At 9.51am, Sep. 5, 2015, Tat Wa Lay posted on Facebook about his family’s refugee experience when they left Vietnam to go to the UK. A simple status update, he had no idea that the post would receive worldwide attention, so much attention in fact that he was interviewed by the BBC and an article ran in The Independent, one of the UK’s daily newspapers.
“It started to spread like wildfire in the first 15 minutes,” says the 32-year-old. “I looked at the stats and it was already 115 likes. Anything over 100 generally is like, wow, that’s a lot of people.”
He adds: “The people who were reading it, my close friends in Saigon, they actually read it from their friends’ feed in England. So it actually went to England and then came back here. The same happened in Australia.”
Born in Phan Thiet to a Chinese-Vietnamese family, Tat’s three uncles were the first members of the extended clan to leave Vietnam to find a new life. It was during the early 1980s when food was scarce. So the family sold up their assets, turned everything into gold and the uncles boarded a boat. But the vessel got lost. They ran out of food and water, and then petrol.
“A British naval ship captained by John Appleby saved them and towed them to Hong Kong,” says Tat. “I later found out he saved quite a lot of ships. In Hong Kong, they ended up being docked in Taiwan. From there the British authorities allowed them to fly over to the UK.”
The uncles were adopted by a family in Northern Ireland, and then not too long after, the rest of the family including a then 18-month-old Tat were able to move to the UK.
“Every year there’s a reunion called the Zero Three Six,” says Tat. “This is the name of the boat that brought the Vietnamese refugees to the UK. It’s to celebrate their safe arrival in England.”
Having experienced life as a refugee, it was the growing crisis with Syrian refugees in Europe that drove Tat to write about his own experience.
“What really triggered it off was the image of that drowned boy, face down in the mud,” says Tat, referring to a story that went global in early September. “Whether that was propaganda, I don’t know. But I thought, how can I eliminate negativity towards refugees? It kind of woke me up, so I thought, why don’t I shout my story. I didn’t expect it to go viral.”
To follow is an edited version of the post:
It’s 1984 and my mother arrives in the UK with 89 other Vietnamese refugees known as the ‘boat people’. With just the clothes on her back and her four children, she’s confronted with the local people of a council estate. Unable to speak English, she expects hostility and racism.
And then this happens.
A young scruffy-looking man steps up, takes off his coat and hands it to the freezing cold refugees. A gesture so touching, that everybody later followed…
My family has never forgotten what England has done for them. And because you allowed us in, we were able to give so much back to your country. You gave us free healthcare. My family gave you three doctors. We never stole your jobs, we created our own and gave some to you. In my family, there are 10 nail shops, three restaurants and 14 Chinese takeaways. We did this to give you amazing food and so we could support ourselves.
Please take a moment to think about all the Syrian refugees and think to yourself, what makes you British?
The same evening that the post went out, Tat received a call from ITN, a UK-based news and content provider. They wanted to interview him, but they also wanted him to fly back to England and recreate the story. It wasn’t viable.
“One of my photographer friends, Derek, happened to know a BBC reporter who’s from Hanoi but is based in Bangkok,” says Tat. “The story really touched her and I kind of trusted her to write it. So, I gave an interview over the phone, then she passed me to a colleague where they interviewed me live on BBC international news in Ho Chi Minh City.”
Based on his interview with the BBC — which was used as a source — the story in the Independent quickly followed. Since then the press around the world has picked up on the similarities between the high-profile story of the Vietnamese Boat People 30 years ago and the present-day Syrian Refugee Crisis in Europe. Articles have appeared in the media in Canada, Australia, the UK and Hong Kong.
But for Tat, one of the most striking things about his post was an out-of-the-blue message from a former neighbour in Bristol, where he grew up.
“My racist neighbour [from Bristol] contacted me and said sorry for all those days [when he was nasty to me],” says Tat. “There are a few people on my Facebook list who are also a little bit racist, so I thought, if I can change their mindset, then I have achieved something.”
A former voluntary policeman and stuntman — he worked on a number of productions including Doctor Who and Skyfall — Tat believes that to make humanity work you need to show kindness. We don’t choose what country we are born in or who our parents are. So, why should that affect our ability to live a normal life?
“Kindness really does make the world go round,” he says. “I think happiness comes from making others happy. It’s one of these messages that people don’t really see the long-term benefit of. They want instant gratification. What they don’t see is what happened 30 years ago [with the Vietnamese Boat People], is actually benefitting them now.
“When people live in fear, they miss out on so much. Those neighbours who were racist to me, they were on about me being different and stealing their jobs. The reality was we wanted to survive like any other human being.”