The journey to pursue education, freedom, and a better life, was not simple for the family of our Alumni Executive Board member, Cory To. Through resilience, and their generational value of education, Cory’s family overcame many obstacles to provide the best education possible for his generation.
Cory’s family came from the town of Bac Liêu, Vietnam. His grandparents, Hoa and Khi Ngo, made the difficult decision to escape Vietnam with their nine children. At the time, the war was nearing its end and communism had been established. Joining tens of thousands of people, the family took the great risk of fleeing Vietnam by boat.
“The boat trip proved to be a very arduous and dangerous expedition,” says Cory. “In their flotilla of five boats, they were the only boat that successfully crossed the South China Seas. The other four boats were not as lucky as there were no survivors on those boats.”
After numerous failed attempts to land along coastal countries in Southeast Asia, their Captain decided to sink their own boat on the coast of Malaysia. This way, it forced Malaysian authorities to make a decision – shoot at them or let them seek refuge. The attempt was successful, but it led Cory’s 11 family members to live in a refugee camp in Malaysia for six months.
During the family’s time in Malaysia they worked diligently to fill out applications to numerous countries that could sponsor them for immigration. Eventually, they received acceptance from Canada. The family first stepped foot into Canada in May of 1979 and began a new life in a country nearly 12,000 kilometers from their hometown. Cory’s grandparents' determination led them to pursue their dream of opening a family business to have all their children work under one roof, close to home.
In 1984, the family opened Henlong Market in Surrey. The name Henlong is named after Cory's grandpa and translates to Lucky Dragon in Chinese. At the time, it was a small space of only 1,400 square feet, serving the community a variety of goods including exotic fruits and vegetables from across Asia. “Our customers supported us from the very beginning and as a result, it allowed us to grow and expand,” says Cory.
Eventually, to meet demand, they moved to a bigger location in July of 1994. The family expanded the business to include a meat shop, a sandwich shop, and gained the ability to import a variety of groceries, seafood, and fresh produce from across the world. “Opening up a grocery store in Surrey was a difficult undertaking, but our grandma made sure to emphasize that education was just as important as helping with the family business,” says Cory.
“Our grandma taught her children the value and importance of education. Coming from Vietnam, education was not easily accessible. She believed that education was a gift, and that her children were fortunate to have the opportunity to be educated in Canada,” explains Cory. The collective effort and hard work of the entire family gave Cory’s aunts, uncles, and parents the ability to pursue higher education at institutions such as Simon Fraser University and University of British Columbia. This was something that made Cory’s grandma very proud, as she was never given the opportunity to attend school.
The nine siblings that came from Vietnam worked hard to pursue their educational goals, but never forgot the sacrifices their parents made that afforded them the opportunity to pursue their educations. They were determined to all stay local and continue to help with the family business. “The immediate family was all that they had, so staying together as a family unit became extremely important,” explains Cory. With the support of the family, they were able to build a new store in 2011, which included a second floor with a bakery and household supplies. Even now, the tight knit siblings remain close, most of them even have homes on the same street.
As the nine siblings began to have children of their own, they made it a family priority to provide the new generation with the best education possible. They chose Southridge as the place they wanted to send their children to school. “They saw a great school with plentiful resources and a close-knit community. Parents, teachers, students, and alumni got along and worked well with one another demonstrating a strong sense of community and belonging. They saw a place that supported its students while emphasizing community and service,” says Cory. “My family felt that Southridge reflected their own values while also building a strong foundation for students to be successful in their future endeavours.”
Cory and seven of his siblings and cousins have attended Southridge. Allisen To (Class of 2015), Cory To (Class of 2016), Amy and Emily Ngo (Class of 2020), Megan Truong (Class of 2021) and Brendan Ngo (Class of 2022) have all graduated from Southridge. Attending the Senior School currently is Alisha Truong (Class of 2023) and Hayley Truong (Class of 2027). “Hopefully more of my family will join Southridge in the upcoming years,” says Cory.
“Our time at Southridge helped shape who we are today. It taught us the importance of involvement in the community and allowed us to further develop our skills and learnings in both arts and academics. It gave us safe refuge to discover ourselves, and the opportunity to find our passions. Southridge prepared us well to pursue higher education,” says Cory.
Allisen, the eldest alumni from the family, is attending medical school at the University of Washington. The other Southridge graduates from the family are attending UBC studying a variety of different fields including sciences, statistics, political science, and business.
Cory and his generation have found it remarkable that their grandma places such high value and importance on education when she has been wildly successful without ever having attended school. “Our grandma’s perspective on the importance of education has stuck with us from generation to generation. We are all grateful for our education and the time we have spent at Southridge,” says Cory. “Our grandma has ultimately impacted each and every one of our lives not only by her strong beliefs and values, but also by her own display of work ethic and her dedication to always strive to improve the lives of those around her.”
Even now, at 87 years old, Cory’s grandma continues to help people in any way she can. She supports her grandchildren's university educations and donates to the Surrey Memorial Hospital Foundation and the Red Cross. You can even find her still offering a helping hand at Henlong Market.
“Even though she can't read or write, to us, she’s the smartest woman in the world, and has inspired us all!” says Cory. The educational successes of her children and grandchildren, made the extremely difficult journey well worth it for Cory’s grandmother. Her determination and resilience have allowed generations of her family to pursue their individual dreams, while remaining a close-knit, loving family.
Contributed by Marissa May, Alumni Relations
Originally published in Spirit Magazine - Fall 2022