REUNION: Merle Jochhiem says she remembers Thanh as a
REUNION: Merle Jochhiem says she remembers Thanh as a "weak and skinny” 17-year-old boy when he first came to work in the family's famous pie shop. Stephen Darwen

How a Vietnamese refugee became a raging success

AFTER arriving in Australia as a 17-year-old with just the clothes on his back, no one could have predicted this Vietnamese refugee would go on to become a millionaire.

The year was 1981, and Thanh and 10 other members of his family had fled war-stricken Vietnam, risking their lives as they travelled by boat before landing ashore in Malaysia.

Eventually the refugees made it to Australia, first arriving in Melbourne, and then making it to beautiful Bowen just in time for the mango season.

Merle Jochhiem said she remembered Thanh as a "weak and skinny" 17-year-old boy when he first arrived to work in the family's famous pie shop.

"He was a little, skinny kid, and couldn't speak a word of English - my son-in-law taught him pidgin English," she said.

He worked at Jochhiem's Cafe and Bakery for five years before eventually moving Sydney to reunite with other family members, where he married and had three children - two boys and a girl.

The Vietnamese refugee is now a millionaire, having carved out a prolific career in the construction industry, living and working between Sydney and Kuala Lumpur.

Mrs Jochhiem said Thanh oversaw the construction of the steel frames that held up the windows in buildings the rose 100 storeys into the sky.

Despite his success and his life in Sydney, Merle and the humble pie shop in Bowen has always been in the back of Thanh's mind.

Every year at Christmas time, Mrs Jochhiem receives a card from Thanh, the only contact she has had with the successful businessman during the last three decades.

But on Friday, Thanh and Merle saw each other again for the first time in 32 years.

Merle, now 84, and Thanh, 56, had an emotional reunion in Bowen after Thanh travelled all the way to North Queensland to see the woman who gave him a chance all those years ago.

"It was so emotional, I cried and I cried," Mrs Jochhiem said.

"We've kept in touch all these years."

Merle said it was like no time had passed, and Thanh picked up where he left off, rolling pastry and making pies in the kitchen.

"He was always so scared of being sent back, because he was a refugee," she said.

Mrs Jochhiem told the story of the first time Thanh was paid overtime.

"He came knocking on my door and he said 'You gave me too much money'," she said.

The concept of being paid overtime was so foreign to Thanh, that he tried to give his hard-earned dollars back to his boss.

"Can you imagine that?" Mrs Jochhiem said.

Thanh said the shop had grown since he'd last seen it.

"I worked with the boss, she was the first one that gave me a job," he said.

"She was good to me, and her family are all very good."

Thanh said he had always planned to return to Bowen one last time to see his beloved Merle.