Hamilton

Fleeing Vietnam for Hamilton, local author lost a loved one and gained a new home

Jolie Hoang's upcoming book recounts tales of sacrifice and courage after escaping communist Vietnam.

'In tragedy there are elements of success,' says Jolie Hoang, whose book was published this fall

Author Jolie Hoang, pictured for CBC Books (Jolie Hoang/CBC Books )

It's 1984. Jolie Phuong Hoang and her siblings have spent 14 months in a refugee camp in Indonesia. They land on Canadian soil — in Hamilton, where Hoang says she later embraced the "feeling of home." 

When she opened her eyes that morning, she says she remembered thinking: "I'm in Canada. I'm in a complete sense of freedom.

"I breathed that inside my lungs and I knew that if I work hard, if I grasp opportunities, I'd be able to achieve them," she recalls. 

Hoang and her family — they were 11 in total — had been part of those referred to as "boat people," the refugees who escaped the communist regime following the end of the Vietnam War.

Teenaged Hoang arrived safely in Canada along with some of her siblings, thanks to her father's efforts to plan a new life for them.

In 1985, another boat which carried her father, her mother and three other siblings had capsized escaping Vietnam. Hoang's mother and two siblings survived at sea.

Her father and youngest sister drowned. 

Years later, Hoang currently lives a comfortable life in Fonthill, Ont., near Welland, where she teaches mathematics at nearby Niagara College. And even though her father didn't make it to Canada, it's evident, all these years later, that he is still very much with her.

Hoang's new book, Three Funerals For My Father, hit shelves earlier this fall and tells her family's tale of survival and hardship. 

In it, she outlines the three physical funerals held for her father, but also other moments where the family felt a sense of loss: the time they spent at the refugee camp, her father's unsuccessful escape, and their lives as landed immigrants. 

Fond memories

In Vietnam, Hoang's father was a successful businessman whose thinking, she says, was "ahead of his time." 

Hoang regards her father as someone who essentially built their entire hometown of Quang Duc. 

Running a flourishing construction company, he designed military barracks, schools, and other essentials there. Before the communists took over, their family prospered considerably. 

The memories she has of him are fond, recalling that he was a "very contemporary man," and someone who valued love above all else. 

"He often lived thinking of others first, and thought of himself last. For me, my father sacrificed a lot for us." 

Jolie Hoang as a baby and her father (Submitted by Jolie Hoang )

In particular, Hoang recounts the controversial old culture of Vietnamese families, where men were permitted to marry more than one wife. 

In relation, she said the devotion he had for her mother was unparalleled. "I was always so proud that I'm the daughter of my father's only one wife," she said.

"He valued love and he sacrificed his life to save my mom, because my mom couldn't swim. He was trying to save my younger sister." 

"But," she said, "I think he failed. He couldn't save my younger sister."

Journey to Hamilton

At its height, Judy Smith and her husband John had been watching media coverage of the humanitarian crisis in Vietnam from their home in Hamilton. 

Some of the images they saw were haunting. 

"I remember we watched a baby fall into the water," Smith said. "It just killed me." 

Since her husband held a political career in Hamilton at one point, she said, they believed enough people knew of him to help support a fund set up to help Vietnamese refugees. 

Judy Smith, wife of Pastor John Smith. (Judy Smith)

Within only one week of pleading for support on cable television, the Smiths had enough money to start their fund, which they called The Mountain Fund to Help the Boat People. (It would continue for 10 years.)

Around the time, the three delegations of Canada, Australia and the United States turned down Hoang and family. No country wanted to take in a family with that many siblings on their own, according to Smith.

Her father wrote to a pastor in Indonesia inquiring about a private sponsorship for the group of children. 

That pastor then sent a letter to John, and when he presented the opportunity to the fund members in Canada, there were "no questions asked," said Smith. 

"I had a two-year-old and a newborn baby and I just thought 'we've got to do this because what if my own children need refuge someday?" She said. 

"I want there to be good people who take them in. Because you just never know.'"

As a result, Hoang and five siblings were able to come to Canada. Hoang's mother and two younger brothers eventually joined them. Her father and sister never made it. 

A Hamiltonian at heart 

When Hoang now reflects on her early days in Hamilton compared to the city as she knows it now, she says that "everything is still the same."

A McMaster University graduate, she says that common features like the university's Hamilton Hall and the mountain terrain of the city are still exactly as she remembers it. 

"Hamilton is like home," she said.

And she'll forever be shaped by her father's legacy —and the goodwill of those in the city. 

"Their kindness was always in me, I always found the kindness. It made a mark inside my heart, and I always remember that," she said. 

"I realized that in tragedy there are elements of success. I feel that I had to set aside my grievances to be able to find those possible elements in tragedy." 

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