Ngoc Anh Donald and Alan Lan Van and Minh-Ha Tran
Ngoc Anh Donald along with her sister and her brother in law, Minh-Ha and Dr Alan Lan Van Tran have incredible stories to tell. Determination to survive and thrive has seen this family experience many highs and lows over the years. The journeys, challenges, celebrations and valuable contributions to their new home of Queensland are evident through the stories they have shared.
Anh, Minh-Ha and Alan invited exhibition Curator, Naomi Takeifanga and photographer Hamish Cairns to meet them at the Phat Da Monastery in Inala on 7 May 2016. It is a relatively new monastery with the first impression of the beautifully kept grounds, with glistening white statues and meticulously manicured dragon hedge.
Through displacement from wars in their homeland of Vietnam, the family of Anh and Minh-Ha lost everything twice and had to start again. Their experiences of arriving to Australia are quite different, Anh was a scholarship recipient of the Colombo Plan and Minh-Ha and the rest of the family experienced the harrowing journey as boat people as a result of the humanitarian crisis created by the Vietnam War. Their stories tell of their major contribution to Vietnamese culture in Brisbane, how they have all gone on to have successful careers and most importantly what tradition and family means to them now.
We invite to watch the digital story Two Wars, Three Cities, Four Generations created for the SLQ exhibition Water, Trees and Roots in 2006/7 (3 mins 39 secs in length), and then read the stories from both Ngoc Anh Donald and Minh-Ha and Dr Alan Lan Van Tran.
This is the story of four generations of the Tran Family. Ngoc Anh Donald (nee Nguyen) came to Australia in 1964 when she was awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship. In 1977, three months after the birth of her first child, Anh parents and her sister’s children arrived in Brisbane as refugees. The children’s parents Minh-Ha and Alan Lan Van Tran did not arrive for another three and a half years. This is their story as a family over many challenging but rewarding years.
This is Ngoc Anh’s story about her Tradition Now.
Ngoc Anh Donald was born in Hanoi, in North Vietnam and her family moved south to Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) after the Geneva Accords in 1954.
This saw their family lose their large land based wealth, and they needed to rebuild their lives. Anh showed great promise as a student and in 1964 she left Saigon to come to Australia as an international student under the Colombo Plan scholarship. Despite studying in Perth and spending time in Melbourne, Brisbane is the third city Anh has called home.
In 1954, the independence war ended when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu and Vietnam was divided into two countries. Over one million people left their homes in North Vietnam to move to South Vietnam.
Unrest was upon South Vietnam. The capture of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army in April 1975 marked the end of the Vietnamese War and the unification of the country under communist rule. Approximately 840,000 people fled Vietnam by boat. Nearly 25% of these people died in stormy seas or were attacked by pirates.
In April 1975 Anh’s parents, her nephew and niece arrive by boat. This was a difficult time for Anh as she also had her newborn to look after as well. It would be another three and a half years until her sister Minh-Ha and brother in law Alan Lan Van Tran were able to reach Australia as refugees by boat.
The following pages are the transcript from an interview with Ngoc Anh Donald at the Phat Da Monastery on 7 May 2016.
When you were growing up, what did family and tradition mean to you?
Growing up, tradition to me meant ancestor worshipping, education and teachers in particular. Knowledge and culture was the way forward. Vietnam has a lot of Chinese influence, and the Mandarin system explains why the education system is prized, and highly valued. It was the way the Chinese originally overcame the class boundaries, class system, which perpetuated the same privileges from generation to generation. The kings and nobility would succeed and the lower echelons would never have any opportunities to succeed. The Mandarin system allowed people who passed the exam to enter the public service, that allows them to move upwards in life, and Vietnam adopted that and from that came the high respect for educated people, as that was seen as how you get out of the class or circumstances and move forward in life.
Vietnam was a Chinese colony for over 1000 years, approx. 900AD, Vietnam adopted the system of Animism the belief that everything has a soul, animate or inanimate object, plant, animal or person – close to reincarnation, same thing the soul will either float around or inhabit another body, whether that body is a plant, animal or person, the human body is the highest in the echelon of objects, so if you live a very good life, then your soul will get into the human body. Generally referred to as good karma, so if you do good in this life, the animistic belief that everything has a soul.
18 years old in 1964, as part of the Colombo plan scholarship, the Mandarin system helped, but my family was not exactly the family that can not get out, a rich family, but the war intervened, the war against the French caused the family to move south and because our wealth was all land based we lost everything. So the family became quite poor and father had to go to work in fairly modest jobs, but the scholarship as I recall my mother said was like winning the lottery ticket, because it was a very generous scholarship, paid for all big expenses, university tuition, a ticket back to Vietnam every three years, dental and medical expenses, everything was paid for, also enough to buy a small second hand car. It was a highly competitive scholarship as it was so generous.
