From Saigon to Swords: How the 'boat people' forged a new identity
For 200 refugees who fled Vietnam for Ireland 40 years ago, their new home was a place of safety but also cold and confusing. How have they fared? Catherine Healy finds out
Tri Quoc Nguyen still remembers the crash of waves against the small boat that carried his family away from Vietnam in 1979. The smell of vomit and sweat hung in the hot, heavy air as they travelled for several days across choppy waters in the South China Sea. Tri and his six siblings were finally rescued by a merchant ship along with their parents and taken to a refugee camp in Malaysia. "It was a horrible journey," he says now. "I will never forget it."
The passengers were among throngs of Vietnamese fleeing persecution from communist forces that had taken over the country at the end of the Vietnam War. A former soldier with the US-backed southern army, Tri's father had been interned for three years after the fall of Saigon in 1975. "My mother had to bribe the authorities to get him out," Tri recalls. "If he got caught again, he could have been killed."
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Ireland was not where the family expected to end up. Neither of his parents knew anything about the country, Tri says, until an Irish delegation turned up to their camp with an offer of resettlement. His father had envisaged moving to the United States but delays in the American admission process would have meant a prolonged wait in Malaysia. "The camp conditions were very bad," Tri explains, "so my mother decided we should just go to Ireland. 'We don't need to live in a big country', she said."
The family arrived in Dublin by plane on a cold, misty autumn day. They were only the second group of Vietnamese refugees to reach Ireland, with a first cohort having landed in August. Tri, who was 13 at the time, remembers shaking with the cold as they disembarked. "We didn't know what the weather would be like so we had no jackets," he laughs. "The Red Cross wrapped blankets around us."
Tri's family were put up in a reception centre in Swords for a few months before being sent down to Tralee. He recalls feeling like he was "from another planet" during that first year living in Kerry. "I was scared stiff going to school because I had no English," he says.
"I tried to hide during class because I never understood what the teachers were saying. Nobody helped and it was difficult to pick up by myself. I didn't do very well in school and it was very lonely."
In 1981, Tri and his family left Tralee for Coolock in Dublin, where he finished school. He went on to work as a UN translator in Hong Kong, helping to coordinate repatriations to Vietnam. New screening measures for refugees had been introduced in 1989 under regulations aimed at stemming the exodus of so-called "boat people". Those who failed to qualify as refugees were involuntarily returned home - a measure Tri opposed in spite of his job. During a short trip back to Ireland, he met his future wife, Tuyet Pham, who had moved over in 1991 at the age of 20. He proposed to her within two weeks, deciding not to return to Hong Kong. "It was love at first sight," he says.
Tri and Tuyet together now run Pho Viet, a popular restaurant opened on Dublin's Parnell Street in 2012. Kim, their eldest daughter, helps to manage the place along with her husband, and younger siblings lend a hand as well. The couple have placed great importance on instilling a strong work ethic in all the children, Tri stresses.
"They have to know that they have to work hard to make money." He adds, however, that the restaurant's success has come at a personal cost to the family. "We have no social life," he admits. "Work, home; work, home."
Similar themes emerge in interviews with other Vietnamese-Irish people. Mai Tham was 10 when her family arrived here from a camp in Hong Kong. Her family had fled ethnic tensions in the northern port city of Hai Phong, which had been heavily bombed during the war.
The sea passage from Vietnam had been traumatic, Mai recalls. "There was terrible overcrowding, and nearly everyone was throwing up. I remember needing to go to the toilet and being shown a big hole looking down at the sea. They had a stick you could hang on to so you wouldn't fall."
Refugees in the first group from Hong Kong, ranging in ages from two to 76, had been greeted off the gangway at Dublin Airport by Minister for Foreign Affairs Michael O'Kennedy. The journey was said to have taken 36 hours via Frankfurt. "Tired and hungry but glad to have arrived" read the Irish Independent headline on August 10. "In their Asian clothing, the refugees slowly made their way from the plane into their first Irish summer," it reported.
"All wore large identity tags with the words 'Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration' and clutched their paltry hand luggage, some obviously bought in Hong Kong." One man, presumably oblivious to the nature of Irish weather, was said to have brought a big electric fan with him.
