UK public ‘not as welcoming’ to us today, says post-war Vietnamese migrant

A Vietnamese migrant who fled her home country just after the Vietnam War before reaching the UK has said the public is “not as welcoming” to migrants today.

Yen Hoang Lam, 52, a GP from Wallington, near Croydon, left Vietnam in the late 1970s by boat aged five with her mother, father and younger twin brothers.

Ms Lam, who spent five years in Scotland before moving to England, told the PA news agency: “Five of us got on a rickety boat and I remember the fumes of petrol, the smell of vomiting.

“One of my earliest memories is actually seeing my father cry, as he had to… sell everything to get money to get passage to Macau initially.”

Old family photo of a Vietnamese family
Yen Hoang Lam (left) with her mother, father and younger twin brothers in Hong Kong (Yen Hoang Lam)

Ms Lam’s father, Manh Hoang, is of Chinese heritage and part of Vietnam’s ethnic minority known as Hoa, a community which was exiled from Vietnam between 1978 and 1979.

She said her parents’ friends “all turned against them and people spied on them”, which prompted her family to flee via boat to Macau before settling in Hong Kong for one year.

At the time, the UK was among a list of countries accepting Vietnamese migrants, which Ms Lam’s father chose because “he felt the weather was the most temperate”.

The family were flown to Livingston in Scotland and Ms Lam described her time there as positive saying she was “very well received in the community”.

“The neighbors were kind and helpful and helped my parents out a lot. They helped them to learn to drive and supported them to settle into the community,” she said.

She recalls a time she was racially abused by some older pupils at her school, but said that was “the only occasion I ever had anything like this” after her headmaster punished the students.

She believes the UK public’s current perception of migrants is not the same as her experience more than 40 years ago.

“The public is not as accepting or welcoming now,” she said.

“The feeling towards migrants is very poor. In my time, people were very kind to us because it was new.

“I think there wasn’t as much bad feeling.”

Doctor in mask making
Yen Hoang Lam, a GP from Croydon, fled her home country via boat aged five shortly after the Vietnam War (Yen Hoang Lam)

A new exhibition curated by Voice ESEA, a non-profit organization aiming to dispel discrimination against the East and South East Asian (ESEA) community in the UK, will feature the history of the ESEA community in Britain, including another story about a Vietnamese family who fled their home country to the UK via boat.

Choon Young Tan, 35, head of events at Voice ESEA said the exhibition is designed to spotlight the “hidden” history of the British ESEA community.

He told PA: “It’s uncovering and showcasing British East and Southeast Asian history as far as the 1500s to now detailing our journeys coming from Southeast Asia and our struggles, for example, with racism and assimilation.

“But it also highlights our triumphs, showing how embedded we are into British history.

“I think uncovering these stories completely transforms your sense of belonging and confidence to exist fully and proudly.

“We want (the ESEA community) to be seen and we want their stories to be told, which is why a lot of these stories have been told from the perspective of those people from those communities.”

Ms Lam said the new exhibition is a good way to “document” the stories of the Vietnamese community post-war.

She said: “(The Vietnamese community) is now no longer in people’s ken. It was a long time ago, so a lot of people wouldn’t know about it.

“It’s good to document that good can come from really horrible situations like that.”

The exhibition, named Yellow Peril Awareness Day, will take place in Bethnal Green, London and Ancoats, Manchester on May 6, which marks the day the US signed a federal law excluding Chinese immigrants from entering the country.

Mr Tan explained: “That was one of the most large-scale anti-immigration laws against a specific ethnic group.

“Although it happened in the US, it definitely had knock-on effects in the UK.”

Mr Tan added the name of the exhibition has been contentious among the ESEA community, but made clear the term also refers to a general fear, mistrust and hatred for Chinese and other Asians.

“That term describes the act of anti-ESEA sentiments, racism, discrimination and prejudice because of people’s hatred and fears,” he said.

“The idea is we’re raising awareness of what’s happened in our history.”

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