How Communists Take Money

Once the war was over, the fighting stopped, but Vietnamese people still lost their freedom. Communism was intended to help everyone—leveling out the playing field and ensuring equality. But instead, it stripped lives of individuality and self-determination.

"I knew immediately it was over. I heard it on the tv station or radio station saying it was over. And then, later that day or that night, you see the other side marching in with their military forces. Then we knew.

"I was standing on the balcony, looking down, watching the communists come in, and we loved chewing bubble gum at the time. And I remembered I had the yellow wrapper of Wrigley gum. So I put that piece in my mouth and said, well this is the last piece of gum I can eat. And I was watching the other side coming in from the balcony. And it was funny, I was thinking there were more like monsters, but they looked just like humans."

Our dad hated the communists, even though he had never interacted with one. To them, it didn't matter that they were still regular people—they were the people who had ruined their lives.

Everyone lived in a state of constant oversight, where speakers spouted news and pro-communist agendas, and people's time was closely monitored.

"They want to keep you busy so you have no time to rebel. They’ll tell you to go to meetings [after work]. Just so you keep occupied, so you don’t have time to do anything else. By the time you come home, you’re pretty much beat, you want to go to sleep. You don’t have time to do other things. They brainwash you overnight—that’s what they’re doing.

"So everybody goes, and everybody knows that they go because they have to go. But nobody can really trust one another anymore, so they create a lot of distrust between one person to the next. You don’t really know who is who anymore at that point. Who will rat on you, who will report on you for their benefit. They create that distrust between people."

Every move was monitored. Police could knock on your door at any hour in the night to count how many people were in your home, just to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be. Most travel required permits, and your bags were always subject to inspection.

My grandparents restarted their business, after hiding away a small amount of money. But even then, the opportunity for growth and success was taken from them. Businesses were subjected to inventory and currency changes, eventually driving our dad's family to decide to escape the country.

"[It occured to me parents that we needed to leave] sometime in 76, after we had been inventoried the first time. And then they changed currency a couple more times. So in other words, let’s say you have 10,000 dollars. Let’s say now the currency changes, you have to take the 10,000 dollars to give to them. They give you two thousand bucks new money. So they took away your eight thousand dollars. And then you make a little more money as you grow a little more. They say, well, they change new currency again. So you cannot get ahead.

"So at that point, my father decided to sacrifice—he had lost everything anyway—so he knows there was no future for his kids there anymore. He thought he’d leave the country—leave there and go to the free country, America, where his kids had a future. So he sacrificed that. They sacrificed that for us."

The Escape

My mom didn’t go to school for years. Her parents didn’t let the kids walk outside, where there might still be bombs, and schools that were still functioning only brainwashed the students about Ho Chi Minh.

“We lived there for awhile and money ran out, and there’s no job for you to go to, and we couldn’t go to school. So we decided, let’s go. Either we make it or we don’t. Either we make it or we die.” The first time they tried to escape, my grandfather got caught.

“My mom was at home, praying and praying. Praying to Buddha with the little prayer beads. She was rolling the beads, praying, praying, praying, and then suddenly, the beads broke apart. She knew something wasn’t right. Three hours later, my brothers came home and told my mom that my dad was arrested. “We ate really poorly, we were struggling to save money to get my dad out. And when he got out, probably less than a year later, they started planning to escape again. This time they were smart about it.”

My grandpa and uncles bought a boat and starting working for the government, pretending to be transportation for soldiers who needed to get from the shore to the ferries that took you further out of town. Government officials were suspicious and watchful of every little step you made. If you owned a boat, you were questioned to make sure you weren’t illegally transporting people, which is exactly what the plan was. My grandfather and uncles worked this boat for a little less than a year, dressing like poor laborers, and getting to know the soldiers. Once they had established trust, found their way in and out of the waterways, and figured out where to sneak out in the middle of the night, they set a date to leave.

“At that time I was young. I heard my mom and dad talk about it, but honestly, I was scared, but I didn’t think hard. I was just a kid. I was scared, but I didn’t cry. I was careless.

“Before it happened, my mom fed us really good. She said, we’re going to eat good. Either we make it or we die.

“I ate and didn’t know much about it. Just go along with it. So we did, we went that night."

We Were Robbed

Before we started this project, both us are were fairly ignorant about the Chinese population in Vietnam. Our grandparents were wealthy business owners who prospered in their communities. This was the norm for many of the Chinese in Vietnam. While we knew that both of our parents struggled with the war, we learned quickly that the circumstances for each were very different.