Mai's family were among those taken to the first reception centre, James Connolly Memorial Hospital in Blanchardstown, where they stayed for a number of months before moving to Drogheda.
Mai says she was generally made to feel welcome in the provincial town, where she still lives. "I started in St Brigid's National School without a word of English, but the teachers were lovely. I was the first in the family then to attend St Oliver's Community College so I suppose I was a novelty for some people at the time. Of course there was the odd person who would tell you to go back home, but I had more positive encounters than negative."
Tham Thien Phuc, Mai's father, was for several years the chairman of the Vietnamese-Irish Association, which sought to promote and preserve Vietnamese culture. His daughters remember him as a natural politician, enjoying liaising with Irish ministers and officials in the name of intercultural dialogue. Still, Vietnamese-Irish identity has been a shifting, complex thing for Mai and her siblings.
"I was so excited the first time we went back to Vietnam," she says, "but we were like foreigners once we got there. Even though we had the language, people knew we weren't from there the minute we opened our mouths. I wondered for a while where we actually belonged. Now, if anyone ask where I'm from, I say Ireland is my home. My children were born here and I gave them all Irish names."
Mai's younger sister, Yen, who was two years old coming over, says she grew up feeling less Vietnamese than her older brother and sister. "I was the most rebellious, I think, because I felt it was always put upon me, this idea that you have to be Vietnamese. We weren't allowed to speak English at home.
"I definitely had an identity crisis when I was younger; I identified as Irish but was always told I was something else."
Finally visiting Vietnam as a teenager was "an epiphany moment", as she describes it. "I remember thinking, 'Now I know who I really am.' I started to appreciate my heritage then; I realised I could be part of two cultures instead of feeling pulled one way or the other."
Dr Mark Maguire, author of the 2004 book Differently Irish: A Cultural History Exploring 25 Years of Vietnamese-Irish Identity, found generational tensions to be common among the Vietnamese during the course of his own research. There was often a gap, he says, between what parents envisaged for their children and what their children ended up doing.
"Many parents put an awful lot of stock in the education system. Education was equal to success, and failure was just not written into the narrative," he says.
Others felt bound to help with the family business, whatever their own ambitions. Familial loyalty was balanced against a sense of resentment with their lot.
Like many of her contemporaries, Mai herself was expected to work from a young age. Her parents started up a food van in Dublin and later opened two takeaways, naming one in Drogheda after their home city, Hai Phong. The Drogheda outlet is now managed by her brother; the other, on Dorset Street, Dublin has since closed.
"I left school early to work in the family business here in the town," says Mai. "I remember working on the night of my school grad." She returned to education after having three children and has been employed for the last number of years with the Drogheda Resource Centre, overseeing training for early school leavers.
Nobody in the family moved too far away. Another sister, Lana, who has Down's syndrome, moved in with Mai last year after the death of their father. (Tham had been Lana's main carer.) Their two other sisters live in Dublin, while their brother and mother, now in her early eighties, both remain nearby in Drogheda. Other relatives moved to Ireland in more recent years through the family reunification programme.
Yen, who works in IT consultancy as well as running a side business, Phibrows by Yen, out of Templeogue Beauty Clinic, says she and her family are thankful for the opportunities provided to them in Ireland. "My parents appreciated everything they got here. My mum always said we would never have been so successful if we'd stayed in Vietnam."
The sentiment is one shared by Lan Nguyen-Grealis, an international make-up artist now living in London. Lan was born in Dublin in 1980, not long after her parents had landed in Ireland with two young sons. Catholics from Saigon, they were in their twenties when they arrived in Swords. Both were relieved to have shelter after surviving on "one bottle of milk and a loaf of bread" during the boat crossing.
Her mother was pregnant with her at the time and feared she would miscarry at sea. "Neither of them knew anything about Ireland," Lan says. "The selling point was free accommodation and government training."
The family ran a takeaway in Cork before moving to Waterford, where her parents worked with Waterford Crystal. "They got on with everyone in the town," Lan recalls. "I didn't feel isolated at all; I got involved in a lot of community things and had really good friends. I can remember one or two things that were remotely racist but I always stood up for myself."
