From Vietnam to the Upper Beach

Every life is a journey. Some end where they started, while others take you through turmoil, uncertainty and cultural differences, ending perhaps on the opposite side of where you began. For Tak Bùi, the journey began in Hanoi, Vietnam in 1950.

Cartoonist, musician and Upper Beach resident Tak Bùi at work in his studio. PHOTO: Phil Lameira

His early years were marked with tension and conflict as the Viet Cong rapidly increased its aggression towards the government. By the 1960s, Bùi’s family had made the long journey from North Vietnam to the south, as violence spread throughout the country.

Bùi recalls roaming the streets of Saigon as a teenager and noting how young the American troops were – and how tall.

“They were just another foreign group. Vietnam was occupied so many times that we were sort of used to it. But the Americans had candy,” said Bùi laughing. “The French didn’t have candy.”

He remembers thinking that most American troops were not much older than himself, and that they seemed nervous because they didn’t know who to trust. The violence had intensified. Curfews were imposed and if anyone broke them, they risked being shot.

After the Americans withdrew from the country, Bùi was presented with a scholarship opportunity to study in the United States for one year, and live with an American family. At that time, such programs were seen as a bit of American propaganda – students would live with a middle class family and attend school in hopes they would return to their country with great memories of America.

Bùi accepted the offer and in 1968 he moved to Texas when he was only 17.

After spending a year there and not wanting to move back to his native country, Bùi found his way to Canada with the help of renowned lawyer Clayton Ruby (who most recently cross-examined mayor Rob Ford in a conflict of interest case). Ruby offered free legal advice to draft dodgers in the late 1960s and is a member of the Order of Canada.

Bùi recalls when his family later left Saigon in what was then a mass exodus at the peak of the war. His father fell off the boat and into the river and had to be rescued. His father, without much time to gather personal items, had with him a container with a piece of rosewood that had the names of his ancestors. Bùi still has the prized possession on his mantel.

Bùi’s passion for drawing and his admiration of comic books grew in the 1970s and after studying at University of Toronto, Bùi graduated from the New School of Art and began his freelance career as a cartoonist. His first major publication was MacLean’s Magazine.

“I grew up reading a lot of French comic books. For me it was a great escape from all the things that were going on in my country when I was a kid,” explained Bùi.

In the 1990s, Bùi met Bill Lombardo, an up and coming chef who lived in the neighbourhood. He would often visit and watch Lombardo cook. Bùi started to sketch the various steps of a recipe so he’d remember how to cook it himself. They then had the idea of creating a comic strip, and in 1993 the Washington Post began publishing and syndicating Cheap Thrills Cuisine. A daily strip, PC and Pixel, soon followed.

His neighbourhood surrounding Stephenson Park, where he has lived with his wife Cathy MacNeil for the past 34 years, has recently become increasingly important to Bùi and he has worked on several projects to beautify the area.

Because he works from home, Bùi feels the need to become more community oriented and see his neighbourhood strive. He recalls how Stephenson Park in particular used to be a place for drug dealers and criminal activity. It has been somewhat “cleaned up” but more needs to be done, in Bùi’s opinion.

The first project he was involved in was the building of a garden on the north side of Stephenson Avenue, which revitalized a “dead space.

“It makes people smile on their way to work,” said Bùi of the garden.

He also played a big part in building a garden and fence on the Toronto Community Housing townhomes on the south of the street.

“I knew a few of the people there loved gardening, but they didn’t have the money to build a garden. So with some help from other residents and DECA (Danforth East Community Association) we built the garden and fence,” said Bùi.

“It’s great how our Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon hosted the movie nights in the park this summer. It brings the people together and people get to know each other,” said Bùi.

Bùi has since become a board member of DECA in hopes to leverage their strong organization skills to see some of his ideas come to fruition. The next step is to create a ‘Friends of Stephenson Park’ group with the support of the councillor.

His artistic skills can be seen in a mural on a staircase leading up to the Main Street bridge over the rail tracks, as well as the whales swimming in the wading pool at Stephenson Park.

He has hopes to see a “healthier” community in the future. He envisions a vegetable garden at Stephenson, cleaner streets, and maybe some statues.

Bùi is also a talented musician and plays the mandolin and guitar in a band name Canukistan, “a group of community activists that just have fun jamming together,” as he describes it.

As for his drawing career, he hopes to retire his comic strips soon, and return to visit Vietnam to reconnect with his roots.

“I went back a few years ago with my father to the village where I was born. A lady was calling me and was very excited. She turned out to be my wet nurse,” said Bùi.

He wishes to illustrate a series of graphic novels depicting the struggles and challenges of growing up in a war zone.

“I’m getting older and I realize I have this unique ability of drawing, plus the experience of growing up in a war torn situation, so I’d like to try and record that.”

And so Bùi’s journey continues and may perhaps intersect with at least a slice of where it began.

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