When Deanne Do gave her retirement speech at the Tong Fong Oriental restaurant in the New South Wales country town of Coonamble, grown men were “sobbing” as she recounted her family’s harrowing journey to Australia.
It had been 35 years since her family bought the small town’s only Chinese restaurant. But after numerous failed attempts to sell the business before they retired, it was now closing down. The restaurant was packed for the farewell party.
“Grown men were just sobbing, truly sobbing, when they heard her speech and it didn’t even touch on half of it,” her close friend Betty Edwards recalls as Deanne spoke of pirates, guns, being robbed twice and nearly drowning while trying to protect her young family.
Deanne had prepared a speech to thank everyone in the community who had helped them start their new life. Edwards says nobody in the town really knew what the family had been through before Coonamble.
“They looked at me and said, ‘Betty, did you know all this?’ I said, ‘Of course’, and they were like, ‘Oh my God,’” Edwards says.
‘We had very hard lives’
Deanne and her husband, Minh, arrived in Coonamble from Vietnam via Malaysia in 1976 with their three children, Tu, Chau and Lindy. All they had were their clothes and $100 from a piece of gold that Minh had hidden from the pirates in a bag of rice.
Their journey began a year earlier as the Vietnam war was coming to an end. Under the cover of darkness, Deanne and Minh climbed onboard a wooden boat, while their two young sons – Tu and Chau, aged three and 18 months – were thrown into their arms from friends who were helping them escape.
The boat was 14m long and 6m wide, with 42 refugees onboard.
“It was bad in Vietnam, we had very hard lives and we did not know what would happen in the future,” she says. “I was really scared. But it was what we had to do.”
The boat journey took three days. They survived a storm, pirates, being shot at by the Malaysian army and they nearly drowned trying to reach the refugee camp on Pulau Bidong.
When the pirates came, they took everything – jewellery, wallets, money, anything of value – but Deanne says she felt lucky no one was killed.
They spent eight months at the Pulau Bidong refugee camp, an island off Malaysia. There was no easily accessible drinking water and food was scarce.
The family were the first from their boat to be accepted by Australian immigration officials. By the time they were relocated to a medical transit camp in Kuala Lumpur, Deanne was nine months pregnant with their daughter, Lindy.
Five hours after she gave birth by herself in a local hospital, Deanne was “shipped” back to the transit camp “with no medication, nothing at all”. Lindy was two months old when they were finally allowed to fly to Australia.
‘If they can’t pay it back, I will pay you’
A drought, failed piggery and destroyed market garden were among the many more setbacks the family faced after they settled in Coonamble.
But Deanne says she is thankful to everyone who supported them from day one, including Bede Waterford, a solicitor who also ran the local St Vincent de Paul.
Minh had been working at the Chinese restaurant and learning how to cook. The former owners were ready to sell their business.
“When I tried to borrow $40,000 from the bank, they said no,” Deanne says. “Then Bede rang them and said, ‘You let them borrow the money. I will sign the paper for you. If they can’t pay it back, I will pay you.’”
A few years later, they had paid off the loan and their business was thriving.
Dr Jillian Kelly grew up in Coonamble and went to primary school with the Dos’ youngest daughter, Lindy. She says all three children went to boarding school, university and now have “exceptional careers”.
Kelly says the family never stopped working, even during the pandemic when everything else had closed.
Now 75 and 70, Minh and Deanne tried multiple times to sell their business before retiring but no one was forthcoming.
“I just hold my breath and hope someone comes to buy the restaurant,” Deanne says. “I think if no one comes to cook, I’ll have to teach [the town] how to cook.”
Kelly says the town’s birthdays, celebrations and special dinners were all held at the Chinese restaurant.
“A lot of the happy memories that we all gathered as kids are built around that restaurant,” she says.
“It’s provided them with a really good living and it’s just a great addition to our town. I’d really love to see somebody take it on, but it seems to be the way with businesses in small towns.”
When Deanne and Minh announced they were going to retire in early January, Kelly says it made everyone reflect on how important the family are and how much the town will miss the Chinese restaurant.
“They couldn’t answer the phone quick enough,” she says. “They completely ran out of food a few nights, like everybody wanted one last Chinese meal because we knew how good it was.”
Deanne says Coonamble is her home and she never wants to leave.
“It is their home and they’re very much a part of our community,” Kelly says.
“When you’ve come from a war-torn country, or great trauma, uncertainty and insecurity from a country like that, a small country town is probably one of the nicest places you could land because you’re not just lost in the crowd.”