Orphans of the storm


Marci McDonald March 8 1976

Orphans of the storm


Marci McDonald March 8 1976

Orphans of the storm


Marci McDonald

In the crowded basement bingo hall of Montreal’s church of Ste. Marguerite-Marie, the explosion is quick and deafening. A hundred scarlet firecrackers erupt like the sound of distant mortars. Smoke heaves up over the room as the burned-out casings burst like tattered red blossoms and the sweet acrid smell of gunpowder fills the air. The children squeal and scamper for cover, hands pressed to their ears, but back in the rows of wooden chairs among the elders a gentle beauty named Le Thanh sits, suddenly glassy-eyed. For on this Tet, the day that marks the beginning of the Vietnamese new year of the dragon, she knows that it will take more than the ritual tattoo of 100 firecrackers to drive off the evil spirits and haunting memories of the bad old year left behind.

At the back of the hall, other Vietnamese straggle in behind her, Salvation Army overcoats and bright fake fur parkas piled over Sunday-best suits and long silk Ao-Dais. They stumble in, still dazed from negotiating the snowbanks and ice-slicked streets of the city’s latest blizzard, still quivering from the walk through this cold so piercing that back home, on a balmy February night among the peach blossoms of Saigon, a body could never have imagined it. But theirs, like hers, has been a longer journey, tortuous and uncharted, from the land whose jagged yellow outline is pinned up on the back wall behind the altar. It is a journey that began in those last panic-riddled hours of April 30 with the abrupt American exodus, as the Viet Cong marched down from the north and into the city with flowers skewered on their bayonets and the population fled before them with whatever could be carried. Le Thanh, her husband and three children ran for the last evacuation ship to leave the harbor and for three days under a blazing sun they squatted on its crammed and squalid open decks without shelter, no food or water, babies being born and dying all round them; but somehow they endured it, lived through the faceless khaki tent cities of the refugee camps and waited down the endless immigration lineups that have led them here, nearly" 10 months later, strangers in a strange and frozen land.

Up on the stage, a barefoot elder in a long sapphire silk tunic prostrates himself

before the ancestral altar laden with gladioli and fresh pineapples. He takes three long brown wands from the rice ball in the centre and offers up his annual report to the ancestors, pleading for their benediction through the frail streams of incense spiraling toward heaven and the ceiling pipes of the bingo hall. Back home in her spacious Saigon house, Le Thanh herself would have prepared such an altar, but in the dingy skeletal three-room apartment she lives in now, its only furniture a secondhand Formica table, five kitchen chairs and a telephone on a cardboard box, she did not have the heart, or the energy. In Vietnam, her husband had been a

respected doctor, but these days he studies far into the night for the exams that will allow him to be a mere intern, and so Le Thanh must support them. She sits for eight hours a day, three dollars an hour, sewing sleeves on blouses beside 100 other immigrant women, all bent over their machines in the sweaty confines of a Montreal clothing mill, women who cannot communicate with her or know that once she was a famous pop singer, the toast of Saigon nightclubs and the Vietnamese hit parade.

Now the elders call Le Thanh to the stage and, backed by a plodding tuneless guitar, she lifts her clear soprano in a song called Winter Night. It is a song of exile, of places remembered and never to be returned to. Suddenly, in the midst of it, her voice breaks, and she cannot finish, cannot utter the one last heartbreaking line: Co ai than tinh co lu Dem Dong khong uha— Who knows that I am homeless on a winter night? The audience grows hushed and misty eyed with her. Old women weep openly and for one brief moment the hall is as one, united in a common sorrow, a shared poverty and the agony of being Vietnamese.

Across the city, another Vietnamese sits alone in his comfortable apartment this new year, unwelcome in this hall and the homes of his countrymen. Isolated, pilloried, threatened by a government deportation order here and unwanted anywhere else, he is a pariah among his own people, although perhaps the most famous Vietnamese in Canada: General Dang Van Quang. Here in the hall, faces darken at the mention of him. The Vietnamese are a superstitious people and on this first day of the year they do not want to utter the name that has already brought them so much evil at home and so much infamy in a new land. “We do not want to talk of General Quang,” says Le Thanh’s husband, as she weeps. “It is because of the corruption of people like General Quang that the government has fallen. It is because of General Quang that we have lost everything and are homeless. He bears the sorrow of the Vietnamese people on his head.”

