ON an oil rig in the Gulf of Thailand, a remarkable tale began in August 1988 when Andy Chong’s offshore installation manager decided to rescue a boat filled with Vietnamese refugees that had drifted nearby.
This decision set off a chain of events that led to Chong helping a Vietnamese couple and their newborn baby and, many years later, an emotional reunion with the family of three in Malaysia.
At the time, the refugees had escaped from Vietnam via Cambodia and were sailing towards Malaysia when they were pursued by pirates. Even though they successfully escaped the pirates, the boat’s engine broke down and after a week of drifting, just when their food and water reserves became critical, they chanced upon the oil rig where Chong was working.
Among the 40 refugees were Joseph Cao and his eight-months-pregnant wife Nguyen Thi Tonga, who had suffered from seasickness on the boat and was very frail by the time they reached the oil rig.
Two weeks after their rescue, Nguyen gave birth to a baby boy in the clinic on the rig.
Chong was the one who accompanied her and the baby to receive further medical attention when they were later flown to Songkhla, Thailand, during a routine helicopter flight.
“The mum was shedding tears nonstop and was very weak, and the baby was in poor condition.
“I sat beside her, wrapped up the baby in a towel and carried him in my arms. I also comforted the mum by sign language and gave her my name card on arrival at the helicopter base.
“A couple of months later, I received a letter from the mum asking for some money to buy milk powder for the baby. I sent RM300 and then a few times more, I don’t remember how many times. They later went to the US,” Chong recalled.
The family spent two years in a refugee camp in Thailand and then the Philippines before the United Nations resettled them in the United States – but they never forgot their benefactor.
Nguyen continued to write to Chong, saying in one of her letters that the Malaysian was one whom she would “respect forever” and would never forget till the day she died.
In another letter in July 1998, she also updated Chong about her husband and son – her husband at the time had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in information systems in the United States.
As for the son whom Chong had helped save – “My son now is too big and tall. He is usually a good student at school. He received an outstanding scholarship student award this year. He is learning to play the trumpet this summer.
“I hope he can play music for your family to enjoy when we travel to visit your family,” read the letter.
The visit did not materialise at the time as it seemed they lost contact with each other; then, in 2019, Cao reached out to Chong on Facebook to reconnect.
As a result, in August 2023, Cao, Nguyen and their son finally reunited with Chong when they visited Malaysia, and Chong learnt that the boy was now Dr Thanh Cao, a physician specialising in internal medicine and nephrology.
“I was elated and shed tears of joy when I reconnected with the family. The ‘baby’ also mentioned that without my small gesture, he probably wouldn’t be alive today.
“The small gesture also had a ripple effect because he is now doing humanitarian work with the local community, especially for first-generation Vietnamese refugees.
“Yes, be kind and the world will be a better place,” Chong said.
During their six-day stay in Malaysia, Chong took the family to visit several tourist attractions, including the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre in Pahang; Batu Caves in Selangor; a durian orchard in Raub, Pahang, where they got to try musang king durian; and the famous Tanjung Karang Sky Mirror sand flat in Kuala Selangor.
At the Sky Mirror, Chong and Thanh even reenacted a scene from 1988, with Chong holding Thanh in his arms as he once did with the baby on the helicopter flight over three decades ago.
“One of the highlights was I was still able to carry Thanh in my arms at Sky Mirror Kuala Selangor!
“They also invited my family to visit them in the US and are willing to sponsor any of my grandchildren to study in the US,” Chong said.
During the visit, they also managed to celebrate Thanh’s 35th birthday together.
‘Right thing to do’
Chong, who lives in Dungun, Terengganu, says he helped the family at the time because it was “the right thing to do”.
Having grown up in a rather tough situation himself, Chong says he can empathise with the less fortunate regardless of colour or creed.
“I never forgot what my dad said, ‘One is in a much better position to give than to receive’, so be grateful. So my motto in life is to live to contribute to humanity without reference to race or religion,” he says.
Chong recounted that back in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, many refugee boats landed on the shores of Dungun.
Describing Malaysians as a “compassionate lot” who would help wherever they can, he says locals would assist the refugees back then.
“Eventually, the people turned against the refugees due to compassion fatigue and religious issues,” he laments.