From the boat to Bundoora and beyond – Tuan’s story
“When I think back now to when I was young the most important thing were the influences - those people around you. For me and the Vietnamese boys we were so lucky we were taken in by Parade because Parade gave us a support structure.”
These are the words of Old Paradian Tuan Trong Trinh. Not so long ago, Tuan, now 51, made his way along College Drive and through the gates of the Brothers’ Cemetery to pay his respects at the grave of Br. Gerard Timothy (“Tim”) Bilston.
Tuan says he is forever indebted to Br. Bilston, who was only 46 when he died in March 1991. He says he also owes much to the then Principal Br. John Wright, to his “cottage parents” Mary and the late Peter Nguyen and to all at Parade who accepted him as one of a handful of young Vietnamese boarders back in 1982.
The Vietnamese Boarders project, established by the College in conjunction with the Catholic Family Welfare Bureau, ran for four years, and involved 15 boys, all refugees, from Years 7 to 12. The boys were domiciled at the since demolished Edmund Rice College from Mondays to Fridays, before joining their relatives on weekends. Through those weeks, they were tended to by Peter and Mary who were themselves refugees.
Each night, Tuan and his fellow refugees completed their studies under the supervision of staff members. They were also tutored by Old Paradians – costs borne by the College – and gained from the support of fellow students who would assist with their homework.
In the Parade Newsletter of December 1985, the then College Principal Br. Laurie Collins reported with some sadness that the project had to be discontinued due to the need for the entire Edmund Rice Campus to be converted for school use.
“However, it is pleasing to record that the project seems to have achieved its aims: most of the boys have now completed their schooling, and suitable arrangements have been made for the four boys who will be continuing their studies,” Br Collins wrote.
“I believe the Parade school community has learned much from our boarders – we have admired their adaptability, in learning a new language and customs, and their cheerfulness in the face of adversity.
“Also we have been reminded how fortunate we in Australia really are.”
What became of all of Parade’s Vietnamese boarders remains unclear, although it is known that Tuan Dinh Bui is a schoolteacher, Cong Nguyen is an engineer with Ford and Tin Bui is a press operator.
But late last year, more than 30 years after the Vietnamese Boarders project came to an end, Tuan Trong Tringh agreed to tell his own incredible story - of childhood experiences in South Vietnam, of the perilous exodus by boat, of early life in a new land and of his years with and beyond the College.
I was born in Saigon on December the 8th, 1965. That was during the war. My parents actually escaped from the north to the south when the country was divided. That happened in 1954 and my older sister was with them when they fleed.
We settled in the south, but the civil war continued. Then in 1975 the communist regime of the north took over the south. I was only ten at the time.
My memories of Vietnam are very few. I remember the Catholic church that I went to and the school that I went to. I have twice returned to Vietnam and I have visited the old school. There have been so many changes at the school that I could hardly recognise it. Many times my sister had to explain where things used to be and sometimes they came back to my memory.
In 1979 my uncle, who was a fisherman, decided to flee the country and sail away in his own boat. At the time my father’s own uncle was diagnosed with cancer, and he was living in the countryside, while we were in the city. As my great uncle needed treatment in the hospital in the city, he agreed to relocate to stay with us for six months.
Because my father decided to stay behind to be with his uncle, three spaces became available on the boat for my oldest brother, my oldest sister and me. I wasn’t really sure how or why the spaces became available because I was too young at the time. But we all jumped on the boat and escaped. We left Saigon on the 27th of July, 1979.
The trip was very dangerous. The boat was about ten metres long and about four metres wide, and there were 56 people aboard - all people from different places. Because of the size of the boat the trip was very dangerous. Luckily we were rescued by a Norwegian tanker which was on the way to Japan to sell gas. Thank God we weren’t on the sea for long. We’d been out there for two and a half days and had not long left the South Vietnamese coastline, but we were in international waters.
I was told that the boat was heading for Australia because my uncle’s wife’s parents had already settled in Sydney. But there was no way the boat was ever going to make it there.
We had seen a number of tankers passing by and we were desperate to get rescued, but they all ignored us. All of a sudden the Norwegian tanker emerged from behind us - we hadn’t seen it - and we all waved at it as soon as we saw it and knew what it was, as most of us had been hiding below the ship.
Thankfully the crew aboard the tanker were happy to pick us up, as there was a violent storm the next day and we wouldn’t have made it.
I can’t remember the name of the Norwegian ship, but my older sister has the name. Two years back she went to Norway to visit the captain of that tanker to thank him.
We disembarked the tanker in Japan and were taken to a refugee camp. From there we applied to go a third country. Initially my brother wanted to go to America, which is where most of the Vietnamese wanted to go based on the US Government’s support of South Vietnam through the war, and none of us knew where Australia was.
Norway was also an option, but we heard it was too cold, and coming from a tropical country we didn’t want to go from one extreme to the other.
As we had no relatives at that time in America we couldn’t go there. I think it was about this time that the Australian Government, through the Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, changed its policy in accepting all refugees from IndoChina - Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Vietnam. We had relatives here so we applied with success, and on the 17th of March, 1981 we arrived in Australia.
We got to Melbourne by plane and at the airport we were greeted by Australian Government officials who instructed my older brother, older sister and me to board buses which took us to the Migrant Hostel in Maribyrnong, now the Maribyrnong Detention Centre.
At the time a lot of Vietnamese refugees went there. It was a temporary base where we stayed until we settled into the community.
We were at the hostel for about three months. The hostel was okay. All the meals were provided. You have to remember that we had come from one extreme to the other, so the hostel was like heaven to all of us.