Her grandfather, who's now 100, later joined them in Ireland along with four of her mother's siblings. An uncle, Manh, who arrived from the US, still lives in Dublin with his wife and three children.
At one point, Lan says, 10 family members had to share one room in a house. But the past was not often discussed at home. "My parents just wanted to get on with life," she explains. "They lost a lot of relatives and saw a lot of deaths."
Lan made a point of regularly returning home with friends after the family upped sticks to the UK in the 1990s. She went to an Irish Catholic school in London and still considered herself to be from Ireland, even if strangers sometimes felt the need to point out that she didn't "look Irish".
"I'm very proud to have had a great upbringing and education in Ireland," she says. "And grateful for the warm welcome and hospitality from the majority of the Irish community both there and in the UK."
She is married now to a Mayo man and has a second book, ProMakeup Design Book, coming out next month. "Not a lot of Vietnamese women speak out about their heritage," she says, "but I find people have respect for my story. It's only now in my generation that we've started to embrace being in public and doing bigger things. When I was young, it was all about marrying a rich man - forget about being creative. I always felt nurtured by the Irish, though, and then the English; I was pushed to do what I love all the way through school."
But despite tending to reserve praise for Irish people, Vietnamese refugees and their children were also subject to a good deal of hostility from some sections of the population. Newspaper reports in the years after their resettlement told of people being abused and their businesses coming under attack.
One of the refugees who arrived by boat in 1979, Ly Minh Luong, died in 2002 after being viciously beaten in a racist assault by two men in Temple Bar. Maguire himself remembers witnessing a "constant stream of raw racism" while observing late-night customers in a Vietnamese takeaway in Dublin's North Strand.
Difficulties with integration were compounded by a lack of language support for Vietnamese youth in schools. The Irish government followed a "sink or swim" policy, seeing no need to provide further English lessons to children once they had left reception centres, according to Maguire. Instead, students were held back until their language skills were deemed to be adequate. School seemed to generally steer clear of conversations about diversity, he says, overlooking the different histories and identities brought to the table by migrants' children.
The flaws of such an approach have been highlighted, Maguire stresses, by decades of social science research. "We know that if you're respected in the broadest sense, and you're supported in maintaining your home language while also being introduced to the language of your host country, you tend to do relatively well. People exposed to the cold winds of an indifferent country are much more likely to struggle."
Vietnamese refugees faced an "unbelievably ad hoc" resettlement process from the outset, according to Maguire. The government relied on religious orders, NGOs and local communities to coordinate services, and failed to devise any long-term strategy. While they were dispersed from reception centres across the country, Vietnamese families typically wound up back in Dublin. By the mid-1980s, Maguire says, most of the Vietnamese had settled in working-class neighbourhoods outside the city.
"We see that being true for migrants in the UK, France and United States as well," he adds. "People generally go where they can cluster and find financial opportunities."
The Irish government had only reluctantly committed to resettling Vietnamese refugees in 1979 after turning down previous applications from the UN, citing economic difficulties. But there was little actual evidence that accepting substantial numbers would cost the state a significant sum, according to Maguire. It eventually agreed to a final figure of 200, in part because its presidency of the then EEC that year had made its response "uncomfortably visible", he has written. The Catholic Church had also applied pressure, with Bishop of Galway Eamonn Casey, among others, urging the government do more.
Concerns raised about the arrival of Vietnamese refugees will sound familiar to anyone following contemporary debates on immigration to Ireland. The discussion points are roughly the same: people did and still question whether refugees and asylum seekers can be deemed genuine, as Maguire points out, and whether Ireland can afford to take them in.
Vietnamese programme refugees had at least arrived in Ireland, however, as part of an exodus covered for years in the local and international press. "They came with their own story, if you want to put it that way, whereas asylum seekers now are never really given an identity."
But there are constructive lessons to be learned from the Vietnamese-Irish experience as well. Language support and labour market integration are crucial drivers of assimilation, Maguire says, but facilitating people's own desires has also proven key. "If people want to live in a city and work in a particular sector of the economy," he argues, "we should support them in doing those things the best we can. You have to work with where people see themselves in the long run. We have to see people as humans, not migrants."
And in light of two centuries of emigration from this island, Irish people should be better placed than most to appreciate the importance of that kind of integration.