Vietnamese refugee takes his generosity, work ethic to the community

07/26/2013 12:00 AM

07/28/2013 5:54 PM

Tim Thien Do likes to make, fix and build things, and he doesn't wait for others to get started.

On July 7, the Vietnamese refugee opened the $2 million Vietnamese Community Center on Elder Creek Road – a 12,000-square-foot center encompassing a school, a library, a game room and a community room – that's considered to be the first of its kind in the country.

"He was out there every day, pouring foundation, laying bricks and installing doors, windows and lights," said Stephanie Nguyen, director of the nonprofit Asian Resources Inc. "After the opening ceremony, everybody left, and he and his wife cleaned up, scrubbing toilets, picking up trash."

Do, who nearly died on a fishing boat when he fled Vietnam's communist regime, has become a one-man civic improvement and cultural preservation committee in south Sacramento.

He's building a Vietnamese Baptist Church across Elder Creek Road from the community center, and he has broken ground for a Vietnamese Buddhist temple on Power Inn Road.

A self-made millionaire, the 55-year-old businessman has given money to the Vietnamese Catholic Church and Buddhist Temple, Asian Resources and Vietnamese festivals.

His motivation, he said, is to help others who have faced adversity to improve their lives.

The community center, he said, is "for people like me who have had so many things happen to them, who work so hard and don't have a chance and don't know how to have a startup. If they don't get help from us, no one will help them. I do this for everyone, not just Vietnamese."

Others are amazed by Do's generosity and drive. "He's a doer, not a politician," said Vietnamese radio talk show host Nancy Tran. "He has the heart – I would like to see him unify all the factions in the community."

Do doesn't wait for consensus to get things done, Nguyen added. "He barrels forward and does everything. At our Lunar (New Year) dinner, he was helping me stack tables and lay everything out."

When the air conditioning broke down at his daughter's Catholic school some years ago, he climbed onto the roof and fixed it.

"I'm a handyman who does everything," Do said. "If you point fingers, nothing happens."

Last week, Do picked up a torch and welded an iron gate for the back entrance of his food truck depot in southeast Sacramento, the engine behind his financial success.

About 80 food trucks, serving Mexican, Vietnamese and American fare, leave Do's depot, Catering Food Supplies, as early as 3 a.m. with gas, ice, hot sauce, lemon juice, canned tuna and other supplies from his vast warehouse. They return to park overnight. Rent is $18 a day.

Patting a giant concrete pillar with his right hand, Do said he "did everything" to build the business. "I bought the steel, cut it, bent it, drilled holes and raised these posts up myself with a forklift," he said.

His wife, U.T. Trinh, who manages the warehouse, vacations without him because he can't stand to do nothing. "We went to Las Vegas, stayed at the Bellagio, and he left after one day," she said. "He gets up every day at 4 a.m."

"Working is my hobby," Do grinned. "I can't watch TV except the news. The last time I went anywhere was to Reno to marry my wife in 1985."

Do now lives in a house he designed and built in south Sacramento. He grew up under the gaze of the Viet Cong in Kien Hoa, a village outside Saigon.

"My father, a rice farmer, was put in jail by the communists before I was born, for no reason," he said. When he was 10, the Viet Cong planted bombs in the schoolyard sandbox where South Vietnamese soldiers would hide.

"I saw them (communists) kill my aunt and uncle because they had an acre of land and wanted to keep all the bushes where they could hide," Do said. Every year the communists would ask for money, "and if people didn't pay, the communists chopped their heads off and threw their bodies in the river. I still have nightmares 40 years later."

His cousin, a Viet Cong, warned him about the Tet Offensive in January 1968, when 80,000 Viet Cong swarmed towns in South Vietnam. Do and his family survived by lying on the floor surrounded by clay pots and sandbags while their house was shelled. He and his older brothers fled to another town and opened an ice cream factory. Do worked in a lumberyard until Vietnam fell to the communists.

"I tried to leave the country many times, but didn't make it because we couldn't get boats or buy fuel," he said. "If you stay you're going to die; if you go you might make it."

In 1978, Vietnamese fleeing Saigon paid for a 15-foot fishing boat to take about 70 people, ages 6 to 60, out of the country. Do became the captain of Boat 196.

"The first night we got to Thailand, which wouldn't accept us," he said. "The cabin collapsed while I was steering and the engine cut a seven-inch gash in my left knee."

He made it to the coast of Malaysia when a typhoon flipped the boat. Do and his crew swam back and forth from the boat to the shore a hundred yards away to save the passengers.

"In Malaysia they put us in a chicken farm for two days and two nights," said Do, cringing at the memory. "Then they took us to a warehouse with almost 1,000 people. Everybody else had a place to lay down and we didn't even have any place to stand up; we had to lay down on the toilets for seven days. Day and night we tried to get a drop of water."

From the refugee camp, Do was moved to the Philippines to learn English. Finally, after being sponsored by his former boss at the lumberyard, he arrived in San Francisco in September 1980.

He began his American life in Hollywood.

"It was horrible – at 3 a.m. I go deliver newspapers, at 6 a.m. I go home, take a shower, go to ESL school, go home and then go to high school at night," he said.

He ended up attending a school for mechanics and moved to Seaside in Monterey County to fix engines on Vietnamese fishing boats. Dinner was rock cod on the boat. "I'd sleep on the boat, or on a towel in somebody's house – I was homeless."

But when his six months of refugee cash assistance ran out, Do refused to renew it. A staunch Republican, he hates government handouts.

His luck turned when he moved to San Jose to work in a tire shop. A friend introduced him to her sister, a Vietnamese refugee visiting from Holland.

Two hours after they met, Do said, "I don't even want to look at your past; if you want to get married, we'll get married. What are you gonna learn waiting for a year – take a chance!"

His wife quipped that he wasn't too handsome – "which means he'll take care of me" – and said yes.

The couple moved to Concord to work in a nursing home. Do also fixed cars and delivered the Contra Costa Times.

In 1986, they moved to Sacramento, bought a home in foreclosure for $40,000 and took over a food truck called 5 Star, selling American and Chinese food.

When the depot where he parked folded, Do built the depot and warehouse that has been key to his success.

There's no point in coming to America if you don't take full advantage of your freedom, he said. "We can't fail – we risked our lives to come here for what?"

Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.

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