Anh Giang laughs when she remembers the first time she saw a Canadian.
He was smoking on a beach in Malaysia, wearing a T-shirt and a pair of cut-off jeans.
Growing up in Vietnam, Anh said no one wore ripped clothes if they could help it.
And this man was an immigration official, from Canada, a country about which she knew only two things – it was the one country that would take her whole family, and she was flying there later that day.
“He looked like a very poor person,” Anh said, laughing.
“We said, ‘Oh my God, we chose the wrong country!’”
Thirty-four years ago, Anh Giang and her husband Manh were among the millions of so-called boat people fleeing the newly Communist government of Vietnam.
They were also parents of nine month-old boy, Quan, and guardians for Manh’s younger brother, Minh, and Anh’s niece, Thu Dao Tren.
Thanks to a group of Beachers who answered calls from city hall and others to sponsor such families, the Giangs settled quickly in Toronto.
Maxine Crook, one of the sponsors, remembers the day she met the Giangs at the airport.
“Of course, they were very nervous,” she said. Crook drove back through Chinatown, where she hoped they would at least read some of the signs and feel at home.
“They brightened right up,” she said.
For her part, Anh said she and Manh thought all their support was coming from the Canadian government – they had no idea about the sponsoring families.
So they were surprised to be staying for the first month in the home of Anne Keown and her then husband Seamus.
They arrived on a Friday. Seamus and Anne made them bowls of congee, and for the first evening they had a translator to help.
On Saturday morning, the whole family woke up at 6 a.m. Anh said they sat quietly on the sofa. In Vietnam, where they ran a bakery, the family worked seven-day weeks.
She remembers how surprised Seamus was to find them all waiting there, hours later. He tried to explain that in Canada, people had the weekend off and liked to sleep in.
This fall, the Giangs and their sponsors met for a Thanksgiving dinner in the Beach. It was the first time they had seen each other in 34 years.
Anh said she was touched to see that not only people like Anne and Maxine came out, but also their children.
Crook said it was great to see Anh, Minh, and Thu Dao again (Quan now works in Hong Kong), but equally nice to meet up with the Beachers.
“We all lived in the Beach, but none of us knew each other,” she said. “This was our connection.”
At home in Scarborough, Anh and Manh are busy renovating the basement. Hanging on one wall in their dining room is a series of panoramic photos, showing a bright white ship against an ocean-blue sky – portraits from a recent cruise.
It’s hard to imagine a ship more different than the first one they ever put to water.
Asked why they fled, Manh said it was not the war, which had been raging almost since he was born.
“Even in the war, in the fighting, somebody who lived in a big city still had a life,” he said.
It all changed April 30, 1975, the day that his city, Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, fell to the North Vietnamese forces.
After that, Anh said if a family wanted to eat chicken, a sign of wealth, they had to shut their blinds and find some secret place to throw out the bones.
Former members of the South Vietnamese government were targeted for labour camps in the jungle, where they were forced to find their own food, Manh said. Some returned to Saigon and lived on the beach, homeless.
At the time, Anh said there was a widespread rumour that single South Vietnamese girls would be forced to marry disabled veterans of the North Vietnamese army, to look after them.
“We were very scared,” she said.
The government was unpredictable. From 1975 until they left, Manh said everyone he knew had their bank account emptied, then given a flat sum.
“Everybody was even – no rich people, no poor people,” he said. Some people burned the money, he said. “They worked so hard for so many years.”
Luckily, Manh worked with Anh at her family’s bakery. They made nothing but baguettes, on a quota, in just two lengths.
“You have to eat, so the bakery was fine,” said Anh. “They let my family go on.”
In 1975, Anh remembers counting everyone in her family and, even for someone as good with numbers as she is, it took some work.
“I remember it was 68 people,” she said, smiling. “I didn’t even count my cousins.
The family put some money from the bakery in the bank, but like many in Vietnam at the time, they kept much more in hidden gold. Eventually, they had enough to go in with a couple of partners and buy a fishing boat they hoped would be enough to get them out of the country.
Manh said government officials knew what they were doing – they actually taxed people as they left.
The tax they had expected, but Manh said they hadn’t left Saigon harbour when a government boat came alongside and with no warning forced them to take twice the number of passengers they had planned on.
“We couldn’t say no,” he said. “You couldn’t lie down in the boat – just sit.”
Overburdened, and without enough food, it wasn’t long before their boat was met by pirates.
“They lined up,” said Anh, who counted 11 pirate boats lined up to rob them, raiding the rice on board for hidden gold bars.
Anh kept hers in the breastpocket of her second shirt, which she had taken off because of the heat. In amongst the children, and without washrooms on board, it soon got dirty and luckily was ignored.
One group made them evacuate the boat while they turned it inside out and stole its water pump.
From then on, Manh and others had to bail water out of the ship by hand, passing buckets fire-brigade style. They sent out an S.O.S. signal, and were picked up by a large ship, likely from Singapore.
Ten days after leaving Saigon, they arrived in a refugee camp in Malaysia.
“Oh my God – we were so happy. Our boat was almost like this,” Anh said, holding her hand on a steep angle as if pointed into water.
In that first camp, Anh worried, not without cause, about her many young nieces, as the men and women were separated while crews cleaned the boat.
Manh said boats would come in and take people, men and women, to other islands and kill them.
“They were not pirates,” he said, his voice rising. “They were fisherman. Just for fun. It was very easy to kill them, and put them in the sea.”
Finally, the Giangs moved to a more permanent camp, on a Malaysian island, that was supported by the US, Canada, and several European countries. They were there for two months, and Anh got very sick.
It was at that time Anh saw the Canadian with the cut-offs.
Luckily there were others who were more sharply dressed. Anh and Manh had interviews with immigration officials to whom, on advice from people in camp, they said Minh was several years younger than he was because they knew it would boost their chances.
Their first flight was to Edmonton, where the sight of nothing but trees on either side of the plane had them worried they were moving to a completely rural country.
By the time they flew again to Toronto, Anh was healthy, and the bright lights as they touched down were a relief.
So many years later, the Giangs have had a whole other life in Canada. Anh’s math skills landed her a job early, before her English improved, at a home and auto insurer where she still works today.
She took a 10-year break to work with Manh when they opened Nha Trang, a Vietnamese restaurant they have since sold at Ossington and Queen. Eventually they were able to bring some of Manh’s extended family to Canada as well.
“They sponsored us, and we sponsored his family,” said Anh of the Beach families who gave them their start.
After the reunion dinner with them in the fall, Anh and Manh said they are looking forward to the next one, this time at their house.
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