Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tuyet Chau remembers Vietnam

TUYET CHAU, 1979 exit Chinese Vietnamese

Q, Tell me about your life in Vietnam. Do you remember anything about 1975?

Everything was over. Stopped. My parents had small business and everything was over because the communists came. My mom still had the business but didn't care about the business because she was afraid she couldn't do much with the communists.
She had a store, wholesale, selling fabric.

Q. Do you remember seeing the communists come into the city?

Yeah, because I was close by the Presidential Palace. My house was really close by. The soldiers were coming in and all the tanks and soldiers were passing by my house and red flags all over the place.

Q. When you saw it what did you think? Were you frightened by it?

I wasn't frightened, but I was feeling really sad, because my mom had been telling me all about the communists and how bad they are. I looked at them and I hated them.

Q. Did any of them wave at you or smile at you?

I just stayed in the house, on a balcony. Everybody was laughing, like the kids running around, really happy. And I said, "Look at them goats, how stupid you are. You shouldn't be happy."

Q. Why were they happy?

Because they thought no more war. The South people didn't understand. If you moved from the North in 1954, then you would understand. Also they kept saying they understand, and usually the people laughing and running around happy are the poor people, the really poor people, with no house to live -- those people. "Oh, they are coming in. They are going to help us now. Now we will have food and everything will be free now. Everything is equal now."

Q. You were in school at the time?


Q. School had stopped in April hadn't it?

Yes. Actually it stopped earlier before that too. I went to a private Chinese-English school. In Cholon.

Q. You are part Chinese?

Yes. I consider myself Chinese not Vietnamese.

Q. But you lived in Cholon?

I lived in Cholon at first, but when my mom got more money she moved to Saigon and got a bigger house.

Q. What was your dad at that time?

He helped my mom. He was in business.

Q. Were people prejudiced against you because you are Chinese? Do you remember any bias?

After '75, yes. Before, no.

Q. Tell me what happens after they take over the businesses.

They took over totally my parent's business. The second day after April 30, 1975, they came to my house, knocked at the door and told my mom "We represent a ?? group and we would like to come over and ask you if we can share your house with us. Because after the war we don't have any where to live. We would share your house." And my mom was freaked out and said, "I guess so." We had a huge house, really big, and downstairs was like for a ball room, where we could have a party. We had a big back yard too. So they said, "Would you like to let us in?" My mom said, "Oh sure." My mom couldn't say "no" to them because if she said no -- my mom told me -- they thought we probably had a lot of information from the government and all these things that were neat around the house. But they wanted to come in and like watch on us. It was like thirty-five people.

Q. Thirty-five people moved into your house?

Yeah, soldiers. They all lived downstairs in the ballroom area. I don't know how they could live there but they shared. They ate somewhere else though.

Q. Did they treat you nicely?

Yeah, they talked really polite, but they made you do stuff like I'm not supposed to do.

After that I didn't go to my private school, because it closed down. I had to go to a Chinese-Vietnamese -- it used to be a Vietnamese - English school and half of it was Vietnamese - French. So half of it taught French and half taught English. So I went to the English Vietnamese, instead of to the French Vietnamese, because I don't know any French. So I went -- it was kind of like a big school too, Bac Ai school.

Q. You could walk to school?

No I had to ride a bike. My sister could pick me up.

Q. Were there new teachers at the school?

Same teachers as before, but different philosophy now. They have to teach differently.

I didn't like it because it was in Vietnamese now and I didn't understand anything. I don't know how to write Vietnamese, but I know how to speak it, so every time I had dictation I would get bad grades. It was okay for a while because there were still some Chinese around, but then later they said I couldn't go to that school at all. In certain areas you can go to certain schools, and so on, so I had to move back close to my home in Saigon. I went to that school for two weeks and they said I couldn't go to that school either because it was still a different area. So they moved me to another school and this school was pretty famous before, Gia Long. It was an all girl school.