At the time there was a Vietnamese priest, Fr. Tien Duc (“Joseph”) Bui. He was building Melbourne’s Vietnamese Catholic community and back then he was looking after the people at St Brendan’s Church in Flemington. At the time, St Brendan’s was one of only two churches here at which the Vietnamese Catholics could gather. The other was in Noble Park, might have been Keysborough.
All Vietnamese Catholics who lived on the western side of Melbourne went to the church in Flemington every Sunday. The church provided a lot of activities, including singing in the choir which my sister joined.
Then one day during mass, Father Joseph announced that Parade College was going to take in some child refugees here without their parents. Father said “If anyone is interested, come and see me”.
I talked to my sister. I said to her “I am interested. Could you please talk to Father Tien and see if I can get in”. My sister said “Are you sure you want to do this?” and I said “Yeah, why not”.
My sister went to see Father Tien. I then had an informal interview, with Br. Bilston if I remember correctly, and got in for the 1982 school year.
Just before school started, in December 1981, there was a summer camp [the first Edmund Rice Camp] organised in Geelong. That is where I first met all the other Vietnamese boys.
Of all those boys taken in by Parade there were two that I knew from before in Vietnam. We all joined Parade in 1982 and my first impression was that it was a huge place - so many trees and so much space. Everything was there - a farm, swimming pool at the back, squash courts.
I didn’t really experience a culture shock after arriving in Australia. The culture shock came for me in Japan because it was the first experience of a new country. Besides, at the migrant hostel there were a lot of Vietnamese so it was strength in numbers - and for six months before joining Parade, I had studied English as a second language at night school and had completed three months of study at Footscray High. The biggest difference for me at Parade was that it was an all boys school.
My days at ERC with Peter and Mary Nguyen were fun. Mary and Peter were parents to us, and the other Parade boys looked after us too. Sometimes there was a little bit of discrimination, some of us got bullied at Parade, but part that was part of growing up I guess, and by and large the boys were very good to us.
I had finished Year 7 in Vietnam at the time I escaped the country. I then completed Year 7 first at Maribyrnong High School and later that year at Footscray High, but at that time the Vietnamese level was a little higher than Australia in terms of mathematics, and while I struggled with English, maths and physics was okay for when I started at Parade in Year 9.
Another good person was Br. Bilston, whose grave I visited in the Brothers’ Cemetery at Parade not long ago. He was a good man. In our first year at Parade he came to see us most nights after school, to check that everything was okay. He also arranged for some of the other boys and teachers as well to help the Vietnamese boys with their homework in the library. We’d walk from ERC to the College Library, and there the other boys would help us with our homework from seven o’clock until nine o’clock at night. That was a big help to us.
There was another really good guy named Paul who, even after we finished in Year 12, still came around to offer me and the boys help.
I lived at ERC until the end of 1985 when the program finished, and I went to live with my sister in Braybrook. The following year I was admitted to RMIT and did a bachelor of aeronautical engineering. I finished at RMIT in 1989, and got a degree in aerospace engineering with honours as well. The professor offered me the chance to do a masters but by then I’d had enough studying and thought I had to go out and get a job. If you recall there was a bad recession in 1989 and there was hardly any work at all, and some of the Vietnamese students I knew at RMIT went to work in Singapore. I was tempted, but decided not to go and instead enrolled at Melbourne Uni to complete a computer science course. I got that in 1991, but even then I couldn’t find a job. Luckily I had a friend who was working in the IT department at Prahran College (now a part of Swinburne Uni). The department was seeking someone to work there temporarily, for about a month I think it was, and my friend asked if I was interested. At the time I was working nightshift in a factory for AMCORP in West Footscray and I told my friend that I was interested providing it didn’t cost me my job in the factory. That was okay by him so I started working two shifts - I’d finish at AMCORP, drive to Prahran, sleep in the carpark for an hour, then go to work there until five. I’d then go home, sleep until 10 o’clock at night, then go to AMCORP again. I think I did that for about three months in the finish, and they decided to take me on as a long-term temporary. I then quit the other job and pursued my career in IT. Today I work as a Database Administrator for Australian Catholic University.
In 1996 I married a lady named Thu Anh Viet Tran who like me was a Vietnamese refugee, and we live in Cranleigh near Deer Park. We have two sons Cong-Truc and Cong-Toai. Our eldest son has got into RMIT where he is doing a Bachelor of Business in economics. The other son has just completed his Year 12 at Melbourne High and has got an offer to do science at Melbourne Uni. He achieved 96.95 for his ARTAR score, which is excellent, and we are very proud of him.
Has it worked out for me? Well I think it has for all the Vietnamese refugees. My only regret has nothing to do with Australia, it’s more my own. I couldn’t find work in aerospace which is what I wanted to do at the time, but my score could have got me into Melbourne Uni to do dentistry or something like that. As I say, I was interested in aerospace back then, and it was probably a shame my Dad wasn’t here to advise me.
Apart from that I’m pretty happy about things. I’m happy with Parade and the great foundation the school gave me.
When I think back now to when I was young the most important thing were the influences - those people around you. For me and the Vietnamese boys we were so lucky we were taken in by Parade because Parade gave us a support structure. For people who might read this story my message would be that everybody is deserving of a chance - or maybe in my case a second chance - which hopefully allows them to do great in life. Most of us boys from Vietnam came from a very harsh background. All we wanted to do is to have a better life for ourselves and one day our families, and that’s why we tried hard.