By Rachel Emmanuel
In 1979, Cuong and Tuvan Ha were in the first group of Vietnamese refugees to arrive in Ottawa as part of Project 4000. A year prior, they’d been forced to flee Hai Phong City in northern Vietnam when it was invaded by the Communist regime, and they spent nearly a month on a sailboat with 100 other refugees traveling to a refugee camp in Hong Kong.
A year later, the federal government sponsored them to come to Canada. Cuong was 26 and his wife, Tuvan, was just 19.
Now, Ottawa plans to commemorate the plight of the Ha family and thousands of other Vietnamese refugees by designating a corner of Centretown as “Saigon Square.” The intersection is currently host to one Vietnamese memorial, and is awaiting a second commemorative plaque as well as the construction of a new museum about the experience of the so-called Boat People.
The motion to name the corner of Preston Street and Somerset Street West “Saigon Square” was introduced by Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney and passed by city council on Feb. 28.
Dan Chenier, the City of Ottawa’s general manager, will be working with the Vietnamese Canadian Centre to implement the second commemorative “plaque and boulder,” he said in an email.
Saigon – since renamed Ho Chi Minh City – was the capital of Southern Vietnam before it fell to the Communist regime in 1975. That’s when refugees began pouring out, spurring Project 4000. The project was championed by then Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar, who oversaw the integration of 4,000 refugees — mostly Vietnamese, but Cambodians and Laotians, as well — into Ottawa.
“The whole world . . . (saw) the really big problem for so many Vietnamese people,” Cuong Ha said. “They (were) helping and they (came) to pick up refugees.”
Just 100 metres east on Somerset from soon-to-be Saigon Square is the Ha family’s restaurant, Pho Bac Oriental Cuisine. Cuong Ha’s wife took over ownership of the restaurant from a close friend in 1994, and in 1995 he left his job at the Ottawa Citizen to come work with her.
Cuong Ha, who has four children, three grandchildren and another on the way, said he will “always be Vietnamese,” but his family has integrated well into Canadian society.
“They are Canadian now,” he said of his children and grandchildren. “Canadian people (have been) very good for helping us. That’s why we stay here all the time.”
In 1995, the Vietnamese Canadian Centre raised enough funds for a commemorative statue of a refugee mother holding her child, which stands on the corner of the plaza in front of the Plant Recreation Centre.
Cuong said he likes what the statue represents.
“That’s a memory, and we can tell the kids,” he said.
Across the street from the statue, VCC is currently fundraising money to build the Vietnamese Boat People museum. Cuong said the lot is sitting empty, and he isn’t sure when the museum will be built.
In addition, VCC will also pay for a commemorative boulder and plaque to be placed in the square. The plaque will read “This Square was named ‘Saigon’ in recognition of the contribution to the City Of Ottawa by the Vietnamese Refugees who came to Canada in search of freedom.”
Chenier also said he will be working with VCC to “review and approve the final design of the boulder and plaque assembly, the final wording for the plaque, and the location and installation specifications.
A city report that accompanied McKenney’s motion said the ongoing work at Saigon Square reflects Ottawa’s values.
“In addition to honouring the presence of the Vietnamese community in, and its contribution to, the City of Ottawa, the new designation would reflect well on the City’s commitment to diversity and multiculturalism.”