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

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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.”

She captured audiences in Europe, Australia and Vietnamese communities in the United States with her humor and charm, prompting Thuy Nga Productions to recruit her while she was a student at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton. Her “Paris by Night” videos have made her more recognizable than her father in much of Vietnam.

“I’m sure when I first got into entertainment, people loved my dad,” she said. “Now people are mad at me because of my dad. I haven’t done anything different.”

She said she understands people’s frustrations and sympathizes with them, but as an entertainer she has stayed away from politics.

Lai Van To, founder of Thuy Nga Productions, said he does not plan to remove Ky Duyen despite calls urging him to do so. “Her father’s problem is her father’s problem and should not be taken out on his daughter,” said To, who was also the subject of protests several years ago when some people thought his videos contained pro-Communist scenes.

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While Ky’s return to his homeland is emblematic of the growing stream of Vietnamese Americans who visit Vietnam as tourists or on business, the reaction shows that it’s still controversial. Ky Duyen visited Vietnam without fanfare, while her father received death threats for his trip.

It is not the first time activists have ostracized people who favor closer ties to Vietnam.

Singer Elvis Phuong held several concerts in Vietnam, then began seeing protesters at his U.S. shows. With his audience declining, he gave up his home in Seal Beach and moved to Ho Chi Minh City.

Protesters spent 53 days demonstrating in front of former Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam’s Garden Grove restaurant, which has since been sold, because he favored doing business with Vietnam.

Co Pham, a Westminster physician, was criticized and became the subject of protests in front of his medical office because he pushed for open trade with Vietnam.

“Look back at the last 15 years I’ve been in the community,” Ky Duyen said. “Actions speak louder than words. I’ve never said anything on any political issues.

“I want to be a pure entertainer. I just want to bring happiness, not to bring them turmoil.”


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