The Oral History of Tony Li: From Vietnam to Southern California
Profilers: Kathryn Huang, Hollis Paradis, Joshua Wennes
Part 1: During the Vietnam War
Please introduce yourself
My name is Tony Li. I am from Vietnam. I was born in Saigon in 1955 and I came to the United States in 1979, where I am now.
Regarding your ancestry and nationality, do you regard yourself as Vietnamese? Other than Chinese, what languages do you speak?
Vietnamese. For Chinese, I speak Mandarin, Cantonese, and the Chaozhou dialect.
Other than Chinese, are there other languages?
No others? Mainly Chinese?
At the time of the war, how did you become aware of the war and what was your impression? How did the war influence you?
At the time of the war, I was small, so I did not know too much. After 1968, the war continued until 1972. They said there was a ceasefire, but they actually did not stop fighting until 1975.
For you personally, what was your experience?
I feel a war is a terrible thing. In a war, people greatly suffer. For us young people, there is tremendous pressure. For all the young people, when there is a war, you have to go fight. They would come and grab anybody they can find to fight and to die. I was very unhappy about that. When I hear of any country going to war, I feel sorrow for the young people.
Oh, that is because right at that time you were the age to be drafted.
By 1972, anyone that is eighteen has to be drafted. Until I was eighteen, I was very worried for myself and how to make a living. I have many childhood friends who were drafted and died.
I went into hiding and did not want to go.
How did you hide from the authorities?
They did come for me, but I went and stayed with my relatives. I went and hid. For example, let’s say I am here, and the police passed by. They would see a young person, and ask for your ID. They would ask, “How come you are here and not on the battlefield?” They would cuff them and send them to the army.
Were you in the city?
Yes I was in the city. I was at home but I just hid in my relatives’ home. I would make handmade products at home, and would not go outside, then they could not find me.
Wow, that seems to me it is very …
It was a very terrifying way of life.
After the Americans left, what was it like?
The war continued as usual.
So they were still trying to draft people?
Yes, they were still trying to catch the young people into the army. In 1975, Vietnam fell. On April 30, 1975, that was when the Americans announced its withdrawal, and the South Vietnamese government surrendered. They did not want to fight anymore.
You were in Saigon right? And Saigon was in the South.
Yes, I was in Saigon.
And when the Northern Vietnamese army came, what was it like?
When the Northern Army came, they controlled the Southern people. First, they captured the rich people. And then, the former soldiers, officials, were slowly rounded up, and sent to what they called reform camps. What they meant by reform camps was just hard labor camps. Some were tortured to death.
So you were fortunate that you were not in the military.
Fortunately, since I was not in the military, I was spared.
So was your family considered well off? Since you were originally from China…
No, my parents went to Vietnam from China
From Fu Jian Province?
No, from Chao Zhou, Guangdong.
What were you doing in those few years after 1975?
We did some small retail business. After the Americans left, our life became completely different. My life was more free because I did not have to worry about people grabbing me into the military. We turned to small retail business for a living.
In this business, did you deal in cash?
Yes, it was in cash… It was in cash.
Part 2: Escaping Vietnam
So you left Vietnam in 1979. If you wanted to leave Vietnam, what would you do to prepare?
The way we prepared… There are many different scenarios. Some take boats… small boats. Seven to ten people in a small boat, and that is how some came out. The closest place some could go to is Thailand…some to Malaysia. So for me, later on, the Vietnamese Communist government said that if you guys want to leave, you have to pay a tax per head, 5 ounces of gold. And then, when you have a boat, you are free to go. So, the government decided to make money, and if you want to go, they profited and let you go. If you want to go, just give me 5 ounces of gold, and then they let you go.
Did they discriminate against your nationality?
They did not care whether you were Chinese. They just said if you want to leave, they would let you leave. They just wanted the money. There were some businessman who said they wanted to get into that business– building a boat. How much they want to make is their business. Each person, 3 ounces to 5 ounces of gold, is for the government. You have to pay. Then the boat owner, how much they want to make, is up to them. For example, he may charge 10 ounces, 5 ounces would go to the government, and 5 ounces would go to him. And if he takes 8 ounces, then he makes 3 ounces.
How did you leave?
My brother-in-law had a boat, so I came out on his boat.
Oh, your brother-in-law’s friend?
At that time you came out, how many in your family came with you?
Only I came out and my brother-in-law’s family.
So your parents were still in Vietnam?
Yes, and also my brothers and sisters.
At the time, when you left, how come your family did not come over with you?
There were no means.
