It was about seven o’clock in Taiwan one evening in 1978 when Jack Shieh, tired from a long day working late for the Chinese American company that employed him as an import and export manager, received a phone call that would change everything.
It was an official from the Taiwanese Customs Office, asking him if he knew anything about a British cargo ship that had picked up some people at sea off the coast of Taiwan. Jack had heard news of the ship, but knew no more of its activities. The official informed him that among those on board were his wife and father-in-law, having been rescued from their tiny fishing boat ahead of an incoming storm that would certainly otherwise have claimed their lives.
Jack had not seen his family since 1975.
By Rachel Tam Nguyen, Humanistic Counsellor
The American War in Vietnam, as it is more commonly known in the country itself, lasted from 1955 to 1975. On the one side, North Vietnam and the communist allies, on the other, South Vietnam, the Americans, and other anti-communist powers. The war finally ended with victory for the North, but nonetheless, it had devastated both sides. You could say there were no winners, as it left the entire country in hardship and many from both the North and South decided that their only choice was to leave.
The migration began in the late 1970s to the late 1980s. The first to flee, due to disintegration of relations between China and Vietnam, were the ethnic Chinese people living there called ‘Viet Hoa’. Soon, more Vietnamese followed suit. Many Southern Vietnamese fled due to persecution from the new communist government after their rise to power. The consequences for Southern Vietnamese were dire, particularly if they had fought in the war or worked with the US forces.
In desperation, people left for neighbouring countries, in the hopes of reaching the refugee camps there, before the borders closed, which meant that boat was the inevitable choice of transport for thousands. The journey was treacherous and they risked their lives with no guarantee of rescue. Many were attacked by pirates and thousands died at sea.
At the time, the Vietnamese refugees were known globally as ‘boat people’, although some people fled by land. Today, many reject this name, preferring ‘former refugees’ instead.
Scattered around the UK, they became almost invisible. The Thatcher Dispersal Policy of 1979, which deliberately settled families throughout the UK, often in rural areas, 'to deter the formation of ghettos', as the Home Office put it, contributed to this invisibility. Most refugees didn’t speak English, and had no transferable skills. Many felt isolated and deprived of the familiarity of home and community, thus migrating to big cities such as Manchester and London.
The Vietnamese community have supported themselves by seeking aid and sharing skills with each other, with sewing being the most common trade for the Vietnamese earlier on after the migration. Those who were able to speak Chinese would try their luck working in Chinese restaurants. Later, the nail industry provided much needed opportunities and continues doing so to this day. However, the dark side of the industry has seen Vietnam ranking among the top three globally whose nationals are trafficked to the UK, with many vulnerable to exploitation and modern slavery to support their families back in Vietnam.
In celebration of the first ever East and South East Asian Heritage Month in the UK, we put together a team of film directors, photographers, writers and designers - all women of East and South East Asian heritage - and set out to tell a story of the communities, formed by former refugees from Vietnam, as they exist today.
We spoke primarily with the children of refugees, some of whom have their own children now, about the stories of their families’ migrations to Britain and how they shaped their identities and understanding of the world.
This project is for all those who have sought refuge, for all those who risked their lives and some who continue to do so today, and for all those who set out to rebuild and look to a brighter future.
As many refugees began to move about the country in search of better employment and housing opportunities in a Britain that was struggling to recover from an economic recession, welfare services to aid their integration were few and far between. This led many to seek out an alternative source of support: community.
Little pockets of Vietnamese and Viet Hoa people had begun to emerge, such as the Vietnamese Catholic community in Manchester, explained David Tran, whom we interviewed about his parents’ own journey by boat to escape Saigon.
After four days drifting at sea with no food or water, they were picked up by a cargo ship and taken to Singapore, where they lived for a year awaiting processing for their new life in Aberdeen, Scotland, and eventually Manchester. For David’s parents - and, subsequently, their children - being an active part of the Vietnamese community in Manchester had a hugely important role to play in their sense of belonging, and in David’s own connection to his cultural heritage.
