Vietnamese refugee reflects on life in Wisconsin 36 years after being ‘hijacked’


© 2019 Max Perrenound

Hieu Phung preparing to make a final lo mein to go at the end of Hong Kong House dinner rush.

How he ended up where he is today is something Hieu Phung seldom talks about. His children say he rarely mentioned life in Vietnam as they were growing up.

“I think my life is really lucky,” said Hieu Phung of Chippewa Falls. “Everything that happened to me is really lucky.”

Phung was forced to flee Communist-controlled Vietnam in 1983 while working as a mechanic on a fishing boat. He was forced to abandon his pregnant wife, Huong, both of their families and life as he knew it. He would spend eight months in a Malaysian refugee camp until receiving sponsorship from a Milwaukee church and relocating to Wisconsin.

A decade later, Phung would reunite with his wife and son in the United States and have a second child, a daughter he would give his name to twice, Phung Phung. This style of naming for girls is considered a great honor in Vietnamese culture. Phung would also own his own business that he and his wife continue to operate daily 28 years later.

“People hijacked me. I never expected it,” Phung said about the October morning he ended up leaving his home country.

When the fishing boat Phung worked on left port that morning everything seemed in order. This was until Phung noticed a problem with some of the fishing nets the men had set and went to report the issue to his captain. He was in charge of maintenance.

While discussing possible fixes with his boss, a gunshot rang out. A fellow crew member had turned an M-16 on the captain in the unfolding of a plot to escape communism and flee to Singapore.

After hours of confusion, debate and even some accusations thrown at Phung as a co-conspirator, the remaining nine men of the crew decided they would stick together. They figured there was no returning to a normal life in Vietnam for any of them at this point anyway.

The journey to Singapore resulted in the men’s Vietnamese ship being turned away by the country’s navy. After sailing within hundreds of feet from the Malaysian cost, the men abandoned ship and swam to shore. They were able to obtain refugee status because of communist control in Vietnam, but Phung was separated from his wife during a time when communication was much more complex.

Phung ended up spending eight months in a refugee camp located in Malaysia and underwent several interviews with government officials there. He needed to prove he was the son of a South Vietnamese soldier before he could obtain political refugee status.

Once Phung’s status was confirmed he spent five additional months at a similar camp in Indonesia. A distant cousin living in Milwaukee found Phung an opportunity to escape his situation. With their support, he received a church sponsorship that granted him the money to relocate to America.

A new home alone

Though he was in a better place, Phung was still separated from his family. After arriving in Milwaukee, he went to work trying to achieve the means to reunite with his wife. Mainly, he needed the money and a permanent residence of his own. He also didn’t want to wait around for the opportunity to meet his son.

“(In) any place, you still have to work for a living,” Phung said of his initial impressions of Wisconsin. “I had support from the church for the first year for rent and things, but then I was on my own.”

The first job Phung worked in his new home was on an assembly line at a vegetable company in Milwaukee. Though he had advanced mechanical skills and work experience, he was tasked with picking out the bad vegetables.

“Most coworkers didn’t speak English, just like me,” Phung said. “I had a chance to go to school because I’m a refugee.”

This refugee status is something Phung said he does not take for granted. At the time, he was unaware of how immigration in America worked. He now realizes the advantages this label provided for him during his first years here.

“I know a couple of people who worked there that couldn’t go to school because they were illegal,” Phung said. “I’m the refugee, I had the legal status.”

The 20-year-old son of a South Vietnamese soldier arrived in a new world alone. All he had was a thin plastic jacket and documents proving his identity. The work ethic he developed from a young age working on his family’s rice farm was never lost though. Three years later he would finally meet his son after he was personally able to sponsor his wife’s immigration. Young Hiep Phung was walking and talking the first time his father saw him at the Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee. The hard work was far from over for the family.

Hieu and Huong’s second child would follow soon after, and on a recommendation from a friend the family would move to Chippewa Falls in 1991. The two of them began working at a Chinese restaurant that they had the opportunity to purchase themselves soon after.  