What happened to your family when you left?
Their lives back there was hard. Sometimes it is tough. Because let us say initially you were a businessman and they made you become a farmer. How do you adjust? They ended up doing small handicrafts or small retail business to make a living. Those of us who came to the United States, when we had money, we would send it back, which made life better.
There is a way to send money back?
Yes there is a way.
What kind of method?
You go to Chinatown, and there are many stores. For example, if I want to send a hundred bucks, I would give him one hundred and twenty. He would keep the twenty dollars in the handling fee and in Vietnam, they would get a hundred dollars.
So you can still communicate with them so you know they got the money?
How do you communicate? Call them or write letters?
In 1979, where did you go? You mentioned you went to Malaysia?
No, Indonesia. So from the United Nations, there are many countries that would go to the refugee camps to admit refugees.
Ok, so many countries, you won’t always come to the United States?
No, you would go to United States depending on your luck. For example, I could request to go to Canada or Australia or the United States. Or Denmark, Germany, Britain,
… Or France?
Yes France, but it is a small country. It requires a sponsor or a relative. America took in the most refugees. Canada took a lot; Australia took a lot; these three countries took the most.
How was your experience in the refugee camp?
At the time they gave us a camp…a camp, and it was ten people per camp. They gave us food… they gave us food.
How long were you there?
I waited for more than four months.
How did you feel when you came to America?
I am fortunate that anyone took me. At that time, if I was accepted by any country, I would have gone, because it is dangerous in a refugee camp. In Indonesia, we did not encounter such things. But in Malaysia, they would take people and throw them away. They would throw them away in the ocean. When we got to Malaysia, they lied to us, and used the excuse that they would take us to the refugee camp and boarded our boat. They robbed us of valuables and women.
They took the children, elderly and women onto their boat, and took everything they had. Then they boarded our boat to inspect it. They said we were from Vietnam which is a communist country. Therefore, we may have weapons. They took what they wanted. Then they took our compass, which helped us with our direction, and then they set us adrift. They let us go… They did not care whether we were alive or not. When we got to Singapore, they did not want to take us. Somebody else had a compass and we used the stars to find our direction. We went to Indonesia, but they towed us out and set us to sea. We turned our boat around and ran it onto the beach. At the time, we had 800 people on the boat.
Our boat was very small and wooden– only 800 people and about 1 person per square foot.
Wow, you went through a lot of difficulties.
Oh, very difficult.
In your situation, having been a refugee, how do you feel about the refugees in the current situation?
I feel like it is good. The US treats refugees pretty well.
From the past until present, do you feel like there has been any change in attitudes towards refugees or any policy changes towards refugees?
No? It’s always been really good?
It’s always been really good.
Part 3: In the Americas
When you came to America, how old were you?
I was 24-years old.
Where did you go when you first came to America?
I was at San Francisco. I was at San Francisco in the city for four years, and then came to [Los Angeles]
How did you make a living when you first came?
At that time I had a friend in San Francisco who sponsored me. I lived there at that place. It was a church.. a church called IRC. The church arranged for me to live with my friend who sponsored me. At the time, we all lived together and we were all single. The church asked how much the rent was. Then the church paid our monthly rent and gave me $30 a month for meals. I was there for two months. Actually, I was there for three weeks and then I went to work.
Oh go to work? Did you find the job yourself?
I went to find a job from the job agency, and then they placed me.
What was your life like in San Francisco?
Not bad, very good! Coming here was good; there were jobs. It was better than Vietnam. In Vietnam there were no jobs. Even if you wanted to work, there were no jobs. Coming here, there was work, and I could get a job. It was very good. I was very happy. I liked coming to America more than staying in Vietnam
Did everybody have a similar opinion at the time?
Everybody thought the same way. Over there, there was no opportunity and no future. Coming to America was good and everyone wanted it. The quality of life is better here.
Why did you move from San Francisco to Southern California?
I had a friend in Southern California. Because in San Francisco, where I lived, it was too small. The weather in San Francisco oftentimes was cold. When I came down here, I liked it here because the weather was nice. The weather was good and the place was large. I liked it here so I moved [to Los Angeles] right away. That was in 1983. I came around November or December 1983. I lived in San Francisco for about four years. Initially when I first came, I lived in Chinatown. Sunset Boulevard, that is where I lived. I lived there for about a year, but my friend said that area was complicated. So, we decided not to stay there. Then we moved to Rosemead. I lived in Rosemead since.
Do you think there is a particularly strong Vietnamese or Chinese community in the San Gabriel Valley?
