CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - Thien Tang was 14 when he joined the millions of refugees escaping war-torn Communist Vietnam between 1979 and 1980 by means of an overcrowded boat.
He knew before leaving home of the dangers the voyage would entail but not their extent.
“We had heard on the radio about boats being attacked by pirates, getting lost at sea, starvation and typhoons,” recalled the resident of Charlottetown, who has lived to tell the tale and give a voice to the nameless faces with his new book called “The Other Side of the Sun”.
“To write about events that happened some 30 years ago required digging into the darkest corners of my mind to haul out the bits and pieces of sorrowful memories, while carefully handling them like hand grenades,” he said.
Tang, the son of a wealthy Chinese businessman, was living in South Vietnam before the Communist State forced them to surrender into poverty. One evening Tang was ordered by his father to go into hiding again, but this time there would be no hope of a return.
Filled with hope for a better future, Tang would eventually cross the treacherous South China Sea to reach Malaysia.
He shared the scariest part of being at sea: “It was the anticipation of death.”
His ship was boarded by pirates armed with knives intent on stealing what little the frightened passengers carried. They took the money Tang had with him – money he was planning to use to start his new life.
“I was the first in their sight, the first that would die when they reached the boat. I still remember the feeling of watching them getting closer, while swimming with knives between their teeth and the feeling of death approaching.”
“We had heard on the radio about boats being attacked by pirates, getting lost at sea, starvation and typhoons. To write about events that happened some 30 years ago required digging into the darkest corners of my mind to haul out the bits and pieces of sorrowful memories, while carefully handling them like hand grenades.”
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) compiled statistics on piracy the Vietnamese boats encountered in 1981 and found 578 women had been raped; 228 women had been abducted and 881 people were dead or missing.
Tang and his fellow refugees survived the attack, only to reach land and be shot at by police. They were then tortured, beaten and starved by the iron-fist guards behind the barbed-wire of the Malaysian refugee camp.
“We live in two worlds where expectations are different,” he stated. “There was a lack of human respect for people coming from the Third World because of the struggles with poverty… When you are a refugee you are always a refugee. I accept this as disability of my life – to never be completely free in my mind.”
Tang still vividly dreams about each chapter of his life and it sometimes brings tears to his eyes.
But, ultimately, his story is one of hope, survival and true inspiration.
“There are many refugees in the world and I suspect they all have personal stories without a venue to tell. Perhaps the next time you meet some refugees, you will be able to tag my story to those nameless faces and feel as if you know them,” he said.
P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan is one Islander who has become familiar with Tang’s personal story. He wrote a review on Tang's book.
“This is a graphic and beautifully written account of Thien Tang’s 30-month plight as a refugee from Vietnam during the ‘boat people’ exodus. It teaches us much about human resilience, optimism in the face of extraordinary hardship, love, evil and memory.”
Tang hopes “The Other Side of the Sun” can be introduced into the P.E.I. high school curriculum to shed light on the plight of a refugee in Canada. His journey to freedom took 37 months to plan and 193 days to complete.
Anyone who would like more information should visit www.theothersideofthesun.pub.