“I CAME here as a refugee who had nothing, only the clothes that I wore…I’m making a life, I’m making a change,” says businesswoman Helen Chu.
When Helen was a child, her grandfather came to Australia as a boat person and three years later sponsored the rest of his family through a church group to come, too.
“We had to escape from Cambodia to the border of Thailand. I lost some siblings and went through a lot of horrific war experiences,” she says “I was around eight or nine years old, but I don’t know when I was born because all the paperwork has been destroyed.
“As refugees we walked through landmines and I’ve witnessed people being blown up in front of me. There are so many things I can visualise from when I was a little girl and it’s forever imbedded in me. You cannot erase that memory.”
Helen and her husband Ian Chu are familiar to many Canberrans who frequent the farmers’ markets or shop in the city. As owners of Civic fruit shop Majestic Fresh and Majestic Mushrooms, a farm at Murrumbateman, they are determined to be successful.
“We’re trying to provide for the children as we juggle the two businesses and a big family,” says Helen, who says she gets her work ethic from her own mother.
“I lived in Cabramatta in Sydney where most of the Asians lived and grew up there without a word of English,” she says.
One of six children, Helen saw her mum work tirelessly sewing and earning 10 cents per garment.
“She worked away and eventually bought a double-storey house for us,” she says.
“I guess we saw her work ethic. She’s our role model.
“Mum always wanted us to get to uni so I just worked and worked. Even when I was in year 9 and 10 I was attending English as a Second Language classes.”
When she finished school, Helen came to study at the University of Canberra and, in her second year, met Ian.
“Slowly we got to know each other, but my parents are very strict. They don’t believe in boyfriend/girlfriend relationships,” she says.
“When Ian asked me out I was very reluctant. My dad always believed in arranged marriage, so I said I couldn’t go out with him.”
But Ian was persistent and Helen eventually agreed.
“Four years later – that’s when dad got to meet him!” she laughs.
When Helen finished university, she had to move back to Sydney because that was her arrangement with her parents.
“In my family, you can’t move out unless you are married. I was devastated at having to go back home and I told Ian we had to break up,” she says.
Ian wasn’t letting her go so easily and moved to Sydney as soon as he finished university.
“When I went back to Sydney, dad was trying to arrange my marriage and I was going through a lot of emotional turmoil. Sure enough, Ian kept his word and moved to Sydney.”
Rather than hide the relationship, Helen told her father she was marrying Ian – news which came as something of a shock to her new fiance.
The pair married and settled in Sydney, Helen teaching “new arrivals” and Ian working as an engineer for 10 years before they decided to go into business with Helen’s sister and buy a mushroom farm in the Windsor area.
“I fell in love straight away when I saw the mushroom farm,” Helen says.
Although they “knew absolutely nothing” they researched and soon became experts.
The business partnership later dissolved and Helen and Ian left Sydney and came to Canberra to be closer to Ian’s family.
“Both Ian and I are hard workers and we’re determined, but all we had was the theory of mushroom growing we had no practical experience,” Helen says.
They purchased their farm at Murrumbateman and have immersed themselves in the “very scientific” business of growing mushrooms.
“We went through a lot of hurdles, a lot of trial and error, a lot of tearful nights and a lot of doubts,” says Helen.
“I’ve got a very loving and strong relationship with Ian. We are very open and talk about anything. We’re able to overcome any hurdles because we’re strong together.”