05/01/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
In the trendy jeans and T-shirts that she wears on-stage, Phuong Thao looks every inch a pop diva. But on closer inspection, her appearance suggests something more. With her broad hips, large nose and round eyes, says American author Thomas Bass, "it takes just one look to see that she is Amerasian." That Phuong Thao, 32, rose from an impoverished childhood to become Vietnam's answer to Mariah Carey
is remarkable enough. More astonishing is the fact that she has succeeded despite being the out-of-wedlock daughter of a Vietnamese typist and an American serviceman, one of an estimated 50,000 mixed-race children left behind by U.S. troops and derisively known as bui doi—"dust of life."
In the years after the U.S. withdrawal, Amerasian children came to be regarded as the detritus of the war, vilified by their countrymen and often abandoned by their mothers. "They became the underclass, the wandering homeless of Vietnam," says Bass, who met Phuong Thao in 1992 while researching a book on Amerasians. "There was a tremendous prejudice against them." For Phuong Thao, who grew up nearly destitute with her mother in a Mekong Delta village, the harsh treatment seemed logical. "I was the daughter of an American," she says softly, "and Americans were considered the enemy."
Phuong Thao's story began near wartime Saigon, where her mother, Nguyen Thi Hoa, now 62, had worked as a government typist and knew Jim Yoder, an Army operations sergeant. In June 1967 "we met together in Saigon," she says. "We stayed at the Dong Khanh hotel over a night." On March 13, 1968, her daughter was born, and the following year, Yoder, who never knew about the birth, left Vietnam for good.
In the years that followed, Hoa found work peddling bread and rice cakes. She married briefly but divorced when her husband's family pressured him to end his marriage to the mother of a con lai-Vietnamese for Amerasian. "For our custom, [an unmarried] girl [who] gets a baby is not good for the family's honor," she says in broken English.
In 1988, when the U.S. instituted its Orderly-Departure Program to help bring Amerasians to the States, Hoa sought to become part of the exodus. Twice she received permission to leave. Twice her daughter refused to go, saying she would "feel lost" in America. Instead, Phuong Thao turned to music for solace. At 19, she won a singing contest in her hometown; two years later she was touring Southeast Asia with the government-sponsored pop-music group Saigon. "I felt that through the path of singing," she told an interviewer, "I could achieve some level of freedom—some level of normalcy."
It was in 1992, during a trip to Vietnam, that author Bass asked to meet Phuong Thao, by then a star. "At the time, she was denying she was Amerasian," he says. "But eventually she relented. She said, 'Yes, there are two streams of blood flowing through my veins.' Then she asked if I could help her find her father."
One morning almost three years later, Bass phoned the Farmville, Va., home of Jim Yoder, now 60, who for the past six years has been a guard at nearby Dillwyn prison. After questioning Yoder, Bass told him, "I have strong reason to believe you have a daughter in Vietnam." Stunned, Yoder, the stepfather of four, handed the phone to Ilene, 66, his wife of 30 years, and said, "Here, you take it." A week later, a photo of Phuong Thao arrived from Bass. "I looked at it and said, 'You can't deny her,' " Ilene told her husband. " 'She's got the same little divot between the lip and the nose.' " Days later, Yoder sent Phuong Thao a letter. "At this time I am not denying fatherhood," he wrote. "It is just that it takes time for my mind to digest this information. What are your hobbies? Are you married? Do you work or have a profession?" Phuong Thao's reply began, "Dear Daddy. It's the first time I say this word in my life. I am a professional singer, one of the most popular singers in Vietnam now. Six years ago I was very poor but now everything has been OK."
In November 1996, Yoder flew to Vietnam. Though it was late at night when he arrived, hundreds of fans who had read about the reunion in the local press crowded behind barricades to see Phuong Thao greet her newfound father. She was carrying 28 roses, one for each year he had not known her. "She was crying," Yoder recalls. "I was surprised at how pretty she was."
In the years since his visit, Yoder and Phuong Thao have exchanged occasional letters and faxes and talk on the phone every few months. And on the paneled walls of Yoder's living room, photos of the family's children and grandchildren have been joined by a photo of Phuong Thao.
For her part, Phuong Thao, whose album Cafe Mot Minh (Coffee Alone) has sold a chart-topping 100,000 copies, lives quietly in a Ho Chi Minh City row house with her husband, guitarist-composer Ngoc Le, 40, and daughter Phuong Nam, 2. She is content with her life, she says, with just one caveat: "I hope in the future we'll have a chance to go to America and show them what an Amerasian can do."
Don Sider in Ho Chi Minh City, Linda Kramer in Farmville and Joanne Fowler in New York City