Tears. They well up everywhere, sudden and uncontrollable. Le Thanh cries each day since she has come here—tears the

brisk immigration matrons had no patience for. “What more do you want?” they barked. “You got out with your life and family, didn’t you?” But Le Thanh could not understand. Her family was her mother and father, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters whom she lived side by side with. She had saved her children, but lost her family. “In Vietnam, to leave one’s family,” says Le Thanh’s husband, “this is the death of a life.” And so now, slowly they build a new life, these refugees who chose Canada because they had relatives here studying or because they had learned French during France’s long occupation or even because the Canadian immigration officer happened to show up first at the refugee camp. There are 6,283 of them in all, the largest immigrant influx at any one time to any one place in this country since the Hungarian Freedom Fighters arrived 20 years ago. They came with their guilts and regrets and as many American dollars as they could stuff into their suitcases, here and there the tiny foil wafer of a gold tael or diamond sewn into a jacket lining, but for the most part they came penniless, and more than 4,200 of them chose to stay in Montreal. Xon Mit, “little Vietnamese village,” they call the 20-block stretch of drab lowrise apartments ringing the University of Montreal where most of them have settled. It is a community in microcosm, a society rudely uprooted and transplanted here half a world away, its fears and factions, its celebrities, old rivalries and ancient customs carried with it, sometimes rushing into swift collision.

There is the former ambassador to Thailand, now selling life insurance, and there is Kim Chung, the most famous musical actress in all of Vietnam, with her five theatres, three houses and stable of racehorses, who now huddles in her small barren apartment practising her lines for a new year’s play while neighbors bang in protest on the walls. There is the family who fled with so little the wife had to sell her engagement ring for the passage, but still they toted along their old servant. And there is the former government official with the two wives allowed him under Vietnamese law, who finally solved his problem by moving wife number two into the family apartment, but took to introducing her as his cousin. Here too, there are the old politics. The Thieu faction and the Ky faction and, as ever, looming like a distant spectre, there are the Communists, here reduced to a hard-core cadre of 100 ex-students who have rented a church hall blocks away for another new year celebration designed to lure the refugees into their midst—and hence, perhaps, with their skills and know-how, back home to rebuild a ravaged Vietnam. To most of the refugees, however, the Communists are an unholy horror and rumor flies among them of the files that are being prepared to send back to Ho Chi Minh City where their relatives will be sought out and persecuted. “They think we are devils,” says one of the

Communists who runs a restaurant the refugees all studiously avoid. “They think we are going to eat them.”

But this is a society where black is never purely black, nor white white, and where loyalties are seldom simple. It is a circuitous, secretive society, where a conversation proceeds obliquely, an introduction is never made without a connection and the layers peel away like rice paper to reveal a truth that is always somewhere just below the surface. It is not entirely insignificant that, although there are now a half-dozen Vietnamese restaurants in Montreal, the only one the Vietnamese themselves go to is secret, underground and illicit—a private one-room apartment where a refugee serves up Vietnamese ravioli on his two small tables and, when business is brisk, on his bed. In this society, a small group gathers one afternoon to denounce General Quang to a journalist, but just outside the living room door are waiting two young people at whose house Quang stayed when he first came here. On another evening, in another small cramped apartment where eight people share two bedrooms, Mme Nguyen Thi Ly, older sister of the former president and flamboyant air marshal Nguyen Coa Ky, serves a visitor traditional Vietnamese delicacies, brochettes of shrimp and delicate pastel-colored seafood wafers. But after I leave the home of this warm, generous woman with her kind shy smile, I return to my hotel room to read in the same book that has damned General Quang, The Politics Of Heroin In Southeast Asia: “Once the heroin is processed and packaged in large, plastic envelopes, other experienced members of the Ky apparatus take charge of arranging shipment to South Vietnam. Mrs. Nguyen Thi Ly, Ky’s elder sister, had directed much of the traffic from the Sedone Palace Hotel in Pakse when her brother was premier . . .”

