Fleeing Laos, family lost their fortune

In 2004, Geraldine Ang (left) spent a year in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, working in a refugee camp which housed 10,000 people. A childhood photograph of Mr Schoeib Sabri (centre) with his brother Mustafa (left) and sister Maryam (right). The photo is
In 2004, Geraldine Ang (left) spent a year in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, working in a refugee camp which housed 10,000 people. A childhood photograph of Mr Schoeib Sabri (centre) with his brother Mustafa (left) and sister Maryam (right). The photo is creased because it was hidden in clothes as their family escaped in a truck from Kabul. Geraldine Ang has been helping refugees for about eight years. A photograph of Mr Michael Ma (front row, second from left), aged about five, with his cousins and siblings in Laos.PHOTO: COURTESY OF GERALDINE ANG PHOTO: COURTESY OF SCHOEIB SABRI PHOTOS: : LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAI
In 2004, Geraldine Ang (left) spent a year in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, working in a refugee camp which housed 10,000 people. A childhood photograph of Mr Schoeib Sabri (centre) with his brother Mustafa (left) and sister Maryam (right). The photo is
In 2004, Geraldine Ang (left) spent a year in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, working in a refugee camp which housed 10,000 people. A childhood photograph of Mr Schoeib Sabri (centre) with his brother Mustafa (left) and sister Maryam (right). The photo is creased because it was hidden in clothes as their family escaped in a truck from Kabul. Geraldine Ang has been helping refugees for about eight years. A photograph of Mr Michael Ma (front row, second from left), aged about five, with his cousins and siblings in Laos.PHOTO: COURTESY OF GERALDINE ANG PHOTO: COURTESY OF SCHOEIB SABRI PHOTOS: : LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAI

When restaurateur Michael Ma left his homeland Laos, his father told him they were going on holiday in Pattaya, Thailand, a regular vacation spot for the family.

Little did the seven-year-old boy realise that they were leaving Vientiane for a refugee camp in northern Thailand - thus beginning a drastically different life which would eventually land them in Australia.

Mr Ma, 47, founder of the IndoChine group of hotels, eateries and clubs, is the fourth of five children in a well-to-do ethnic-Chinese family.

They were the largest pig-farm owners in Laos in the 1970s, and his father, Mr Somsak Ma, 85, was then a well-known entrepreneur whose business interests included brewing whiskey.

They had many maids and cars, as well as a house in the city and one in the countryside.

When the communists took over the country in 1975, his father started hearing about arrests and politically linked disappearances and was convinced he was being targeted.

At the first Thai refugee camp, life was much harder than the family had been used to. It was congested, filled with mosquitoes and had only basic toilet facilities.

After almost a month there, his father decided to move to Bangkok, where they rented a small flat by selling the jewellery, watches, diamonds and gold which his mother had carried with her.

More relatives joined them in Bangkok, but his father did not want to stay in Thailand for fear that the country would fall to communists as part of the "domino effect", a theory which held sway at the time.

"It was a terrible ordeal. We didn't know what was happening. My dad had lost all his land and fortune. We'd lost everything," he says.

His mother, Mrs Chou Ma, went to the various embassies every day to try and get documents which would allow them to be repatriated to countries such as the United States, France or Australia.

Luckily, one day, a top Australian embassy official recognised her. The year before, some officials had visited his dad's farms to take a look at its fertilising system.

The family soon got the papers they needed and flew to Sydney in Australia as refugees.

Australia presented a new set of challenges.

Putting up at West Ridge hostel, a refugee resettlement centre where refugee families lived in two-bedroom homes, Mr Ma remembers not being used to the "very strong cheese" and Australian food. They had no friends. Mr Ma spoke Laotian, Mandarin, Thai and Teochew, but he did not speak English at the time.

"We had become refugees and my father didn't know what to do with himself. He had been a big shot and, all of a sudden, he became a cleaner at a factory. He was about 50 years old and had five kids," says Mr Ma.

Flung into poverty, he was grateful for small mercies.

"In Laos, it was always hot. We were always wearing flip-flops and had no socks. In Australia, it was cold in winter. The Red Cross there gave me my first pair of socks," says Mr Ma, a Singapore permanent resident.

He has four children and his wife works in business development and marketing in IndoChine.

Today, he helps the Red Cross with fund raising. IndoChine donates more than $300,000 a year to charitable and environmental causes in Singapore each year.

In the Cabramatta suburb in south-western Sydney, where they settled as new citizens, his father decided to open a shop selling Asian foodstuffs.

All the children pulled their weight at the shop, which was open seven days a week.

"I never had any toys or new clothes. We never went shopping. We didn't go for holidays. We just learnt to work."

Eventually, his father opened a chain of supermarkets, restoring the fortunes he lost in Laos.

Racism was rampant and "Asian bashing" was common in Australia at the time, says Mr Ma.

Once, when he was 11 and walking home in his school uniform, he was stopped by a car. Four or five adults came out from the vehicle, holding a cricket bat and stumps. He fled.

He also knew people who were killed or brain-damaged from racially motivated attacks.

The streets were also rough. In the 1980s and 1990s, the 5T Vietnamese crime gang wreaked havoc in Cabramatta.

Mr Ma played basketball with some of the 5T leaders who were refugees, until his mother sent him to boarding school when he was about 15 to get him out of reach of the gang.

Musing that he might have become a spoilt brat if he had remained a rich man's son in Laos, Mr Ma, who came to Singapore in 1993 and started life here sleeping in the rented hall area of an HDB flat, says being a refugee has taught him "never to give up" and to have a cast-iron work ethic.

The refugee experience has also influenced his philanthropic interests, which extend to Australia and Thailand.

It taught him to "give when you are more fortunate than others, help out and get involved in the community".

"If you're born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you are lucky. The tables can turn any time," he adds.