Vietnamese refugee sells home to buy Rose parade float as thank you gift to nation

Saturday, December 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) _ In the years since Madalenna Lai boarded a wooden boat and fled communist-led Vietnam, she has wanted to say ``thank you'' to the Americans who helped her build a new life in the United States.

On New Year's Day, she will get her wish in one of the country's most-watched events, the Tournament of Roses Parade.

It has taken eight years, and she had to sell her house to raise the $100,000 to do it, but when the parade's 52 floats start through Pasadena, Lai's will be among them.

Her 35-foot long, 18-feet wide float will carry a simple message: ``Thank you America and the world.''

Aboard the float, ``Lac viet,'' a mystical bird, rises from the bow of a boat much like those that carried thousands of Vietnamese away from their war ravaged country. Other ramshackle boats rest beneath, decorated with yellow straw flower, seeds, rice, walnut shells, mums and roses.

Six survivors of the Vietnam war and the mayor of Pomona will ride on the float, officially sponsored by the Vietnamese Cultural House, a nonprofit help agency Lai founded in 1996.

Lai, 59, said she has wanted to enter a float since she first saw the parade on television in 1977.

She had arrived in the United States two years earlier with her four young children. Her husband, Quang Thanh Nguyen, stayed behind with fellow police officers to fight North Vietnamese troops. It would be 15 years before Lai would learn whether he had survived.

After Lai and her children reached U.S. soil, an American family in Pennsylvania took them in for two years. Lai later moved her family to Pasadena, where they lived on welfare for a year while Lai got her footing in her new country. She eventually started two beauty shops, then opened a cosmetology school in Pomona.

In 1990, she was reunited with her husband, who she learned had been jailed in Vietnam for a decade.

``The United States opened her arms to me and my children. We no longer went hungry and my kids received a good education,'' Lai said Friday. ``I told myself after my children finished school and I reunited with my husband, I would give my life to thank America.''

She started that quest in 1996. She acquired a fishing boat that carried several Vietnamese refugees to the Philippines, then organized a national tour for the boat.

As she worked on her plans for the Rose parade float, though, tougher economic times sent business at her beauty salons down. She had little time to raise money, so she sold her house to raise the $100,000 fee to have the float designed and built.

``We have children, we can always live in their houses,'' Lai's husband said of the decision to sell the home. But they didn't have to _ their youngest daughter, Trang Thu Nguyen, bought them a house in Pomona.

The Rose Bowl football game will be held on Jan. 3 this year, rather than following the parade as usual. The University of Miami and the University of Nebraska are scheduled to play.