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At Chu’s Garage, London Fields

August 29, 2017
by the gentle author

Celebrating the eighth birthday of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the past year

Quang Chu of Chu’s Garage

Chu’s Garage under the railway arches in London Fields has become a reliable institution among motorists in Hackney over the last thirty years for good service and honest dealing. Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I met the Chu family while making a survey of the small independent businesses under the arches which are currently being threatened with excessive rent increases up to 300% by Network Rail, and we decided to return to hear the Chu’s story.

In the middle of the day at Chu’s Garage, work ceases and a ring is attached to a gas bottle for Jimmy Chu to cook a fresh lunch, which the family eat around the table in the cosy hut, complete with an altar, which serves as their dining room.

Sarah & I were honoured to be lunch guests and afterwards, over cups of green tea, we learnt of the astonishing story that lies behind Chu’s Garage. This was an unexpected epic, the dramatic tale of the Chu family’s perilous journey from Viet Nam to Britain, revealing their remarkable hard work, courage and tenacity in pursuit of a new life, which culminated in opening their beloved garage.

Chuong Kim Chu in Hai Phong, Viet Nam, 1974

Nhi Chu – My father, Chuong Kim Chu, was Chinese but he was born in 1935 in Viet Nam. My grandfather had come from Quanzhou in the south of China and migrated with his brothers to Viet Nam. So my father married my mother, Lien, who was Vietnamese and, although we grew up knowing that my dad was Chinese, we did not speak Chinese until we came to the refugee camp in Hong Kong.

Quang Chu – I remember when I was small my grandfather tried to speak Chinese with us. At that time, Viet Nam and America were at war and, many times by day and by night, they were bombing the city where we lived. It was very scary but interesting for a child. At night I saw the rockets and they were colourful, like fireworks. I remember the sound of the aeroplanes and fire everywhere. The table and chairs shook! Many times we were evacuated from the city to escape the bombs.

Chau Chu – One day my mum said there was a siren and, as we didn’t have a shelter, she went to the neighbours and asked ‘ Can we please come in to your shelter?’  But they said, ‘We’re so sorry, there’s no space.’ So my mum took us somewhere else and later that day, when we came back, we found our neighbours’ house had been bombed and everyone killed.

Nhi Chu – When my father grew up in Viet Nam, the family were poor so he didn’t go to school but he taught himself to read and write, Vietnamese and Chinese. He said, he learnt by eavesdropping on classrooms. When my father was seven, my grandfather, who was a herbalist, saved someone’s life and in return they said, ‘Your son can come with me and I will give him an education.’ But, one night, my father wet the bed and was so scared that he would be beaten up that he ran away, and that was the end of his education. When he was thirteen, he became an apprentice in the engine room on a big passenger ship. He had such a curious mind that, when the captain went away, he took an engine apart and memorised how it fitted together. But when he put it back he forgot one piece, so when the captain returned he got a whack over the head.

Chau Chu - We never saw our father much because he was always away from home as a long distance lorry driver. Whenever it broke down, he could fix it himself. That was how he started as a mechanic. The company gave him the lorry and he had to look after it. He saved up a long time to buy his truck, yet when the Communists took over they just took it from him.

Nhi Chu – During the war with America, Viet Nam and China were on good terms but, after the war ended the two countries fell out over a border dispute. At that time, there was a campaign by the Vietnamese government to get all Chinese migrants and their descendants to leave the country, and they were as hostile to them as they possibly could be. People started to lose their businesses. My mother said that my father was being subjected to a lot of abuse at work, from his colleagues who had once been his friends. He was quite a popular person and every year when they had the competition to see whose lorry was in the best condition, my dad always won the first prize. But then the tables turned and he had his truck taken away, so he no longer had his business or customers. My father knew that he had to leave because he was no longer able to make a living.

Meanwhile, my mother was being bombarded by people saying, ‘Leave your husband! He’s Chinese, you are Vietnamese. If he goes to China, you should stay here because you will be abused there.’ So there was a conflict, but my mother decided she wanted to stay with her husband and children. As children, we felt we were Vietnamese, we didn’t know we were Chinese, we didn’t make the distinction.

Chau Chu – All of a sudden, people were pointing at us and saying, ‘You are Chinese, you don’t belong here!’

Quang Chu – When we got to Hong Kong, they spoke Cantonese and we had to start everything from the beginning. Everything was very hard for us.

Chau Chu – We were forced to leave Viet Nam, we had no choice. We didn’t go to Hong Kong right away, we just wanted to leave the hostile environment of Viet Nam.

