Denver Actor Peter Trinh Tells Parents’ Immigration Story in Play

Denver actor, playwright and standup comedian Peter Trinh says, “The story of my people is one of triumph,” as he recounts “the most American story” in his one-man play “Boat Person,” based on his parents’ escape from Vietnam and journey to Denver. 

For #IAMDENVER, Peter discusses the importance he places on refugee stories, patriotism and freedom today. 


LISTEN: Fleeing Vietnam

I’ve heard this story several times. It was like a bedtime story. My Dad used to tell me, and I would gather bits and pieces of it. I finally sat down with him with the tape recorder to write my play.

Essentially they were about 26 years old. They had just been married, so they went into the ceremony. My dad says this was their honeymoon cause they never had a honeymoon. They were both raised in very poor countryside villages in Vietnam, so deep in the mountains that they didn't really see war. War wasn't very apparent for them. Not like if they were in Saigon. So, Saigon fell in 75, and they escaped in 81.

At that time it was kind of like this underground railroad thing, where, ‘Hey, you can get to America. You have to pay the sum of an equivalent of one gold bar per person, and we can get you to America.’ And the question I get a lot of times is, ‘Why did your parents want to go? Were the living situations, so terrible?’ Blah, blah, blah. And it's actually, you know, when you live in a third world country and you have this paved road to get to America or a free country, you go. And if you have the ability to go, you go.

My parents were in a place where they were just married and they had the rest of their lives ahead of them. So they decided to go this route. It was the dead of night, a very dark night, and my parents gathered the clothes on their backs and a couple of satchels of stuff, their life savings, pretty much all the money they had, jewelry, anything that was valuable and any keepsake that they wanted because they were not coming back.

Everybody climbed into this small fishing boat. It was at best 500 to 600 square feet. A hundred people packed into the whole of the boat. The fishing boat was rigged with a Jeep motor, and they went down the river, which emptied into the Pacific, in the dead of night, completely quiet. When they got to the coast just before they got into the Pacific, that's when the coast guards opened fire on them. All they know is they were getting shot at. My dad said the driver gunned the engine up top and then ran downstairs, ran down into the hole. The boat was essentially full throttle down the river bed with nobody driving it. And they made it out. No casualties. Boat was fine. The shots ended up stopping, and they were just out in the Pacific.

In the Pacific, the idea was to get to a refugee camp in Singapore, in Hong Kong. They were heading north toward China. But imagine a bunch of people on a fishing boat, people who don't have any nautical skills or anything like that. After about three days, their engine failed and they were just lost at sea. On the night of the fourth day, I believe, they saw a caravan of freighters in the dead of night. Just little lights, a line of lights, way out in the distance. Everybody decided to take the clothes and the luggage they brought and set it on fire on the deck as a signal. The fire burned out. Freighters never stopped.

The night passed, and the freighters never, never noticed their signal. Or they don't know if they noticed, but couldn't come help them or whatever. My parents, when they tell the story, they say they came to this country with nothing but the clothes on their back, which is 100% true. It was the seventh day at sea. My dad says the water they had for drinking water – and my play kind of bases around the idea of drinking water – he says the drinking water was in these old fuel containers, and you could see metal shavings and oil remnants in it, but that was all they had to drink. And it was running out.

When they finally saw the USS Shasta, which was a huge, U.S. naval ship. The idea was, If you saw Americans, you are good as gold. You're saved. That was the feeling on the boat. Everybody was celebrating, just overjoyed. They thought they were going to die. And they were saved. The naval ship brought them on board.

My father actually was the only person who spoke English enough to communicate with the captain on the ship, who told them to have everybody go down in the hole while they taxied them to the ship. They were brought on board and treated like guests, like full guests. On the ship, they knew this was the reality of their situation, that they could be picking up Vietnamese refugees at any time. In fact, before they got to the refugee camp, they picked up a second boat with another hundred refugees lost at sea. My dad remembers that they were free to roam about the ship as they pleased. They weren't treated differently or poorly or anything. They were really guests. And he got to know some of the captains and the people and he said it was the most jovial time. And for them, they were never on something like that. So they were like, ‘Really?’

My Dad said that he and his uncles would just wander around, marveling at all the contraptions and at the vastness of the ship. He says when they were on that deck, he remembers eating an apple for the first time in his entire life because apples aren't indigenous to Vietnam. They were essentially only shipped during New Year’s and only eaten by the really rich, and he says that that was the taste of freedom for him, eating an apple for the first time ever at 26, 27 years old.

