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Searching for keys to identity


This much, Kym Purling has been told: He was abandoned outside Saigon in the fall of 1972. He was 2 or 3 days old, suffering from a severe case of chicken pox and in danger of dying.

This much he can guess: His birth parents were of different nationalities. In 30-year-old Purling, Asian features mix with those of some larger-boned race.

Night after night, when Purling sits down at the piano and plays the chords for the song that opens the second act of Miss Saigon, he wonders if the song's title - Bui-Doi - refers to him. The dust of life. Such ugly words.

The term was used during the Vietnam War to describe children no one wanted, children born to Vietnamese women and fathered by American GIs. It later was popularized in the blockbuster musical, which is set in 1975 during the U.S. evacuation of Saigon. (Miss Saigon is running at the Lyric Opera House through Jan. 5.)

"During that time, there were not many records kept, so I really don't know," Purling says. "They are all unanswered questions. A lot of people call me a bui-doi, but I'm not sure what I am."

This much he knows for certain:

Someone found the ill infant and brought him to a local hospital. After the baby recovered, he was shuttled between two orphanages. And at 7 months old, he was adopted by an Australian couple, David and Judith Purling.

"My parents were very strongly opposed to the war," he says.

"They wanted to make a statement against it, and they thought the best way to do that was to adopt a child. Australia had never had an overseas adoption of any kind, and it took my parents 18 months to cut through all the bureaucratic red tape."

David Purling is a minister, and he and his wife already had two biological daughters: Rebecca, then 6, and Catherine, 4. They adopted Kym sight unseen, on the strength of a photograph sent by Vietnamese adoption officials.

"I don't know why I was the one who was picked by the orphanage to be adopted," he says.

"Maybe I was more annoying than the other children. But my parents got such good value out of me, that when I was 2 1/2 years old, they decided to adopt another Vietnamese child, my brother Michael."

As Purling's sense of humor suggests, he takes a matter-of-fact approach to the blank pages in his history.

"One of my very earliest memories is of the day that I was set down with a children's book, Why Was I Adopted?" he says.

"It was designed to teach me why I have brown skin and my mother and father have white skin. At the time, I took it in stride. I had been taken out of a pretty disastrous situation, out of a war zone, and I had all the love, compassion and support that any child could want."

It quickly became apparent that the bright, inquisitive boy had unusual talents. When Kym was 5 years old, he liked to listen as Rebecca practiced the piano.

"I would just reach up and replay the melodies she had just been practicing," Purling says. "They were just simple melodies but enough for my parents to realize that I had an ear for music."

He began studying classical piano. But in high school, he became entranced with jazz after listening to the great Canadian musician Oscar Peterson.

"I just fell in love with that swinging sensation," Purling says. He later earned a bachelor's degree in jazz studies from the University of Adelaide.

Purling began performing semi-professionally as a teen and released his first of four CDs in 1994, when he was 22 years old.

But niggling away in the back of his mind was a desire to see the city where he was born. In 1996, after winning a performing arts residency through a Melbourne-based program, he packed his bags.

"My first impression when I got off the plane was chaos," he says. "There was a sea of faces. I couldn't even see the sky. Vietnamese people were climbing the gates, holding onto the gates, looking for their family and friends."

So was he. Purling visited one of the orphanages in which he briefly lived (the other has been torn down) and ran his hand over the small wooden tub in which he was bathed.

And he found himself staring into the faces of passers-by. He had heard rumors dating back to 1972, when he was born, that he had a half-brother 18 years his senior. Was he still alive?

"As the men and women passed me on the streets, I would wonder, 'Did my brother or my father look like him? Did my mother look like her?'"

But Purling wasn't in Vietnam to search for his roots. He was there to teach jazz to student and professional musicians, and he worked hard at it.

With Tuyet Loan, a woman who frequently sang in GI camps during the war, Purling founded the Saigon Jazz Band. The group performed sold-out concerts in Hanoi and Saigon.

During that time, Purling's unusual story began attracting media attention. Twelve different stories in newspapers, magazines and on the radio were published or broadcast in Vietnam, he says. After Purling returned to the United States, he and his parents were featured on segments of 60 Minutes in 1997 and again in 1999.

The publicity had an unexpected effect. One day, he received a telephone call from the agent for a woman who had come upon a 5-year-old article from a Saigon newspaper.

"The Vietnamese woman was a former nun who had given birth to a baby boy, and she believed that I was her biological son," he says. "I just stopped still. I was totally frozen. All those abandoned children, all those grieving mothers ... "

His voice trails off.

Purling asked a fashion designer friend then in Saigon to meet with the elderly woman, and the lead ultimately proved to be a red herring. "The birth dates were completely wrong," he says. "They didn't match up at all."

He can't say, honestly, that he is disappointed. Granted, he hasn't been able to fill in any of his blank pages. But he knows where his home is. "I will always be an Australian," he says.

He knows who his parents are. "My father and mother are completely amazing."

And he tries to honor them through his work. Other musicians with Purling's ambition and accomplishments might consider the job of playing piano for Miss Saigon to be insufficiently challenging. (Purling has been composing music since he was a child and is writing a musical.)

But that's not how he sees it. "I want to be doing musically meaningful things," he says.

"I really believe in this story. It opens the eyes of young people who may know very little about the Vietnam War, and it shows them what hundreds of thousands of people went through."

That's why he cheerfully grants interview after interview recounting his dramatic life story. He doesn't resent being made the poster boy for the bui-doi.

"I very much see my life as a musician as educational and humanitarian," he says. "My parents had a ministry when they adopted my brother and me.

"This is a ministry of my own."

Miss Saigon

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays. Through Jan. 5.

Tickets: $25-$67.50

Call: 410-481-SEAT or visit

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