Nhi Chu – Because my father was Chinese, the Chinese government gave him visas and papers to go to China legally and we travelled from Viet Nam to China by train. We lived there for a year but the problem was that, although my dad was accepted as Chinese and got a job as a lorry driver, my mother and us kids were not accepted. We were city folk but we were sent to the mountains and every day we were given a portion of a field and had to turn it into fertile soil. Unfortunately, my mother looks Vietnamese and she was subjected to a lot of abuse from the locals. She had no choice but to hide inside the house. My dad realised this was no way to live and no future for us children. We couldn’t stay and he knew he had to find a new territory where all of us could live together peacefully.

We left China illegally because in those days no-one was permitted to leave. We couldn’t all leave in one go, so we divided the family. The plan was for our elder brothers Quang and Jimmy to leave to Hong Kong and make some money and send it back, and then the rest of us would join them there.

Quang Chu - The sea was very rough and lot of people died. The old boat was rotten and leaked inside, and it was overloaded. There were more than two hundred people, old and young and even babies just born. All kinds of people but all seasick. It was their first time ever on a boat. This was a short distance but a long journey, very long. Suddenly the sky might turn dark with thunder and lightning, heavy rain and strong wind – oh, it was scary. It was only a few days but the captains were inexperienced and they went round and round. We were lucky we survived the sharks but a lot of people didn’t.

Nhi Chu – We waited but we didn’t hear anything from them for six months and then a year.

Quang Chu – We sent them letters but they didn’t get them.

Nhi Chu – My dad decided that we couldn’t wait and we needed to go. We left at night but we had to make the house look as if we were still living there, because if the police found out they would come and stop us. For about a week, we were stranded at sea and then we got to Hong Kong.

Chau Chu – They hated us as well because we wanted to come onto their small island. They wouldn’t let our boat land, it was only when it was sinking that they picked us up. They had to check we were not from China, because if they knew we were from China they would send us back, so we had to say we had come from Viet Nam.

Nhi Chu - For two nights, we were on the boat and there was a storm which hit our boat and it began to sink, which is why they took us on board. For two weeks, we were held in a Forbidden Camp, where you can’t get out of, and then we were released to a Freedom Camp. We were waiting to be allocated a sleeping area when we saw my brother Jimmy. He came with Quang and we asked, ‘Still alive! How come you didn’t write to us?’ They explained that they had to get rid of all their paperwork at the border, so they lost the address and every day for a year they took turns to come to the camp to see if we were there. Finally, we were reunited but we found out that if we had been a month later we should have missed Quang and Jimmy, because they had already decided to go to America.

My dad didn’t want to go America, he wanted to come to England because he had been told that they treat old people very nicely here.  He said, ‘I’m going to be old one day.’

Quang Chu – He said, ‘Why don’t they say ‘Speak American’? – they say ‘ Speak English.’ So he thought England must be a very good country, better than America.

Nhi Chu – That was 1979 and Mrs Thatcher announced she would accept ten thousand Vietnamese refugees, so we among the first batch. We came to England in 1980 and we first settled at the refugee centre in Dorchester for ten months where we started learning English.

Quang Chu – We went to the sea at Bridport, it was very nice.

Chau Chu – There were about fifteen families and we were happy there. Each of the families took turns cooking. Then we were resettled in Barrow-in-Furness and all the racism started again, like in Viet Nam.

Nhi Chu – We had been sheltered in Dorset but then suddenly we were the only Vietnamese family in Cumbria. It was back to square one, and we couldn’t find work so Quang had to move to Wigan and Jimmy to Bournemouth.

Quang Chu – Barrow-in-Furness is a very small town where everyone works at the shipyard and that only offers enough jobs for the local people, so we had to go elsewhere. But I think it’s good to see other places and other ways of life. You learn a lot when you have to stand on your own two feet, facing life.

Nhi Chu – After five years, we moved south.

Quang Chu – I think my father had decided that Barrow was good enough for him, but then he met so many people in London.

Nhi Chu – Even though my father was in his late forties by then, he managed to pick up the English language. He continued to attend evening classes after the rest of the family stopped and, after about a year, he managed to get a job at the local garage in Barrow. When he went for an interview, the manager just said, ‘Here’s a car, tell me how many faults you can find with it.’  When he came back, the manager said, ‘There should be eleven,’ and my father said, ‘I found thirteen’ – and that’s how he got the job. Dad worked there for three years to get his qualification and then he was promoted to foreman, but he had such a hard time because the other younger mechanics resented him because of his age and race.

Chau Chu - He always knew that he would come to London one day to set up a garage.

Nhi Chu - One of his mottos in life was ‘Whatever anyone can do, the Chu family can do it just as good, if not better.’ We could never go to him and say, ‘Dad I can’t do that.’ He’d say, ‘What do you mean? You can’t yet!’

Chau Chu - He was fifty when he came to London.

Quang Chu – In 1985, he started across the road from here in a shed that he shared with a Turkish guy. There were holes in the ceiling, which made it very slippery when it rained. At that time, the railway arches were vacant and this was a very rough area.

