Photos: Henry Wu
Hoang and Anh Nguyen grew up with a father who they dubbed “The Goodwill Raider” – a man who consistently collected thrift store junk and spun it into gold. Their father learned this necessary skill to survive in the United States after leaving everything behind in Communist Vietnam.
“Back then there was no technology, families were separated, and people were displaced with no contact all over the world,” Anh recalls.
As refugees, the family’s only shot at a new life was sailing away to the open seas on a banana boat – with the slim chance of being picked up by a trade freighter. The Nguyens sailed on that banana boat with no end in sight for almost a week. What was originally a fishing boat had been modified to accommodate 100 people brimming with hope. The voyage’s survival was uncertain for the Nguyens – for both the parents and their eldest children (Hoang and Ahn’s older siblings). Each family onboard was rationed one cup of milk to share. Families would withstand hunger for whole weeks until they were rescued by a trading ship and taken to a refugee camp in Indonesia. The Nguyens were one of the fortunate ones that were picked up. Hoang says, “This was considered lucky, compared to others that were caught in storms to places like Thailand, were then captured by pirates to be raped or killed.” Although the arduous journey had ended for their parents, they couldn’t believe the atrocities and the stories they were told; from people contracting skin disease to corpses being tossed off the boat to people resorting to cannibalism.
At a young age, Anh and Hoang shared their childhood bedroom with 10 other family members in their government-provided housing. The family was financially strapped, with both parents working low-wage jobs such as a janitor, fisherman, and fruit picker. However, Hoang and Anh never felt poor because their parents instilled such a strong sense of family and happiness. These stories of perseverance and the lessons passed on through their parents shaped Hoang and Anh into who they are today.
Similar to others who live in an Asian-American experience, the brothers were encouraged by their parents to consider stable and prestigious careers so that they could financially assist and contribute to society. Growing up, they constantly heard the occupations of ‘doctor,’ ‘lawyer,’ and ‘engineer’ thrown around. Their parents didn’t wish on them the same challenges they had trying to make ends meet. Deviating from their parents’ wishes was tough, but the Nguyen brothers have defied all things traditional in their professions. Hoang and Anh pursued design and have forged their own path while providing opportunities for those after them.
Almost three decades later, Hoang and Anh have embodied this lesson through constant perseverance and resourcefulness. Although they may not see themselves as ‘The Goodwill Raiders,’ their father’s knack for creativity has been foundational for their prolific design careers. “You have to think about you as an individual, and the risk and challenges that you are willing to take and pull yourself through,” said Hoang. Fear is no stranger to the brothers, but the idea of getting over the “fear of losing” is what they have gleaned from their parents.
“After the Vietnam war, my parents were deciding between living in a country that’s turning to communism or fleeing the country overnight – not being able to measure the risk is fucking crazy. That mentality was what I took from them.” This uncalculated risk, along with the motto, “Why not?” is something that Hoang and Anh embrace every day.
At Creative Session, Hoang and Anh are always revving on ways to translate the ideas of openness and resourcefulness into their work. “There is this transition from my parents’ generation to ours – being busy and putting in hours means success, but for us, now it’s about working smarter, not harder. But I think just by seeing how they did things made us more clever about how we should work, be braver, and start our own company.”
Being brave and having confidence didn’t always come naturally. Throughout their childhood, the brothers struggled with finding their identities because they were caught between the fabric of two cultures. “Even though I was born in America, growing up with the name ‘Anh,’ and having people call you ‘off’ all your life since you were a kid does have a heavy influence on you. You learn to brush it off eventually, but you start to question what my identity is? Who am I?”
It didn’t take long for the brothers to realize that having an individual perspective is better than conforming to one. They learned not to be embarrassed about where they came from, who their parents were, or who they were.
“Our parents sacrificed their English for our Vietnamese to be better, and I really believe in that.” Anh continues, “We hated learning Vietnamese as kids, but now growing up for us to go to Vietnam and talk to the elders in the community...we really appreciate it.”
There’s a Vietnamese quote that says, “Con hơn cha là nhà có phúc.” Hoang and Anh interpret this quote in two different ways. “First, if the number of children outnumbers the parents, then the family is blessed. Second, if you live twice as well as your parents, then your house is blessed.” When it comes to legacy, the brothers consider “generational wealth” as something their parents passed down to them. The wealth of knowledge, tenacity, and ambition are qualities that they have been emboldened by and the currencies they wish to share with future generations.
“It is not much, but it’s everything.”