In this society, transplanted from a war which left it so riddled with corruption that in the end it toppled, rotten to the core, it was inevitable that with the war victims should have come the war criminals. General Cao Hao Hon, head of the notorious “pacification” council under which the CIA-initiated Phoenix program was carried out—leaving entire villages in cinders and at least 20,000 assassinated as suspected Viet Cong collaborators—arrived in Montreal last May. But after stinging denunciations from his fellow refugees, he suddenly disappeared. Now he lives in a Xon Mit apartment and labors for $3.50 an hour on an automobile assembly-line job that Manpower found him, while his wife serves as a $ 110-a-week secretary to a refugee integration program, paid by a federal LIP grant. She has sworn her co-workers to secrecy—a promise they have kept, for to them it is enough that she is shunned by her countrymen. “C’est passé”-—it is past—they say of her husband’s sins.

But they do not feel the same about Dang Van Quang, once the second most powerful man in Vietnam and the general

said to be the most corrupt of all. Too many over the years have had to pay General Quang millions of Vietnamese piastres for promotions, favors or his signature on their exit visas, and for some the price has been greater than money. In an apartment over a restaurant, an old woman rocks disconsolately as she tells in halting French how she paid him nearly $12,000 for the passports to get her husband and three children out of the country, but in the end only her own passport came in time. On the plane that carried her out of Saigon last April, two weeks before the fall of the city, however, were three of General Quang’s own children, flying to Montreal to await their parents’ carefully planned arrival. “Pourquoi? Pourquoi?” she sobs. “Why is there one law for General Quang’s children and one for the rest of us?” Suddenly her face hardens. “Send him back to Vietnam,” she says. “It is only just. Let him be judged by his own people.”

For many, the beginning of the end of the war in Vietnam came in the new year of 1968, when, after the famous Tet offensive, the ancient imperial capital of Hue fell. In the months afterward, a handful of the wealthiest Vietnamese quietly flew to Montreal, bought property and became landed immigrants, though some were not to live here until years later. But this was their escape route, painstakingly plotted, their insurance against the future. “They prepared their departures and then went back and sucked the last blood out of the country,” says a former official, bitterly. “They are the robbers and re-sellers of Vietnam.”

Bui Dinh Nam, a man who had once been jailed for selling drugs to the enemy but whose Tenamyd drug corporation nevertheless went on to control the government pharmaceutical monopoly, became a landed immigrant in 1970, although he promptly returned to Saigon to continue his business, and his wife, the great and good friend of President Thieu, remained there until the end. He funneled enough money out of the country so that over the next year he was able to buy a $75,000 split-level Outremont house where he installed his in-laws, a $550,000 motel, an apartment building and the large downtown Hotel De La Salle, which was once mentioned in crime commission hearings, although he has since sold it. This summer, after the fall of Saigon, he bought an even larger house in the Town of Mount Royal for $185,000—$143,000 of that paid in cash. Shortly after, 54 packing crates arrived at Montreal customs addressed to his wife. They were immediately slapped with a restraining order by the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Vietnam, claiming—after a tip-off by customs officials in Guam—that they contained art treasures that had disappeared from the imperial palace at Hue in 1968. Art experts, however, discovered only housewares and cheap Hong Kong vases, al-

though they found it passing strange that, somewhere along the route, the crates had been readdressed from Nam’s old house to his new one and that many things seemed to be wrapped in newspapers from 1968.

An even more controversial figure, Nguyen Tan Doi, became a landed immigrant in April, 1969, bringing enough resources to buy an $85,000 house in Notre Dame de Grace and, just around the corner from it, a sprawling $1,540,000 apartment complex, since sold. Not only did Doi then turn right around and return to Saigon to run his Tin Nghia Bank—the second largest bank in South Vietnam— and oversee his four Saigon hotels— known centres of prostitution and drug trafficking—but he went back to be elected as a member of the national assembly and shortly after to be jailed in a massive bank fraud scandal in which some six million dollars was reported missing. Still, he was let out of jail as the Viet Cong approached the city, fled to a Thai refugee camp, and it wasn’t long before he was on his way back to Canada with his visa revalidated as a “returning resident.” His Montreal lawyer. Harry Blank, a skilled immigration specialist and deputy speaker of the Quebec legislature, had flown over to the Thai camp with Doi’s papers, and Canadian immigration officials were only too happy to help him—blissfully unaware of Doi’s dabbles in politics and jail, both of which would have disqualified him. Immigration Minister Robert Andras has pointed out that, once stamped, his papers offered him an irreversible haven—which was handy, considering that by the time Doi arrived here General Quang, his wife and three children were already ensconced in his house. Doi has since tried to dissociate himself from Quang, and his daughter says the bad publicity has brought him nothing but trouble—although his financial fortunes do not seem to have suffered. Last December, after the publicity had blown over, Doi bought the 90-unit Motel Le Marquis near Montreal’s Olympic site for $450,000.

