Fact: around 65% of Australians identify themselves with a non-Australian ancestry. The influence of migrants therefore has deep precedent in this Nation’s history. The Australian Government offers the Business Skills Migration visa and grants that each year which offer a safe home and an opportunity to contribute variety and invest rich perspectives into a modern Australia. We see how the choice of entrepreneurship can present truly life changing opportunities and ultimately outcome.
Rare Birds Luminaries, Pauline Nguyen and Nahji Chu, tell of the challenges they had to overcome as Vietnamese migrants starting a business while dealing with trauma of the past, building without support systems from a state of poverty, a language barrier, cultural estrangement, and incidents of discrimination on top of all the issues in an alien land. Their experiences can serve as inspiration to all Australian’s who aspire to start up against the odds.
Pauline Nguyen – Grit and Drive from trauma and building from poverty
Co-owner of the award-winning Vietnamese Red Lantern restaurants in inner Sydney who has lived the Australian dream, rising from a 4 year old refugee to food industry leader and business icon. Rare Bird, Pauline, also authored the acclaimed cookbook and memoir, Secrets of the Red Lantern, which tells the story of the Nguyen family; following the journey of her parent’s escape to Thailand from their homeland in Vietnam, and then their eventual resettlement in Australia.
Pauline attributes her rise to the work ethic instilled from her upbringing in Australia along with a complex father-daughter relationship, “I started working when I was seven in my parents restaurant.”
Nguyen and her family escaped from Vietnam in 1977. They were forced to spend a year in a Thai refugee camp, before settling in Cabramatta in Sydney’s outer west. Her father, a natural entrepreneur who worked tirelessly to build a mini-empire for his family in Cabramatta, was also at times a harsh and violent disciplinarian.
She asked him what he thought of the book, “He just said, ‘Oh the fish sauce recipe is wrong.’ I was so deflated.”
Pauline recounts how her father then continued, “Do you know why Buddha sits on a lotus flower? There is nothing more beautiful than a lotus flower. It grows out of mud and watery chaos yet remains so pure and unpolluted by it.
“He said, ‘My children are lotus flowers; you grew out of the aftermath of war, you grew out of Cabramatta during its murkiest time and most importantly you grew out of me. I am mud, I am dirt.”‘
Her upbringing, in her own words, taught Pauline, “[that] it’s about grit. It’s about resilience. It’s about not giving up. When you give up, you miss out on learning resilience and persistence.”
Primarily, Pauline emphasizes the need to discover your purpose and passion. She states, “I think the biggest advice I give to women starting up would be to really grab your ‘why’. If you have a compelling ‘why’, you are going to make it work and get out of bed everyday.”
Her experience has taught her, “Be curious to find out. No one’s going to give it to you on a platter. You have to work to discover it. Step out of your comfort zone and dance in it. Not being afraid.”
Pauline’s Red Lantern is a six-time winner of Best Asian Restaurant (Restaurant and Catering Awards). Also voted in the ’Top Ten Most Environmentally Sustainable Restaurants (Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide) and placed in the Top 80 of Australian Traveller Magazine’s 100 Australian Gourmet Experiences. In 2012, Red Lantern was voted Australia’s restaurant at the I Love Food Awards and took out the winner’s prize for the Telstra Australian Business Awards NSW 2012.
Pauline’s writing has also been acknowledged internationally. The Secrets of the Red Lantern has appeared on best sellers lists around the world, and in 2008 was voted Best Cookbook In Asia.
Pauline’s writing has appeared in The Best Australian Essays 2010, Voracious – The Best New Australian Food Writing, Griffith Review, as well as various other publications. She holds a BA in Communications at UTS and in 2008 won Newcomer Writer of the Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards.
Pauline is a Rare Bird.
Nahji Chu –keeping her own culture alive in Australia, dealing with the language barrier and consequential cultural discrimination on arrival
Since 2009, Nahji has been Queen of the Rice Paper Roll with the success of her MissChu catering kitchen and tuckshops in Sydney. However, her success since arriving in Australia has been rocky.
Originally from Laos, Nahji escaped the 1975 Pathet Laos Regime with her immediate family, and like Pauline Nguyen, inhabited various Thai refugee camps. Not long after, the Australian government offered her family a haven, making them one of the first Laotian refugees to settle in Australia.
The battle to find identity and maintain valued traditions of her home that she had been forced to abandon became central to Chu’s entrepreneurial ‘why’. Australia’s migrant history was unsurprisingly a key point of identification for Miss Chu.
“I’m very proud of my culture,” she states, “very proud to be a Vietnamese refugee who has made it in this country. I wanted to say to Australia, ‘I want to celebrate what it is that is Australian – and that is refugees and migrants.”
She describes the local distrust she and her siblings faced upon arrival as part of an Asian family of six children, newly attending different Australian schools.
“We were the first Asians in school and no one liked it. All the Australians were like ‘I hate you’ and they were the looks we would get. It was full on hatred. We were kicked and it was really like the Asian invasion back then.”
Language was another barrier, Nahji adds, “Things like I had to go to the toilet in class but you didn’t know how to say it. I had to learn ABCs from scratch. Even though I was bright I used to always use cheat flashcards. I was desperate to catch up with everyone else.”
It was the welcoming treatment they received when Nahji and her family reunited with an aunt living in Richmond, Melbourne that made all the difference and showed Australia at its best. She states, “The people were more accommodating, We hit the local papers as we were the first Vietnamese to hit that area of Australia. The story read, ‘let’s help the refugees,’ so the whole community came with tins of food, crockery, furniture, clothing. Our whole house was decked out with community gifts. It was really welcoming.”
The desire to give back to Australia was born but this was a dream that was coupled with an ambition to contextualize the Vietnamese identity. This resulted in the creation of MissChu. Nahji reflects, “I thought about the refugee visa I had, it was always exotic looking and I was very proud of that. For me it was a visual piece that you could frame and put on the wall…it has so much history, there is so much storytelling behind the faces as well.”
Nahji says it was then that she started to use the faces as part of the menu design, “I made it into a postcard and then I put a chopstick on it and then I put my business card on it. I gave it to my staff and said, ‘put it in everyone’s letter boxes’ and printed about 5,000.”
“Soon people came and said, ‘Are you MissChu? You’re a genius!’ Most people don’t even know that [the MissChu] logo is the girl in the refugee camp. It was my way of saying, ‘I know you’re going to love my food because my grandmother did it since 1978.”
The message from Rare Birds’ Nahji is to, “dare to dream hard to become wealthy and independent”. The moral of both these amazing women’s success being that despite all obstacles faced, Australia can be a place of freedom and opportunity for those driven to start and run a company that can represent your own values and vision.
For more information on the Migrant Business visa or obtaining Grants for start up businesses, please visit: