top of page

East meets West

As Told By: Simon

A personal essay about my upbringing in the UK and the experiences of my family who arrived as boat people after the Vietnam War.


  • My Name is Simon
  • I am based in London, UK
  • This story is about Me
  • Text 2

    Text 1

  • Childhood Address: London, UK
  • Departure Location: Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
  • Text 2

    Text 1

    Text 2

    Text 1

    Text 2

    Text 2

    My Story

    00:00 / 01:04

    My family are part of the Vietnamese boat people – refugees who decided to take a risk on a rickety boat after the end of an infamous war which decimated millions of people on both sides, but destroyed our rural peasant nation so much more. They took a risk for a better life and decided to pay off some pirates for a place on a rickety wooden boat and set out with no navigation, no maritime expertise, no plans nor preparation – on a wing and a prayer into a sea so great and a boat so small. What was a good plan though, was to take a blank white canvas, paint the three letters ‘SOS’ and raise it onto a pole off the bow. Eventually a British Navy ship would save the lives of mine and all those families within the same village who summoned the courage (and the money) to be on that boat.

    As these Brits had rescued us, they were now partly responsible for offering us refuge in their green and pleasant land - but not without some governmental pushback. In an eponymous decade for Western leaders in the 1980s, that pushback came from, you guessed it, Thatcher. In recent years, Downing Street files were released where during that period, Thatcher expressed grave concerns about settling Vietnamese refugees into the UK. In one file, she said that she “had far less objection to refugees, such as Rhodesians, Poles and Hungarians, since they could more easily be assimilated into British society".

    Thus, it so turned out that we didn’t have Thatcher to idolise and pay homage to as our new saviour, but actually Thatcher’s cabinet ministers, Peter Carington and Willie Whitelaw, who were so instrumental in persuading the then prime minister to honour her international obligations after seeing first-hand the destitution and suffering of Vietnamese refugees in the Hong Kong camps. As a politically progressive person and a member of the Labour Party, you can imagine how this sits awkwardly with me. But political persuasions set aside, it would be wrong of me not to pay tribute to the late Lord Carington and Lord Whitelaw, for if it were not for them, I may not have the free vanity nor the words to write this.

    Our families were allocated council housing in some admittedly questionable parts of the country; my folks ended up in a burgeoning industrial town called Craigavon (named after old-school sectarian and former Northern Ireland prime minister James Craig), about thirty minutes outside of Belfast. With the luxury of hindsight (and having not been conceived yet), I have to question the motives of Thatcher’s government plopping a group of foreigners seeking refuge from a bloody conflict, into a region where the local people were engaged - in a bloody conflict. I suppose British irony was not just a reserve of our nation’s famous comedic establishment, but of the governing establishment too. 

    Now imagine a micro-community of poor East Asians, being parachuted into an area like Northern Ireland, where the term ‘diversity’ connotes what type of fervent White Christian you are. What you think would happen, once we were settled into this homogenised host community, almost certainly did happen. Spat on as we walked in the street, hounded out of our council houses, abused verbally and physically, bullied, discriminated against, vermin put through our letter boxes – you name it, they did it. What became more poignant for me, was that all these stories were not told to me during fireside chats by my parents, but by the parents of my friends, my teachers and those who were old enough to witness the actions of bigotry and indignity in the 1980s. My generation had been deliberately shielded by our parents from these past moments of attack, these threats against our community and our lives. 

    So naturally, a number of our families decided to move to the metropolis of London, where there was a more established Vietnamese community, though in the same vein as Northern Ireland, those families who settled into areas like East London did not experience a warm reception themselves. London was where my sister and I was born - West London oddly enough, in a semi-detached two-bedroom shack just off the M4 motorway in a town called Brentford. It was in Brentford where I attended a wonderful school, made my first group of friends with whom I still remain in contact, and where I felt an initial sense of belonging. Not that we stayed around for long though. It almost felt like we were inherently nomadic – we would loyally make the journey across the city every weekend from Brentford, to Kidbrooke in the South-east, just to spend time with my extended family – my grandmother, my aunt, uncles and my umpteen cousins who all lived in the Brutalist working-class enclave of the now defunct Ferrier estate. Run a quick Google search on the Ferrier and you will see for yourself how much of an eyesore that place used to be – for all intents and purposes, it was brutal. Despite the deprivation amidst the brutalist backdrop, what no one outside of my family could ever understand, is that those times spent in each other’s council houses, in those tower blocks, in those shoddy astro-turf and concrete-laid play parks were the best times of our lives. 

    Being brought up in London for ten years, my parents had found it hard to get by in the Big Smoke and decided to run their own Chinese takeaway business back in Northern Ireland, where I had to assimilate and go through all the same rigmaroles as my folks did back in the 1980s, albeit with a softer touch. Now having spent most of my life on the Emerald Isle, it had undoubtedly been the major influence in who I am - for better and for worse. But after some time studying in the United States, sojourning in Canada and struggling to come to terms with my sexuality, the fact still remained that I yearned for belonging and home, so I moved back to the city of my birth. It is only now in my late 20s and in the midst of a global pandemic, that I have taken the time to reflect on my own identity and how much London has been at the heart of all these essential characteristics which constitute who I am. Having a working-class upbringing in London, being part of the Vietnamese diaspora in London, and ultimately returning to seek refuge as a member of one of the  most established LGBTQ communities in the world – in London. Lockdown and the law has forced me to reflect – not just on the essentiality of staying home, protecting our NHS and saving lives, but on the essentiality of class, ethnicity and sexuality in my identity. 

    My life has felt like a literal reflection; a reflection of events that are symmetrical to that of my parents and their journey to the UK. The discriminatory hardships, the choppy and uncertain waters of our peripatetic lives, and the ultimate end of calling the West our home. In my reminiscences, I can still remember those long vivid car journeys during my childhood, from Kidbrooke in the East to Brentford in the West, with my dad driving through the streetlit glow of midnight London as the rest of my family would slowly nod off to melodic Chinese mixtapes and the engine hum. I would always bag the window seat to gaze out at the undulating glittered riverwaves of the Thames in total fascination as we drove along the embankment. Looking back now, I often think about how my family would have felt that same awe and fascination, as they gazed out to the South China Sea in their journey, from East to West.

    Help us improve the site! If you see typos, kinks, or just have ideas to make it better, please tell us by completing this survey or email us at - subject line "Journeys Map".

    bottom of page