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SAN FRANCISCO, Dec 5 2013 (IPS) - They were a family of farmers and bakers in a war ravaged land with nothing to show for their hard work; no money, no real home.  They made four separate attempts to escape the grinding poverty and the stifling government controls, all to no avail.   They were the family of Binh  Ly and his four brothers.
The country was Vietnam in the aftermath of the reunification of  North and South, following the victory of the communist forces over the Americans and allies. That was thirty eight years ago.

Today, well settled in San Francisco, the Ly family owns the Sugar Bowl Bakery empire,  worth $60 million and growing, built upon hard work, sweet dreams, and  capitalist enterprise.  Binh Ly, now, 67 years old, told The San Francisco Chronicle  “we came over in a refugee boat with nothing and built something good.  Back in Vietnam we worked very hard but made  no money.  Here? You work hard, and with a little luck you can do anything.” Even President Obama, on a visit to San Francisco campaigning for liberalizing the U.S. policy on immigration pointed to Binh  Ly  and his brothers as the embodiment of “what America is about ………. the place where you can reach for something better, if you work hard”.

Before they came to the United States, Binh Ly with his four brothers and 140 other refugees, sat shivering in the cold and fearing for their lives in a hand built 9 foot- wide boat, being tossed upon the waves of a stormy  sea, fleeing Vietnam for Malaysia.  Half the “boat people” were terrified, the other  half too seasick to feel anything but misery.  As the waves tossed the boat up and down for four hellish days, pirates raided the motley crowd and stole everything they had, except the clothes they were wearing.

Finally, they made land and were taken to a refugee camp, where they spent more than a year on a diet of rice and noodles and the rare luxury of a little vegetable, Kang-Kung.  They were always hungry.  That was 1978.

After the ordeal of the refugee camp in Malaysia, the Ly family was transferred to San Francisco.  None could speak English, There were no jobs lined up.  They worked  at whatever  they could. One brother delivered news papers.  Then in 1984 the Ly brothers decided to pool their resources to buy a bakery, the Sugar Bowl, for $40,000.  In a few years they expanded the business to deliver pastries to small shops around town.  Binh Ly was the baker, Andrew Ly  who studied business was CEO.

Over the next 20 years or so, the Sugar Bowl Bakery expanded to six coffee shops and baking plants in San Francisco.  Then, the recession hit the business.  The Ly brothers sold the coffee shops and consolidated production in one baking plant, turning out baked goods for 7,000 companies in the U.S. and in 11 foreign countries.  Annual revenue has increased 50% in the past five years to $60 million, says Bakery General Manager Michael Ly, Binh’s son, 39 years old.  His sister, 34 years old Laura Ly  is Marketing Manager.

When The Chrocnicle writers visited the plant, Laura was inspecting the production line where 75 million puffy, cake like, madeleines are pumped out each year.  The smell of butter, sugar and vanilla filled the air.  She took a deep whiff  of madeleine  and grinned. “This is the land of opportunity.  I feel my family and I have lived that” she said.

Opportunity has come to the Lys through hard work.  Even when President Obama was singing their praises in the  speech in San Francisco, only one brother was there to hear it.  All the other brothers, sons and daughters were hard  at work  baking sugary goodies and smelling the sweet smell of success.

(Lakshman Ratnapala is Emeritus President & chief executive officer of Pacific Asia Travel Association)

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