It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Once a refugee, now a man of the world

Once a child refugee from Cambodia, Mr La Chon had a chance to start a new life in France. Today, he is head of development in Asia for Gunvor, a major independent oil and petroleum trader.
Once a child refugee from Cambodia, Mr La Chon had a chance to start a new life in France. Today, he is head of development in Asia for Gunvor, a major independent oil and petroleum trader.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Left: Mr La Chon with his grandmother outside his aunt's house in Bangkok. After escaping Cambodia by boat, they ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand where they lived from 1977 to 1979. Right: Mr La Chon with his father Patrick, older brother Rolan
Mr La Chon with his grandmother outside his aunt’s house in Bangkok. After escaping Cambodia by boat, they ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand where they lived from 1977 to 1979.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF JULIEN LA CHON
Once a child refugee from Cambodia, Mr La Chon had a chance to start a new life in France. Today, he is head of development in Asia for Gunvor, a major independent oil and petroleum trader.
Mr La Chon with his father Gilbert, older brother Roland and a cousin at a refugee transit centre in Amiens, France.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Julien La Chon fled Cambodia by boat when he was small and grew up in France where he made good

Earlier this year, Mr Julien La Chon bought a country house in the south of France.

Knowing how much his father loves playing handyman, he invited the 71-year-old to fix a couple of things on the property.

Over the three days they spent together, father and son did something that they rarely did: Talk about the past. Mr La Chon, 44 - a Cambodian refugee who resettled in France - for the first time asked about his mother who died when he was four years old.

A seamstress from Phnom Penh, she was sent by the Khmer Rouge to the countryside to become a rural peasant. She died after stepping on a landmine and was buried in a mass grave in the country's notorious Killing Fields.

It took a while for the news to reach her husband, who was banished to work in another farm.

"He could only go to where she was buried a month after she died. The Khmer Rouge gave him only a couple of her belongings, they kept the more valuable ones," says Mr La Chon.

The three days they spent together deepened his understanding and respect for his father, a hard-working but reserved man not given to open displays of affection.

"What I have is made possible because my father provided me with what he could," he says quietly.

SECOND CHANCES

I'm a self-made man but I was also a refugee. The French government gave me a chance to start life again. Everyone deserves a second chance.

MR LA CHON, who says France changed his life.

And what Mr La Chon has is a gloriously uplifting success story, one in which he lifts himself out of a quagmire through hope, will and diligence. He is the Singapore-based head of development in Asia for Gunvor, one of the world's major independent oil and petroleum trading companies.

Well-groomed, mild-mannered and cultured, he is stylishly decked out in a grey T-shirt, cobalt blue jacket and beige jeans. He speaks several languages, including French, English and Mandarin, owns several properties and has an eye-popping art collection. He can more than hold his own on topics ranging from wine to politics and cultural identity.

The diminutive man was born in Phnom Penh and has a brother who is three years older.

Before war turned Cambodia into a land of suffering and misery, his father worked in the Phnom Penh airport. Both his father and mother were among the two million Cambodians sent from urban areas to the countryside when the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975.

"She died on June 24, 1976. She was only 26," Mr La Chon says. "I have no recollection of her. All I have is an audio tape of her voice. I had an aunt who lived in Bangkok, and in those days, she and my mother would record greetings which they would send to each other."

He escaped Cambodia by boat with his paternal grandparents, immigrants from Swatow in Guangdong.

"My grandparents took those who ate but could not work: me, my brother and some of my younger aunts and uncles," he says.

They ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived from 1977 to 1979. He remembers it as a big playground.

"I chased geese and people would dig holes during the monsoon season and when the rivers overflowed, catfish and frogs would jump in and we would jump in to catch them.

"I remember we had to queue for our rations and to wash up. We stayed in huts with curtains to keep out mosquitoes and other families."

He and his loved ones were granted asylum in France and went to the country in batches.

In 1979, he and his grandparents landed in a transit centre for refugees in Amiens, outside Paris.

"I had clothes and toys provided by the Red Cross and stayed there for about six months," he says.

One day, when he was about seven, his grandmother took him to see a man.

"She told me, 'This is your father. Call him Dad.'"

His father, it turned out, had escaped from the Killing Fields and undertaken a perilous journey crossing several countries, including Vietnam and Malaysia, to look for his family in France.

"I only found out when we were together in the south of France earlier this year that he didn't see the family immediately when he arrived in the country. He had no money, nothing. But he could speak French so he went out to work and got some money first," he says.

His family - about a dozen people including his grandparents and several aunts and uncles - began their new life in a dingy one-room flat in Bondy, a suburb about 11km away from central Paris.

His father worked at a variety of jobs - from clerk to despatch rider - to keep the family afloat.

