Only a miracle could save my country, and none was forthcoming.

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Meanwhile, I kept receiving telegrams from Sài-Gòn and Toronto: “Go to children in Toronto. Don’t come back to Sài-Gòn.”

But my husband and in-laws were still in Sài-Gòn. How could I just quietly fly to Toronto by myself? My children were safe. It was the lives of my husband and everyone else in the family that were in danger.

Kieu Chinh, second from left, and her husband and children in Saigon in the 1970s.
Kieu Chinh, second from left, and her husband and children in Saigon in the 1970s.

On the last day of filming, I participated in the ribbon cutting for a brand new movie theater in Singapore. After attending a perfunctory party that night, I immediately booked a flight back to Sài-Gòn. It was April 16, 1975. The plane was completely empty. I was the only person going into Sài-Gòn when everybody else was trying to get out. One attendant told me this was an emergency flight to pick up diplomatic personnel and expats.

When I got to Tân-Sơn-Nhứt airport, immigration told me I had to convert all foreign currencies into Vietnamese Dong, basically what I got paid for three films – two in Thailand and one in Singapore. I walked into the house with a big sack of cash and was excoriated by my husband and father-in-law not only for coming back but also for not saving the dollars.

At the same time, my children in Toronto were telling me to get out of Sài-Gòn as quickly as possible. I understood. They had much better news sources in Canada. Even my husband and father-in-law said I should leave while my diplomatic passport was still valid.

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At the urging of the family and with tremendous help from Nguyễn Xuân-Thu, vice-president of Vietnam Airlines, I was able to catch a flight. In the middle of the night, way past curfew, Thu drove me to the airport in an official Air Vietnam vehicle flying a VIP flag. On the way, he disclosed there would be a flight to the Philippines early next morning; it would be Air Vietnam’s very last flight. He had already made arrangements for AV employees to take care of me upon arrival.

Tân-Sơn-Nhứt airport was packed with panicked people and their luggage. Most were Vietnamese wives and their children either going with their foreign husbands or saying goodbye to them. The cacophony was deafening.

Dawn came. As my departure time neared, the airport fell under a barrage of rocket attacks. The scene became even more chaotic than it already was. Thu dragged me back inside Air Vietnam’s VIP lounge. For a whole day no airplane was allowed to take off. I anxiously waited another night in that asphyxiating atmosphere. Thu said he had to go take care of some business. A little while later he came back with some good news: “I got it. There’s one Pan Am flight taking American civilian and military personnel about to depart. You must go now. Don’t bring anything.” I hurriedly swung my handbag around my neck and followed him.

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Thu grabbed my hand as we ran across the runway. He pushed me onto the plane; it was fully packed. He jumped up and helped me to a seat reserved for the flight attendant, near the toilet. He held my hand and said: “Bye, Chinh.” I watched as he ran out right before the door closed, forgetting to even ask him what my destination was. But no matter, I was on the last Pan Am flight out of Sài-Gòn.

It was only a week earlier that I flew into Sài-Gòn with a big wad of cash. Now I was leaving with nothing but my handbag, a small phone book, my passport and a few dollar bills.

From Singapore to Toronto

As soon as we landed in Singapore, I was immediately taken by immigration police to … jail! According to them, my diplomatic passport was issued by a government that no longer existed. President Nguyễn văn Thiệu had already resigned.

That night I sat in a cell among all types of people, worried about what would happen to me next. The following morning, on our way to the bathroom, I saw a guard reading a copy of Female magazine, which had a large photo of me on the front cover. (The magazine did an interview and cover story on me after we finished filming "Full House.") I excitedly pointed to the magazine and told the guard that the woman on the cover was me, and asked him to let me make a phone call. He gave me an incredulous stare from head to toe, then went back to his reading without saying a word.

Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh on the cover of Singaporean magazine Female in April 1975.
Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh on the cover of Singaporean magazine Female in April 1975.

In the bathroom with the other prisoners, I suddenly understood. The woman I saw in the mirror, with her disheveled hair and a haggard look, was not at all like the glamorous movie star on the cover of Singapore’s famous magazine. Without any make-up available, I did my best to straighten out my hair and fix up my dress.

On our way back to the cell, I begged the man once more, asking him to open up the magazine to the center-fold. So he did. And there, in the middle of the magazine, was a two-page spread filled with a large picture of Kiều Chinh in her resplendent Vietnamese áo dài. It was unmistakable.

The guard nodded and allowed me to make a phone call to the Vietnamese Embassy in Singapore. Thanks to the tremendous efforts by the "Full House" crew and by South Vietnamese Ambassador Trương Bửu-Điện, I was released under the condition that I must leave Singapore within 48 hours.

I spent a whole day running around, looking for a place to go. Not a single foreign embassy in Singapore issued an entry visa for me, citing the reason that South Vietnam was about to be history at any moment. They suggested the best thing for me to do was to buy a plane ticket that would fly me from airport to airport, from East to West, until Sài-Gòn officially fell. At that point I would be able to apply for asylum wherever the plane landed.

"Kieu Chinh: An Artist in Exile" published in October 2021.
"Kieu Chinh: An Artist in Exile" published in October 2021.

And so I did. For four days and three nights I traveled from place to place, homeless among the clouds. Singapore. Hong Kong. Korea. Tokyo. Paris. New York … In between these stops were long hours of anxiety at the airports. I drank water from fountains and bathroom faucets. I ate leftover bread from flight meals. In my handbag were just a few crumpled dollar bills worth maybe $50.

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From New York I called my children.

At exactly 6 p.m. on April 30, 1975, the plane landed in Toronto. As I hugged my children, my heart was shattered when told that Sài-Gòn had fallen.

The first refugee

Ever since the U.S. started sending troops to Vietnam ... many Hollywood celebrities came to the country as members of the USO Tour to help entertain service members. While in country, a number of them also appeared on the “Kieu Chinh TV Show” – Danny Kaye, Johnny Grant, The Hank Snow Band, Glenn Ford, Diane McBain, Tippi Hedren, etc.

Actresses Kieu Chinh and Tippi Hedren in 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. Hedren, star of such films as Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" and mother of actress Melanie Griffith and grandmother of actress Dakota Johnson, sponsored Kieu Chinh to the United States in the late 1970s.
Actresses Kieu Chinh and Tippi Hedren in 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. Hedren, star of such films as Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" and mother of actress Melanie Griffith and grandmother of actress Dakota Johnson, sponsored Kieu Chinh to the United States in the late 1970s.

Ten years later, in 1975, the host of that show became an exile with nothing but a few dollars and a small phone book. She was a stateless and homeless person, hopping around in the clouds hoping to find a country to take her.

I will never forget the moment I walked up to the immigration officer in Toronto as an asylum seeker. After stamping my passport, the man declared:

“Welcome! You are the very first Vietnamese refugee in Toronto!”

Actress Kieu Chinh is co-founder and co-chair of the nonprofit Vietnam Children’s Fund, along with the late Vietnam War veteran and Pulitzer author Lewis P. Puller Jr. and journalist Terry Anderson. Her memoir, "Kieu Chinh: An Artist in Exile," published in October.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vietnam War, fall of Saigon 47 years later: Kieu Chinh artist in exile