They were taken to a refugee camp in Singapore. When they arrived, the camp was overcrowded. It was too full. They had a capacity of 500, or 5,000. And they were over capacity. So much. So my parents had about 11 people in our family. They all lived on the patio, on the porch of one of the refugee barracks. They had to make makeshift nets because in Singapore you couldn't be without a net because you'd be eaten alive by mosquitoes and whatnot. They made a net on the porch and then just slept on the porch for a month or two before they finally got into the barracks. They lived in refugee camps for about a year, a little over a year. First in Singapore, then they were moved to Indochina, just waiting for sponsorship.

Then in March of ’82, my uncle’s aunt’s sister lived in Denver, and she sponsored everybody. A month after they arrived to Denver, my mom found out she was pregnant with me. I came in November of that year. A month after I was born, the blizzard of 82 hit, which was about three and a half to four feet of snow. My parents recall lying in their bed in a brand new country holding their firstborn son, seeing snow for the first time, and it was like four feet of snow. 

LISTEN: Being an Asian Actor in Denver

I specifically remember a memory when I was about five years old. It was at a large family gathering and us kids were running around like crazy. I remember doing these imitations of my drunk uncles. And my cousin told me that they were so spot on, ‘They're so good, you should be an actor.’ And I'll never forget those words because it like hit me like a ton of bricks. Like that makes perfect sense. And it was always something like kind of in the back of my head growing up, like this was maybe what I want to do, and toward the end of high school when you really should start picking out what you want to do, I really started pursuing acting, and I've never stopped.

It's hard, especially being an Asian male. So a lot of times it's rough. You look at audition postings, and the first question I'm going to ask is, ‘Would I cast myself in that role? Can I see myself in that role?’ So these traditional plays, you kind of just write yourself off because it's made for a Caucasian cast, you know, and so you try to find things that you would cast yourself in. You look for things that ask for ‘ethnic actors strongly recommended to audition,’ those kinds of things. A lot of theaters have a push for multicultural casting, or they'll say this is nontraditional casting, which means they're looking for more ethnic roles to play what would be traditionally Caucasian actors playing those roles. Your window or your pool of things you're considered for is smaller than everyone else. And that's just the fact of it.

One of the best advice I was ever given early, early in my career was that. ‘You will get cast because of who you are and you won't get cast because of who you are. And the faster you can accept that and make it work for you, as opposed to against you, the better time you'll have.’ So I've hung my hat on those kinds of words. This is very important, especially for an ethnic actor because a lot of times you'll get a role and the description is very minute. It's just like Asian Male, thirties. And as an actor you start trying to gather who your character is from the script, what other characters say about you, that kind of thing. But a lot of times, you're getting a caricature. You don't get much information, and it's really easy to get pigeonholed to play it as a caricature. So authenticity is the key to making sure you don't portray a caricature, and you do that by creating the rest of the story yourself, coming up with a backstory. If you're not getting that much, then you get to create a lot of it, which is fun. And the more that you can have that backstory and create a more rounded character and more believable person, the more successful you're going to be at creating somebody that's going to be authentic, relatable and not a caricature.

I've probably played over two dozen doctors, which is, you know, not bad. It's one of the nicer stereotypes, I guess. It's a double-edged sword because stereotypes get you jobs and it gets you work, but there are also stereotypes, and you don't want things that are going to hurt the public's view of your demographic, you know? So that's where that authenticity piece has to come in. I think the subject is gaining sensitivity. I think people are deciding, yes, we should be more sensitive to who plays these roles. Again, it's really hard.

I'm Asian American, I'm Vietnamese American, but I've played Japanese, Korean, Chinese, all those things because there's not that many Chinese, Korean, Male, Asian actors. So they just find anybody. You're in a field where you can play other roles. So people hire you for those roles. But then I get, ‘You're not Japanese, so why are you playing this role?’ And it's because it's more out of a necessity because of the lack of talent in the pool. So it becomes this double-edge sword thing where it's like, I want to work. If you hire me to play whatever role, my job as an actor is to do that in the most convincing way as possible. But now everybody is getting a real push to not only should it be Asian, but it should be Vietnamese, not only should it be Asian, it should be Korean. And I think that there is some clout to that. There is something that we can gain from that because there's intricacies that I would not know about the Korean language or Korean culture.

So right now, I think there is a push to that and I think the only way we can we can do that is try to present the best person to represent that demographic and look harder. Being an Asian actor in Denver is rewarding. I find it rewarding because there's not much representation. So I feel that's my responsibility. And I've been an Asian actor in Denver for sixteen years now, and I've seen, especially males, colleagues, come and go. But I do find it rewarding in the sense that I do hold that responsibility, that I represent this niche demographic.