Jeff Jardine

December 11, 2007

Photo lab is a snapshot of triumph

You could say Quang and Ha Bui have lived the American dream.

They came as strangers from Vietnam five years apart, fleeing the communists.

They went to college to learn English and met at Modesto Junior College.

They got married, started their family and built their photo lab business here in Modesto.

They worked long hours, denied themselves vacations and saved to put their children through college.

They became American citizens, and their son and daughter -- both born here -- never have known anything other than being Americans.

In fact, this country is built on stories like theirs: People who came here to escape oppression and to build a better life.

Of course, none of this exempts them from the same things so many other Americans face -- in this case, modernization. Technology is sending their once-thriving photo business toward Dinosaurville. Digital photography -- which requires no developing -- has run a number of small labs similar to theirs out of business. It's dented the Buis' sales by 50 percent and, with technology changing by the minute, it's not a matter of if, but simply when, their services no longer will be necessary.

Even so, you get the feeling these industrious folks -- who endured so much to get here and sacrificed so much to put their children through school -- will be OK.

"It's impressive that they've been able to stick it out, watching people who folded long (ago)" said Richard Bui, their son. He graduated from San Jose State University last spring and is an information technology specialist for the public defender's office in San Francisco. "It alludes to the mentality of when they came over here and what they had to deal with."

Quang, 61, rose to the rank of lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army. As the North Vietnamese stormed the country in 1975, he boarded a South Vietnamese military ship and steamed to Subic Bay in the Philippines before going to a refugee camp in Guam and, several years later, to San Diego.

"Everyone was just in such a hurry to get out after the North Vietnamese took over," said Quang, whose two sisters remain in Vietnam.

A church in Ripon sponsored his move to the Modesto area in 1980, and he arrived with no money and speaking no English.

That same year Ha -- whose family fled the Communist government of China for South Vietnam in the 1930s -- escaped the North Vietnamese by fleeing the country. In a 15-foot-long boat that carried more people than any craft that size should, she left from Ca Mau, at the southern tip of the country.

"I was a boat person," she said.

They motored south for about a week before arriving in Indonesia. A few months later, she flew to the United States, coming to Modesto because an aunt lived here and because First Baptist Church helped with the paperwork.

She enrolled in English classes at MJC, where she soon met Quang. They were married in March 1981. He got a job working at Baird Photography in Modesto, then started his own photo lab in his garage in 1983.

"After our son was born, I worked part time and helped him out," Ha said.

They opened Professional Photo Lab at Carpenter Road and Kansas Avenue in 1986, with the bulk of their business coming from professional photographers and amateurs who shot with regular film.

Their lab did well, allowing them to put Richard, 27, through college. Linda, 20, is a junior at San Francisco State. Both attended Davis High School.

Many customers have remained loyal, going to the Buis for their enlargements, wedding prints and such. Still, the big-box stores, including Costco and Wal-Mart, cut into their enlargement business by offering cheaper rates.

"(Customers) always shop for price first," Ha said.

The Buis realized it's just a matter of time before advancing technology makes their type of lab work obsolete. Then what?

"We'll think of something," said Ha, 49. Quang is considering retirement.

"But I'm still young," Ha said. "I'm still going to work."

Their work ethic isn't lost on their children.

"I've seen how hard they worked to put me through school," Linda said. "It makes me want to work even harder. They've never had anything handed to them."

"You talk about their struggle for us to have better lives," Richard said. "It puts everything into perspective, where they've come from."

And if they choose to start over in an entirely new enterprise, they know it can't possibly be as tough as what they went through to get here.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached or 578-2383.

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