"In the mornings, I had to tiptoe over a row of bodies sleeping in the living room," he says.

When he started primary school, he spoke no French and was the only Asian child.

"Maybe because of that, I got the teachers' attention, they took care of me," he says, adding that he topped his class every year.

Petty crime was rife in his neighbourhood. Although his brother Roland was protective and took good care of him, Mr La Chon did not shy away from trading blows with bad boys if he had to. It was one way of earning their respect, he says.

Many became friends.

"I got along well with them but I never joined them. I studied first and when I was done, I would go out and play with the thugs," he says with a laugh.

Unfortunately, many of them fell foul of the law and landed in jail.

"One of them stole a motorbike, was chased by the cops and died when he had an accident. In those days, they ended up as thieves and gangsters. But today, they have another platform: terrorism," he says.

Late last year, a group of gunmen and suicide bombers carried out a series of attacks in Paris which killed 130 people and injured nearly 400 others. An associate of the ringleader was a Syria-based Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) member who was born in Bondy.

"When you grow up in such a neighbourhood, you see both the positive and the negative... I always tell myself I have choices. I just have to make the right ones," Mr La Chon says.

Thankfully, his interests were more healthy. He and his brother loved going to small art-house Parisian cinemas to get their fill of Hollywood classics.

"Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando... I loved them. It was also a way for me to learn English."

Life slowly got better. His father remarried, and started a restaurant with his wife in a town quite a distance away.

"I saw him only once a week, mostly on Mondays. I would blame my father for not being present in my youth, but after you grow older and have your own kids, you come to realise that for parents it is as hard, if not even more heartbreaking, to leave kids behind, to go out, earn money and provide for them," says Mr La Chon, who is married to a musician with whom he has two children, aged four and six. His wife is from China.

Roland went on to read engineering, while he got himself a scholarship and read business at the ESLSCA Business School.

Upon his graduation, his brother - by then an executive at insurance company AXA in Singapore - advised him to take a year off to travel.

"My first stop was Taiwan; my father wanted me to improve my Chinese," says Mr La Chon, who enrolled for Mandarin classes at National Taiwan Normal University. "He was also hoping that I would get myself an Asian girlfriend."

Then it was to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong. Since then, he has traversed the globe. In 2003, he went to Cambodia for the first time.

"I met my cousins from my mother's side. My dad also wanted me to visit our home. It was quite emotional," he says.

Back home in Paris in 1997, he was hired as an oil trader by French oil company Elf Trading. After a year's training in Geneva, he was posted to the Singapore office the following year. His career took off. After a stint at another company, Addax, he was tasked with setting up Gunvor Singapore in 2007.

In less than a decade, the company - which has an office at the Marina Bay Financial Centre - grew from a staff of two to about 130.

Mr La Chon was the managing director until 2012, when he became head of development for Asia.

More than just a head for corporate strategy, Mr La Chon also has a keen eye for art.

His collection includes pieces by masters such as Zhang Daqian, Xu Beihong and Wu Guanzhong.

In May this year, he paid $630,000 for Singapore artist Tan Swie Hian's The Nelson Mandela Unity series.

Sold through a Bonhams auction in Hong Kong, the set of six images of the hands and arms of Mr Mandela breaking free from manacles are signed by the late iconic freedom fighter and Mr Tan.

A man who enjoys a good tipple, Mr La Chon started wine company Aethers with a couple of partners last year. Among other spirits, Aethers is the sole importer in Singapore of the famous Armand de Brignac - also known as Ace of Spades. It is a champagne range which costs upwards of $500 a bottle.

Earlier this year, the company organised its inaugural Bourgogne Wine and Charity Dinner where it introduced Hospices de Beaune to Singapore. Famous for its hospital-turned-museum as well as its 60ha of vineyards, it holds an annual charity auction of the barrels of wines produced on its expansive grounds.

Because of what he has gone through, Mr La Chon has a soft spot for children and education and donates generously to these causes.

France, he says, changed his life.

"I'm a self-made man but I was also a refugee. The French government gave me a chance to start life again. Everyone deserves a second chance."

Asked how his experiences have shaped his life, he says: "In my young life, the black star took my mother away from me. The void left by mother was filled up with the love of my grandparents."

He and and his brother, he says, did not fall by the wayside because they clung to traditional family values and were determined to get a better life.

"Being street-smart is to feed on the tricks of a street life and not fall into it," says Mr La Chon, whose brother runs a reinsurance broking firm in Hong Kong.

Life, he says, need not be intimidating.

"Fate can knock you down. How you stand up tall and fight back really carves your destiny."

Correction Note: An earlier version of the story named Mr La Chon's father wrongly as Patrick instead of Gilbert in the picture caption. It has been corrected. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 11, 2016, with the headline 'Once a refugee, now a man of the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe