(No.2, Vol.7,Apr-May 2017 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
Hughes (green shirt) in a meeting with USAID representatives in Vietnam last October. Photo credit Ha Nguyen
Hughes posting with the shoeshine boys in old Saigon.
Photo provided by Richard Hughes
Richard Hughes, a close friend of Vietnam and the people, still labors to help victims of the war
American actor Richard ‘Dick’ Hughes appeared to be a great man during the war time as he helped street boys in old Saigon. Today, Hughes strong will remains in assisting Vietnamese disadvantaged people.
The great friend of bụi đời kids
In 1968, Hughes was a conscientious objector. He refused to join the US army to come to Vietnam with a gun. Instead, he decided to come to the wartime country with a helping hand.
‘At that time, I determined to come to the country to do something good for the people who were suffering from the war,’ he recalled.
Hughes borrowed 1,500 dollars from his friends and managed to get a press visa for his voyage to Saigon. Hughes formed Dispatch News Service, which was later known for the exclusive distribution of the story on the My Lai massacre. The chaotic Saigon gave Hughes many ideas, but actually he did not know exactly where to begin until a conversation with a bụi đời (street boy), who later went home to live with Hughes.
In the days after, Hughes allowed the street boys to live with him in his rented house in Pham Ngu Lao Street. ‘At first, I wanted to give them food and a place to sleep. Streets during wartime were so tough for them, wandering the whole day and night,’ he said. ‘My home had 11 boys at the beginning and later as many as 20.’ Later, with sound funds, Hughes formed Shoeshine Boys hostels, accommodating homeless children around the city. The project’s name was Shoeshine Boys, as many of the children working on shoe shining.
In 1976, Hughes was forced to leave Vietnam and he handed over the project to his Vietnamese friends. At that time, the project adopted almost 1,500 children, including the handicapped.
Hughes’ warm heart and extraordinary efforts during wartime saved lives of the children and gave them chance to be good people in life.
To Thanh Trung, a street boy in the first generation raised in Hughes’ project, is now a manager of a company specializing in seedlings. Trung experienced hard life on Saigon streets selling newspaper and doing shoe shining at 12 until he met Hughes three years later. Hughes’ home saved his life and later he reunited with his father, who returned to Saigon from North Vietnam.
Nguyen Ngoc Bich, who is currently working as chief in a grand hotel in Saigon, recalled that Hughes had invited Vietnamese to join his project in order to teach the children and helped them to have appropriate vocational choices. To Bich, self-reliance that he learnt from Hughes is the base for his success today.
Back in the US, the Pittsburgh-born actor sought the way back to his career. After his graduation from Boston University Graduate School of Drama in 1967, Hughes worked with the Theatre Company of Boston in several months before he left the country to Saigon.
Hughes later got job on theatre plays and casting in some Hollywood works including The Manhattan Project by Marshall Brickman in 1986 and The Departed by Martin Scorsese in 2006.
But the famed humanitarian work in old Saigon shadows over his main career and the boys have been always in his mind. In 2001, Hughes paid his first revisit to Vietnam after 25 years to reunite with the boys.
‘They are always in my mind and I want to have more time with the boys despite they are now older, have families and have their career,’ Hughes said about the drive for his third visit 2007, when he brought his family to Saigon for a reunion with the grew-up Saigon shoeshine boys.
On the way back to the US, Hughes moved into tears.
Vivid old man Dick works for AO victims
The feeling inside Hughes was that there is something has been done half way. ‘I don’t mean the shoeshine boys, but the war victims,’ he said. ‘I felt guilty for the impact of the war. Of course, in the past, I came with helping hands, but it’s not easy thinking about what Vietnamese people endured during the war.’
‘Eyes of the Agent Orange victims obsessed me.’
In 2003, Hughes was touched by eyes of AO-affected children that he found in the photo book on the war by his friend. The Welsh war photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths’ book once again linked Hughes to Vietnam.
Hughes later set up an office attempting to make people know more about pains that from AO victims be endured.
‘At first, I arrived in Saigon 1968, expecting to do something meaningful for people here but I didn’t do enough,’ Hughes explained during the fourth trip to Vietnam last October.
Back in the US, Hughes continues contacting with US senators on the matter of justice for victims of AO. He said he has been working with Democrat’s senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who used to pay visits to his children home on Pham Ngu Lao Street in Saigon in early 1970s.
‘The country gained peace for decades and people now live in happiness, but I have a big question how the AO victims can fit to this life,’ he said.
He also set plans for the public to have wider knowledge on AO and its victims. He will supply materials to television channels, including CBS. Hughes has a scheme to reach his starting point in Vietnam by preparing an article for The New York Times about AO and his October trip.
Any progress made on the fight for AO victims will bring Hughes closer to Vietnamese, as a destiny that he sparked almost 50 years ago.