"This is a little deeper than maybe we want to get into, but I think China and Russia, the Soviet Union at the time, were big Hanoi supporters, so they Viet Cong were receiving military aid and support from both Russia and China. So my father thought that being Chinese, the war won’t affect him so much, because China and Vietnam were allies at the time.

"We were aware of the falling of the South Vietnamese government, but my father didn’t want to go because all of his belongings were there, that he had built over 30-something years. His property and everything. HIs whole life was there. And because of China, thinking he was Chinese, thought he would be alright. But he was wrong."

The Chinese population suffered greatly after the Fall of Saigon. Due to conflicts with China and also conflicts relating to Cambodia during the Sino-Vietnamese War, the Chinese population in Vietnam were targeted. The Vietnamese army came looking for Chinese families like our dad's.

"What saved my dad was, before the communists took over, when the South Vietnamese ran before the communists came, the old Vietnamese army were looting its people. So they shot our door open and hundreds and hundreds of people poured into our house and took everything out. The soldiers pretty much pointed their guns at us and pretty much just wanted the money. Which, my father gave them the money. And the local people poured into our house and stole everything, all of our belongings."

Our grandfather and my father's family watched helplessly as their home was looted, their life's work and possessions being taken away from them. They left their home behind, and suddenly, it was though they were invisible. People they have lived next to and worked with, had a community with for years, suddenly turned a blind eye on them. One family out of the many opened their doors to help our dad's family during this time.

After a period of time had passed from the Vietnamese army looting their home, they were able to return. And as it turns out, this devastating experience ended up being a blessing in disguise, which benefited them until they left Vietnam. This is in part because communists "inventoried" the possessions of the wealthy. Their home being looted meant there was nothing to inventory, and nothing of value for the communists to benefit from.

"We would probably lose our house, we’d have no place to stay. But because of the looting, when the communists came in and tried to do inventory, there was nothing left to do inventory about. It was just an empty shell. So there’s nothing there to take inventory of. So everything is okay. We still had a house to stay in."

The Communists' Cafe

I always wonder what my parents lives would look like if they had stayed in Vietnam. They endured all the fighting and the entirety of the war (though there were wars to follow), so leaving the country after the communists won sounds like a whole lot of pain and heartache for a smaller payoff. Would it have been so bad to stay?

It serves as a reminder for us then, to realize that there was a lot of hope that families held onto during the war that began to wane when the communists took over. The idea of liberty and prosperity were only dreams at that point -- the government had so much control over your everyday life that the bright future you envisioned for your family would die in that country like the rest of the fighters. 

I asked my mom, what would have happened if they stayed? Would they be punished for not supporting the communists during wartime? 

"We wouldn’t be punished. My parents destroyed everything [that would prove we were on the South Vietnamese side]. My brother was in the [South Vietnamese] air force and he wasn’t punished because my parents destroyed all the pictures, all the important papers, anything so they wouldn’t find out he was in the air force, and any information that my parents were involved in business with Americans. We zipped [our mouths], we didn’t say anything."

But even with the watchful eye of the communists government over them, even worse was a new and constant presence.

"When the communists came right after the war was done (probably six months later or maybe a little bit longer than that), they sent soldiers to stay outside our property in an empty field. They camped out there and lived there for almost a year. In a tent. We didn’t have a choice, they surrounded our house.

"We could get in and out, but we had to be careful. I don’t think they were there to watch us, but because it was a empty field out there, it was big enough to have their whole soldiers living out there for awhile. It’s frustrating. It feels like you have no freedom. At that time, my two sisters were still young girls, probably 18 and 20. The soldiers kind of try to flirt with them. I was still a kid. So my mom and my dad don’t feel right about it. They didn’t feel secure about it. We could go outside in the yard, in the back yard, but we didn’t feel comfortable like we used to. Suddenly so many soldiers surrounded our property, we didn’t feel privacy at all."

And then, finding opportunity in the middle of a challenge, an idea for a business came to mind.

"My parents decided, well, there’s a whole bunch of them living out there, and they want coffee, so we opened a coffee shop. So at night they come and listen to music like a cafe, make coffee for them, dripping coffee, and little cocktails. They come in every night. The reason they come in was so they could flirt with my sisters.

"We made tables and turned on nice music, soft music. Just like a small cafe and they come in and drink coffee, stuff like that."

And this is where we stop thinking about how awful it is to be living surrounded by communists. Because now that my mom's family had such close interactions with the soldiers, we get to see the other side of the conflict. 

"One of the soldiers (I forgot his name), he was really nice. He told us that he didn’t want to be a soldier, but he didn’t have a choice. He’s so sweet though, he was tall, nice looking guy. He treated us like his siblings, so he hang out with us a lot. He’s the cook, so he always come to ask my sister what to cook and how to cook for dinner because he didn’t know what to cook for his whole group. So my sister would go and help him cook. It was nice. We talked to him a lot.

