By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Holiday traditions: A Christian Christmas


Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of December stories that will explore how Yamhill County residents celebrated the holidays in their native countries and the traditions they continue today.

Growing up in Vietnam, the children of Chinese immigrants, Sam and Yan Voong both associated the holidays with good luck, not religion.
Their families were Buddhist, and the biggest event of the year was the Chinese New Year’s Celebration. It happens sometime in January or February, depending on the Lunar Calendar.
As children, they savored lucky dishes at the New Year’s dinner, wished each other luck in their native Cantonese and hoped to receive red envelopes filled with lucky money.
The Voongs still mark Chinese New Year, although they’ve lived in the U.S. for more than 40 years. But since they’re now Christians, they no longer depend on luck.
“After I knew Jesus well, I forgot about those superstitions,” Yan said. “Jesus loves me. That’s all I need.”
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The Voongs, who live near Dundee, escaped from Vietnam on Sept. 8, 1978, after years of hard conditions during and after the Vietnam War. They and their two small children boarded a ship crowded with 1,200 refugees; they would spend the next 13 days on board
The ship sailed to Singapore, hoping to land, but officials gently told them Singapore couldn’t take in that many people. However, the residents provided food, powdered milk and water in an effort to help as much as they could.
Then the boat sailed to Malaysia, Yan said. This time, the greeting wasn’t welcoming at all; “They sent us away,” Yan said. Soldiers even fired on the ship in an effort to get it to move on.
The shots damaged the ship, causing it to take on water. Before sinking, it unloaded the Vietnamese refugees on a small island, where they took shelter under tarps. Food and water were scarce.
Yan chose to let her children and husband have what potable water was available, limiting herself to drinking sea water unbeknownst to her family. “I almost died,” she recalled.
“I didn’t know God. I was Buddhist and didn’t believe anything,” Yan said. “But I asked for help. I didn’t want my children left without a mother.”
The day after she offered that prayer, she said, “a cargo ship came, people made a fire and they saw us and sent a boat.”
They were transported to a refugee camp in Indonesia. But Yan wasn’t out of the woods yet; still very sick, she was unable to find help, since she could speak only Cantonese, a language her rescuers couldn’t understand.
Then a kind woman appeared at her side. The woman spoke Cantonese and knew how to find medical care.
Yan recovered.
But when she searched the camp for the friend who saved her life, Yan said, she couldn’t find her. “She was an angel,” she realized, “an angel the Lord sent to help me and save my life.”
Because of that experience, Yan became a Christian. She devoured the Bible; she learned to pray. Later, her family would follow her example.
The Voongs were in the Indonesian camp for 13 months before being given clearance to move to another country. The West Chehalem Friends Church in Newberg sponsored them to come to the U.S. in 1979.
“We were happy when we found a country we could go to,” Sam said, recalling that they knew nothing about their intended destination.
They also didn’t speak any English at the time. “When I saw the church people, I smile and bow” to show gratitude and respect, Yan said.
People in the church were wonderful to their family, said Yan and Sam. The Harney family of Newberg was instrumental in their getting settled, they said. A few missionaries in the area spoke Mandarin, a language the Voongs also understand.
“The church helped complete strangers. It really touched my heart,” Yan said. “They loved me like their family. They did it for Jesus.”
She and her husband went to English language classes and studied both a Chinese and English Bible. They also found Chinese language churches in Salem and Portland, which they attended prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
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When their older children were about 5 and 7, the Voongs welcomed two more daughters, including Helen, their first born in the U.S.
Helen was learning to talk at the same time her parents were learning English. “I remember Mom watching Sesame Street with me,” she recalled.
Today Helen lives in Newberg. She teaches tai chi in addition to helping her British-born husband, Mike Roberts, run his Cornish ice cream shop,
Her younger sister lives in Portland, her older sister in Hawaii. Her brother also lives near Dundee.
Christmas was new to them that first year in Oregon. Sam said the Harneys brought them a Christmas tree to decorate, and invited them home for Christmas Eve dinner.
 “Now we always celebrate,” he said, noting they even made a tradition of taking their children to see Santa, a concept that didn’t exist in Vietnam when they were there.
He found a job at Climax Portable Machine shop, first in assembly, then as a machinist. He retired from there after 43 years.
Yan worked at Louie’s Chinese Restaurant in Newberg, in addition to working for ADEC and Current Electronics for many years.
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Helen recalled waiting for her mother to return from her shift at the restaurant before they could open Christmas presents of coloring books, audio cassettes and art supplies. One year her sister received a Light Bright toy, to the envy of others.
Helen also remember her parents exchanging gifts while still catching on to the idea of Christmas presents. One year, her dad gave her mother a carpet cleaner – not a hit.
Later, she recalled, her father received a state-of-the-art stereo system for Christmas. He loves music, both Chinese and some American tunes. He enjoys singing karaoke, too, and at one time the family had its own karaoke machine.
For Christmas dinner, the family nows goes out to a restaurant for dim sum, an array of small plates. Son-in-law Mke, Helen’s husband, makes the Christmas Eve meal.
Yan, who learned to cook after she married, used to make the dim sum herself when their children were small. For Christmas Eve, she prepared a Chinese hot pot and chicken wings similar to those from the restaurant where she worked.
She also makes spring rolls for special occasions.
“A lot of work, but the family is happy,” she said. “If they are happy, I am happy.”
Yan said she figured out the recipe for her wings and other dishes by tasting and figuring out the seasonings and proportions – something she enjoys doing.
“Mom has a good palate,” Helen said, noting that Yan and her son-in-law, the ice cream maker, enjoy talking about flavors and figuring out recipes.
Yan agreed. “I learn from him and he learns from me,” she said.
This year, Yan and her son-in-law, along with other family members, will get to talk in person during the holidays for the first time since COVID hit. They’ve celebrated via Zoom since then.
They are all grateful to get to be together. And daughter Helen is eager to resume one of her favorite Christmas traditions.
 “I”m looking forward to having hot pot again,” she said.

