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The Princess of Miami

Traffic on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach was at a standstill. A few tired-looking drivers rolled down windows and craned their necks, trying to discern the reason for the delay. First came the Thai dancers, their satin costumes gleaming in the streetlights, fingers splayed, cheeks rouged, golden spires on their...
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Traffic on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach was at a standstill. A few tired-looking drivers rolled down windows and craned their necks, trying to discern the reason for the delay. First came the Thai dancers, their satin costumes gleaming in the streetlights, fingers splayed, cheeks rouged, golden spires on their heads. They proceeded gracefully in measured steps, their heads fixed at a slight tilt, their smiles pasted on. Behind them a team of local kung fu students controlled a 60-foot Chinese dragon, running in circles to the beat of cymbals and gongs. They were led by a young girl with pigtails holding a large wooden lollipop.

Three Chinese lions followed, manned by dancers who pounced and crouched, angling their masks and winking long-lashed paper eyes. Finally, walking with stately demeanor, there were a few dozen patrons of the Bass Museum, most in their golden years, draped in fur pelts, diamonds — and in the case of a couple of men who got into the spirit of the event — embroidered Mandarin jackets. An Asian elephant named Judy plodded by sleepily, her eyes cast downward.

In the midst of the banging drums and scattered rose petals, a silver Jaguar convertible rolled slowly south. Sitting in the back waving like beauty queens were Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer and Her Imperial Highness, Princess Thi-Nga of Vietnam. Her sea-green gown evoked the drapery of ancient Greece. A necklace of thick jade beads was wound around her neck. From her back hung a gossamer cape.

When the convoy approached the valet parking area of the Setai Hotel, two teenage girls gasped and hugged each other. "Ay, que lindo," they shrieked, jumping up and down.

The princess — like His Royal Highness Prince Jean Carl Pierre Marie d'Orléans of France, the Bragança family of Brazil, or Quentin Kawananakoa of Hawaii — is a member of a royal family that can no longer lay claim to a kingdom. She was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1964 and raised in exile in Europe. As a young girl, she was educated in the formal protocol of royal comportment. Tutors taught her the three dialects of Vietnamese and schooled her in the history of her ancestors. Now she lives near the Fontainebleau Hotel in a high-rise on Miami Beach, and has become a well-known socialite in Miami's philanthropic circles. She planned the parade to inaugurate an exhibition that features part of her extensive jade collection. It is now on display at the Bass Museum of Art, where she is chairwoman.

The day before the celebration Thi-Nga breakfasted at the Setai. She wore a fitted silk jacket and a necklace of black pearls. Her bearing was, well, regal. Her posture was excellent. She smiled discreetly. Her speech — sometimes Vietnamese-accented and sometimes French-accented — was always measured and soft. The maitre d' greeted her with, "Good morning, princess." She ordered a cappuccino and a plate of fresh fruit. Then, with prompting, she told the story of her great-great-great grandfather.

He was born Nguyen Phuc Anh in 1762. At the time, the Nguyen family (in Southeast Asia the family name precedes the personal name) was powerful. It controlled most of the southern half of what is today Vietnam and had been in a position of power since the 1400s. But when Phuc Anh was fourteen years old, his entire family was massacred in the peasant uprising known as the Tay Son rebellion. The only one to escape, Phuc Anh was whisked into hiding by loyal courtiers, and spent his teens under the protection of the King of Siam (now Thailand). In hiding, he plotted his revenge.

In the late 1700s, Phuc Anh sent his seven-year-old son to Versailles to cultivate an alliance with King Louis XVI. Later, armed by the French, the son waged war on the usurpers, regained power, and declared himself emperor in 1802. He changed his name from Nguyen to Gia Long. He named his country Vietnam, made vassal states of Laos and Cambodia, and moved the capital to the city of Hue (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)

The Princess speaks of Imperial Vietnam — the height of her family's power — with great reverence. She nibbled daintily at her fruit plate, then recounted her history with the formal air of a recitation. The emperor's authority, she says, was based on a mandate from Heaven, which meant that "he has to represent the people in his best abilities toward God."

So the emperor's first gesture was to build his mausoleum — not the squat marble slabs of Western cemeteries, but ornate, expansive structures, which were, according to the Princess, a sign of humility. "The emperor lives in the palace, but it is only his temporary home," she clarified. "The mausoleum is his eternal resting place."

At the recollection of some thought, she smiled broadly. "Do you know why [Imperial Vietnamese] tea cups are always so small?" she asked. (A pair of jade cups in her collection are the size of thimbles.) The emperor would rise very early each morning, she explained, and walk to a tea house next to his mausoleum. There the emperor would meditate, compose his calendar, and write poetry, while his staff collected dew drops from lotus flowers to brew the majesty's tea.

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.

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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