Sunday, February 24, 2013



For the boat people it was the worst of times. For the Toronto Sun it was the best of times.
And nearly 34 years later, I got to celebrate again over a great Chinese meal with the family I found in Hong Kong.
When the media squabble over refugees, the real ones and the con artists, I think back to a Tuesday morning after the country's birthday when I called Doug Creighton from breakfast.
Creighton, the founding publisher and igniter of the Sun's flame, wondered snidely why the boss was already at work while I was lollygagging at home. I said I wanted to float an idea, that Canadians, from churches and service clubs to families, had taken the plight of the Vietnamese refugees to heart and that the Sun should match this national mood by sponsoring a boat person into the country. We could write about the experiences.
Creighton said yes. And that triggered a grand adventure - and ordeal - for me that resulted in 42 boat people coming to Toronto and Edmonton. And then there was a baby as well. (You have to do something in a refugee camp.)
Sun readers in Toronto and Edmonton responded magnificently to my columns and appeals from the refugee camps, contributing $300,000 to help me to look after the refugees for at least a year, and killing for all time the sleazy suggestion that somehow conservatives don't care about immigration, refugees, and any soul struggling to survive.
On Thursday after the call to Doug, I was in Ottawa fighting immigration officials who didn't want to have anything to do with the Sun, or for that matter the notion that any newspaper should be allowed to bring a refugee into the country.
I won finally, thanks to a private appeal to the minister who liked me and the tabloid more than his staff did.
By Friday, Norm Betts, who is one of the best newspaper photogs in North America, and I were on a plane to Asia, carrying just one change of clothes each to avoid baggage hassles. Then it was India and finally Kuala Lumpur, the fabled Malaysian capital. We fought through our jet lag to have dinner with the Canadian immigration boss for all Asia,  Ian Hamilton.  (He became the bureaucratic hero of the crisis, working with skill and perseverance. He certainly   the rich civil service award from Ottawa after I wrote a profile on him.)
The next morning, we flew across the peninsula to Kuala Terengganu,  and then three hours out into the treacherous South China Sea on a rickety fishing boat chartered by the U. N.
So from idea to first refugee camp took six days. Ironically, when we got to Pula Bidong, a barren rock covered by pestilence, sewage and 47,000 boat people, the Malaysian soldiers tried to block Betts and me at gunpoint, and that was after one of their patrol boats with guns uncovered took a run at our fishing boat.
I was so tired, it was easy to explode into a screaming rant as I waved a letter that I swore we had from a top Malaysian minister. It was some official looking document that Hamilton slipped to mes, probably in reality an Ottawa expense account form.
In the next two days, Betts and I survived 110 degree temperature, no food and one warm Coke each  without catching typhoid or drowning in a typhoon when we were forced back to the mainland because  authorities wouldn't allow us to stay.
 It was difficult getting my columns out to civilization, or just talking to the Sun. The first day a terse message from Creighton told me to adopt a family, not just one person. The second day Creighton told me to adopt two families. I started to worry about a third message. But the Canadian officials started to think our readers pouring out their emotions and money to Creighton and the newspaper were the finest people in the country, perhaps even better than Globe readers.
Our temporary base of  Kuala Terengganu, a logging city, will live in infamy in my memory as the awful place where they spit on me in the street (because I was there to help Chinese.) They didn't even bother to bury some dead babies who washed up on the beach after a gunboat towed some flimsy boat jammed with refugees at high speed until it capsized and the boat people drowned, as they did by the thousands in the summer of 1979.
When we returned to port we had to scramble over several barges loaded with giant teak logs that the Malaysians had deliberately positioned to handicap our landing. A driving rain made the logs so slippery, breaking a leg or falling overboard was a real danger.
But at this point, Betts and I were ready to run through walls because of the enormous need but the matching callousness as the Malays tried to block the refugees who were mainly Chinese so they would stay as the dominant ethnic group.
The plight of all the refugees was enough to make anyone weep. And I did, after the first family I watched Hamilton interview. It was headed by a 12-year-old boy who was the only man left to be head of the family. Behind his thin body clad in rags huddled his shy mother, blind grandmother and five sisters. I said the Sun would accept them, despite the huge problems, but Hamilton whispered that Granny in his opinion had TB. He promised me faithfully they would be allowed into Canada after her health was dealt with, but it would be of no use at that moment to Ottawa and in publicity for the boat people rescue if the first family I sponsored on behalf of readers wasn't even allowed in by Ottawa for a year or two.
Then Betts and I took a tortuous path to Hong Kong, because the British colony was treating the boat people far more humanely.
