Vietnamese Boat People sometimes got a bad press, but the treatment they received from British people has never been forgotten.

Early in September a piece popped up on Facebook and it caused quite a stir and was picked up by the World’s Press.  A young man told of his family’s plight after escaping from Vietnam during the war. They were of course part of a group of people who became known as the Vietnamese boat people. This young man told how his family were welcomed with open arms into Britain. Touched by the current plight of Syrian refugees, he felt moved to tell his story. His story began thus:

“It’s 1984 and my mother arrives in the UK with 89 other Vietnamese refugees known as the “boat people”. With just the cloths on her back and her four children, she’s confronted with the local people of a council estate. Unable to speak English, she expects hostility and racism. And then this happens. A young scruffy looking man steps up, takes off his coat and handed it to the freezing cold refugees. A gesture so touching, that everybody later followed. People then went home to fetch clothes they didn’t need and handed it to the refugees and ensured they were all fed and watered.”

I was touched by HIS story and decided to track him down. The young man is Tat Wa Lay and I met up with him for a chat.

Keith and Tat met up for a beer and a chat

Tat is a smart, good looking, very intelligent and articulate young man. In fact he speaks better English than many English people that I know. He is engaging and has a passion about his family, the treatment they received in the UK and the contribution that they have repaid to British society. A contribution born out of gratitude and pride. His family come from two small villages, Song Luy and Song Mai, located near Phan Thiet close to Mui Ne on Vietnam’s South central coast. Ethnic Vietnamese in origin they suffered severe persecution during the war. Anti-Chinese gangs took away everything from this well educated and well off family. If they built houses they were destroyed, in fact the villages where pretty much ransacked, when the family carried wood from the mountains and rebuilt everything, it was smashed again and the land confiscated.

In 1976 the family had to make a terrifying and heartbreaking decision. They chose the three strongest and well educated of the brothers and a decision was made that they would try and escape. If they succeeded, they would try and find a way of sending for the rest of the family. Family gold paid for a coastguard to smuggle them onto a fishing boat and set sail for Hong Kong. They joined a small group of people, the oldest of which was in his 70s; there was also a young pregnant woman. Three days into the trip they ran out of water. When the fuel ran out on the fourth day, they realised they were in serious trouble. Just at the point when they looked like facing certain death, a British Naval vessel captained by a man named John Appleby spotted them and after giving them food and water, towed them into Hong Kong. Here they joined many more vessels packed with refugees, some of whom were in pretty awful condition. I guess one never forgets a name under these circumstances.

The harrowing conditions these people endured was beyond imagination

The Hong Kong government at the time was swamped as more and more desperate refugees were arriving on their shores. As a short term solution Taiwan agreed to allowing the Vietnamese boat people to moor their boats at one of their harbours, providing a safe haven, whilst behind the scenes work was being done to facilitate a permanent solution to the crisis. Britain agreed to take some and the three brothers, after three months bobbing about on a small boat in a Taiwanese harbour, found themselves on a plane to England. One of Tat’s uncle’s later told him that every night for more than a year after arriving in England, he still felt his bed bobbing about as though still afloat.

“My brother can still remember the warmth that coat gave him and it stays in his heart to this day. It’s these things that British people do, that make make them truly British. My family has never forgotten what England has done for them. And because you allowed us in, we were able to give so much back to your country. You gave us free healthcare. My family gave you 3 doctors”

Upon arrival in England they were fostered by a kindly Irish woman called Pat. Tat remembers meeting her later when he was about 6 years old. She helped them to learn English and assisted in getting them into universities. One of the brothers became a manager in social work, helping many more people with social problems. He lived in Salisbury and incredibly married a direct descendant of Neville Chamberlain. They produced a daughter who is an Oxford graduate and highly respected teacher. One more ran businesses creating jobs for others. Tat is rightly proud of his family’s achievements. These are not people who cost Britain, they are proud people who served it and certainly added to the fabric of British society. Whilst the third uncle, struggled with the language and could possibly be seen as achieving less; it was he who led the whole thing and as a former prisoner of war, it was he who persuaded the other brothers to follow. The family owe him everything.

The three brothers don’t really like to speak now, about this harrowing episode in their lives. The UK government ran a family reunion programme for the Vietnamese boat people and invited the rest of their families to join. Tat later returned to Vietnam and now works as an English language teacher and App developer in Ho Chi Minh City. He wants to help more people learn the language that he has mastered so well. The family have stayed in England and are a fully involved members of UK society.

Vietnamese people used many small fishing boats like this one

It is here that Tat’s passion really shines through. He is proud that his family escaped the torment and the horror. Tat went to Embleton Junior School and to Henbury Secondary School. He later graduated from UWE. He is extremely grateful for the chance that the UK gave to him and his family. He is though, fiercely proud of the fact, that his family did not simply take from the UK, they have given so much back.


The Vietnamese Boat People Gave So Much Back

“My family gave you 3 doctors. One has recently started working at Southmead hospital. We never stole your jobs, we created our own and gave some to you. In my family, there are 10 nail shops, 3 restaurants and 14 Chinese takeaways. We did this to give you amazing food and so we could support ourselves. Please take a moment to think about all the Syrian refugees and think to yourself . . . what makes you British?”

One of Tat’s uncle’s wrote a phrase book called how to get to Song Mai. This has become extremely popular among backpackers, and for a while had the local villagers bemused as strings of young people turned up looking for the village, practising their new found Vietnamese skills. Another uncle who was a superb chef, used to cook free barbecues for the local people in Southmead, Bristol. He simply wanted to say thank you. Many people in the area will talk of the family with great affection.

footnote: From my own perspective, Tat’s story has been inspirational. It demonstrates, perfectly, humanity’s ability to overcome the most shocking adversity. For me though the main thing that shines through is a lesson that many need to learn. When society helps each other it blossoms. As the Vietnamese boat people needed help then, so people in so much desperate situations need help now. Those from  Europe and the Middle East, should not be seen as a burden. They should be seen as brothers and sisters in dire need of our help. Look after them now and society will, in future, be all the stronger for it. And for those sceptics who point out that many of today’s refugees are fit young men, just remember why the three brothers were so carefully chosen.