BY ELLIE HENSLEY
Thau Hua drives along Peachtree Street in a John Deere Gator, stopping along the way to scrape a sticker off a lamp post, pick up trash and remove graffiti from a public bench.
It’s 7:30 a.m., before many people leave for work in the morning or even climb out of bed. Because of the early hour and the fact that Hua is so good at his job at Midtown Green, his work often goes unnoticed. But it’s some of the most important work Midtown Alliance does to make the district a better place.
Hua has worked for Midtown Green since 2012, making him one of the organization’s longest tenured employees. He didn’t know anything about Midtown when he started, and over the past decade he’s watched everything from the skyline to the street level transform into a more urban place.
Change has been a constant for Hua. He embarked on quite a risky journey as a young man during the Vietnam War to get to the United States, and has reinvented his career several times since he arrived. Read Hua's incredible story below.
A Harrowing Journey Across the Sea
During the Vietnam War, Hua served as a member of the Military Police (MP) for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. His job was to serve as the bodyguard for the vice admiral of South Vietnam, who was in charge of protecting the Saigon capitol.
Everything changed the evening of April 29, 1975, when South Vietnam fell into communist hands. Hua, then 23, learned the Viet Cong was looking for the vice admiral and would kill him and his men on sight: he had five minutes to decide if he wanted to leave his country behind. He left Saigon that night before he even had the chance to get in touch with his family.
Although some MPs were able to escape Saigon by helicopter or by larger ship, all that was left by the time Hua departed was a small river patrol boat. He headed for Con Son Island, off the coast of Vietnam, where he and his fellow MPs boarded a World War I-era Vietnamese Navy cruiser bound for U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay in the Philippines. He and his team had to make haste, because they’d heard from Navy headquarters back in Saigon that North Vietnam was threatening to send Mig jet fighters to bomb the ship.
Even after boarding the cruiser, it was far from smooth sailing for Hua. The fleet of ships he and his crew manned were outdated and in dire need of maintenance – in fact, some of the boats had to be evacuated and sunk by the U.S. military in the middle of the ocean because they could not make the journey.
“I remember before we got into Philippine waters, we had to throw all the ammunition, all the guns and everything into the ocean and pull down our South Vietnamese flags to raise the U.S. flags,” says Hua.
From there, Hua went directly from the Vietnamese Navy ship to a larger U.S. Navy ship and departed for the U.S. military base in Guam. He remained there until June 1975 when he was flow to Harrisburg airport in Pennsylvania. He was then transferred to Indiantown Gap military base and stayed there until December 1975 where he was then sponsored by a family from the United Church of Christ to come stay with them in Pennsylvania.
“They were a very nice American family,” he says. “There weren’t too many Vietnamese people who had come out of refugee camps yet, so you had to wait for someone to sponsor you.”
Step by step: Thau's journey from Vietnam to metro Atlanta.
Restarting With Empty Pockets
Hua lived with his sponsor family for four years, until he was able to get his first job in the United States.
“I started with an empty hand,” he says. “No money as a Vietnamese refugee. And I didn’t know how to speak English.”
In 1979, he was hired by Sperry Corp., an equipment and electronics company that exists today as a part of Unisys. Some of its other former divisions became part of Honeywell and Lockheed Martin. Hua worked for Sperry’s printing shop, the Customer Information Direct Center in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He remained at that position for about 13 years.
During his time in Pennsylvania, Hua also met and married his wife through the Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association. They started a family and decided that they wanted to move somewhere with a warmer climate, first visiting Dallas and then Ft. Myers, Florida, before settling in Snellville, Georgia.
After selling their home up north, Hua was able to purchase both a home here and start a coin laundry and dry cleaning business. Hua was still working in printing shops in the morning, and then would then go help his wife run the family business in the evening.
But as people started to rely more on the use of computers, printing shops everywhere started to shutter. He wasn’t sure what his next step was going to be until he heard about an open position at Midtown Green through his daughter’s friend.
Thriving in the Outdoors
Unlike Hua’s previous jobs in the U.S. that have limited him to office work, his role at Midtown Green means working outside in every season. Hua sees this as a wonderful thing.
“I love the trees, I love to garden, I love to see all the people around here and meet them,” Hua says. “That’s why I love to work here, I don’t have to work inside a building and I just get to see everything. People thank me for keeping the city clean.”
While many people have been working from home and away from Midtown during the pandemic, the Midtown Green team has been on the ground working seven days a week as essential workers. For some time, the team has added duties for sanitizing and disinfecting high-touch surfaces like benches and trash cans in the district in addition to their regular tasks. It’s a tough job that not everyone is cut out for, but Hua says he does not find the work difficult.
“I was a soldier,” he says. “I came from a war country. I am not easy to scare.”
Kyle Guess, Program Manager at Midtown Green and Hua’s supervisor, says he is one of the team’s “best guys.”
“He always shows up with a positive attitude, and he’s up for anything,” he says. “Anything he sees he tries to take care of on his own.”
Hua's garden in Snellville is so beautiful that couples seek it out as a wedding venue.
In his spare time, Hua tends to the spectacular garden he has created outside his home in Snellville. It’s a Japanese garden complete with koi, a fire pit, Bantam chickens, a bee hive, a hammock and a swing. It’s become such a well-renowned place that people seek it out as a wedding venue, but Hua loves it most of all because it is a place he can spend time with his friends and his family.
“I spend most of my time outside on the weekends, and in the mornings,” he says. “My garden helps me to relax. I am 69 years old now, and I have no problems.”