"And every house they have a Ho Chi Minh picture--they want us to worship him. We were against that. So we put him on top of the commode. We were kids, we didn’t like [the picture]. So the soldier came in and he said, 'Don’t put him in the commode, you disrespect him.'

"And we said, 'but we want him on the commode.'

"He said 'Don’t do that!”

"He wouldn’t tell on us, but some soldiers are angry, they’ll punish you for that.

"He said, 'Don’t do that. If they see you, you’re in trouble.'

"They can be really mean…they’ll put you in jail for a few days or a few weeks if you disrespect him, because that’s their leader. But they make every house put up a picture of him and worship him.

"So we lived there for awhile and money run out and there’s no job for you to go to, and we couldn’t go to school. Well, we could go to school, but my mom didn’t want us to go to school. They don’t teach you like they do here [in the United States]. They’ll brainwash you about Ho Chi Minh. So we didn’t go to school for a few years. So we decided, let’s leave."

Cigarettes, Beer, and Chinese New Year

We celebrated Chinese New Year every year when we were growing up. Each time the lunar holiday came around, we would help our dad clean the house, prepare food to offer our ancestors, and follow suit in the traditions, prayers, and routines. We knew it was important, but we never understood the weight of what it actually meant to him. As American kids, we would get electrified about Christmas time, but we didn't have the same enthusiasm for something that was so important to our family. 

"New Year was always my favorite. It was the biggest holiday. All the preparation, the can see it on people’s faces, the New Year is coming. My cousins would come to visit. We were all very close, we got a lot of envelopes and a lot of money.  We always played games. So many things to do, firecrackers, fireworks, we got to go out of town to the countryside, eat at fancy restaurants, see a different side of town. It was the only time my parents closed their store for vacation. My brother would take me to the mountains. I was so little I couldn’t go the mountains [usually], and I loved the mountains."

Chinese New Year brings out a spirit in people just like Christmas does. Everyone looks forward to spending time with family that aren't seen often. Hometowns, markets, and streets seem brighter. Special recipes are broken out and prepared over the course of weeks before the kitchen is set to rest.

"The Chinese they have many spirits that need to rest. We celebrate with them, pay respects to Earth, to heaven, and to the spirits of your ancestors. It’s a day where you appreciate and give thank thanks for the above and below and everything you have around you—even to the kitchen that you cook in. You give the kitchen a rest. You have a little ceremony, or a service for the kitchen saying, 'Hey, I’ll give you a break because you’ve been serving us for 365 days. Now it’s time to give you a break. So I won’t cook anymore for so many days.'"

And, if you're like our dad, the rebellious youngster in you comes out. 

"[On Chinese New Year] I could get into trouble without getting in trouble. I could do anything I wanted! I could smoke in front of my parents, drink beer, nobody said a thing to me, it was my free pass to do anything I wanted to do. We were six, seven years old, and we could drink beer and smoke cigarettes.

"I remember we said we weren’t strong enough, so we would stick cigarette ash into our beer to make us stronger. Back then, soda wasn't a regular thing. Back then it was a holiday tradition, it was the only time you could drink soda. So my parents would get all the soft drinks you can drink, and I would mix all of them together. Root beer, Coke, 7Up—you know anything—Sunkist, and mix them all together and make my own drink."

When my sister and I think about our parents and their childhood, it's so heavily clouded by the enormity of their struggles. We forget, and have now been reminded that they were just that—kids. It's incredibly touching to us to hear about a happier time, when things were a little more carefree and my dad could be just a kid, before the war was right on their doorstep. 

"I had a good childhood, I think. Up until I was about 14...and recently my life has been much easier, but 14 years old was hard. My life had changed a lot. I didn’t have a good life anymore. I was in prison, and then had to go out and make a living, help the family with responsibilities. No more friends, things like that. Making money and responsibilities."

Coming to the United States completely changed how our dad celebrated Chinese New Year. The struggle of adapting to a new home and starting over took some of the joy out of celebrations. That hometown, family feel was lost, and all that remained when the spirit was lost was the tradition that was passed down to us. 

"We celebrated every year, but not the way we celebrated when we were little. I guess my last Chinese New Year, when we were really into it, was 1976 or 1977. Of course before 1975 was much better, but since we left our hometown, we were in survival mode. We came to Virginia and there were no Asians there. When it came to that day, we had family meals and we got the family together, but there was no holiday atmosphere anymore. 

"It’s just like Christmas in someplace where there are no Christians. No one recognizes it, so you do your own thing."