By then July was broiling . The heat was suffocating when we stepped out of the hotel which was heaven compared to the hell of the camps. But at least we could leave the camps at noon, send those soaked clothes to the laundry, swim in the pool, drink a pitcher or two of beer, and then return to the huge Aberdeen refugee camp, located in a derelict  British military base.
And that is where I found the family I dined with nearly 34 years later in northern Scarboro.
Manh Luong, a mechanical engineer, and his wife Anh were told they had to go to China and couldn't stay in Hanoi because their grandparents were from China and the Vietnamese Communists wanted to be rid of them. The situation became critical because after all the years of war, the brief peace was probably going to be ruined by a war with China because one Chinese army invaded briefly.
So the Luongs scraped together money, fled in the middle of the night with no possessions to Hai Phong port and a ship that they shared with 136 others. It was so crowded that daughter Lam, then 9, said there was no room to lie down straight. People curled up on any surface or any corner, trying to ignore the stench and starvation. They sailed around and around in the South China Sea and its empty islands for two months searching for a home and freedom. Then they limped into Hong Kong, really not that far away on the map from Vietnam but in cruel reality, like a rocket to the moon.
The Luongs were in one camp briefly and then they, Lam, and son Hai, 7, were moved to Aberdeen which was so crowded the authorities fenced the refugees in with barbed wire so they wouldn't escape and try to blend in. To the north, the colony was also trying to block all those from China who were frantically fleeing the Communists.
A month or so later, I showed up, with a Canadian official, Scott Mullin, who was only 22 and didn't much like the Sun. He thawed because his living allowance was so meagre, he ran out of eating money and I fed him his favourite meals. He let me accept the Luongs, and Manh Luong's brother, wife and two children, providing I also took six single young men because Canadian organizations preferred to sponsor families, not youths.
And the numbers kept growing, because of Creighton and the Sun readers.
On August 3, one month after I had the idea, the Luongs arrived at Pearson. The first problem was that Hai had never seen an escalator and kept one foot firmly planted on the terminal floor until I scooped him into the air so he didn't split. The next explanation was about the toilet in the battered former group home that I rented for them.  They cleaned the house the first day and then tackled the backyard which a neighbour said had been filled with garbage for five years.
I found them a rice cooker because the stove was as big a mystery as the refrigerator, just a warm metal box until I showed how it worked. Hai still remembers his wonderful introduction to the cold red cans called Coke.
We told our war stories again the other night. About when I took all the kids to Bowmore Rd. Public School, without a single record of any kind, but brought along the school board's vice chair just in case. The principal didn't like that much, but then the school secretary took me aside and said my father had delivered her and had been the family doctor so she would look after my kids for me. And there were no problems.
I introduced them to Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas trees. There were more gifts in the room than under the tree because everyone blossomed in their new country as I insisted the parents had to study English full time or I wouldn't give them their weekly allowance.
 I felt good after every visit with my interpreter who I paid to help deal with all the glitches.
All you had to do the other evening was look at the permanent grin on Manh Luong's face to know that he loved Canada. He is now retired from a company that make water fountains like the one in the Eaton Centre. In front of us were mounds of delicious Chinese food made by his wife Anh who loves to cook so much she does it all the time for her neighbours.
The 9-year-old is now Lam Luong-Pires, a confident 43, who got an honours business degree at York before she retired from finance to look after Laura, 10, and Matthew, 6. Her husband Manuel, who also has an honours degree from York (but they were too busy to date there) works for RBC as a supervisor in the IT area.
The little boy who almost split on the escalator is now 43. Hai graduated from the Waterloo co-op program as a mechanical engineer and works for Husky Moulding. His wife Linda works for a glass company and keeps working even after Kewan, 11 (from a Gaelic novel she read) Edna, 8, Kai, 6, and Laura. 5.
The kids played noisily around us as we devoured the shrimp dumplings and the noodles and talked about recipes almost as much as those sea sick and crowded months on the boat and in the camps. And then the first months in Canada when we took them around without birth certificates or documentation of any kind, and a harried columnist discovered that in the end even our red-tape OHIP system can be tamed if enough people care.
Canada and the United States were the world leaders in helping the boat people as they fled the Communists. There were countries who turned their backs but not Canada. In fact, the Toronto Sun accepted more boat people than the entire country of Japan.
Remember the Luongs and their degrees and their three homes and their decades of work and their hockey-playing kids the next time someone says refugees rob the system. Remember the good will and generosity of Sun readers too.
Remember too that nearly 34 years before city council officially made Toronto a sanctuary city in immigration, Torontonians did that themselves, and we should be proud of that.

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