Arts

‘For three days, we were hiding from the Thai pirates’: Trung Ly’s journey to Australia

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From a war-torn Vietnam, Trung Ly has gone on to become a mechanical avionics engineer, founder of his own martial arts association, and action film director.

When Trung Ly and his family travelled to Australia, they flew by rat - or so he thought.

“The day we left Malaysia, we left on a 747, and it was a Qantas 747,” he said. “There was a logo and I said, ‘mum, I want to work for this company.’

“To me at the time it looked like a flying rat - just a rat with wings. I didn’t know what a kangaroo was.”

First Day Trung Ly
When Trung Ly first saw the Qantas logo he thought it was a rat with wings - he'd never seen a kangaroo before.
Supplied

Today he’s a mechanical avionics engineer, founder of his own martial arts association, and action film director. But life wasn’t always so sweet.

He fled Vietnam with his family when was just four years old.

They journeyed by boat for three days to reach Malaysia’s Pulau Bidong refugee camp, avoiding Thai pirates in process.

"So there were pirates on the sea and if we did get caught they’ll probably throw the men overboard, the children overboard, rape the women and take all the money and the gold," he said.

"Because we were escaping so we would bring money, gold whatever we had with us."

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He didn’t realise where they were eventually going until he noticed one thing in particular about Australia.

"Everybody was white," he said.

"I looked around and they all looked different. Wait, they all look the same."

First Day Trung Ly
Trung Ly's family fled Vietnam and spent three days in a boat to get to a refugee camp in Malaysia before migrating to Australia.
Supplied

Although they made some friends early on, he remembers how life was a struggle.

His parents spent very little time at home, instead working long hours to provide for the family.

“Me and my brother used to cook our own breakfast and walk ourselves to school," he said.

"Sometimes it was really cold and we didn’t have the appropriate clothes either so for like four years I wore black soccer shoes with metal studs that went ‘click, click, click’.

“I was a kid and just wore whatever was given to me, and that’s all they could afford.

“We went through so much with nothing, coming here with the clothes that we had on and that was it. So it was a struggle but it was a good thing.”

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As a teenager, Ly got involved in martial arts alongside his father, who taught Shaolin kung-fu.

Soon he developed his own martial arts school, Dong Tam, in Sydney’s west, with the intention of it becoming a place for young people from migrant backgrounds to come together.

“Because of the Vietnamese culture, we are very respectful,” he said. “I feel that every time I do something, it has to add value to society.”

Choreographing stage performances at community events pushed him into creating fight sequences for television shows, such as the kung-fu comedy series 'Maximum Choppage', and he recently won international awards for his film work, including 'Fist of the Dragon'.

Today he divides his time between his full-time job, directing on movie sets around the world, and mentoring young people at Dong Tam.

“We had nothing when we came here so if I have something I would want to give everything,” he said.

“It’s always changing and Australia’s always about accepting and helping people and we feel like this is the right place, and the right choice that we made being here.

“Australia’s really open to multiculturalism and I think there have been changes, I can see them. And now I feel that you don’t need to prove yourself, you just get accepted.”

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