Richard "Dick" Hughes is an American actor who gained worldwide fame for forming a gang of Saigon street boys during the war in Vietnam and living with them.
Wartime Vietnam first impacted on the consciousness of the Pittsburgh-born actor when he was working at the Theater Company of Boston, a year after his graduation from Boston University Graduate School of Drama in 1967.
Richard Hughes and a boy who was part of the Shoeshine Boys project in Saigon in the 1970s. Photo: Dick Hughes
As a conscientious objector, Hughes borrowed money from friends and traveled to Saigon under a press visa. While there, he helped to found the Dispatch News Service, which later became known for distributing the exclusive story on the My Lai massacre.
In 1968, Hughes set up Shoeshine Boys hostels after being touched by a conversation with a street boy. The project sheltered and fed 1,500 youngsters in Saigon and Da Nang, mainly boys but also some girls, some of them handicapped.
“I arrived in Saigon expecting to do something meaningful for people here, but I didn’t do enough," he says in an interview with the English language daily Vietnam News.
In 1976, Hughes was forced to leave Vietnam, returning to the US, where he attempted to restart his interrupted acting career.
But Vietnam was always on his mind. In 2001, he paid his first revisit to Vietnam after 25 years and has since been back four times.
On his flights back to the US, he always feels he has left with an unfinished debt. “I felt guilty for the impact of the war. Of course I didn’t come with a gun, I came with helping hands, but insomnia appears every time I think of what the Vietnamese people endured during the war,” he said.
A few years ago he received a photo book on the war by his friend, Welsh war photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths, and the obsession with the AO victims returned.
In October 2016, he flew back to Vietnam to compile data about the lives of the Agent Orange victims in order to fill out applications demanding equality for them.
In the United States Hughes has been working with Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who used to drop in to visit his street children on Pham Ngu Lao street in Saigon in the early 1970s. “We are hoping to get a Republican senator to help as well, perhaps something like Senators John Kerry and John McCain did for normalizing diplomatic relations,” Hughes said.
Hughes feels a sense of urgency to help the victims of the deadly and corrosive American chemical defoliant, and not only because of possible changes in US policy under a new president. “The war ended a long time ago, but what we have done for them is too little," he says.
Hughes has sent materials to television shows like CBS and others, and prepared an article for The New York Times about AO and on his October trip, during which he went in depth in investigating the lives of AO victims in Ho Chi Minh City, Thua Thien-Hue, Quang Tri, Da Nang, Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, and Hanoi.
Although he looks somewhat like Clint Eastwood, that’s not the reason he is welcomed everywhere, nor is due to his Vietnamese language skill. It’s the sense of humor, simplicity and, most important, the warm sentiment he produces in every single person he meets.
At 74, Hughes is far from done. “My destiny is linked to that of Vietnam," he says.