Tat Wa Lay. Photo by Nick Ross

Written in response to the refugee crisis in Europe, when Ho Chi Minh City resident Tat Wa Lay posted about his own experience on Facebook, it went viral. 118,000 shares later, he tells his story

 

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.”

 

The Post

 

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?

 

International Attention

 

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.”

Nick Ross

Chief editor and co-founder of Word Vietnam, Nick Ross was born in the humble city of London before moving to the less humble climes of Vietnam. His wanderings have taken him to definitely not enough corners of the globe, but being a constant optimist, he still has hopes.

Website: twitter.com/nickrossvietnam

5 comments

  • Comment Link Marie Murphy Marie Murphy Oct 21, 2015

    Hi Tat it was great reading you and your families experience and journey to the UK. I was very fortunate to be born into a family with parents who had the biggest heart and when the "Boat People" arrived in Glasgow the first thing they did was offer a bed to Zing excuse spelling and arranged a bed in my friends house for his sister Zung until such time that the council could rehouse them, two other Vietnamese families also moved in to our EastEnd estate and where soon just part of the community, a community who where mostly sons and daughters of immigrants from Ireland. The families relocated to Birmingham and my Father visited them in their new home where they were all well and safe. My mum and Dad have now died but I will never forget their kindness and offer to help no hesitation even when they had eight children and a grandmother living with them in a tiny council flat, they did it out of love and respect for their fellow man . Great to hear your families success story.

  • Comment Link Mai Mai Oct 13, 2015

    You most certainly do have the grace and strength to get the right message across Tat, I am so proud to be of your acquaintance. I look forward to read more of your words. Great writing indeed my friend that most certainly needs to be shared. A new writers VOICE has been found in you and your family's untold soon to be told story. What a great book that will be.

  • Comment Link Michael Ngo Michael Ngo Oct 13, 2015

    Your story is very inspiring to all of us; Our family went through the same endurance and experience as "The Boat people", we migrated to the USA but lost our beloved Mother in the process. Thank you for sharing and hoping to meet you someday in HCMC. Michael

  • Comment Link Mai Mai Sep 18, 2015

    Tat, you are the one. The with the true strength within to get this message out to the world. Amazing story shared. So proud to hear your family's story and to see your voice being heard. Love out to you. You are an amazing grace.

  • Comment Link ame padjari ame padjari Sep 18, 2015

    I always believes that everything what we released is energy, and that energy will always be back to where it's first released. So, when you released a positive one, then the positive thing will be back to you. Thank you for sharing, Nick.

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