Brisbane has become your family’s new home, was it a difficult transition, from life in Vietnam to life in Australia?
Very much, Brisbane is my new home. I went from Vietnam to Perth for 4 years and did an honours degree in Economics and came to Brisbane in 1969 I was offered a part scholarship from the University of Queensland to do my Masters of Economics, I got married in 1970 and moved to Melbourne where I lived for a year, and then returned to Brisbane where I have lived ever since for 44 years.
In those early years, around 1971 when you had gone from Perth to Brisbane to Melbourne and back to Brisbane was it a difficult transition from life in Vietnam?
Only the first year or so, you have to bear in mind the idea of us going to university to study, so the whole group of 15 scholars grouped in Sydney and went to English language school for three months, from 9am-3pm everyday before we were dispersed to different universities. So at the end of the three months we were expected to go to university and cope, and if we didn’t we would have been sent back to Vietnam, so cope we did.
I can imagine that group of 15 would have become very close during those 3 months at English language school? Have you kept in contact with any?
Indeed, in fact tonight I’m going to dinner with one fellow who has coming up from Melbourne, he got a very senior position at Telstra, he went on to get a PhD in Electrical Engineering. Most of the scholarship holders in my group went on to very successful careers in Australia and abroad.
Can you tell me about your family story, since the Water, Trees and Roots exhibition?
In my immediate family, I was married for a second time, to an Australian man of Scottish descent, hence the name Donald. And I have one child, his name is Kim and he is married to an English girl Allie, Kim is an Anaesthetist, and Allie is a Professor at the University of Nottingham, she has a PhD in Chemical Engineering, and they have twin daughters. I just saw them at Christmas time they came over here, I went over there also for the girls' first birthday. We are in constant contact through Skype.
How have you kept your traditions going in Brisbane, how have you kept your culture alive, and how do your family members keep the Vietnamese culture alive?
Mainly through my sister Minh-Ha, she reminds me all the time of the important dates, so we always commemorate the anniversary of our parents death, and she has a commemoration at home and the whole family goes there, and then when children come home. Probably without my sister probably not be as strong, but she is the one who upholds the traditions. Working as I do I do not always remember the significant dates and I’m probably better now than I used to. I opened my own practice in Inala in 2010, so that is very much a Vietnamese dominated suburb, and next door we have a Vietnamese grocery store, and they always sell fruit and vegetarian food, on the 1st and 15th day of the month, every month, between my sister and the lady in the Vietnamese shop next door I’m reminded of the special dates. Other significant days, festival of the children, Buddha’s birthday, the day when we visit the dead, festival of Vietnam, we used to put food outside in the seventh month of the year. Part of remembrance month, the month of July, we worship the ancestors and pray for the people's souls who have not been looked after, so that is why we put food outside of our place, for the lost souls to come and have a meal.
Looking to the future, are you confident that your Vietnamese heritage will still be celebrated here in Brisbane?
I have no doubt it will, we have a Vietnamese language school and a lot of people send their children there, we have Vietnamese singing groups and bands and orchestras, very strong they tour around the world. One pagoda on Blunder Rd, that holds the concerts, Vietnamese TV is broadcast and radio I think because the culture is so strong it is both a plus and a minus, a lot of Vietnamese that have been here for 40 or 50 years, still cannot speak a word of English, and that is holding them back in the participation in Australian society and gets them in trouble because they don’t quite understand what paperwork they are signing. With the next generation it is fine, but they are too young to understand the other concepts, so as a lawyer I see that all the time, mainly because of the language problem.
There are five Vietnamese language schools in the broader Brisbane area. One of the Vietnamese Language schools is called Trung Vuong named after the two sisters who were the first queens of Vietnam about 40 BC, the husband of the older sister was killed by the Chinese so the sisters went to war. Legend has it they rode elephants into war. When they started to lose the war, after 3 years instead of being captured by the Chinese they took their own lives and jumped into the sea. The school is named after the sisters Trung (surname) Vuong (sovereign monarch) and was the name of a very famous selective girls high school in Vietnam, which I went to. You even find that even if teenagers know the Vietnamese language, they don’t often talk it, or pretend they don’t know it because it is not cool to speak a minority language.
What are you hopes and aspirations for your families’ future, and do you see the future generations celebrating their Vietnamese culture?
Raising children in traditional Vietnamese values, values not mirror Australia values picked up at school and broader Australian society. Our family have the fourth generation now growing up in Australia, our concerns are not with financial security now, but with how successful we will be in maintaining Vietnamese values and tradition amongst own children.