Watch Flight From Saigon: 40 Years Later - Thursday, April 30 at 7:00 p.m. on KPIX 5
OAKLAND (KPIX 5) -- The lives and fortunes of thousands of Vietnamese refugees changed with their exodus from Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War 40 years ago this month. Among those seeking a new start in the U.S., perhaps no refugee embraced the American dream as fiercely as David Duong.
Duong, the founder of Oakland-based California Waste Solutions, is one of the most successful Vietnamese businessmen in the East Bay.
His story is not quite a rags-to-riches story, however. Duong was born into wealth and lived in the biggest house in Saigon – a seven-story mansion.
His father owned a recycling company and the biggest paper mill in South Vietnam. "My father, they used to call him king of trash," said Duong.
The family empire vanished overnight on April 30, 1975 when North Vietnamese soldiers seized all their properties.
David, then 15, and his family escaped in a boat with just the clothes on their backs. When the boat began sinking, a nearby Russian ship managed to rescue them. "We (were) so lucky. If they don't rescue us, we definitely would die," said Duong.
After years at a Philippines refugee camp, the family came to the U.S and landed in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. There were 16 relatives crammed into two studio apartments.
19-yearold David quickly learned the road to success wasn't paved with gold, but with cardboard. "After school, we would go around 7:00 or 8:00 and collect cardboard until midnight," he said.
It was a job his family did every day for three years. The payoff was their first recycling warehouse in West Oakland. "From this cardboard here, it started our business today."
California Waste Solutions is a multi-million dollar company handling recycling in Oakland and San Jose. It employs 300 people.
In 2006, Duong received a call from the communist Vietnamese government, asking him to consider coming back to Vietnam and building on his family's roots. "My parents always wanted me to go back to help improve the lives of the people there," he said.
Duong went home and invested $150 million in Vietnam Waste Solutions, which manages solid waste collection, landfills, recycling and composting. "Before, our parents had the biggest paper mill in South Vietnam. Now, we have a waste treatment that's the biggest in the whole country," said Duong.
"This is kind of like the core of our business, moving back from generations," said son Johnny Duong. "We never moved from the core."
On this 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, David Duong says he's not bitter about what his family lost. Rather, he's thankful for the ability to go back, reinvest and help the communities he left. "Saigon is our home," said Duong. "But our heart is here (in the Bay Area)"
Duong acknowledges there are many Vietnamese-Americans who refuse to do business with the communist government. But he said for him, investing in Vietnam was the right thing to do.
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