Similar tight-knit communities also sprung up in Hackney, unofficially led, says Londoner Julia Thanh, by Vietnamese elders, some of whom even introduced her own parents to each other through a form of matchmaking the Vietnamese call làm mối.
Communities the world over are often connected by shared cultural understanding and language. Like many ethnic Chinese Viet Hoa who fled Vietnam, the family of Chon Tu were able to speak Cantonese, which allowed them access to some opportunities in the UK that ethnic Kinh Vietnamese may not have had: the Hong Kong Cantonese takeaway and restaurant industry.
However, speaking Cantonese felt unnatural to Chon, who admitted that he hated speaking it as a child, and was often made to feel alienated because the way he spoke didn’t sound like the Cantonese spoken by the children of Hong Kongers at his Chinese school. For Chon, the language of choice was his family’s native dialect: Ngái, a form of Hakka spoken in northern Vietnam. Hearing Ngái spoken outside of his family signalled safety and trust:
However, speaking Cantonese felt alien to Chon, who admitted that he hated speaking it as a child, and was often made to feel alienated because the way he spoke didn’t sound like the Cantonese spoken by the children of Hong Kongers at his Chinese school. For Chon, the language of choice was his family’s native dialect: Ngái, a form of Hakka spoken in northern Vietnam. Hearing Ngái spoken outside of his family signalled safety and trust:
However, participation in community can be difficult to achieve for those who lack the resources to access it. Such was the case for Huong Black (née Ngô) and her family, who made their way from Glasgow to Croydon in the early 1980s after her parents fled from Hanoi via Hải Phòng in 1979. Her parents struggled financially throughout her childhood, and this lack of disposable income, along with poor transport links and children to look after, made it extremely difficult for them to stay in touch with what contacts they did have - all the way on the other side of London.
Additionally, Huong believes that the fact that the majority of the extended family had chosen to settle in America meant that her mother often felt quite isolated.
When asked if she believes in the idea that children of refugees can inherit their trauma, Huong said:
A reticence to talk about the trauma of war and migration is something that characterises many former refugees in Britain, exacerbated, no doubt, by the media’s fascination with violence and conflict. Many of the people we spoke to admitted that their parents - though happy to discuss facts and tell stories - were unable to speak about their emotions surrounding their traumatic experiences. For Chon, he believes that seeing his own father’s difficulty sharing his emotional trauma has informed his own decision to speak and act more mindfully when it comes to discussing emotions and mental health.
Jack Shieh OBE, whose family was resettled in the UK after their reunion in Taiwan, is the director of Vietnamese Mental Health Services (VMHS), an organisation that provides services for Vietnamese people with mental health needs. However, Jack says that there is a huge need for more Vietnamese people from the younger generations to train as professional psychologists. As it stands, he says, much of the counselling done among Vietnamese communities is informal. A big part of the work done by VMHS is working with families in their homes to provide practical support, rather than simply referring people to be prescribed medication for mental health issues.
Jack Shieh OBE
Life in Vietnam became increasingly difficult after 1975, even for those who were not sent to reeducation camps for their involvement with the previous government or American military. The economy was on its knees, conflict with the Khmer Rouge continued along the Cambodian border, and many struggled to make ends meet. The ethnic Chinese were especially persecuted, subject to accusations of espionage and repossession of their homes and assets. While ethnic Chinese were some of the first to flee Vietnam, many Kinh Vietnamese soon followed.
David described the challenges faced by his grandmother, widowed during the war, her house burned down and belongings taken from her; each time, she had to start anew, with five young children to look after. For David, these stories have always been a great reminder of the resilience and stoicism of his family: ‘If my grandma could rebuild three times from nothing, my parents could rebuild their lives and risk their lives in search of freedom and opportunity, then I can achieve what I want to achieve, and get around those barriers that I face in everyday life.’
Through the eyes of a child, however, life in Vietnam could look a little different.
Mimi Phung was born in Hải Phòng and spent the first few years of her life in Northern Vietnam. She recalls her childhood quite fondly, describing the local cinema that mostly showed Russian films, and living with her extended family in the back of her grandfather’s traditional Chinese medical practice.
