Former Vietnamese boat person shares his 'impossible dream' in new book

Thien Tang was born in the middle of the Vietnam War. It ended as he entered his teenage years, but his troubles were only just beginning.

A book dedicated to those who cannot tell their stories

The boats used to escape Vietnam were poorly equipped and overcrowded. (COR/AFP/Getty Images)

Thien Tang was born in the middle of the Vietnam War. It ended as he entered his teenage years, but his troubles were only just beginning.

In 1975 Tang's family had two things going against them in the newly independent Vietnam: they were wealthy, and they were ethnic Chinese.

His father was forced to turn over all his wealth to the Vietnamese government and he had to become a farmer. But vandals burned his crops at night, targeting the family for its ethnicity.

"We are facing starvation, facing prosecution from the government for being Chinese, and for being once a wealthy family, so my father thought we can no longer stay in this country," said Tang.

Out to sea

His family was far from alone. As many as 1.5 million people attempted to flee the country in the late 1970s in what became known as the Vietnamese Boat People crisis.

Tang's family put him on one of the many small boats trying to get people out of the country. These were inshore fishing boats, ill equipped for ocean travel, lacking navigation gear, and overcrowded. Many of the boats were lost at sea, others got lost and those on board died of thirst.

It's impossible to know how many died, but the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates 200,000 to 400,000.

Tang's boat was 51 feet long, with 254 people on board.

I leave home and leave all the things that I knew and loved.— Thien Tang

"We cannot move. We just stand one to another elbow to elbow for five days and five nights. We have no idea where we are and how long it takes to get to Malaysia," he said.

"It seemed like an eternity at the time."

But Tang, 17 and alone, was not focused on the danger. He was thinking about what he was leaving behind.

"I leave home and leave all the things that I knew and loved," he said.

"That pain was so overwhelming that's all I could think of. It never registered in my head that I likely faced the chance of dying just like everyone else who crossed the sea."

For five days and nights they sailed before sighting the shores of Malaysia. But the Malaysians had no interest in taking in the boat people, and the military fired on the vessel. Still, they managed to beach the boat.

Accepted by Canada

The occupants were placed in detention for two weeks, before they were put back on their boat. The navy hauled them out to sea and left them to die.

Rather than succumb to thirst, the refugees decided to scuttle the boat. Local fishermen rescued them and they were taken to a refugee camp. Six months later Tang became one of more than 100,000 Vietnamese boat people accepted as a refugee by Canada, a country he had never heard of before coming to the camp.

"From what I know it's a freezer, but the Malaysian government was telling us that if we don't leave they would throw us all out to sea," he said.

'The amazing thing that happened'

That first winter was hard. The snow was magical, but for Tang the description of the country as a freezer was no exaggeration.

Still, Tang made a life for himself in Canada. He was able to bring his parents to join him, and is one of the few Vietnamese boat people still living on P.E.I. He's happily married with two children, his family is healthy.

"It would be an impossible dream at that time. Until I came to that beach I didn't realize how bad it was to be a refugee. The idea that nobody wants you struck me really hard," he said.

Thien Tang during his first winter in Canada. (Submitted by Thien Tang)

"The amazing thing that happened. It was just incredible. I don't even know how to say it. When we came here we were given all the basic necessities and more than we could ever wish for. The freedom we were looking for was already here."

Tang has now published a book, The Other Side of the Sun, about his experience. When he first started thinking about writing it, a friend told him while his story was incredible, he needed a reason to tell it. It was a question Tang took seriously.

Thien Tang became a citizen of Canada in 1982. (Submitted by Thien Tang)

"The purpose of the story is to tell the story of those who couldn't tell," said Tang, speaking of the hundreds of thousands who died.

"I share my observations with Canadians so that everyone will realize how good a country we have here and therefore they would feel a need to protect what they have."

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With files from Island Morning