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Growing up with Chinese New Year
The News-Register staff
Along with Christmas and, these days, Thanksgiving, the Sam and Yan Voong have continued celebrating Chinese New Year so their children would understand traditions of their heritage.
When he was growing up in Vietnam, Sam said, it was “a huge celebration, for eight days.” Shops and other businesses were closed, and all sorts of activities were offered for both children and adults, he said.
People also refrained from cleaning their homes for three days during the celebration, Helen said. To do so would risk sweeping away good luck.
Adults handed out lucky money to children. Married couples also gave out the lucky money, in red envelopes, to their elders.
Yan recalled that her mother continued giving her red envelopes even after she married Sam. “So I keep the tradition with my children,” she said.
Helen said she, too, gives lucky money to her parents. “It’s a sign of respect, (wishes for) good fortune, good health,” she said.
In Vietnam, Chinese businesses, including the Voong’s sandal factory, sponsored fireworks and lion dances. Chinese New Year was the only time people saw fireworks, Yan said, noting “here you can do fireworks for New Years, Old-fashioned Festival, the Fourth of July.”
Mothers made, or families purchased, special foods for the holiday: sesame balls, pastries “not so sweet as here.” Many were flavored with pandan, a leaf often called “Asian vanilla” that’s used in desserts and in Thai sticky rice.
Yan recalled her mother buying pandan pastries. “She cooked only very traditional dishes” for everyday meals, she said.
Her mother didn’t teach her to cook. But she did send her out to work in a cloth factory when Yan was 9 years old; the child prepared spools of cotton thread for the looms.
It was common for children to work then, she said, especially the eldest in the family. Yam was oldest of six, including two brothers, two sisters and another adopted sister.
Yan, on the other hand, was the youngest in his family, with one brother and one sister. Their father, a veteran of the French army in World War II, owned a business that supplied food to the military. Yan went to school instead of working as a child.
Sam and Yan met at a mutual friend’s birthday party when they were teens. He liked her, but was already dating someone else. She forgot all about him.
Then, during Chinese New Year, she recalled, she went to a movie with friends. “Someone pointed him out. I said, ‘Which one?’”
But it was enough to spark a friendship, and he soon asked her out on a date – to another movie. They married in October 1972, when he was 22 and she was 21.
“The Vietnam War was on,” he recalled.
“Always war,” she said of their early years.
The newlyweds ran a shop that made flip-flop sandals. But “in the Communist take over, it was hard to do business,” so they left as soon as they could, Sam said.
The Voongs have visited Vietnam twice since they left. It had changed a great deal since the fled. They still have some relatives there..
“Some people still keep old-fashioned ways, but buildings are different. We couldn’t recognize anything,” Yan said.

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