So I went there and I guess I was the only Chinese in the whole school. I started off in sixth grade and all Vietnamese and all the students were making fun of me because they have English class -- one English class in grammar and stuff, and I'm like an expert, I'm so good in English. They put me as a leader and every time the students needed help, they asked help from me. But in Vietnamese lessons I didn't understand, so they helped me in Vietnamese.

I went to school regular, every day.

Q. What about the prejudice against Chinese? You noticed they were biased against you after 1975?

I guess before I had never had contact with the Vietnamese, so I don't know how prejudiced they were. All my old private schools were Chinese. I lived next to a Vietnamese house but I never hung around with them either. My mom didn't like us to run around with the neighbors.

Q. In what way was the bias manifested?

They always made fun of me. They'd name me different names.

Q. How was your family making a living?

Before my mom was considered upper middle class, not rich but pretty well off. So we lived on savings, whatever she had. She kept having to sell off her gold. Every time, before, when she saved some money, she bought gold and saved that.

Q. When did they decide to leave? Do you remember any discussions?

They wanted to leave before '75, actually. They tried. They asked my brother here, because my brother was going to law school in 1972 at Ohio University. My brother contacted this American family who was really close to him and helped him through school and they helped him fill out papers to sponsor our family to go before 1975. We received that paper like one day before the fall. So that's why we couldn't go. We had to destroy that paper. They would know we had contact with the Americans.

At our house, everything to do with American, like my brother's pictures from America, letters from Americans, everything, stamps, everything was destroyed.

Q. Were there family discussions on how to get out? Of if you should get out?

They didn't really sit down, but I could tell, because I knew that sooner or later we'd have to leave.

Q Why would you know that?

I had a feeling, because my mom would pack stuff. Relatives would come over and talk about it. How we are going to go. The whole month before, like 15th of April, they came to my house and stayed because it's easier from my house to go to the airport. It's close by Tan Son Nhut.

Q. When did they leave?


Q. How?

The first time we started to escape after '75 -- my mom got connections from people, like if they have a boat, give them money, how much we have to give. She was planning before that to go by plane using a French name. Because they said if you are French you can go back to France. So my mom did the papers to change all our names to French names. I remember my grandmother was Maria. We practiced our birthdates and all this. Finally they just ran off with our money -- the people took the gold and everything. That's how we lost our money.

The second time we tried to escape my mom got this contact with this guy and he said he had connections for a big boat, a fishing boat and we can go by that. We tried to go down to a small town to go, and we got there and he said, "Oh no, you can't. They find out. We'll get caught." So we had to go back to our house and that money was gone too, because they lied.

So the third time, this is the time that I get caught. We went again, went down to a different place. To Rach Gia at the Delta. They said to go there and they'd meet us. Me and my grandmom, my sister and my mom and then my other sister and my dad, we went in pairs, and pretended we didn't know each other. We stayed there and at night went out to the little boat. My cousin was there too. And a bit later we heard -- we went to the bottom and they covered us and we couldn't breathe or anything. We heard a lot of noise on the top and don't know what happened. A half hour later they said, "Get out" and they tied us. And that's how they caught us.

Q. Was it soldiers?

Yeah. They tied all of us up and told us to take off our shoes, they were afraid you could go if you had shoes. Then they put us in a little room and searched us really thoroughly. Then they took everything that we had, bags, and later on they moved us to a prison. In Rach Gia. I stayed in prison a month.

Q. What was that like?

Terrible. You have no food, all you have is rice with rocks and everything in it. You have to pick things out of it. You eat that with salt, but it's not nice salt. It's like a rock you bite and then eat rice. Once a week they'd give you a vegetable. Then you have no water -- you do have water but it's limited.

Q. Was your grandmother with you?

Yes, my grandmother and my sister. My dad lived separate.

Q. Was it a cell or just kind of an area?

It was a big room. There were like fifty or sixty people in there. We had to sleep on the floor.

