The Princess of Miami

Aristocracy in Vietnam, she lives in a Collins Avenue condo and attends a synagogue

As the history of her family approached the modern era, she continued, the fairy tale aura faded. The imperial family maintained close ties with France during that country's colonization of Vietnam. Only at the end of World War II, as the French left the then-Japanese-occupied country, did then-Emperor Bao Dai (descended from Thi-Nga's great-uncle) abdicate the throne.

Bao Dai and most of the imperial family left the country in 1945. Many members of the imperial family moved to Europe but maintained businesses in Vietnam. Among them were Thi-Nga's parents, Prince and Princess Ung Thi. At the time the Princess was born, the family split its time between Vietnam and Europe. In the Fifties and Sixties, the prince helped launch the Vietnamese steel industry and started a mineral water company. He was also chairman of Vietnam's Bank of Commerce. At the end of the war in 1975, however, the communists nationalized all industry and the imperial family left for good. They do not support the current government.

The princess has many memories of her time as a little girl in the country. Some are beautiful, like traveling down the Perfume River near the imperial city of Hue in a sampan and being showered with flowers by people lining the banks.

Judy, Judy, Judy
Ivylise Simones
Judy, Judy, Judy


Through April 29 at the Bass Museum of Art, 2121 Park Ave, Miami Beach. 305-673-7530. Admission: $8 adults, $6 seniors/students. Free, members and children under six years old.

Others are tinged by a sense of confinement: Prior to visiting any venue the princess and her siblings were briefed on its history and how they should comport themselves. Their days were scheduled, and they were always surrounded by bodyguards, particularly in Vietnam. As she spoke, here memories became clearer — of wanting to buy a certain kind of candy, for example, but having to go through the rigamarole of a security check before she could enter the shop.

"Growing up I was not allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied," she recalled. "Visitors had to be searched. My entire demeanor was dictated by protocols and schedules. In America I feel very free. I can drive my own car. I am able to do things I wouldn't be able to do. It's so refreshing."

The Princess began spending increasing amounts of time in the United States in the late Eighties and early Nineties. After some years living in New York City, she came to Miami on vacation and felt an immediate affection for the city. After splitting her time for some years between the two places, she made South Florida her permanent home two years ago. Now she has a number of business ventures — a museum and retreat in the Bahamas, a perfume company, a line of resort wear she designed — in addition to her philanthropic interests.

She feels a great deal of affinity for the Cuban exile community, fellow escapees of communism, and is learning Spanish. She also thinks Miami is becoming a cultural capital. She appreciates how international it is — many people, like her, have grown up traversing multiple languages and countries. But mostly she likes the sense of self-determination: She can do what she wants with her day, free of the decorum of royal culture and the scrutiny that comes with having an aristocratic title. "Europeans are very particular," she said. "The aristocracy has a hierarchy of titles. England is the strictest. You can't address someone as His Imperial Highness if it's His Royal Highness, or His Supreme Highness." Americans are casual, she concluded.

The role of the imperial family today, as she sees it, is to contribute to humanitarian and cultural causes — mainly freedom of religion and human rights. She donates most of the profits from her business ventures to organizations like UNESCO that work on restoring and preserving cultural sites around the world. She also believes that art is a medium of free expression. Hence her involvement with the Bass Museum.

So it was that prior to the grand parade down Collins Avenue, she found herself arm in arm with Mayor Dermer, holding a pair of enormous novelty scissors. Behind them stood the various dancers and drummers, and the stairway leading to the exhibition of the princess' jade. Having been introduced by the museum's director as a "descendant of a great Vietnamese warrior," Thi-Nga paused before cutting the ribbon to dedicate the exhibition to Gia Long, and to "all of those who have sought refuge in this great nation."

She then led the museum patrons on a tour of the collection, recounting her history. She invited them to join her in the museum's anteroom for a performance by musicians from the New World Symphony. She graciously signed autographs for a couple of bystanders, including one who addressed her as "your highness." Thi-Nga may be a princess of a defunct empire, but for one night, she was queen.

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The story she told you of her youth sounds far fetched.  I went to school with 2 descendents of the royal family of Vietnam and they told me that they have never heard of her. My friends invite me to attend the Royal Family Organization reunion next March 2013 in Los Angeles. They have never seen or heard of her.

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