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"Joy Luck Club" actress appears in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Kieu Chinh recalls a harrowing past

Kieu Chinh recalls a harrowing past

November 04, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. ? Through her role in "The Joy Luck Club," actress Kieu Chinh relived one of the more tortured experiences of her life in 1954, when her father stayed behind in northern Vietnam after the French-controlled federation of Indochina fell to communist-backed forces.

The only thing different in the 1993 movie, considered a breakthrough for Asian actors in Hollywood, was that Chinh's character, Suyuan Woo, was the one abandoning her family in China.

"In all my years, I didn't understand why he pushed me on the plane and left me by myself," said Chinh, who was the featured guest Saturday at the third West Virginia Book Faire's "tea and talk" at the

Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library.

Earlier in the day at the Shenandoah Hotel building, Chinh signed DVD copies of the movie and copies of the book it was based on written by Amy Tan. In "The Joy Luck Club," Chinh starred as one of four

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Chinese mothers with American-born daughters and harrowing pasts.

Her own real-life past had a few scary moments, too, beginning with the panicked boarding of a plane from North Vietnam.

"At the age of 16, I became a refugee in my own country in the south," Chinh said at the Shenandoah, where several of the Book Faire's 40 authors were set up for Saturday's events.

Now 70, Chinh said she didn't know her father died in jail after seven years until she was able to reunite with her brother in 1995.

"He looked me in the eye and said don't talk about the past ... let's be brother, sister, give me a hug,'" Chinh said of their reunion. Her older sister still resides in France, where she had fled.

Until the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Chinh's fame in Asia from movie and television work grew, beginning with her first role in 1957 in "The Bells of Thien Mu Temple." She later starred with Burt Reynolds in "Operation C.I.A."

She had her own television show, and her guests included actors Glenn Ford, William Holden and Tippi Hedren, the actress who 10 years later sponsored her visit and ultimately helped her become a U.S. citizen.

Chinh said she hopes to work with director Oliver Stone on a movie about the My Lai Massacre, the mass murder of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. Army forces during the American engagement in the country.

In addition to her film success, Chinh co-chairs the Vietnam Children's Fund, a nonprofit agency dedicated to building schools for young Vietnamese children with journalist Terry Anderson.

Their goal is to build 61 schools that will serve about 58,000 students, a number chosen to reflect the number of American soldiers who died in the conflict, she said. So far, they have built 43 schools thanks to donors, some of whom are surviving veterans, Chinh said.

"So that's my life," she concluded in the talk she gave at the library. "I feel very lucky that I'm (now) an American citizen."

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