When the time came for her family to crowd onto a boat with about two hundred other people in the hope of escaping Vietnam, Mimi was too young to understand the gravity of the situation.
‘To me it was a great adventure! It was pretty fun because my parents were busy with other things and I was old enough to run around over the three deck levels on my own,’ she said. Mimi spoke with ease about her experience on the boat, although she admits that the situation must have been terrifying for the adults on board.
‘We were chased by pirates and I remember very vividly all the women panicking and praying, while all the men were doing everything they could to make sure our boat wasn't captured. Luckily, at that point, the wind picked up the sails and we managed to outrun the pirates. Had we been caught, there's no telling what they would have done.’
For British Viet Hoa today, identity can be a tricky thing to navigate. ‘Being Viet Hoa means you've been an immigrant a few times,’ said Huong, who has always felt very Vietnamese: her family spoke Vietnamese at home, rather than Cantonese, and the food that feels familiar to her are Vietnamese dishes. ‘Your parents and your parents' families are originally from China or Hong Kong, and so they've themselves grown up as “not quite”, and then so now coming over here, we're also “not quite.”’
Chon, too, described the confusion he felt as a teenager, trying to assemble the different parts of his Chinese identity, admitting that, while culturally, he has a lot in common with many British Born Chinese (BBC), he feels especially close to Vietnamese children of refugees because their families share similar histories of trauma and displacement.
For Mimi, though, her Chinese roots and the journey she made to the UK have cemented her sense of British Chinese identity very firmly, although she admits she feels more like a citizen of the world:
‘I was always fully aware that I am Chinese and not Vietnamese, I just happened to be born in Vietnam. I didn't feel any attachment to it then and I don't feel attachment to it now. Strangely, I don't have an attachment to China, either. I am interested in the country, the culture, the history, because that's where my roots are. I have my feet firmly in two camps - British and Chinese culture.’
For Jack, through his work in the community, he feels he can occupy a space of duality as ‘Chinese from Vietnam’, and it is his belief that different communities have much to teach each other, including within Vietnam itself. When asked about moving between Vietnamese or Chinese and British cultures, he believes that he hasn’t necessarily been discriminated against, but more so that Vietnamese and Viet Hoa communities have been misunderstood - and therefore often overlooked.
Vietnamese people were resettled between 1975 and 1997. Of these, more than 800,000 people fled by boat, around 40,00 by land either to Thailand or China, and the rest were resettled under the UN Orderly Departure Program¹ (ODP)
¹ W. Courtland Robinson, Terms of Refuge (1998)
² Samantha Hale, ‘The Reception and Resettlement of Vietnamese Refugees in Britain’ (1992)
³ W. Courtland Robinson, Terms of Refuge (1998)
from South East Asia made their homes in Britain between 1975 and 1988.²
The UK accepted only 4,842 people under the ODP, while the United States accepted 458,367 and Canada 60,285.³
Jack Shieh was instrumental in persuading the Home Office to accept more refugees after 1988 through his work as director at Refugee Action in the UK, and, once arrived in the country, he also worked to coordinate their resettlement in existing communities, taking lessons directly from the previous failed Dispersal Policy. This didn’t mean that integration was easy, though.
‘I always believed, in the early days, that integration was a one way system; that you were forced to adapt to a new culture and that's not what I wanted,’ he said.
But now, he has realised that integration is a two-way street, and that’s what he tries to encourage through his work. ‘I can learn what's around me in a new society and we can share these things with each other to understand each other,’ he continued.
~ Jack Shieh OBE
Though their journeys to the UK were long and fraught with immediate risks to safety, such as extreme weather, lack of food and water, pirates and sickness, families faced new challenges on arrival. Many refugees had little to no English, and any working experiences they had had back home were not much use without crucial language skills.
