Helen Wong standing in her restaurant, Hai Hong. (Michael Wenye Li / Sun Senior Photographer)

October 16, 2019

Hai Hong: The Steamboat to Freedom

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The entrance to the Collegetown favorite is recognizable by its yellow signage. Customers pass through its black doors into the eatery, arriving at wooden tables that stare into the restaurant’s open kitchen. A side wall divides the restaurant into two dining rooms co-serving Cantonese-influenced cuisine and Vietnamese specialties, and frequent patrons to the restaurant cross-order dishes from the two menus. The sidewalls are simply decorated with a Southeast Asian influence, exemplified by the woven bamboo patterns and the floor’s turmeric colored tiles. Here, owner Helen Wong serves a variety of authentic Vietnamese specialties created from her memories. Helen had left her home country of Vietnam to come to Ithaca as a refugee in 1979.

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Senior Photographer

Michael Wenye Li / Sun File Photo

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Senior Photographer

“We actually named our restaurant Hai Hong after the ship that brought us to freedom,” Helen says to me in Cantonese as she points at an old painting of a large steamboat on the restaurant’s wall. Although her ancestral lineage is from Southern China, Helen grew up in the city of Saigon — current day Ho Chi Minh City — and was a factory worker alongside her husband.

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Helen and her husband decided to leave the country with their children to find better opportunities overseas. They first tried to pay local fishermen to take them away from Vietnam, but their escape plans failed twice as they were caught by local officials.

Then in October 1978, Helen purchased six government-issued tickets for herself and her family — her husband, her three children aged two, three and four, respectively, and the son of her family friend. The details of the tickets were ambiguous as they did not have a specific destination; all Helen and her family knew was that they would be allowed to leave the country via boat.  In exchange for her freedom, she sold off all her family assets in exchange for gold bars as the local currency was deemed worthless following the communist takeover. Although it was technically a state-run program, the logistics of her escape had to be hidden as her tickets were informally purchased.

Leaving their home in the middle of the night, Helen and her family boarded a small dinghy which took them to the Hai Hong, an old industrial steamboat. Traveling for weeks by sea, the Hai Hong attempted to dock in Singapore and Indonesia but were rejected by each of the local governments. “We were all standing or sitting in the dark cabin with no place to lie down during the duration of our trip,” Helen recalled.

Hai Hong’s fortunes changed when a French journalist snuck on board with a camera after the ship was denied entry to the port of Malaysia for the second time.

“It was dark at night and we just saw flashes in the cabin, I did not know what was going on.” The journalist published the state of the passengers aboard the Hai Hong on international media, and soon after countries began to offer asylum to the refugees on board. “Canada, Germany and Australia were the first to offer asylum to the sickest refugees.”

Although they were offered asylum, Helen and her family had to wait for another six months before they were taken in by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ithaca, New York. Helen and her family still remain in contact with fellow church members in the Ithacan community, and she is still thankful to those who helped her family settle into life in Ithaca.

“For every issue we had as new immigrants, the church sent volunteers to help us. This included helping us learn English, find jobs, get medical check-ups and more,” Helen remarked, adding that although her family is made up of devout Buddhists, she has attended mass at the local church to extend fellowship with the community. Helen and her husband then started to work at a neighboring Chinese restaurant named Peking Garden (which has since closed), and it was there that her famed pho was introduced to the public during the restaurant’s Sunday brunch. Eventually, she bought out the restaurant and moved it to Collegetown, changing the name to Hai Hong as a commemoration to her past.

“I love Ithaca. My favorite part is the fact that we can see the four seasons here,” Helen said when I asked about her perceptions of Ithaca. “I have a strong relationship with Cornell. Many of your professors have been eating here for a while. My two daughters graduated from Cornell as well, one is working in Hong Kong and the other is still working for the University.”

Pho is one of the restaurant’s specialty dishes. Helen’s version is made from her memory, as she jokingly says, “We ate the dish at home, but I never thought about being a chef before I came to Ithaca.” Hai Hong’s version is notably lighter than other versions of this rice noodle dish, which is seasoned in a silkily clear beef or chicken broth. Thin shavings of beef (tripe, tendon and brisket) are added to the flat rice noodles. Alongside the dish are fresh vegetable garnishes that give customers leeway to customize their bowl, with options ranging from lime wedges, chili, bean sprouts and Vietnamese coriander. “There’s no special formula to our dishes here. It’s dead simple,” Helen says. To truly enjoy the dish, she recommends tasting the clear broth first with the noodles before adding the condiments in humble amounts to elevate the broth to your liking.

Dominic Law / Sun Contributor

Dominic Law / Sun Contributor

Subtle home-cooked flavors are present in all of Hai Hong’s dishes as they are literal representations of Helen’s memories. Whether it is a bowl of cold Bun (thin strips of rice noodles) tossed in a fragrant homemade vinaigrette then generously topped with peanuts, fried shallots and minced pork or Cantonese inspired stir-fry elevated by the mahogany char that comes from her kitchen wok, Hai Hong has a dish for everyone. Next time you pay a visit to the restaurant, instead of ordering your designated favorite, ask your server for a recommendation and try something new. Just like the ship that took Helen and her family to freedom, at Hai Hong, every dish is a journey. Ithaca is very fortunate to have her.