Refugee week has special meaning for owners of an iconic Perth bakery
If you've eaten meat pies, pasties or sweet treats in Perth it's likely that they came from Golden Bakery on William Street. To mark Refugee Week, OMI spoke to Cong Lai and his wife Kim Pham about their journey from Vietnam to becoming an iconic Western Australian business.
When I arrived in Perth as a refugee from Vietnam in 1980, I knew no one, had no money and spoke no English, but I was determined to take every opportunity and make a new life.
I met my wife here in Perth. She had also come as a refugee—maybe upstairs already set it up! The most important thing for both of us was to work hard, build a life here and support our families left in Vietnam.
Vietnamese people like to work hard. I learned that from my father and he learned it from his father—so although we had nothing we had our culture to draw strength from.
But we needed a plan.
Aussies always eat pies—number one policy! I'd never seen a meat pie before coming here but I thought this is something we could try our hand at.
We bought pies and pulled them apart, tasted them, tried to work out what went in them, how to make them and—most importantly—how to make ours the best!
I knew nothing about bakeries but I was willing to learn. I didn't need money for expensive machines. I knew it would be a lot of hard work, and we weren't afraid of that! We listened to our customers and experimented with our pies until they were right.
In the early days here we worked long hours, mostly in factories, to save some money and help our families back in Vietnam. For the first few years we often worked both day and night, and learned English. We didn't have a car. We were often so tired, sleeping just three hours a night. Our lives here were hard, but we were lucky.
We wanted to start our own business. Full-time work is relaxing I said to myself, better we do something for ourselves. And in 1988 we opened our first bakery in Innaloo Fresh Market.
We struggled at the beginning, learning to get the business right. I remember one day, early on in our business, a customer complained about the meat in a pie and said it looks like kangaroo. We knew it was beef, but that stuck with me; I wanted my customers to be happy.
We opened our second shop in Dog Swamp. That was a big celebration—we were happy to be getting success for our hard work, and for making something that Australians really liked. We also were starting to employ more people—often refugees from Vietnam like ourselves—to give them a chance in life.
We opened bakeries in Forrestfield and in Thornlie. Then we opened the city shop in 1997. By this time we had called it Golden Bakery after our lovely golden flaky pastry!
Now we offer different ranges of products to suit different markets, like offering mini pies for our city store and for our catering business.
We worked to improve our business bit by bit. We win lots of prizes for our pies—we often win awards and trophies at the Perth Royal Show, gold medals at The Great Aussie Pie Competition, which is held annually at the Fine Food Convention, and the Baking Industry Employer Award of WA. And we have many loyal customers from Carnarvon to Singapore.
Perth has changed a lot in the time that I've been here. In the early days, a lot of Australians didn't know much about Vietnam. They were a bit unsure about us. Some thought we were Chinese. They were a bit unfriendly until they got used to us.
What advice would I give to people who have come here as refugees like me? It can be lonely, it can be difficult. But to these people I say—hard work can achieve anything you put your mind to—even making the best pies in Australia! You'll never forget the family and places you've left, but this is a great place to make home.
After 30 years of trading, Golden Bakery is part of Western Australia's story and we're proud to have played our part. The best part of this whole experience is being able to share our golden creations with the diverse people of Western Australia.