David explained that his father worked several jobs at the same time, working as a mechanic, a cleaner and in a takeaway, to support his family. Growing up with little money is not unusual for second generation British children of refugees. Chon recalls that his family were moved from place to place, at one point living in a hotel and even squatting in empty properties. He believes that this has impacted his mentality today, admitting that, while he now has a secure job and house of his own, he still lives frugally.
But it wasn’t just physical journeys that were made; mentally, there were other barriers that had to be overcome. Julia recalls from childhood that her mother would never talk to her about her experiences as a refugee. It was confusing for Julia, because she knew about the war and the reason for her mother’s migration to the UK, but she was unable to connect the dots between this period in history and her own existence, her own dual identity.
When asked about her mother’s integration into British life, Julia said:
~ Julia Thanh
~ Huong Black
Like many Asian diasporas, food has been a way that the British Vietnamese and Viet Hoa communities have recalled, created and curated the sense of home, wherever that may be. For younger generations, the traces of family migration history often linger at the dinner table.
There’s something extremely powerful about the delicate, fragrant combinations of Vietnamese cooking that have an uncanny ability to transport you to a particular place you remember fondly.
For David, that’s the smell of phở emanating from his mother’s kitchen on a Sunday morning. For Julia, however, this comforting journey ‘home’ is always achieved through the ultimate British Vietnamese mashup - not unlike Julia herself - of shepherd’s pie made with sriracha.
Since losing her mother in her late teens and becoming a professional chef, Huong finds that she’s been chasing a sense of nostalgia through her cooking - but one, strangely, that was never hers. Her parents often didn’t have the money to access particular ingredients, so the dishes that Huong remembers from childhood are ‘not quite’ versions made with cheaper substitutes, like bún riêu made with tinned tomatoes and Prince’s tinned mackerel paste.
Now that, as an adult herself, she can cook the ‘authentic’ versions (recognising, of course, that authenticity is a relatively constructed concept), she feels she’s doing what her mother had always sought to do, in honour of her memory.
For the Phung children, growing up with a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese traditional food was a reflection of the cultural influences of both of these countries on Viet Hoa people. As Mimi’s parents settled into their lives in the UK, her mother started experimenting with pasta and sandwiches in a nod to western cuisines...even if her husband did once eat the former with chopsticks!
The children of refugees often talk about the sacrifices and risks taken by their parents in order to provide a brighter future with greater opportunities. Many refugees - like the parents of Mimi and Julia - made the dangerous and extremely difficult journey with children. Chon, too, reflected on the hardship his parents endured raising a family with no housing or income.
~ Chon Tu
Chon’s parents undoubtedly would have had their own designs for how they wanted life to turn out - and then a civil war, compounded by foreign intervention, shattered those dreams. And so, they rebuilt. They realigned their hopes for the future. For this reason, Chon explained to us, today, he’s very open to accommodating his parents’ wishes, allowing them, essentially, to realise their dreams and ambitions through him, and ultimately through his children, their grandchildren.
The same sense of gratitude plays a strong part in the way David chooses to live his life. For him, safeguarding his cultural identity - and that of the future generations - is hugely important, as well as the perspective that comes with remembering what it took for his life to be possible. For Mimi, this perspective is especially strong every time she travels back to the region, as it brings up memories of her early life in Vietnam where - even as a young child - she would often be responsible for manning her mother’s market stall every time her mother had an errand to run.
On a trip to Cambodia a few years ago, she reflected:
~ Mimi Phung
One of the ways in which many among the second generation have taken steps to connect with their heritage and pave the way for future generations is through community projects. Both David and Julia work with the charity Vietnamese Family Partnership, which aims to strengthen community bonds, supporting Vietnamese families in the UK and promoting a wider understanding of Vietnamese culture in British society.
In addition, Julia herself also put together a stunning photography exhibition in 2017, entitled ‘Vietnamese Londoners.’ Newly returned from living abroad in Dakar, Senegal, where she had become acutely aware of her ‘Vietnamese-ness’ - which, she admits, she resisted as a teenager - Julia became frustrated at never seeing anybody who looked like her in civil society. And so, ‘Vietnamese Londoners’ was born. She photographed and interviewed 17 Londoners of Vietnamese heritage, learning about their lives and histories, and shining a light on what it means to be Vietnamese in a city like London.
