You are here

1. My Childhood and Youth in Saigon

Chapter 1

My Childhood and Youth in Saigon


My family background

My Chinese name is Zhou Hui Xian. I was born in the city of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) of South Vietnam. My parents were Chinese from the southern Chinese province of Guang­dong. They moved from Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, to South Vietnam during the Japanese invasion of China. At that time they thought that they would stay temporarily in Vietnam for a few years, and that once the war was over they can re­turn to Guangzhou. But soon afterwards, Vietnam too was captured by the Japanese, which made it very difficult for the people in Vietnam to make a living. By the time the war was over, my parents were impoverished, and couldn’t afford the ship fare to go back to China. They were stranded in South Vietnam, yet they held on to the hope that one day, after saving enough money, they could go back home.


But shortly after the war of resistance against the Japanese had been won, the war of liberation in China got under way. The political situation in China changed rapidly, and within just a few years, the Nationalist government had moved to Taiwan, where­as the government of the People’s Republic of China was established in Beijing. Vietnam was also divided, into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. South Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China were opposed to each other, and there were no diplomatic relations between them. The people of these two coun­tries were not allowed to commun­icate with one another, so my parents lost contact with their family members in the Chinese city of Guangzhou.


After Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam in 1954, the South Vietnamese govern­ment realized that the population of South Vietnam was smaller than that of North Vietnam. If in the future a referendum is held for the whole of Vietnam on a political decision, South Vietnam would certainly lose. So they came up with the idea of forcing all the Chinese in South Vietnam to give up their Chinese citizenship and take up Vietnamese citizenship. Many wealthy Chinese left South Vietnam; some went back to Hong Kong, some to Taiwan. But my parents were so poor that they couldn’t leave South Vietnam, and had to stay there. The method by which the South Vietnamese govern­ment forced the Chinese to take up Vietnamese citizenship was very simple: just change their place of birth from China to Vietnam, and issue them Vietnamese IDs. In one flash the Chinese in South Vietnam became Vietnamese born in Vietnam. My parents were angry about this, and resolutely held on to their Chinese passports. Even though the passports had no more legal value, they were the only proof of their Chinese identity, and were priceless to them for that reason.


I have two elder brothers and one elder sister; I am the youngest in the family. Because my family was very poor, my two brothers started working at a young age. My sister, after completing primary school, studied a bit of English but also worked. Because I was the youngest, my mother didn’t want me to stop my studies right after finishing primary school. But all the Chinese secondary schools in Vietnam were private schools, with high tuition fees that my parents could not afford. But Vietnamese-language schools had tuition fees that were so low that my parents had no option but to let me do my secondary education at a Vietnamese school. At my school I had no opportunity to study Chinese, so my parents encouraged me to learn Chinese on my own, and never to abandon the Chinese language.


My mother missed her parents and siblings in Guangzhou very much. She disliked Vietnam, and had always longed to return to her homeland to reunite with her family. Perhaps due to my mother’s influence, I also didn’t like Vietnam even though I was born and raised in Vietnam. Ever since childhood I had longed to leave Viet­nam and study overseas. I was keenly aware that my family was poor. Even though my parents had tried their best to give me a good education, they could only afford to send me to a Vietnamese-language school. It was simply impossible for me to study overseas. I therefore resolved to attain the best academic results possible so that I may apply for a national scholarship. I liked mathematics and physics, and hoped to study physics at an overseas science and technology institute to become a physicist. I dreamed that after finishing my studies, I will sponsor my parents to go over­seas. They can either live with me or go back to China, whichever they choose.


Saigon liberated

While I was studying very hard to fulfill my dream of studying overseas, the political situation in South Vietnam was in upheaval. At the start of 1975, North Vietnam carried out a powerful assault on South Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese armies were capturing one city after another in the south. In just four or five months, the North Vietnamese armies reached the outskirts of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The diplomats at the American embassy and American military personnel were evacuating quickly. South Vietnamese government officials were fleeing the country with a huge amount of gold and American dollars that they had amassed through corruption. On April 30th of 1975, the North Vietnamese armies captured Saigon; soon the whole of South Vietnam was liberated, and Vietnam was reunited as one country.


The North Vietnamese tanks were roaming the streets of Saigon while their soldiers were taking control of the South Vietnamese government buildings. Their victory songs, such as the one that goes, “It was as if Uncle Ho was around on the day of the great victory,” were sung everywhere (Uncle Ho is the nickname of Ho Chi Minh, the late North Vietnamese political leader). I pondered on the things that were happening before me, and my mind went blank, with neither joy nor sadness. I had no idea what the new government would do to change the economy and society, but I knew that my dream of studying overseas to become a physicist had been destroyed by these tanks and cannons.


Yet many Chinese Vietnamese in Saigon, including my parents, clung to a hope. They thought that because of the assistance given by the Soviet Union and China in the past few decades that enabled Vietnam’s glorious victory today, the Vietnamese government would treat the Chinese Vietnamese kindly, and allow them to get back their Chinese citizenship and return to China. This wishful thinking was widespread among the Chinese Vietnamese in Saigon, and many of them were excited about it.


