Journey to Freedom Day: The Story of the Vuong Family Told With Items In Our Chinese Canadian Archive

April 30, 2018 | Annie

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On April 30, we celebrate Journey to Freedom Day. This day remembers the massive number of boat people who fled from Vietnam to Canada in the late 1970s.

Many of these refugees were ethnic Chinese, some of whom had lived in Vietnam for generations. The Chinese Canadian Archive at Toronto Public Library preserves documents of Chinese who joined the exodus and chose Toronto as their final destination. This includes documents that tell the story of the Vuong family.

Archival boxes on shelves with labels reading Vuong
Storage for archived materials of the Vuong family in our Chinese Caanadian Archive.

Background: Chinese in Vietnam

China and Vietnam have close geographical and historical connections. Major waves of Chinese immigration to Vietnam go back as early as the 1400s. Prior to 1976 approximately 1.2 million Chinese were living in Vietnam. In the century leading to 1975, Chinese played a leading role in Vietnam's private business sector. They made up a high percentage of the middle and upper classes.

When tension increased between China and Vietnam after the Vietnam War, both ethnic Chinese and native Vietnamese fled the country between 1975 and 1979 due to political and economic changes. In commemorating the Vietnamese refugees' endeavors for freedom, we also acknowledge the ethnic Chinese who took part in this migration.

The Vuong family collection

One of the collections related to boat people in our Chinese Canadian Archive is that of the Vuong family. This family originated from Tong’an of Fujian Sheng in China (福建省同安縣) and moved to Vietnam in the early 1900s. Below is a photo of Vuong Jin Sha (王金沙) and Hong Yu Man(洪玉滿), the patriarch and matriarch of the family. The image was kept in family shrine and was paid tribute to by later generations at family events and holidays.

Patriarch and matriarch of the Vuong family in vintage photo with Chinese characters along border
 Hong Yu Man (洪玉滿) [left] and Vuong Jin Sha (王金沙) [right]. The two vertical scrolls state that Vuong family originated from Tong'an, Fujian (China). Chinese Canadian Archive.

Perilous journey to Canada

On June 9, 1978, seven members of the Vuong family, including a three-year-old boy, fled Saigon. The group escaped from one place to another, passed border inspections, were detained in refugee camps, packed into junk ships, floated on the ocean and eventually reached Canada in August 1979.

During the 14-month journey, numerous letters and photos were mailed home, narrating daily happenings. Below is the first letter from the family one week after they escaped, along with a translated excerpt. The letter narrates the happenings in the first week after they left Vietnam, including border inspections, transportation and accommodations.

 “We left Saigon via United passenger ship June 9th and arrived the coast border inspection on the afternoon of the 11th. On the 13th we arrived at the City of Hanoi on a bus and then took a train to the border area of Tongdeng. 5 o’clock in the morning of the 14th, we entered China safely…”

Two sheets of a handwritten letter in a Chinese languageTwo sheets of a handwritten letter in a Chinese language
Two sides of letter from the Vuong family after their escape from Saigon. Letter written on June 15, 1978. Chinese Canadian Archive.

This next photo was taken of the family at Yingde Tea Plantation in Guangdong Province of China (廣東英德茶廠) in November 1978. The location was one of the refugee camps they were detained at for a few months. The picture was captured illegally because photography was prohibited in the camp.

Seven members of family in sparse outdoor enviroment
Vuong family at Yingde Tea Plantation in Guangdong Province of China, November 1978. Chinese Canadian Archive.

Arriving in Canada

The Vuong family finally arrived in Toronto in August of 1979. The group felt safe and welcomed in Canada. They quickly settled and established new lives. They attended English classes, searched for employment, built businesses and grew their families. One of the very first family outings was to have their photo taken in High Park with the maple-leaf flowerbed as background, to commemorate the new-found start of life.

Family at High Park Toronto with maple leaf design in background
Vuong family in High Park, Toronto, circa 1979. Chinese Canadian Archive.
My Vi Vuong's certificate of English class
Document certifing My Vi Vuong’s completion of Communication and Business Procedure class offered by Ontario Ministry of Education in 1981. Chinese Canadian Archive.

Living in Toronto, the family's peace and enjoyment of life was restored. The have an annual family event to celebrate Canada Day at Queen’s Park. The below photo of Sing, the family's three-year-old boy, was taken on Canada Day in the year following their arrival. From then to 2000, they took a family photo every July 1 at the same location; all of these are now preserved in our Chinese Canadian Archive.

Boy holding Canadian flag on police motorcycle
Sing poses on motorcycle at Queen's Park July 1, 1980. Chinese Canadian Archive.

Looking back

Forty years have now passed since the exodus. The family’s experiences have formed a brave and encouraging history for younger generations to learn from. They left a war-torn country behind looking for a new home, surviving border inspections, diseases, starvation, ocean storms and pirate robberies.  In remembering the refugees’ journey to Canada, we also recognize the Chinese people’s involvement, because it’s not only family history but also a nation’s history that should be always remembered and valued.



Contact us

Have questions about the Chinese Canadian Archive? Interested in donating items? Get in touch at [email protected]


Edit: Revised formatting and links in post, April 2021.