I feel like recently there has been a bit more Chinese.
More than before?
In this community, do you feel like there is a better Chinese or Vietnamese community culture?
There’s more Chinese culture. More is good.
Part 4: Personal Perspective
What is your view of Americans involvement in Vietnam?
Politics is hard to judge. There is no right or wrong; everyone is in it for their interest. It is only for their own benefit. First there was France, then the Americans entered. France retreated and America came in. When you speak of war, that is not good. No one is right or wrong. War is only for someones’ benefit You cannot really say whether America is right or if America is wrong. You cannot say China is right or China is wrong. There is no right or wrong; Everyone is working towards their own benefit. That’s how I see it.
What do you think about the Communist Party and Communism, as a person who experienced the Vietnam War?
I feel like for a country, a poor country, they have to do things a certain way. For a rich country, they would do things some other way. I actually think there is not too much of a difference between the two. Like a family, they don’t have too much money, and the kids want to buy a car. They don’t have money to buy a car. For a rich family, they can buy everything. But do you blame your parents for being poor? They cannot afford it. I feel it is this way.
How do you feel about Vietnam’s position in the world now?
But now Vietnam is in a better position. They opened up and other countries went to invest. Speaking of corruption, in poor countries, police are corrupt. Their position was bought. Only through corruption can they recover. The police grabbed us to become soldiers, and that is because they have to spend money to buy their position. Of course they had to grab us to recoup their money. They used money to buy the position but if they did not buy it, they themselves would have to go to the military and die on the battlefield.
It seems like you feel people are about the same everywhere. In your point of view, do you feel Vietnamese and Americans have any essential differences?,
I feel like the Americans here, especially those with more knowledge and education, are better than the Vietnamese people.
Do you know of any veterans, American or Vietnamese? They were afraid of course.
Afraid of dying… Yes, there was a war. I have seen friends, brothers. They have lost legs, arms. They could not see well with their eyes, especially after the Liberation. Because before the Liberation, the U.S. military provided services for these people. The American government gave them benefits, like social security here. They don’t have any work so they gave them money to eat. Later on when the Americans left, life was hard for these people. These handicapped veterans had a lot of hardship. Interestingly, I did not see any Communist handicapped veterans. Probably, they were disabled so they just killed them… I don’t know. But in America, there are many disabled veterans.
Were you familiar with anything going on in Laos?
No, it was not clear to me. There was not much fighting going on in Laos. To me, in terms of the war, it occurred in Cambodia [not Laos].
What was your impression of what occurred in Cambodia?
The war occurred in Cambodia. In 1975, the US left. and in 1979, Vietnam had a war with China. There are many people from Vietnam who went to Cambodia. Then, Vietnam went to Cambodia and killed a lot of people. Afterwards, the Vietnamese army went to Cambodia to save a lot of refugees.
At that time, how did you decide what side to join: the U.S. side or the Communist side?
The way people were thinking… Some people…A lot of the Communists were lying to us. They were lying to people. The Communists would say, “We are fighting for your interests. You join us, we will give you this benefit and that benefit.” So then people went with them and joined their activity, and were not allowed to come back. Many of them got killed. That is how it was. Some of us, South Vietnamese, joined the Communist party. They would come out at night. They would go to meetings and try to recruit for the Communist party. At night, they come out to factories and ask people, “Hey, why don’t you join us?” They would say, “Americans, they occupy our country and you should come join us…We are a colony and opposed to colonialism…We are Vietnamese.” There were many [Communists]. I encountered many of them. I have some friends who would join the Communist party. Yes I did!
Do you know what their impression of the Communist party was?
Eventually they had very bad impressions of the Communist party. Before they encountered them, they thought the Communist party was good. But after they joined, they thought the Communist party was really bad. Some people who were not able to make a good living for themselves would join them for that reason. Some of them were afraid of being captured and put into the military on the American side, and would join the Communist side. There were a lot of reasons. Some feel like, ‘I would not want foreigners to control our country,’ and then they joined the Communist party.
Now you see America sending armies to Iraq, to Ukraine, having your experience, how do you feel about that?
I feel… I don’t know how to say it.
It’s okay, I just want to know your personal feeling. It is not right or wrong.
Yes, it is for their benefit. Everybody is for their own interest. It is hard to say… If America does not go to war, then where does our living come from? They go to war because they want to make a living.
Yes, like oil. They want to make a livelihood, so they go to war. Well, [America] did not endlessly sacrifice lives. They are doing it to make a living. Like our business, why do we work so hard? It is to make a living.