Q. Did they let you out for exercise or anything?

You can walk around. There was another room with a bathroom and where the water was in the well. If you go to the bathroom, it came back to the well. The well and the bathroom were next to each other. But the bathroom didn't work, so you couldn't go to the bathroom. But you don't need to go to the bathroom, because you don't eat anything.

Two days after we were in the prison, my mom, my sister and my cousin -- I have three sisters, but the other one already escaped. My two sisters, the oldest one goes with my mom and my other cousin and my dad to another place called U Minh and did farm labor work. That's the first time in my life I was separated from my mom. My other sister is older than me, but she's afraid and I had to take care of both. So I had to take care of my grandma, save room for her to eat, and make friends to share food with.

So a month later, the government said that whoever is Chinese can't be kept they have to be freed, so that's how we were let free.

Q. How about out of the country though?

I heard rumors that they have to let us out of the country too. As long as we pay. That's why they freed us. And when they freed us we didn't have any money. How are we going to go back to our house? I don't even know if our house is taken over or if somebody is in our house. So I don't know what to do.

Got out, didn't have any money, no shoes, and you know how it's so hot, I can't walk. I was worried about my grandma. She's pretty old about seventy-two. And as I got out, I saw these two men, so nice, I know they speak Chinese. I asked for help. I had my grandma with me and just got free and had no money, but I said, "I'm sure that if you take me back to my house, my mom, my uncle, and my other grandmother are still there. I'm sure they can pay you back." They go "Don't worry about it. I'll bring you back to my house, our house is close by here. Go home with us. I'll let you borrow." So we went home with them. They were a nice family, treated us really nice. They said after we finished eating they would take us to the station and buy us a ticket there to go back to Saigon.

As soon as we go out to the station, I saw my uncle. He pretended like he was a soldier. He wore soldier type civilian clothes. He saw us and I was so happy. I asked what he was doing and he said, "Don't talk to me so loud. I pretend I am a soldier and I come to visit a guy. I tried to get contact." He had connection with another guy, and this guy was a soldier and this guy helped him out bringing him in. So he told me to act like I wasn't talking to him.

So we went to the shop to get a drink, and we talked to him. They were talking but looking around and he gave us money to buy shoes and a ticket.

Then we went home, my grandmom and I, my sister had to stay with my uncle to go back to that family's house. My uncle wanted to thank them and to get another connection to visit my mom in U Minh. My uncle wanted to give my mom some money so they could buy some food in there, because they heard if you had money you could buy food to eat.

My sister stayed with him, and next day she got the connection with that lady in the family house to get a boat to go visit my mom. So she went by herself and my uncle went home to get the money for my mom.

About five days later, my uncle told me I couldn't go home because the soldiers took over my house. I had to go to his house. If I did go back home they would nail me again. So my grandmom and I went to my uncle's house and stayed there. Three or four days later they freed my mom too. My mom, dad, sister, cousin, everybody. So we had a reunion in my uncle's family house. We lived there about six months.

Q. Do you have any money left, gold?

My mom, yeah.

Q. Where did you hide gold?

That's what I kept asking my mom, and she said, "You have to find connection. You give it to friend, to keep." My mom gave it to her best friend to keep and her best friend was not that rich, and they took the money and don't give it back when you ask. "I'm sorry, I need it too bad." They use excuses to keep your money. That's another reason why we lost our money again.

After we got to my uncle's house for six months, my mom got connection and heard that you could go by leaving your gold, then you could go out of the country. So my mom did it again. This is the fourth time we get out, the end of 1978.

Q. Where did you find the ship?

People around the country talk about it all over the place. The soldiers know about it too.

Q. What was the name of the ship?

Hai Hong. You use a small boat from Saigon and it's actually out in a cove.

Q. Did you have any gold with you when you were leaving then?


Q. How many people were on the boat?

Twenty-five hundred. Mostly Chinese.

