MIGRANT EXPERIENCE | ‘Mum and dad never gave up; it fires me to this day’

Jenny Dinh and her brother Jason Hoeung were born in a Thai refugee camp when their family was on the run from Pol Pot’s Khmer regime in Cambodia. The family came here when Jenny and Jason were toddlers.

Their parents, Meng Huy Hoeung and Nguy Meng Ping, ran a clothing manufacturing company. Jason is a successful fashion designer with his own business, 2eros. Jenny and her husband have run Fat Panda restaurant at Canley Vale with great success for many years. Fat Panda continues to thrive and now Jenny has just launched another company, the startup Co.Lab Space.

The family’s individual business successes, and each person’s talent and drive, are held together by a compassion and generosity of spirit borne straight out of the migrant experience.

Jason previously shared his story (see online) with us.

This is Jenny’s.

Tell us about your migrant background. We came to Australia from a Thai refugee camp, Aranya Prathet, in 1983. My parents and auntie Ly Chheng Hoeung were caught in the Pol Pot regime, 1975 to 1979. They were driven out of the city and into the wild jungle and were literally living on the run for four years. They knew they were safe one day when they saw a Red Cross tent on the horizon, far in the distance. I’m told they lived in the refugee camp for more than three years. My brother Jason and I were born in the camp. When we arrived in Sydney we were placed in the East Hills migrant hostel. Dad told me we moved to Ashfield and then found friends at Cabramatta. Then we moved to Lansvale and, finally, BonnyriggHeights. I love the south-west. I’ve never left and I still call it home.

What do you remember of arriving? I was 1. My earliest memory is living at Lansvale – the house on Vale Street is still there – and I remember my parents sewing in the garage. I woke up one day and ran to my mum to tell her she’d forgotten to go to sleep. In actual fact she’d worked all night to finish an urgent order or they wouldn’t have been paid.

How did your family find fitting in? I didn’t know a life different to Australia, so there wasn’t an adjustment for me as such. But mum and dad speak about the racism they encountered early in their settlement. I have sad memories of my mum being spat on by westerners while we waited for a train, or being laughed at when she tried to order food for us because she couldn’t pronounce it. That’s why they found so much comfort in Cabramatta and Fairfield – everyone there has a background like ours.

How has your migrant experience affected you? My greatest advantage is I have a real sense of gratitude! I know the life I have now is far better than the life my parents and auntie had. Without learning about their past and seeing what they lost, I don’t think I’d have this deep hunger to succeed. I always think about how my parents came to this country with nothing, no understanding of the language or culture, and they built their own companies. I’ve been gifted with education and I’ve been given opportunities many only dream of. I also have a deeper empathy for refugees and those who’ve just arrived. When it comes to business my work ethic is all from my parents. I’ve seen my parents build, and rebuild, themselves back from bankruptcy. They run their business with no excuses, always giving 110 per cent. This apple did not fall far from the tree! 

Why did you and your husband start Fat Panda? Viet was working ridiculous hours at hotels, over 80 hours a week, for minimal pay. So when this business came up for sale, we both thought he’d be better off putting in those hours for himself rather than for someone else. Also, both our parents are in small business, so the idea of getting into business wasn’t foreign.

Why is it a success? It’s our priority! We’d decline wedding invitations, family outing, social events to make sure it ran properly. We had an obligation to our employees and to the business – everything else is second. In hospitality, you work all the social hours and you miss all the important life events! It’s a field where everyone thinks they’re an expert. I mean, no one goes into the accountant and reviews how he did your accounts! But anyone with a phone and an Instagram account can critique us!

Who does most of the work? It’s different for each of us but we both do what needs to be done. It’s about putting the best person in for each task.

Mum was spat on by westerners while we waited for a train; laughed at when she tried to order food 'cos she couldn’t pronounce it. We found so much comfort at Cabramatta and Fairfield – everyone has a background like ours.

JENNY DINH

Do you cook at the restaurant? No, I’m a terrible cook. So bad, I once gave Viet food poisoning! He leads the creative and strategic direction of the restaurant, I'm more operations. The only input I have regarding the menu is passing on customer feedback, the rest is his decision. But serving guests and managing staff is all me. I head the training of floor staff and I ensure customers are looked after. I’m a very systematic person and I love procedures. 

Why start a new business? Co.Lab Space was born from my love of instagram collaborations. I’m in love with the process of creating amazing content with talented people. I’m in love with the new way we consume content.

What most shaped your character? Being in business with my husband has taught me a lot about compromise, commitment and letting go of little things that don’t matter. We’re both aware of our strengths and weaknesses and we use them. Also, letting go of judgement. People say they don’t care what others think, but when you work in an industry that’s so open to criticism, you really do learn to ignore it and genuinely not care. This lets me do my own thing.

What makes you angry? I burn when I see women controlled by their partners. From the littlest thing, like being told what they can wear, or how often they can get their nails done, to asking stay-at-home mums “What have you done all day?” Your health is physical and mental. I use Instagram to talk about this a lot and I’ve had so many women connect with me and share their stories. I’m a huge advocate for empowering women. I love to support women, help them realise their worth. From the downtrodden wife to the working mum who feels overwhelmed. My Instagram profile has more than 15,000 followers [actually 15,900 – Ed.] right now and many women DM me each day saying how they’re inspired by my posts.

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