Meanwhile my mother had lost contact with her family members in Guangzhou for more than 30 years, and didn’t even know if they were dead or alive, or where they were living. I came up with an idea: I wrote a letter on her behalf to the Chinese authorities in Guangzhou. I told them my mother’s story and gave them her family’s address in Guangzhou which was valid thirty something years earlier. I asked the authorities to help my mother locate her family members. I didn’t know the address of the Guangzhou government administrat­ion, so I simply wrote the following address: “Commit­tee of Guangzhou Administration, the Province of Guangdong, People’s Republic of China.”


Two or three weeks later, we received a letter from Guangzhou. The sender’s name, whose family name was “Liu,” matched my uncle’s name. When my mother saw the name, her tears flowed. Inside the envelope were photos of my grandmother, my uncle, my aunt, and other family members, with a long letter written by my uncle. That was the first time my mother had received news and photos of her family in thirty something years. She learned that her own father had died. The elder of her two brothers had been captured by the Japanese, and forced into labor. He later escaped and fled to Hong Kong, then to Indonesia. Then there was no more news about him, so no one knew if he was dead or alive.


My mother got very excited, and immediately sent a letter with our photos to her family members in Guangzhou. From then on, she all the more longed to go back to Guang­zhou. But the situation in Vietnam made the Chinese Vietnamese go from high hope to disappoint­ment, then to despair!


My first experience of the saving power of Yahweh, the only true God

After the liberation, the Vietnamese government began to expose and criticize rich families. Private companies were being nationalized, and the Vietnamese currency was changed twice. All this led to the collapse of the economy of South Vietnam, and most of its people became unemployed. The government decreed that all the unem­ployed would cultivate the wasteland in the so-called “economic zone”. Many were sent to the economic zone, but the conditions there were so bad that most of them escaped back to Saigon.


Because my family was poor and my parents were handicrafts­men, we were not affected by the new policies against the wealthy. But at school, teachers and students alike had to attend classes in political studies. Everyone had to participate in the discussions and sing songs of praise to Uncle Ho and the Vietnamese government. I simply couldn’t bring myself to sing these songs and to speak these insincere flattering words, so I decided to quit my studies. Ever since my childhood I had always loved to study, so this was a very painful decision for me to make. My parents knew me through and through, and knew that I wasn’t doing this out of laziness, so they respected my decision.


But as soon as I quit my studies, I became an unemployed youth. This became a big problem for me because the government had decreed that all unem­ployed youths must take turns to do volunteer work in the “economic zone”. But ever since childhood, I had always been very weak and frail physically, so how could I ever survive the extremely bad conditions of the economic zone? Not only that, some young girls went to work in the zone and ended up being gang raped. They escaped back to Saigon, and some of them committed suicide. The rich families would hire workers to substitute for their children to work in the economic zone, but how could my parents afford to hire someone to substitute for me? My mother and I then decided that as soon as I receive the draft order to work in the economic zone, the two of us would commit suicide together. I was my mother’s hope in life, so if I died, she wouldn’t live either. Once we made up our minds, we became much more at peace.


The government’s conscription campaign reached deep into the various districts of Saigon, from one street to the next, from one house to the next. The unemployed youths of every family had to do volunteer work in the economic zone. At the appointed time, the government would send big trucks to pick them up. My family lived in a small alley that was part of a big street whose houses had already received the government’s conscription directive. My mother and I thought that our time was coming, but then something amazing happened, or didn’t happen.


There were 35 houses in our small alley, but the conscription order never reached these 35 houses. The “econ­omic zone volunteer work” campaign had been going on for a long time, starting from the middle of 1975. It was still going on at the beginning of 1978 when I left Saigon. Almost all the unemployed youths in Saigon had received the order to do volunteer work in the “economic zone” at least once; some were even called several times. But not those who were living in the 35 houses of the alley.


Many of my friends who lived outside the alley were called to work in the economic zone, and they hired workers to substitute for them. When we all came together and talked about the volunteer work in the economic zone, none of them believed me when I told them that I had never received any such order from the government. They said to me, “Just admit it, your parents hired someone to substitute for you. It’s no big deal, we’re all doing the same.” But no matter how much I explained my situation to them, they simply wouldn’t believe me.


Because the government searched for — and summoned — the youths according to the household registration records, it was technically impossible to miss anyone. So it seemed that a pair of mighty hands had covered the eyes of the officials, who didn’t see the 35 houses in that small alley that was part of a big street. As a result, the youths living in the alley were able to escape the conscription order.


At that time I did not know the only true God Yahweh and His Son Jesus Christ. My parents were traditional Buddhists, and I too was a Buddhist following my parents. Yahweh God is full of righteousness and lovingkindness, just as the Bible says: “He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Although my mother and I were not Christians, when we were in desperate situations, Yahweh God had mercy on us and raised His mighty hand to rescue us. That was the first time I experienced God’s amazing love.