It was supposed to go anywhere out of the country. They said just go anywhere.

Q. So you went to Malaysia?

Went there and they wouldn't take us. Went to Indonesia and they wouldn't take us. Went to Hong Kong and they wouldn't take us. Went to Thailand and they won't take us. So we stayed on the sea.

Q. How long?

Three months.

Q. How many people died?

One old lady, one baby and one baby born.

Q. Did you see them die? Thrown over the side?

Right there in front of me. I have some pictures of the ship.

Q. I'd like to see them. Can I see them and make duplicates? Did you have a camera with you?

No, my sister knew how to speak English pretty well and this guy who was Chinese Malaysian came to look around. He was like the head of the police department. He looked around and then my sister, her ear was really hurting her, so my mom told her to try talking to him. So this guy talked to him -- he was like my sister's friend. He said he would take her in to Malaysia to go see the doctor. He spoke Chinese too. He loved to speak Chinese, but there was no way to, so he took my sister in to be cured. He took pictures. We went to the airport and he took pictures for us too.

Q. So you got off in Malaysia?

Just my sister to cure her ear. And after that we came back to the ship and stayed there for three months.

My brother we wrote him a letter as soon as we got out of the country. He did paperwork right away. He wrote to a church and the church sponsored our family.

Q. Where did you finally get off the ship?

We had to go back to Malaysia to the airport. From the airport we flew to the United States.

Q. What happened to the rest of the people on the boat?

They were still there floating around. The first group that got off the boat was the group that went to Germany.

Q. Where did they get food and water?

The Malaysians brought food and water.

Q. And you had to stay on the ship?

The first month and a half was really terrible. We had to eat dried crackers the whole month. Then later on they brought us some food.

Q. How about sanitation and water. The bathroom?

You had to go in the ship and then pour it out in the water.

Q. How about drinking water?

Drinking water was limited.

Q. Did you get sick at all?

Got seasick the first two weeks.

Q. How hot was it?

Oh, it was really hot. We were down in the basement. The basement was really deep. I can find a picture and you can see more. If you went up on top and put your hand down on the basement (??on the deck???) it was like a heater. People slept next to each other like sardines, side-by-side.

Q. So you flew out of Malaysia to where?

To Sacramento. After he got out of school he moved to California. The church that sponsored our family happened to be in Sacramento.

Q. What did you think when you saw Sacramento?

I thought it was a small town. I said what happened, how come all the houses were so small and so short? I thought it would be like New York, real big.

I saw American people around the airport and I thought, how come they are so big?

Q. How did they treat you?

Really nice. I was amazed. They picked us up, gave us blankets, we were so cold. It was winter time, January '79.

My birthday is November 24th. I was on the ship then. I was born in 1964.

Q. How do you like America now? Would you ever want to go back to Vietnam?

I don't miss it. I was too young.

Q. Do you dream about it?


. . . I have to work so hard for it, for a Mercedes.

Q. Are your parents happy here or not?

Yeah. They have to accept it.

Q. You always consider yourself Chinese. So your parents want you to marry Chinese?


Q. Not Vietnamese.


Q. So you maintain that identity--


Q. Is there anything else you wanted to say?

I just want to say how I get here--After we flew here, all we had was ten dollars, that's it. We get to the airplane and they sell stuff at the airport and he bought my mom Chanel #5 perfume. My mom goes, "How could you spend this money at this time? We have to save dollars." And my dad goes, "Well, we have our son here. We can survive, can't we." This is America. You can learn and do stuff.

Q. Are you happy now?

Uh huh.

Q. How about your dad? Are you all happy now?


Q. Do you feel free here in this country, and not afraid?

I feel like I can do anything I want now. Before you walked out of the house and they have to ask you where you are going. If I go to school, "How come you go to school and you didn't tell me you go to school?" Here you go, "By Mom, By Dad."

Q. So what is your dad's name?

Bao Chau. My mother is Jung Chau.


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