Tri Ma. Miss Saigon. Photo by John Moore.

Tri Ma’s mother ‘was the Harriet Tubman of our family’

EDITOR’S NOTE: Miss Saigon, inspired by the opera Madame Butterfly, tells one very specific story of the Viêt Nam War. It does not attempt to convey the breadth of the Asian American experience then or since. The DCPA NewsCenter has compiled a series of real-life stories of Asian Americans from vastly different backgrounds and countries of origin whose stories are both dramatic and dramatically different. Please note that we have chosen to honor the authentic spellings for Viêt Nam and Sài Gòn, respectively. Video by above by David Lenk and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

There’s really only one way to describe Tri Ma’s mother. “She’s a rock star,” said the 37-year-old son whose mother escaped the horror of Viêt Nam five years after the fall of Sài Gòn – but only after using her connections with the local military to help dozens from her village get out first.

“She would sneak them down to the boats, make deals with the captains and then get them out to sea, giving them a chance for a better future in another country,” said Ma.

Her fate, he made perfectly clear, was “pretty much death” had she been caught.

“She was the Harriet Tubman of my family.”

But one day in 1981, something went wrong while Hong Ma was working to get two of her son’s cousins on a boat to anywhere. She had no choice but to jump on with them. They were all sent to a refugee camp in Hong Kong, which is where Tri Ma’s story begins – literally.

“My mother was working in a factory in Hong Kong when she met my father and became pregnant with me,” said Ma, now a life-insurance professional and the Treasurer of Denver’s Asian American Pacific Islander Commission.

Hong Ma was seven months pregnant when she was put on a boat to America. But while she was sent to Colorado, Tri Ma’s father was sent to California, never to be heard from again. Tri Ma soon became the first member of his family to be born in America. Lutheran Family Services and a sponsoring American family helped mother and child join other relatives in Colorado.

“Fortunately, we had a lot of support when we got to Colorado,” Ma said. “My mother and I are definitely very grateful, because the majority of people here accepted us with open arms at a time when it wasn’t very popular to accept refugees.”

Still, his single mother typically had to work as a seamstress for up to 18 hour days, seven days a week, to provide for her son, who often lived with an elderly couple in Englewood during the week while his mother worked. “I had to learn to be independent at a very young age,” he said.

“In Five Points, my cousin slept with a gun under his pillow in the living room – and we still would get robbed.” Tri Ma.

One of Ma’s earliest memories was living in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood in 1986, a place and time that hardly seemed safer than Sài Gòn. “We had a two-bedroom apartment with 20 of us living there,” said Ma, who was just 4. “Safety was always a concern. My cousin slept with a gun under his pillow in the living room – and we still would get robbed.”

Ma and his mother bounced to Montbello and central Aurora before landing in Arvada when the boy was 7. “I felt like an outsider from the youngest age I can remember,” said Ma. “There was a lot of racial tension when I was living in Aurora. I was picked on quite a bit and had to fend for myself. There were a lot of schoolyard fights.”

Life in Arvada wasn’t easy, but it was easier. It was in that west Denver suburb where Ma first started to feel normalcy – and at home. His elementary school was diverse, and that helped him assimilate more easily. “For the first time in my life, I felt like a normal, Asian kid,” he said.

Ma excelled at Arvada High School and won a nearly full-ride scholarship to study psychology and physics at the University of Colorado Boulder. He went on to obtain his master’s degree at Walden University in Minneapolis while building his own agency, called 3T Insurance, in Thornton. His passion is helping  seniors and the disabled with their Medicare. Ma attributes his mother, who has since remarried and has two more boys, for all his success.

“I am very grateful and I’m appreciative to her, because who knows what my life could have been like if she didn’t escape?” he said. “Maybe I wouldn’t even have been born. There might be another version of me out there with a father living a different kind of life. But probably not as a fortunate as the one I have right now. I have my education, I have my career, I have my siblings. So I have a good life. Yeah … She’s a bad-ass.”

Tri Ma. Miss Saigon. Photo by John Moore.

Tri Ma’s mother was pregnant with him when she made her harrowing escape from Viêt Nam. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Here are more excerpts from John Moore’s conversation with Tri Ma:

John Moore: You told me your mother risked torture, imprisonment and even death had she ever been caught smuggling people out of their farm village back in Viêt Nam. What have you learned from the risks that she and other women like her took so that others would have the opportunities you have had?

Tri Ma: That we shouldn’t let their sacrifices go in vain. That we should follow in their footsteps. That we should always try to make things better not only for ourselves, but for those around us, our loved ones and our community. Whatever your circumstances are, you should always do the right thing, and strive to make things better.

John Moore: When did you start to really grasp your own origin story?

Tri Ma: Not until college. That’s when a lot of my uncles started to fill me in on everything my mother went through to get here.

“Thinking back at how strong my mom was and how strong she had to become makes me want to do better for her.” Tri Ma.

John Moore: And what does knowing that origin story now mean to you?

Tri Ma: It empowers me. Thinking back at how strong my mom was and how strong she had to become makes me want to do better for her. But everyone has their own story, and no one story can encompass everybody else’s.

John Moore: What is the focus of your work with the Asian American Pacific Islander Commission?

Tri Ma: It’s a volunteer commission through [Denver] Mayor Michael Hancock’s office. We service the Asian American community of Denver in areas such as health, education, job fairs and immigration concerns. We try to help people with whatever they need, whether it’s something as small as language interpretation or as large as a housing situation. We are a resource for the community, and we advocate for them as well.

John Moore: What do you want people to know about the 5 percent who make up Denver’s Asian American population?

Tri Ma: That we are a very cohesive community, and we help each other grow, but it is also very diverse, with up to 60 languages spoken between us. Most of that community is centrally located in and around Denver and Aurora, but it is spreading. We are known to be more quiet and reserved than most people, but that stereotype is changing. The younger generation speaks up more. We are no longer the silent minority. We want a seat at the table, whether it is in the media or education or in politics. We want to be heard. We want to make a difference, and we want to make things better.

“Colorado has given my family a great home. Growing up was hard, but I don’t have any desire to live anywhere else.” Tri Ma.

John Moore: Your family did not come to Colorado by choice. You were born here by circumstance. But here you are, 37 years later, and you and your mother are still here. You could live anywhere. Tell me about the choice to stay and make Colorado your home.

Tri Ma: We love Colorado. Colorado has given my family a great home. Growing up was hard because of different socioeconomic, race and class struggles, but I don’t have any desire to live anywhere else – although I miss the old Colorado, where we could enjoy the beauty of the state without a lot of people everywhere. But mother and I both have had the opportunity to make better lives for ourselves financially, mentally, physically, emotionally here. Colorado has helped us to succeed and thrive.

John Moore: It should be said that your mother is an economic generator with her own business in sewing and manufacturing.

Tri Ma: Yes. She has been self-employed since she was in her late 20s. She makes a good living, and she employs or contracts out work to a lot of people.

John Moore: Do either of you feel any urge to visit Viêt Nam?

Tri Ma: My mother has been back multiple times for funerals, or to help build houses for various family members. But she has made it quite clear: She does not want go back to Viêt Nam to retire. The fear and the distrust that was so instilled into her where she had to flee the country just to save her life, has definitely changed her mindset about Viêt Nam. She wants to stay here in America for the security and the comfort.

John Moore: What is your final takeaway from your mother’s journey?

Tri Ma: Use your efforts, use your talents, whatever your passion is and your talent is, use it for good and use it for the good of everybody and not just yourself. Whether you’re an athlete, a musician, an engineer or a doctor – find ways to help others. Help them have a better life.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter