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Ke Huy Quan's Journey from Vietnamese 'Boat Person' to Oscar Winner

95th Academy Awards - Vanity Fair Oscars Party
Ke Huy Quan arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, March 12, 2023, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

One of the most enjoyable parts of the 2023 movie awards season has been watching the movie community celebrate the work of former child actor Ke Huy Quan, an unbroken run that culminated at the 2023 Academy Awards with Quan winning the Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar for his performance in "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

What most viewers didn't know about Ke Huy Quan is that his family were Vietnamese refugees who fled the country in 1978 to escape the country's Communist regime. Quan, born in Saigon in 1971, is one of eight children who set out from the country with their parents in one of those often-rickety boats.

More than 800,000 citizens fled the country over the two decades following the end of the war, but the Quan family was part of the most concentrated migration, the one that dominated the headlines in the United States during the presidency of Navy veteran Jimmy Carter.

The Quan family was initially split up, with half sent to a refugee camp in Hong Kong and the rest sent to one in Malaysia. The family was reunited in Southern California in 1979 as beneficiaries of the United States resettlement program.

Ke Huy Quan made sure to talk about this history during his Oscar acceptance speech. "My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp. And somehow, I ended up here on Hollywood's biggest stage," he said. "They say stories like this only happen in the movies. I cannot believe it's happening to me. This -- this is the American dream!"

Quan's career started at the age of 12 in 1984 when he was cast as Harrison Ford's sidekick Short Round in director Steven Spielberg's movie, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." He next landed the role of Data in Richard Donner's "The Goonies." Fellow child actors Josh Brolin (Brand), Sean Astin (Mikey) and Corey Feldman (Mouth) went on to varying degrees of success as adult performers, and Jeff Cohen ("Chunk") left performing and grew up to be a prominent entertainment lawyer.

Quan had a few more roles, but he gave up acting and went to college as he reached adulthood. He found work behind the scenes in Hollywood as a stunt coordinator but believed his acting days were behind him until he saw "Crazy Rich Asians" in 2018 and decided that perhaps Hollywood was ready to give Asian actors more prominent roles.

Directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan were having trouble casting the role of Waymond Wang, husband to Michelle Yeoh's Evelyn Wang, when Kwan noticed Quan's posts on Twitter and invited him to audition for the role. Quan got himself an agent and made a triumphant return to acting. Yeoh also won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and the movie won Best Picture and a total of seven Oscars.

In addition to his Oscar, Quan won the Golden Globe, BAFTA, Independent Spirit and Screen Actors Guild awards for a sweep of all the major trophies. He was especially gracious at every step along the way, making sure to thank Steven Spielberg for giving him his first role and to champion his old friend, Jeff Cohen, who's now the actor's lawyer. When Harrison Ford gave the award to "Everything Everywhere All at Once," Quan made sure to hug his old friend when the entire cast joined the producers onstage.

Quan has already filmed a role in the upcoming Season 2 of the Marvel series "Loki," a role in the upcoming Disney+ series "American Born Chinese," and a lead part in Joe and Anthony Russo's big budget Netflix film "The Electric State," based on the popular graphic novel by Simon Stålenhag.

Quan's still a relatively young man at 51, so he's got a bright future ahead of him and one he could barely imagine as his family floated in the South China Sea just a few years after the fall of Saigon.

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