Huong is determined for her kids never to feel like they don’t belong in London. She admits that she often questions whether she’s doing enough to help them connect with their heritage (‘Is it enough to reduce our culture down to one red envelope a year?’) and wonders if her family’s own disconnect from some of the more traditional practices has fuelled a kind of imposter syndrome in herself. Ultimately, she says, she knows her father is immensely proud of his grandchildren.
And her Welsh-Viet Hoa family is making its own traditions in the best possible way, such as lighting incense at every visit to their grandfather and placing Huong’s mother’s favourite cake on the family altar: a Morrison’s walnut sandwich.
We are yet to fully understand intergenerational trauma; however, it may transmit through epigenetics, which is the change in the expressions of genes in the heritage line. It is also transferred through parenting behaviours, family structures and dynamics.
What is particularly common in the Vietnamese community is that, as assimilation and belonging became prioritised by parents for their children upon arrival, as a result, the young arrivals of the first generation and second generation struggle with their mother tongue, Vietnamese. Therefore, many battle with feeling a lack of closeness with their parents, combined with the first generation's (understandable) reluctance to talk about the past, and vice versa, the Western life their children and grandchildren are immersed in can feel incredibly foreign and fast-moving. This language barrier between grandparents, parents and the younger generation can be a major source of grief and disconnection.
Many second generation struggle with their identity as they feel they neither connect with, nor belong to, their Vietnamese heritage and that they are not British or Western enough due to their appearances and cultural practices, but as we’ve seen, many people are doing more and more to curate their own identities for themselves.
The surge of hate crimes towards the East and South East Asian community during the pandemic has highlighted this theme of belonging, or sometimes lack thereof. A powerful way to heal intergenerational trauma is to connect to group identity and find purpose and meaning from one’s experiences. The hate crimes triggered pre-existing tensions and challenged the East and South East Asian community to use the power of their voices.
They’re seeking representation and allies to support them in unearthing and understanding the beliefs and behavioural tendencies that helped the first generation survive - tendencies that may now be holding them back from thriving, such as shrinking themselves or staying quiet to avert negative attention, keeping a brave face to avoid ‘burdening’ the system. They are dismantling the model minority myth. By being vocal, they are allowing themselves to be visible.
How we have seen the community exercise this power is by rallying, mobilising, and gathering in solidarity to be heard. This past year also showed a surge in East and South East Asian people seeking culturally sensitive therapy to hold space for personal healing. Coming from a collectivistic culture, that’s a brave and difficult pursuit.
Our parents and grandparents are survivors. We can honour both the appropriate fear they have in being unable to confront their ghosts and give ourselves permission to face how it haunts us as the younger generation.
This will mean challenging the parts of ourselves that feel bad for wanting more, to exercise freedom, choice and time. A hallmark of healing trauma is introducing those very elements. The reframe I offer my clients is: as life becomes safer physiologically, the more needs arise to be met. The task is giving ourselves permission, fostering emotional safety, and courage to do so. We have the privilege of choice from our parents’ and grandparents’ sacrifices.
Film direction & photography by Alicia Warner
Film production & project direction by Amy Phung & Mai-Anh Peterson
Interviews conducted by Amy Phung & Mai-Anh Peterson
Introduction & Conclusion by Rachel Tam Nguyen
Words by Mai-Anh Peterson
Illustrations by Amy Phung
Website design by Joelle Phua
With thanks to:
Lauren Pak, Wei Jun Lau, Jessica Tsang, Rebecca Lam, Millie Appleton, Sue Zhen, Jenny Lau, Yi Ming Teo
As part of this project, a donation was made on behalf of all interviewees to Vietnamese Mental Health Services and Vietnamese Family Partnership. If you’d like to support either charity, you can donate to VMHS and VFP via their websites. You can also support besea.n with a one-off or regular donation.