Ka Fue Lay

Digital video
HD 1920x1080 mp4
Running time: 9mins 33secs (loop)
Sound: 2 speaker stereo
Year of production: 2014
By Victor Sloan

Ka Fue Lay tells the story of his escape from Vietnam by boat in 1979, by showing his own personal photographs. He managed to escape in a wooden fishing boat with his two older brothers and 294 others, to eventually arrive in the new city of Craigavon in Northern Ireland, via Taiwan and England.

He now lives in Salisbury, England with his wife and three children.

The following is his own story, told to me, when I recently visited Salisbury to meet him:

Ka Fue Lay
Escaping from Vietnam in 1979
Extracts from Ka Fue Lay’s Story

Ka Fue Kay in Salisbury

I was born and brought up in a village called Song Mao in the South of Vietnam. It is about 120 miles to the North-East of Saigon, which is now called Ho Chi Minh City. It is not far from the East Coast, in the county of Binh Thuan, the administrative centre of which is Phan Thiet (famous for fish sauce).

Song Mao only came into existence in the 1950s, when a large number of mainly ethnic Chinese refugees arrived from the North, after the French lost the final battle to the Viet Cong at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Life in Song Mao was hard, especially after liberation. Nobody had anything. Our land, that helped feed a large family, was confiscated. We disappeared into the jungle, partly to avoid the security services harassment, and partly to clear the forest to reclaim some land for cultivation.

This meant months and months of hard labour, chopping down trees with blunt knives, and digging up tree stumps in the burning sun with little to wear and little to eat. I also looked after water buffalos; hunting wild animals with dogs and spears and catching fish bare handed in the river. There was no certainty of where the next meal would come from.

We ate a lot of wild vegetation and roots while struggling against malaria. The village centre and streets were lifeless, as no private enterprise was allowed.

There were no shops, no cafes, no cinema – nothing. There were no street lights, and the place felt abandoned in darkness at night.

We had to create our own entertainment. For me, it was the guitar, learning Chinese and English (mostly self taught), so that I could gain access to more reading books (books in Vietnamese from the last regime were largely either confiscated or destroyed for being too bourgeois) - I could go on forever, but ……

In 1979, on my third attempt, I managed to escape in a wooden fishing boat with two older brothers and 294 others (the second time, I and some others jumped onto a Russian fishing vessel and nearly missed it, as well as nearly being crushed by two vessels, and we had to sleep in grave holes for a week).

We were very fortunate to be picked up by a British cargo ship after a few days in the sea. We stayed on board for about a month near Taiwan harbour.

After the general election in the UK, when Mrs Thatcher was elected as prime minister, we were allowed to come in the UK by means of a chartered flight from Taiwan.

We were then transported to three refugee camps in Lincoln, Warwick and Middlesex. After about a month or so, we were told we could not remain at the centre for long, and to resettle either in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

We sensibly chose the latter on the advice that it had better public transport, and that Scotland would be too cold. So, in September 1979, we took the ferry and arrived in Craigavon to begin a new life.

I had mixed feelings about life in Craigavon. We were made to feel special and welcome in our new home by the many warm-hearted people and volunteers (these people always have a special place in my heart).

The public transport did live up to expectations, and barricades by men carrying guns were all familiar (it did help home sickness and the feeling of being in a foreign land!). I did not like the food at first. I did not like the weather either – too wet and too cold. I used to sit by the window wishing to see some dry yellow grass and dust, lifted off the bare earth by the wind.

I was so glad to have come to Ireland though, as I’d never experienced such hospitality anywhere else. I also had the opportunity to go to school, have music lessons, and making some life-long friends.

I did not want to leave Ireland at all, but my eldest brother had made the decision. He had had a holiday in Bristol, where he ran into a distant cousin - whom we were vaguely aware of but never had any contact – and instantly recognised our relationship by our middle name.

My brother decided that we should join her, so within a matter of weeks he arranged for me and my other brother Ka Ly to come and lodge with this cousin and her husband’s family. From then on, my brother and I floated from one place to another, living for short periods with different families from Vietnam, very unsettling, and I got quite ill while trying to do my ‘O’ Level exams.

I then got a job as a hotel waiter in Sidmouth, Devon and went to study music (guitar, clarinet, piano and theory) on my only day off in Exeter. I came back to Bristol after a year and then went to live in Birmingham, Malvern and London in some very high crime rate areas. I eventually married and moved back to Bristol and then Salisbury.

During all this time, I never lost touch with my Irish friends. I always sent them Christmas cards, presents (and vice versa), and brought my whole family over to see them.

I went back on my own last Spring and stayed for a week. It felt like coming home, going back to my roots – at least one of my deep and tender roots. I would have liked to see many more friends and teachers with whom I have lost contact completely - thanks to my sudden departure from Craigavon (almost as bad as when I fled Vietnam!)

Having floated about for years, I have now settled down with my wife Katharine (whose great grandfather was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain) and 3 children (the eldest is Emily, was a chorister at Salisbury cathedral, and now reading German at Oxford; Tom doing photography, and Alexia is on her 3rd year in the local girls’ grammar school).

I work as a social care manager, jointly managing a team of about 60 social workers and occupational therapist etc. covering the South of Wiltshire. I also translate and interpret in my spare time.

When not at work, I enjoy allotment farming, playing racket sports and organise sport events and badminton clubs.

I also chaired the Chinese Association in Wiltshire (now defunct due to no funds and no time!). I also like organising social events, bringing people from different parts of the world together – not to mention getting my own big family together once a year (the next one is going to be in Salisbury cathedral’s grounds, when my eldest brother is celebrating his golden anniversary. My wife Katherine teaches English and coaches 11+ students. She also sings in the local choir and plays the violin in the orchestra.

Life is mostly settled and peaceful now, compared with my younger days. We have become very much part of the local community here in Salisbury. We are planning to have a family holiday in Vietnam in the summer.

I don’t have any immediate family members in Vietnam as they all came over to the UK eventually. I do, however, still keep in close contact with my best primary school friend there, who I have been financially supporting for many years.

Ka Fue Lay

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