If General Quang did not prepare his exit quite as elaborately as his compatriots, there was no doubt he paved his way. In the last years of Saigon it was well known that the general’s beneficence could only be bought with American dollars, which were easily transported out of the country. He had sent all his children out ahead of him. The last three of them were shipped off to Doi’s house on tourist visas in midApril, two weeks before the fall of Saigon. They left just days after the Canadian government had let it be known that anyone with relatives here would be accepted as a refugee, thus ensuring their parents’ entry. As an added precaution, Doi’s son notified officials that he would sponsor Quang, and a telex of that information had been sent from Ottawa to the Canadian immigration official presiding at the refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, who had it on his wall—although he protests he did not

know who Quang was. But it would be difficult not to know who General Quang was considering the fact that his fellow refugees at Chaffee had threatened his life and he had been confined to the base hospital at one point for his own protection. Certainly, he was first in line for Canadian immigration and those who had to wait behind him saw his file clearly marked and heard him announce himself loudly and proudly, much to their amusement, for they thought a defeated general ought not to swagger so. Once again in Montreal, he was processed by immigration officers in makeshift headquarters at the downtown Queen’s Hotel, where the Vietnamese

interpreters can recall recognizing him.

Indeed, it is odd that Canadian authorities would not have twigged to a name that had, over the years, been as well publicized as General Quang’s. In 1970, on the floor of the national assembly, two Vietnamese senators had denounced Quang as one of the regime’s most corrupt officials. In 1971 NBC had broadcast over continent-wide TV that according to “extremely reliable sources” Quang was “the biggest pusher” of heroin in South Vietnam. The following year Frances Fitzgerald had identified him in her Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Fire In The Lake, as running a brisk trade in illicit rice and opium even when he had been

Fourth Corps commander in the Mekong Delta—a post Ky finally fired him from in 1966 for the officially stated reason of “corruption,” although Quang was soon to bounce back, even more powerful.But perhaps the most definitive study of all, Alfred McCoy’s well-documented The Politics Of Heroin In Southeast Asia, had outlined carefully just how Quang had controlled the heroin trade which had hooked at least 30,000 American Gis through his position as Thieu’s right-hand man and power broker—the bagman for his rigged elections and the presidential military adviser who oversaw the army, navy and secret police, and thus the major means of drug traffic and transport. In fact, as late as the very week Quang was being processed at Chaffee, Newsweek ran a cover story noting the general’s favored last-minute exit from Saigon and his history of corruption.

Still, it was nearly two months after General Quang had been granted his special Canadian ministerial entry permit— two months of nagging headlines in which he had been denounced by Ky, General Westmoreland, a fellow Vietnamese general and even a former U.S. state department official who called him “the epitome of everything that was wrong in South Vietnam”—that Andras finally admitted he was convinced the general wasn’t exactly a desirable alien and issued a deportation order. It is this long, studied, official reluctance which has given some of the other refugees pause for thought. “We thought the Canadian government admits only people of high morality,” puzzles one old man. “Why General Quang get out of Chaffee so quickly? Why he has a special visa? Now I wonder about the government of Canada.”

quarters. This three-bedroom, cornerview apartment on the posh tree-lined playground of Nun’s Island rents for $339 a month and he has been here for eight months now, all the while insisting that his savings are due to run out any minute.

