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FRONTLINE/WORLD

Extended Interview

Toan Nguyen

Toan Nguyen is the owner of the Kien Tuong Factory in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where the RoughRider is produced. FRONTLINE/World reporter Marjorie McAfee talked with him there about how he got started in the wheelchair-making business, what particular issues face those with disabilities in Vietnam, and his experiences fighting in the Vietnam War.

FRONTLINE/World: Why does Vietnam have such a large population of people with disabilities?

Toan Nguyen: First, because of the American war. Second, the effects of Agent Orange. Third, traffic accidents are too numerous. Fourth, medical treatments are too limited. Fifth, low concern and awareness about health care in Vietnam. Current statistics indicate that there are almost 6 million people with disabilities in Vietnam, and 700,000 of them need wheelchairs.

Why did you decide to start making wheelchairs?

After the American war, there were so many disabled people. Once, I was riding with my wife on a bicycle and saw a person sitting on a board with four wheels, riding on the street. I thought, “Good heavens! Fish swim in the water, and people swim on land.” I told my wife that, if I ever became rich, I’d give each disabled person I saw a wheelchair. Then later on, I started collecting the metal shipping containers left by the American army at hospitals. I chopped the containers into pieces and turned the metal into irons, hoes, shovels and tubes.

Doing that work, I saw a number of people with disabilities at the hospitals. I once saw six people injured in a battle in the war with Cambodia who only had two wheelchairs to share amongst them. One of the six guys was allowed to go home from the hospital, and he wheeled the wheelchair to the discharge station and said, “I have to go home in this wheelchair. If you don’t let me take it, I will pull the pin out of this grenade.” And he held up a grenade. Everyone panicked, and the head doctor in charge of the department said, “If you take that wheelchair home, how can your friends go about?” Hearing that, the man cried, and he slid down to the ground and pushed the wheelchair away. That spectacle was imprinted in my eyes and my heart. I decided to make wheelchairs right away. The first wheelchair I made was for that man. We made him a wheelchair with a box on the back so he could sell sodas for a livelihood.

You fought in the American war for South Vietnam. Can you tell me about your experiences in the war?

Each time we talk about the war, we only want to cry. That pain was not borne by North Vietnam or South Vietnam alone, but also by the American people, who suffered as well. A close friend of mine, the poet Nguyen Duy, who is from North Vietnam, visited Angkor and carved these words on a wall of the Angkor temple, “Oh stone! I hope for peace. In the final analysis, in any war, whoever’s side wins -- the people are always defeated.” I feel sad for friends from both North and South Vietnam. After the war, we became close friends and no longer felt any hatred toward each other. Still, I feel tormented, and I suffer inside my heart.

Tell me about your relationship with Ralf Hotchkiss.

Even though Ralf and I speak different languages and are of different physiques, we look at each other with a lot of compassion. The first time I went to San Francisco State University, I saw a person on a wheelchair zooming toward me. [It was Ralf Hotchkiss]. I looked at the shelf of wheelchairs in Ralf’s office and saw a wheelchair with the Kien Tuong brand on it. I looked at it and said, “Oh! This is my wheelchair.” And Ralf said he’d had it for three years and thought it was an excellent, really durable, totally solid chair, and he had no idea I’d made it. Ralf said he’d go with me to Vietnam to make wheelchairs with me. And a year later, he came and stayed for a month, and we began producing the RoughRider.

Why did you decide to start making the RoughRider?

Four years ago, someone came from China and asked me to produce millions of wheelchairs for them. I had to think deeply about it. The person from China said that if I made their chair, I would become famous for producing the most wheelchairs in Southeast Asia. When I looked at the wheelchair they wanted me to make, I saw that the wheelchair was not useful for people and could cause problems for disabled people. So I declined to make their chair. When I met with Marc [Krizack] and Ralf, we collaborated very closely, even though I made changes in the production of the RoughRider. And the most important thing was the RoughRider’s suitable price. Another advantage is that we’re able to produce a wheelchair that suits so many disabled people. We can also fold up the RoughRider to send it to many countries around the world. And lastly, there are no other wheelchairs more durable than a RoughRider. That’s the most practical advantage -- to produce a wheelchair that can last a disabled person’s whole life.

But you could have made a lot more money making the wheelchair for China than you will from making the RoughRider?

My decision was to help people and not just to get their money. If a wheelchair isn’t beneficial to people, I won’t make it.

You give away a lot of the RoughRiders you make at ceremonies and events. How do you make sure the RoughRider fits the recipients?

Before we hand over the wheelchairs, we send someone to take a picture of the recipient and send it back to us. From there, we can guess at the person’s height and weight, and find a wheelchair that may fit. Then, before we hand them over, we bring the RoughRiders to the location and let the people sit in them to see which wheelchair will fit each person. The RoughRider is really wonderful because we can shrink it a little bit or expand it a bit to make it more suitable. And if they end up with a wheelchair that doesn’t fit, they can exchange it with us. We’ll bring them another one that does fit, and they can use the other one while waiting for us to bring the new one.

What are your goals for your business?

My purpose right now is to produce the RoughRider -- the more of it the better, to make it popular. We have to advertise the RoughRider more widely, and I think of it as a responsibility to get the word out about this wheelchair. It’s a responsibility for us to help disabled people roll across the bridges and along the streets and make their lives better.