Nhi Chu – After a year, quite a few people applied to rent this arch, but my father was lucky and he was successful. The rent was between five and six thousand annually then.

Quang Chu – We moved in here in 1988 and we fitted it ourselves but there was no business.

Nhi Chu – Bricks and cement fell from the arch whenever trains ran across. We contacted Network Rail but they ignored us for years and years.

Quang Chu – Business was very difficult, so my father decided to do MOT Class 7, vans and light commercial vehicles. There were so many garages doing MOT Class 4 but MOT Class 7 was very rare. In Hackney, we have not heard of anyone else doing it. So my father decided that doing Class 7 MOTs was the way to survive. There was so much regulation and red tape to get to be an MOT Station – but then we realised we had no MOT testing equipment! Everything for us for us was new. It was very scary.

Nhi Chu – Dad had to study the MOT textbook, the rules and regulations, and then he had to go and do a test. He really struggled, so he had to have the help of his old English teacher to translate all the terminology – and my dad passed.

Quang Chu – When we first became the MOT-nominated tester, we held a party and invited our old friends. It was very expensive to set up and we had to borrow money from so many people. The bank wouldn’t lend to us, so we had to do it Vietnamese style – we go to a lot of people, relatives, neighbours and friends, and borrow small amounts of money and keep a list. They said, ‘This is good for everybody, good for you and for the Vietnamese community.’ So we have tried to look after them and pay back everyone gradually.

Chau Chu - The MOTs have kept our business going, otherwise we would have shut down.

Quang Chu – We feel good about it – even Hackney Council bring their vans here for MOT.

Nhi Chu – When my dad died, we wanted to have a grave to represent his life, so we got a designer to come here and take a look at the garage. He said, ‘Howabout if we design it with an arch?’ My father used to say, ‘I spent all my time here, my blood and sweat to make this garage as it is, so when I die bury me in the maintenance pit.’ We achieved that in a way by creating a tombstone in the shape of an arch which he is now resting beneath.

When we start talking about our father, we realise what an amazing character he was. When he passed away, we had to tell the customers and some of them burst out crying. A lot of people miss him. Without his motivation, we would not have been able to bring the whole family from one country to another country. This garage is his legacy.

The Chus’ lunch cabin

Jimmy Chu cooks lunch

Nhi Chu

Chau Chu washes up

The Chu’s office

Nhi Chu

Chau Chu

Jimmy Chu

Quang Chu with his father’s toolbox

Quang Chu


Jimmy Chu

Chuong Kim Chu

Lien Chu

Chuong Chu standing in front of his trunk with Quang in Viet Nam, 1974

The Chu family reunited in Hong Kong 1979

Chu family in Barrow-in Furness

Chuong Chu at Chu’s garage

Mr & Mrs Chu outside Chu’s garage

Mrs & Mrs Chu upon their return to Viet Nam for their fiftieth wedding anniversary

New photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. August 29, 2017

    Mr Chu and his family are wonderful an example of hardworking folks.
    We have had our cars fixed by them for years having first being introduced by jock macfadyen artist who has his studio nesrby . They completely rebuilt my old XJS as the suspension had gone in the front and this took months of patience getting the parts and replacing repairing worn out parts.
    I still drive this car with great satisfaction that mr chu took great pride in repairing it
    These people are speacial

  2. Joe and Christine Lawlor permalink
    August 29, 2017

    We have been going to Mr. Chu’s for many years now (as we too live in the area). They are a wonderful family to work with. All the above comments we agree with and hope Mr. Chu’s negotiations with Network Rail prove successful.

  3. August 29, 2017

    Wonderful life affirming story. Can’t believe Spitalfields life is now 8 years old!

  4. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    August 29, 2017

    the Vietnamese people I am sure are a great great asset to Hackney and the UK. My son lived in North Viet Nam (Hanoi) for four years whilst serving as the Deputy Head of the Israeli Diplomatic Mission. We visited twice. Wonderful hard working people. Reminds me a lot of our grandparents who came from Poland and Russia in the early 1900s. My wifes’ grandparents were itinerant pedlars selling their wares to the farmers in the Valleys of South Wales. They would arise at 4am , study gemorrah for several hours and then join prayers at the synagogue in Tredegar and later Cardiff. Life was hard but the children became Professors of Medicine and Law and distinguished themselves in the Armed Forces. My own grandfather had a poultry barrow in the Lane and mum was a dinner lady at London Fields School.

    Dr Melvyn H. Brooks retired General Practitioner, Karkur Israel

  5. David Cox permalink
    August 29, 2017

    Wonderful……and touching tale. What a struggle for this family. Thanks for seeing this and documenting such moving story.

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