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Updated: March 04, 1999 05:00 PM GMT
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A priest who knew nothing about production or marketing when he began manufacturing bamboo products 25 years ago has hired more than 500 poor and unemployed people here since then.

Franciscan Father Ngo Dinh Phan recently spoke with UCA News about his commitment to the poor and the unemployed, and about the business he started in 1975 after the communists took control of southern Vietnam.

His business is so popular that in 1992 he was asked to run for the Ho Chi Minh City People´s Council, a city and province legislative body. The deputy provincial of the Order of Friars Minor in Vietnam is now in his second term as city councilor.

"In August 1975, three months after the Communists took over South Vietnam, I was in charge of St. Antoine Parish in a popular area of District 1. People in the parish were unemployed and very poor," Father Phan recalled.

Most of the unemployed were Catholic high school or university students whose studies were interrupted by the takeover or petty traders whose businesses were caught up by the uncertainty. Many came from families with links to the former government of South Vietnam, the priest said.

In the months following the communist takeover many Catholics had difficulty finding jobs in new government offices or state-run factories, he added.

To help the unemployed he met with Father Pierre Phan Khac Tu, then a vice-chair of the communist-controlled Southern Vietnam Labor Union and now a member of the National Assembly.

Father Tu invited him to join the labor union to provide a legal framework for his jobs initiative, said Father Phan. However, he said he worked out his own plan of setting up production units to create jobs, adding that his confreres and others fully supported his initiative.

"At that time no one, including myself, had any experience in economic production," he recalled. "Many questions emerged with regard to capital, expertise, personnel, inputs, market outlets and, most importantly, a socialist-style of production."

In late 1975 Father Phan began the Dong Tam Bamboo Curtain Production Unit with some 50 Religious and laypeople. The late Archbishop Paul Nguyen Van Binh of Ho Chi Minh City allowed him to use some rooms in the former minor seminary to open workshops.

By 1977 eight other bamboo curtain production units the priest had helped set up in five other districts merged with his unit to form Bamboo Products for Export with some 500 workers, including three priests and 40 Religious.

Thirty percent of the workers were either non-Catholics, or Communist Youth League or party members, said Father Phan.

The new business produced plain, dyed and painted bamboo curtains depicting Vietnam´s beautiful landscapes, and in 1978 it registered as a cooperative and began producing better quality curtains, he added.

Father Phan said his efforts reflect his late archbishop´s two major concerns: that Catholics find their place in the national community and that they practice their faith in a society dominated by the Communist ideology.


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