Although he has not received a penny of government assistance, Canadian officials have proved more than helpful. Indeed, at the height of the general’s infamy, while other Vietnamese were left to fend for their own apartments, a federal Manpower officer named Jean Labrecque helped to find Quang not only this apartment just down the street from,,his own, but a second one on the same floor which Quang says he rented from June to October for his cousins who have now gone back to the United States. His own apartment is roomy and more than cozily furnished—two couches, a rug, dinette suite, huge color TV on one

General Quang is crying. It is the sixth day of new year and he sits alone in his second-storey apartment on an island in the St. Lawrence, when suddenly in mid-interview, great alligator tears roll down his cheeks. His fat brown Buddha’s body shakes with little sobs. “I suffer so much,” he cries for the twentieth time. “Lies, calumnies they say about me. People has blacked my name. I have no friends, nothing. I am like a leper.” He pulls at the long oily black mane slicked back from his shiny moonface to show his grey hairs. He waves at the apartment, where a faint odor of Vicks VapoRub hangs inthe air,to show his poverty. “You think I live like this if I have money?” he asks. Thus reminded, he promptly mops up his tears, a brief squall, and goes back to pointing out how poor he is. “Oh, I am saving every penny in my food just to survive.” But to look at him one would hardly think that the general is in need of a good meal. His plaid shirt is unbuttoned where his belly spills over his blue jeans. His face has puffed up more— perhaps the reason he has now forbidden photographs. In two weeks of interviewing refugees, he is the only fat Vietnamese I have seen—and the one with the cushiest

end table, AM-FM transistor radio on another, two steam irons tossed under the coffee table and not just an ordinary phone, but a bright blue Contempra which moves from room to room with plug-in jacks. For a man without a country, the general seems to have acquired a tidy supply of worldy goods. Books are piled on all the end tables—two Holy Bibles under a crucifix and countless titles on the magic of prayer. The general, who professes to spend more time in prayer than any priest of my acquaintance, says he has always been religious—“ but now I am even more religious”—although when prodded he does admit to taking time out for the occasional TV Western starring John Wayne.

Neither pastime has really been interrupted, however, by any energetic pursuit of a new homeland. After being rejected by the United States as a refugee, he applied months ago at the American consulate in Montreal as an ordinary immigrant, although it would seem unlikely he could ever prove that there is any peacetime job he could fill that no American is qualified for. Indeed, a U.S. state depart-

ment official has said confidentially that America wants no part of Quang and more than one source has reported that his first phone call from Fort Chaffee was to a former CIA associate in Washington to get him out of the camp—and country—fast. The agency, now under heavy investigation, certainly may have been happy to oblige a man who knew the darkest side of their activities in Southeast Asia. There is speculation that the Canadian government owed the CIA a favor, that Quang had at one time been on the payroll of Canadian intelligence and that once there was even a plan to provide him with a government “safe house” in the Gatineau outside Ottawa. Still, it is all speculation—which Quang waves off with a giggle or a wisecrack, now that he has quickly recovered from his crying jag. “The CIA—I see, I meet in official social affairs in Saigon—you know, we must cooperate—but never I work for them!” He laughs off the charges of corruption. “Which government is not corrupt in the world, particularly in a war situation? It’s really not a bribe. This is a token of gratitude they offer me. In every country, it happens all the time.” He does not seem worried about his fate, and indeed, why should he be? It is nearly a year since he arrived here—more than six months since he was ordered deported—and the immigration department, which has been known to ship out penniless Jamaican domestics on 24 hours notice, has made only the vaguest noises, when prompted, about sending him back to Vietnam. “They cannot. This is inhuman,” he says. “This is against the Geneva Convention. They cannot force you to go to your death.” A spokesman for Andras’ department says he has not ruled out the possibility that Quang may stay here on humanitarian grounds, his deportation order reversed. “It is up to the charity of the Canadian people,” beams the general. “I think the Canadian people are a sympathetic people. I open my heart to you. Please say I’m sincere.”

It has grown late, the winter dusk closes in and I have stayed longer than I was scheduled to. People start to return to the apartment, one of them a burly gorilla of a boy whom Quang identifies as a live-in friend, although he looks more like a bodyguard. Suddenly Quang issues a last plea. “Please, no write too much about me,” he says. “All is quiet now, it dies down. If you stir it up, the opposition— they nail me more.” The same thought may have crossed the Canadian government’s collective mind. Without the press, Quang’s entry might never have been noticed and his deportation order might have drifted on, ignored. It has been a long, slow-burning question, but in Montreal, 4,200 Vietnamese refugees wait patiently, knowing that the flame must inexorably work its way toward the end of its fuse, and, like the firecrackers of Tet, erupt— driving off the evil reminder of a life they have left behind. Q