When American children were learning how to "duck and cover," Vietnamese born, American actor Dustin Nguyen (pronounced "Gwen" or say “going” quickly; ah, now the title makes sense) routinely hid under a makeshift bomb shelter, a tilted bed with sandbags on top, in preparation for the fall of Saigon (1975).
Named after a famous Vietnamese King who defeated the Chinese 1,000 years ago and his idol, an actor named Hoffman, one of the SDAFF’s most consistent and ardent supporters Nguyen recalls, "I was born during the war, it was just a part of the lifestyle, there wasn't any fear until one night my father's coworker came to the house, his voice tone was urgent."
With just the clothes on his back, the next morning began a clandestine escape from the VietCong to freedom via overcrowded boats, emaciation, refugee camps and a new home in St. Louis, Missouri.
And fatefully, the first step in his career towards becoming a successful actor was a two-part episode of Magnum P.I. in which art mimicked life. Developing a strong following from his Suki role in the daytime soap General Hospital, Nguyen made his mark playing teen-cop Harry Ioki in Stephen Cannell's 21 Jump Street, the most popular of fledgling Fox Broadcasting's first-season shows.
Nguyen has always been careful to avoid Asian stereotype roles, yet there are American critics that will argue that playing a martial artist character in V.I.P. was a stereotype. Nguyen proffers, “Asian culture has been portrayed in TV just as martial artists, and so it has become a stereotype.
“If you only saw African-Americans playing basketball players that would be a stereotype but it's not, because they play different characters in other shows so it removes the perceptual edge of African-Americans being that stereotype. But for Asian-Americans martial art roles are common in film and TV, thus reinforcing the stereotype. I have also avoided speaking fake accent roles, because many Asian-Americans speak good English."
After three seasons of V.I.P. the show folded and it then became increasingly difficult for Nguyen to find challenging work beyond playing stereotypic roles. But this was the least of his worries.
At the time, his beautiful wife of one year, model-actress, Angela Rockwood Nguyen crushed her 4th and 5th cervical vertebrae, and completely severed her spinal cord in a car accident resulting in paralysis from the neck down.
"You get into situations like with us, you realize control is an illusion in life but I'd like to think that I'm getting a little better at accepting "what is" in life versus what you would want things to be," he admits.
Nguyen elates that she has a very positive attitude, works hard and has gained physical abilities that are unexplainable for her injury.
"Your wedding vows say 'for better, for worse' but you really think that's not part of the deal and most don't think of the worst," he posits. “Yet it is part of the deal. The accident connected us on a deeper level and by the way she's dealing with her obstacle, my appreciation for her as a human being and my love for her deepened."
After the fall of Saigon the city changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City and 32 years later Nguyen’s returned to Vietnam has not only led to the rise of Vietnam’s film industry but going home has also resurrected his film career. And quite possibly that was a result of major fish Nguyen had to reel in. What was it? Stay tuned.