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Father's Trip to Vietnam Is His Daughter's Baggage

Entertainer Ky Duyen Nguyen catches flak over the journey home by her dad, the former South Vietnamese premier.

February 15, 2004|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

The host of a Vietnamese variety show is under siege for supporting her father's decision to return to Vietnam, a country he fled as it fell to the Communists nearly 30 years ago.

Critics of the former South Vietnamese prime minister's ongoing journey are urging a Little Saigon-based production company to bounce Ky Duyen Nguyen from her role as host of a popular series of videos called "Paris by Night"-- cabaret-style videos that have swept her to fame in immigrant communities and Vietnam.

Her father, Nguyen Cao Ky, inflamed the Vietnamese emigre community after returning last month to Vietnam to make peace with a government he once fought. Anticommunist Vietnamese Americans from Southern California, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, decried his trip as a traitorous mission.

Ky Duyen said she was invited to join her father a week before his departure but declined because of work commitments. Still, she supports her 73-year-old father's decision.

"He's old and hasn't seen his homeland. He wanted to visit his mother's gravesite, see the temples and visit tourist areas, just like everyone else," she said. "I didn't know he had any political visits in mind."

Ky, who was scheduled to return this weekend, has extended his trip, during which he has played golf with Communist leaders, urged a reconciliation between Vietnam and those who fled and hinted that he might even move back to Vietnam.

"I sympathize and understand people's frustrations," Ky Duyen said at her Garden Grove home. "But my father is his own person and I am my own person. Don't oppose me just because I am my father's daughter."

Orange County's Little Saigon has long been a hotbed of anticommunist sentiment. Shopkeepers display the South Vietnamese flag. A statue of a South Vietnamese soldier fighting alongside an American dominates the Westminster Civic Center. The community erupted in violence in 1999 after a video store shopkeeper hung a picture of Ho Chi Minh, the late Communist leader, and the flag of Communist Vietnam.

The critics have now turned on Ky's daughter, barraging the entertainer with venomous e-mails and blasting her on Vietnamese talk-radio shows. They have put pressure on Thuy Nga Productions to remove her as hostess of the "Paris by Night" videos. Even those who have interviewed her on television have been scolded. Virginia-area residents plan to protest a show she'll be hosting in Washington to raise funds for stranded Vietnamese immigrants in the Philippines.

"She better keep her mouth shut about her father," said Madalenna Lai, 61, an activist from Pomona. "She needs to stop being proud of him and bragging about his past."

Lai said she had eight relatives who were shot to death as they tried to flee the country in 1975. Her husband was jailed for 10 years.

"My husband stayed to fight while Ky fled and now he wants to make peace with the Communists?" Lai said. "It hurts and it's a shame. All of us lost. Why is he changing his mind and turning his back on the community?"

Critics like Lai say human rights and democracy must be restored in Vietnam before any relations with that country are developed. Traveling or doing business with Vietnam only supports a corrupt regime, they contend.

Sitting on a leopard-print armchair in her living room, Ky Duyen wrestles with her culture and her career. On one hand, she's keenly aware of the anticommunist feeling that still runs deep among expatriates. But following her culture, she feels little choice but to stand behind her father's decision to go home.

"It's very difficult because I grew up in a strict and close family," she said. "It's very big in the culture and tradition that it's not my place to question or make judgments about my father or my mother."

Ky Duyen was a youngster when Saigon fell in 1975. She and 20 others escaped in a crammed military cargo plane to Washington. Her father flew his own helicopter to a waiting U.S. aircraft carrier. But she was too young to appreciate the significance of the moment.

"I just remember my mom was quiet with tears streaming," she said. "It was a tremendous look of loss on her face."

The family moved to Virginia and two years later to Huntington Beach, not far from where her father opened a liquor store. Ky Duyen attended Marina High School in Huntington Beach and worked in the food court at Westminster Mall. She gave her first paycheck -- $88 after taxes -- to her mother, a typical gesture in traditional Vietnamese households.

In college, she became active in Vietnamese pageants, teaching participants how to walk the runway. Later, a well-known host of a variety show recruited her to be his co-host.

"She had a lot of potential," said Nam Loc Nguyen, who lives in Los Angeles. "But being Ky's daughter made her famous instantly overnight."

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