The work goes on

“As long as I can remember, we were getting picked up after school and going to the restaurant until close,” Phung Phung said of her family’s restaurant. “To this day customers will tell me how they can remember coming in and I’d be sitting in a booth doing my homework.”

Phung Phung was aware her life growing up was much different than the lives of her friends at school. For one, she spoke Vietnamese at home. She is also certain that both she and her older brother spent more time at the restaurant growing up than they did their home.

“At the time I hated how much I had to work for my parents when all my friends had so much more freedom,” Phung Phung said. “Looking back now, I truly appreciate it and everything they’ve done and continue to do for us. I don’t know any two people who work harder than my parents.”

As for her fathers’ thoughts on the subject, “I still work hard. My wife still works hard.”

Home at last

The owner and head chef of the Hong Kong House in Chippewa Falls has no regrets about leaving Vietnam.

“I’m really happy compared to my life in Vietnam,” Phung said. “I understand the politics, and I know free countries are the best.”

However, it took Phung many years to be completely certain he was in the right place. He thought about moving the family back to Vietnam when his children were both young. Though they made the decision to stay, the idea remained a possibility for years.

The Phungs took their children, then 16 and 11 years old, to visit the land of their heritage in 2000.  Family vacations were something they made sure to provide for their children yearly. Now, Phung never plans on returning to the country due to concerns over communist control that he still has fears about. His parents and in-laws still live in Vietnam.

“When my kids grew up and had success and started to have a family, then I decided to stay here,” Phung said. “This is my home.”

Hiep Phung has a degree in law and does risk management for a company in Illinois. His sister, Phung Phung, is also a college graduate and works in Milwaukee at the Crisis Prevention Institute. Lan Marie Phung was born in 2017 and is the family’s first grandchild.  

“He is truly the most selfless person I know and deserves everything,” said Phung Phung of her father.  

“My freshman year of college I had to have emergency surgery to remove my appendix and when I woke up from surgery, my dad was by my side,” Phung said.  “He dropped everything to make the four-hour drive and be there, so I wouldn’t be alone when I woke up. My mom didn’t come because she stayed to open the restaurant by herself, of course.”

Hieu Phung’s story as a refugee and immigrant is truly unique to him, but he doesn’t advertise it as anything out of the ordinary. He has served thousands of unaware people meals and cheerfully greeted them on the occasion he was able to get out of the kitchen. Those close to him are completely aware of the man they see as remarkable though.

“People who don’t know my dad should know he’s good at everything,” Phung Phung said. “He can fix anything, build anything, he’s great with computers and photography and also a pretty talented artist.”

Born in 1965 in a war-torn Vietnam, as a child, Phung watched as communists forcefully took over his homeland in 1975 after America pulled out of the conflict.

“No weapons, no support,” Phung said of the situation after the South Vietnamese were left to fend for themselves. “I didn’t have any ‘kid’ life like people do here.”

Phung’s children know this about their father. To this day they hold a deep level of love and respect for the man they realize completely dedicated himself to their well-being.

“I often think about if my dad would’ve been born here and gotten a full education, where that would’ve taken him,” Phung Phung said.

The family now says they feel fully content and at home in the state of Wisconsin. The future generations of Phung’s family will have access to opportunities that their first generation immigrant grandparents had been neglected.

“Chippewa Falls is the best for living,” Phung said about the dozens of places he has called home throughout his life.  

In 2012 there was a major fire in the apartments above the Hong Kong House restaurant and reopening at the same location was out of the question. Ideas about moving to Houston or Atlanta and giving up the business were thrown around, Phung’s daughter said about her parents’ feelings after the fire.  

“I think because they are still young, they weren’t ready to give up on the restaurant yet and do something different for work,” Phung Phung said of her parents. “I think having the restaurant has really helped them because they interact with people every day and they have to speak English.”

Both of Phung’s children also had no intention of leaving the state they grew up in. Wisconsin is what they have always known as their home. The Phung children were, of course, a major factor in their decision to stay, their daughter said.

“I think they both like Wisconsin because in general people are so nice and friendly,” Phung Phung said, “but every year my mom complains about the cold and snow.”