Mother passes away

My mother had two hopes in life: the first is to see me achieve my academic goals, the second is to return to her homeland, China. In all her years in Vietnam, she had been ill most of the time, and it was these two hopes in life that gave her the strength to fight the sicknesses. But after the liberation of Saigon, she saw that my studies and future prospects had been destroyed. At the start of the liberation, my mother was still hopeful that she will return to China one day. And especially after she had found her lost family members, she was all the more eager to return to her homeland. But later she saw that the new government had never intended to let the Chinese Vietnamese go back to China, and realized that she simply had no hope of going back home. Her two hopes in life were dashed to pieces one after the other, and her physical health was getting worse and worse.


At that time, most of the French and American medical doctors were leaving Vietnam. There was also a severe shortage of medicines. Even hospitals didn’t have a sufficient supply of medicines. A lot of the medicines were being sold on the black market at very high prices. Because of the shortage of doctors and medicines, my mother did not receive good medical care. In 1976, one year after the liberation of South Vietnam, my mother started having abdominal pain. The pain was getting worse and worse, and she had to take painkillers every day. I often had to go to the black market to buy painkillers for her. One of our neighbors, a nurse with a few decades of nursing experience, saw that my mother’s situation was not right, and suggested to us to take my mother to a cancer hospital for a checkup.


So my mother and I went for an examination at the cancer hospital. The diagnosis was uterine cancer just as our neighbor had predicted. But my mother and I were neither sad nor panicky because we had already planned to commit suicide once the government drafts me into volunteer labor in the “economic zone”. It is said that “nothing is sadder than a withered heart,” so not even cancer was too scary for us.


The cancer hospital arranged for my mother to undergo chemotherapy. After the first treatment, she felt extremely tired, and her whole body became very weak. She saw that the other patients were getting weaker and weaker after a few treatments, to the point that their every movement needed support from other people. So my mother decided to stop the treatment and to be discharged immediately. Her reason was that since most of the cancer patients would die anyways, especially with the shortage of medicines and doctors, what’s the point of going through more suffering from chemotherapy? She felt that if life were happy and full of hope, then one would have a reason to live longer. But if life is painful and full of despair, even if one could live to the age of a hundred, the treatment would simply prolong the suffering, in which case it would be better to end life earlier. After her two hopes in life had been dashed to pieces, my mother all the more lost the will to fight the sickness.

癌症医院让母亲住院接受化疗。但经过第一次疗程后,母亲觉得非常疲倦,浑身软绵绵的。她看见邻床的病人经过数次治疗后,身体越来越衰弱,一举一动都需要别人搀扶。母亲毅然决定不再接受化疗,立刻出院。她的理由是既然大部分的癌症病人都不能治好 (在当时医生和药品都缺乏的情况下,大部分的癌症病人都治不好),最后难免一死,那又何苦要受化疗这种活罪呢?而且她认为如果生活是幸福快乐的话,那当然谁都想活得长寿一点,但如果活在绝望痛苦当中,即使长命百岁也没意思,只是延长痛苦而已,倒不如早点结束。母亲一生的两个盼望都被粉碎后,她已失去了生存的意志,她不想再与病魔搏斗了。

Her health was deteriorating rapidly, and in just a few months, she could no longer go out of the house. But the strange thing was that she didn’t feel too much pain. She only needed the ordinary painkiller every day; it was not like the case of a cancer patient who needed to take very strong painkillers such as morphine to stop the pain.


My mother started planning for things beyond her death. She told me not to bury her in Vietnam, but to have her body cremated and her ashes brought home. Ever since the day South Vietnam was liberated, a lot of people were escaping out of the country, so my mother told me to find a way to escape out of Vietnam. She asked me to bring her ashes with me when I escape. In the future, when I have the chance to go to China, I must bring her ashes back to Guangzhou to be buried there. But if I cannot escape from Vietnam — in which case I wouldn’t live long either, as she was fully aware — her ashes are to be scattered in the ocean before I die. She also asked my father to find me a way of escape to a foreign country so that I could rebuild my future and wouldn’t be stifled in Vietnam.


On May 23rd 1977 my mother died. In accordance with her wishes, we had her body cremated, and kept the ashes at home. I wrote to my uncle in Guangzhou to tell him the sad news. My mother’s family members were devastated, for they had been hopeful that after thirty something years, the whole family could be reunited. I kept in contact with my uncle, who also expressed the hope that I will bring my mother’s ashes back to Guangzhou.

1977年5 月23日母亲去世了。我们遵照她的遗言把她火化,把她的骨灰保存在家里。我写信给广州的舅舅告诉他这个噩耗。广州的亲人都非常沉痛,他们满以为失散三十多年的骨肉很快就可以团聚,谁知道我母亲却去世了。我继续和舅舅保持联系,他希望我想办法带着母亲的骨灰到广州去。

(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church