Pubdate: Tue, 12 Oct 2010
Source: London Free Press (CN ON)
Copyright: 2010 The London Free Press
Author: Jane Sims, The London Free Press


Courts: Grow-Ops Have Made A London Vietnamese Translator A Hot Commodity

Tom Lai is whispering in Vietnamese.

The young man sitting beside him in a London courtroom prisoner's box
is listening to him intently over the witness, the judge and the lawyers.

Lai leans in and translates simultaneously legal concepts that are
often difficult to understand in English.

Lai reels off Vietnamese translations for bail, guilty plea,
preliminary hearing. He knows a wide assortment of words related to co
(the Vietnamese word for marijuana, which carries a question mark over
the o and is pronounced 'caw').

He can simultaneously translate what a police search may find in a
residential drug operation - the electrical bypass, ballasts and grow
lights, the bud, the leaves, the stems.

Lai, 61, or Tommy as he's known in the courthouse, is a hot commodity
not just in London, but across Ontario, because he's a gifted
translators both in Vietnamese and Cantonese.

And given the widespread growth of grow ops in which defendants are
Vietnamese-born, his skill has landed him in a different city almost
every day.

Recently over two weeks, Lai was in courtrooms in Thunder Bay, Guelph,
Cambridge, Kitchener, Toronto and London.

When not in court, he could be in a lawyer's office, translating
meetings or civil discoveries or at hospitals or social services offices.

"He's the Olympic champion of translators," says London defence lawyer
Michael Barry.

Lawyer Jack Hardy says he counts on Lai for an impartial and direct
communication. "He has the confidence of the Vietnamese people," Hardy
says. "They don't hold anything back from him."

Lai has been translating in the court system for a decade, his latest
stop from the streets of Saigon, to Hong Kong, San Mateo, Calif.,
Vancouver and eventually London.

He says he's a lucky man to have a job he likes, a wife he loves and
two sons he adores-one a dentist with two dental offices in
Washington State, the other finishing up his medical residency in Ohio.

And, Lai says, he knows his journey to London from Vietnam had some
bumps, but it was not nearly as rocky as it has been for others he has
met who were born in his home country.

"Lots of Vietnamese not as lucky as I am," he says.

Lai was born to Chinese parents and grew up in the city of Cholon, a
predominantly Chinese community in Saigon and now Ho Chi Minh City.
His father was involved in the shipping business and Lai attended
school - with many classmates who would later die in war - until he
was drafted into the South Vietnamese army when he was 17.

Lai was trained with the Special Forces and was ordered to help patrol
the streets of the city after the Tet Offensive and North Vietnamese
invasions on 1968.

Lai says he had orders to shoot to kill anyone suspicious . He saw
many dead people on the streets. "It was very dangerous," he says.
"Being a soldier in Vietnam, you didn't know if you were going to
survive to tomorrow."

His brother and two older sisters had already left the country. His
father, Lai says, made plans for him.

His mother took him to the resort town of Vung Tau. There, he and 11
other young men were spirited onto a boat operated by a navy captain
whose job was to find smugglers. Lai's father had paid for him to be
taken out to the sea to hook up with another ship.

Lai left Vietnam on Sept. 1, 1969, and arrived in Hong Kong on Sept.
5, 1969, where he was reunited with his brother. But he had no
identification papers. He spent three years in Hong Kong while he
sorted out his status and attended a general arts college.

He also met his wife, Anna. Then, they left for San Mateo, Calif.,
where he studied aircraft mechanics.

His parents and younger sister were still in Vietnam and flew out just
eight days before the fall of Saigon. The whole family reunited in
Vancouver, where Lai's 93-year old mother still lives.

"We are very, very lucky. So many of my friends . . . lots of them got
killed," Lai says.

He came to Southwestern Ontario to work for Bell Aerospace in Grand
Bend, when the company was building hovercrafts - with jet engines -
for the British armed forces. When that contract was not renewed, Lai
and his wife wanted to stay in London.

Tom began to work in car leasing with Apex Auto Leasing. He
moonlighted on weekends as a waiter at the Americana Restaurant in
Sarnia, where the tips were "fantastic," and at Ming's in London.

"Tommy never settle for one job. I always work two and three jobs all
the time," he says. "Tommy worked like crazy."

Anna trained as a hair stylist and the couple eventually opened a hair
salon near the University of Western Ontario gates.

Lai was later promoted to lease and fleet manager at Forrest City
Chrysler and, at its height, had 1,000 cars in the fleet.

But Lai was bored. He left behind the world of cars for

After working for a private translation company, he took the exams for
legal interpretation in Cantonese and Vietnamese.

"It was good timing," he says.

Most of his work, Lai says, is in Vietnamese and covers a wide range
of cases from domestic assault, theft and fraud. But the majority
involve drugs.

And sometimes, he says, there aren't the words in Vietnamese to
adequately describe a concept.

Once, during a murder trial, Lai was faced with trying to convey the
nuances of DNA. "The Crown, the judge, the defence, all had trouble,"
with the English explanation, he says with a chuckle.

Lai also hears first-hand the problems faced by new immigrants who
can't learn English and have no special skills. Some can't find work
because they have no more than Grade 3 - education offered after the
war was often limited to that.

So marijuana farming is tempting and an easy way to make a lot of
money quickly and retire comfortably, providing they don't get caught,

While there is lots of translation work, Lai is worried. Recently, the
province ordered new certification for all courtroom translators. Many
have not passed their tests, especially those in Mandarin.

Just this month, the high-profile Toronto trial of a grocery store
owner charged after catching and holding a thief was delayed when it
was discovered the Mandarin interpreter lacked the proper credentials
from the Ministry of the Attorney-General.

The case continued a day later with a conditionally accredited

Lai fears he may be the next one to flunk the accreditation tests and
could lose his job.

While others have faith Lai has the expertise to continue, they also
worry about the new standards.

Lai has returned to Vietnam three times but says he knows his life now
is in Canada.

"I could not live there," he says. "It's too hot . . . I love the cold

"I've become one of the old Canuck."  
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