COVER

A BOAT GIRL GROWS UP

A VIETNAMESE EDUCATES COLDWATER

BARRY CAME July 10 1989
COVER

A BOAT GIRL GROWS UP

A VIETNAMESE EDUCATES COLDWATER

BARRY CAME July 10 1989

A BOAT GIRL GROWS UP

COVER

A VIETNAMESE EDUCATES COLDWATER

Even after 10 years, there are memories that make Hang Truong wince. Among them is the recollection of one of the first mornings in her new home in Coldwater, an Ontario town of 1,000 on the banks of a river of the same name, not far from Orillia. The townspeople, in a gesture of welcome, had donated a bicycle. So Hang did what she would have done in her native Saigon. The result was not what she expected. ‘‘I think they were a little scandalized,” she recalled with a shy smile. “I guess we were,” agreed Jane Walker, a lifelong resident of Coldwater. “We just weren’t accustomed to seeing a 20-year-old girl riding around on a bicycle in her pyjamas.” The young woman was part of the wave of Southeast Asian Boat People who found haven in Canada.

Hang is now a mother and a budding entrepreneur. And the town that opened its arms to

her is no longer quite so surprised by peculiar foreign habits and customs. As Walker, one of a group of four Coldwater families who sponsored Hang and two of her young cousins, remarked: “It was very good for our little community here. It really broadened our horizons. In a place like this, you know, contact with people of other races is not something that happens every day.”

Fled: For Hang, it was a contact that might never have occurred if Prime Minister Joe Clark’s newly elected Conservative government had not committed itself to help the Boat People in 1979. Most of them, like Hang, were ethnic Chinese who had fled from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Clark’s administration encouraged private-sector volunteerism, with the government at first matching each refugee that individuals and church groups agreed to support, up to a total of

50,000—in the end, 60,049 Boat People landed in Canada by the end of 1980. The program led four Coldwater families, with the aid of United Church minister Rev. John Allsop, to form a sponsoring group. They notified Ottawa that they were prepared to sponsor a Vietnamese family, specifying that they would take individuals with a low priority who might not otherwise have a chance of admission to Canada.

Ghetto: Hang was in that category. She was 20, unmar ried, with no relatives in Can ada, no knowledge of English or French and not particular ly well educated. In Vietnam, she had helped her foster mother run a food stall in the market at Cholon, the teem ing Chinese ghetto in the heart of Saigon. What is more, she had in her care her two young cousins-Ong Vi Truong, 8, and his brother Ming, 15. All three had spent

more than a year m a Malay sian refugee camp on Pulau Bidong, a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand, with 56,000 other refugees.

They had reached the camp after spending six days at sea on a 23-foot wooden boat crammed with 508 Vietnamese fleeing from their homeland. The trip, like that experienced by most of the Boat People, had been dangerous. Thai pirates attacked the boat on five separate occasions. Although Hang was not physically abused by the attackers, they robbed her of all the valuables she had been carrying— including jewelry and $2,000 in U.S. currency that she had sewn into the seam of her brassiere. Said Hang: “I was destitute. I didn’t know what I was going to do or where I was going to go, and on top of everything else, I had the two boys to look after.”

It was while the small family languished in Malaysia that fate, in the form of the Coldwater sponsors, intervened. The four principal families involved, besides undertaking to care for Hang and the boys for a year, had also pooled their resources to make a down payment on an $18,000 bungalow. Others in the town gave money and worked on refurbishing the house. “It was a real community effort,” said Harold Wood, one of the four main sponsors. Added Hang: “I had not even applied to go to Canada. I knew nothing about this country. I did not know the language. I did not know my sponsors. I did not know where I was going. I was very, very scared.” Said Wood, who met Hang and the two boys when they arrived at Toronto airport: “I think she was terrified.”

The fear passed, however, and it was replaced by a quality that some Coldwater residents found almost as unsettling. “She worked awfully hard,” said Wood’s wife, Inga, herself a wartime refugee from Yugoslavia.

“There were moments when I was worried that she might be trying to do too much.” Hang was soon holding down two jobs, working 10 hours a day at a Coldwater florist and at a local nursing home. At the same time, she was looking after the two boys, who were enrolled in Coldwater schools, as well as finding the time to attend her own Englishlanguage courses in Orillia, 20 km away. In her class, she met Du Truong, another Vietnamese refugee who had arrived in Canada a week after she had. Two years later, they were married.

Accepted: The wedding was a social event in Coldwater, providing both an illustration of how completely the local people had accepted Hang and how acclimatized she had become to her new home. She was married at the United Church. For the ceremony she wore a traditional Western white gown. After the ceremony, she changed into a traditional Chinese red silk dress. As Walker remarked, “It was marvellous, a combination of everything good about Canada and China.”

Eventually, the couple achieved modest prosperity. Hang continued to work, and her husband found a job at a Coldwater plant manufacturing plastic garbage bags. They soon took over the mortgage payments for the bungalow that their sponsors had bought, eventually purchasing the house. They also had three children. Said Hang: “I got married, and every year after that I produced a baby.”

The children did not slow her pace. Five

years after arriving in Canada, Hang and her family sold the Coldwater house and moved to Orillia. “I hated to leave,” she said, “but Du got a job as a grinder in an automobile parts plant and, anyway, we’re not that far away.” The couple now owns a modest but handsome $55,000 home in Orillia. They are partners

with Du’s brother in owning a small block of furnished apartments. And later this month, Hang and a Chinese girlfriend, an immigrant from Hong Kong, will open a snack bar in Orillia. Said Hang: “We’re calling it ‘Genie.’ It’s magic, like the magic that brought me here.”

Canada has also been kind to the two young boys who accompanied Hang. Ming, the eldest, is now married and living in Toronto. Ong has remained with Hang, where his hockey, baseball and badminton trophies decorate the living room in the family’s home. He is scheduled to graduate from the Orillia District Collegiate and Vocational Institute next year, after which he hopes to study fashion design at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto. He has no regrets about the move to this country, even though he does not recall much about the trials he underwent to arrive here. “All I can remember is that I was scared, all of the time,” he said.

Delighted: Hang’s original sponsors are clearly delighted with her success. Said Walker: “We certainly got a wonderful family, and they have done wonderfully well.” At the same time, however, even those who were directly involved in getting Hang to Canada say that they are not sure if the process could ever be repeated. Added Wood: “I doubt whether it would be as easy now. The whole climate here has changed.” Said his wife, Inga: “I don’t think Canadians are any less generous than they used to be. But they are certainly much more ambivalent now about the whole issue of immigration.”

BARRY CAME