Amy Hoang. HELEN TRAN

Local professor pens tribute to her Vietnamese father

Amy Hoang used to hate the ocean. It brought back painful memories of her father and sister, who drowned in the Pacific Ocean, escaping the Communist regime in Vietnam, which had confiscated all that her family owned, and had threatened them with prison and torture.

It has taken Hoang 30 years to reconcile with her past, and to be able to speak— and write—about her family’s perilous journey to freedom.

Her book, Anchorless, is a tribute to her father, Hoang Trong Phu, who died at age 60 in 1985. He was the patriarch of the family of 12—their “anchor.” The book’s title has a secondary meaning, referring to the fact that the small boat on which her father, mother, and nine-year-old sister were travelling had lost its anchor after setting off, a bad omen to those refugees aboard.

Hoang calls Anchorless “creative non-fiction,” written from the perspective of her father as he describes his family’s life in Vietnam, the onset of war, and the family’s planned escape. He details his own death, his bargain with God, and ultimate reunion with his family when his ashes are taken to California to be interred with those of his wife, in 2015.

Amy is the name Hoang chose when she arrived in Canada, in 1984, having spent time in a refugee camp in Indonesia after her flight from Vietnam with her siblings by boat in 1983. It is the name she uses today, teaching mathematics at Niagara College, where she has worked for 24 years. (“Jolie” Hoang is the name she uses as an author. It is the nickname her father gave her.)

The Hoang family became wealthy in the 1960s, when Amy’s father, a contractor, built numerous roads, houses, schools, hospitals, and military barracks for the US military in what was then South Vietnam. The Americans paid in cash, and the Hoangs soon had amassed a small fortune. As the war escalated in the mid-1960s, Amy’s father knew that he must plan to get his family out, and began taking suitcases of Vietnamese currency to Saigon to be exchanged for gold bullion ingots, a more stable and portable currency. He used the gold bars to bribe corrupt government officials and smugglers to arrange for his family to flee to safety.

Hoang pays tribute in her book to not only her father, but another man who dramatically impacted her life. Hamilton Mountain MPP John Smith, who passed away in 2018, was the driving force behind a charity called The Mountain Fund to Help the Boat People. Over a 14-year period, the program sponsored hundreds of Vietnamese refugees, including Hoang and her siblings, and relocated them to Hamilton.

By any measure, Hoang and her siblings have done well. They earned university degrees and commenced successful careers. Her brothers became engineers and prosperous businessmen in California and Florida. Amy graduated from McMaster, Brock, and Mohawk. She moved to Fonthill, where her three daughters all attended E. L. Crossley and proceeded to Ontario universities.

“For many years, my daughters had asked me how my father died, and the pain was still so great that I could not find the words. I told them that when they were older, I would tell them. So I wrote this book, to give them their answers, and to give myself inner peace.”

Hoang has inherited her spirituality from her parents, who were Buddhists.

“I think you live your life so as to leave blessings for your children. In the book, my father makes a kind of bargain with God. He didn’t want to go to straight to heaven when he died. He wanted to be a ghost, so as to stay with his children and watch over them. So that’s what I think, that his spirit lingers around us.”

Negativity related to immigrants and refugees worries Hoang, who views them as people who often risk their lives seeking a better life in a country that promotes freedom. She says that immigrants are willing to work hard and contribute to society if given the opportunity.

Hoang will hold a book signing at the Pelham Library in Fonthill this Saturday, February 22, from 10:30 AM until 12:30 PM, and at the Fairview Mall’s Chapter’s bookstore, on May 23, from 1 to 4 PM.

Copies of the book are available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book via her website, www.joliehoang.com