The Wizard of Thoi Bao: Dat Nguyen

As dozens of cameras flashed and hundreds of Toronto's top business leaders and politicians gave him a loud applause, Dat Nguyen should have been feeling on top of the world as he received the Canadian Multicultural Council's Outstanding Asian Canadian Award last Sunday. Instead, he felt honoured but very uncomfortable accepting any type of award.

The publisher and founder of Thoi Bao has always been content being behind the scenes helping the Vietnamese community. Recent examples include being part of the team that helped finance the settlement of the remaining Vietnamese refugee families, helping raise money for little Hoang Son Pham's facial operation, and leading ethnic publishers to fight a tax-ruling that would have wiped out many community newspapers.

But now the spotlight is shining on a man who prefers to stay invisible behind the curtain, just like the Wizard of Oz. Despite being one of the most influential Vietnamese in Canada, Dat is also one of the most humble. You'd never know that he built the largest Vietnamese newspaper in the country by judging his unassuming attire and modest personality.

Perhaps Dat's modesty comes from his very humble beginnings. His family came to Canada in 1975 and started out without much in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He graduated high school a year later and obtained his bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering in 1980.

He founded the Thoi Bao newspaper in 1987 and the transition from engineer to publisher was easy - but making money wasn't at first.

"It started as a hobby, with a goal of helping new immigrants understand about life in Canada. When you enjoy what you do, it is an easy transition," says Dat.

"We lost a bit of money in the first year and we never made any money during the first five years. We kept going because money was not the objective. We continued with the publishing during that period because we enjoyed the publishing trade and we knew that the newspaper helped a lot of newcomers."

Over the years, there have been many worthy contenders for Thoi Bao's throne as the definitive Vietnamese newspaper. And they all might be surprised to hear Dat's view of the competition.

"I'm happy to see more Vietnamese newspapers on the market. That means there are more Vietnamese voices in the media, and that just makes our community stronger," says Dat.

"If we printed Thoi Bao just to make money, then we wouldn't be in business for very long. Thoi Bao exists to help the community. And when the community is strong, we are strong."

Community awareness and leadership are the key reasons why Thoi Bao remains the gold standard of Vietnamese newspapers. Rather than growing advertising revenues and profits, Dat is most proud of growing the Thoi Bao Community Fund, which distributed $209,000 to charities in Canada and Vietnam last year.

True to his shy nature, most of Dat's charitable efforts are behind the scenes. Dat himself rarely speaks at festivals, concerts, or charity galas and prefers to let the Thoi Bao staff enjoy the spotlight. Even as he accepted his award last Sunday, he gave all the credit to the Thoi Bao staff, which has grown into a family of sorts.

"The Thoi Bao staff work very closely. We try to create an atmosphere of trust and caring so that we can work together as a team," says Dat.

"The charity activities conducted by Thoi Bao also help bring the staff together. So the good thing about doing charity work for any company is the development of friendships with co-workers during the extra activities outside working hours."

It was the fear of potentially hurting the Thoi Bao family that made Dat realize that he had to come out of the background to make his presence felt in the media and with the Canadian government.

Not many people realize this, but it was just last year that a sudden tax ruling almost forced Thoi Bao to lay-off workers and even shut down operations. Imagine opening your morning mail one day to find a retro-active tax bill from the government totaling over $900,000.

"I was shocked, worried, and not sure what to do. I was thinking that we may have to cut costs or lay-off people. Another thought was to re-mortgage the house, or borrow money from the bank," says Dat.

In the past, community newspapers were exempt from paying PST on printing. But in its attempts to tighten up tax laws, the Ontario government defined many local newspapers as magazines, which are taxable publications. That basically increases their costs by 8%. Many community papers were blindsided by the tax and contemplated shutting down. "We planned to shut down Thoi Bao and to open Thoi Bao Daily to avoid the tax issue. If we published five days per week, we can get away from the PST tax issue."

Instead, Dat led other publishers and printers across Ontario to form a lobbying group called "Save Our Voice". He contacted politicians such as Tony Ruprecht, Mike Colle, Michael Prue, Laura Albanese, key media, and even appeared in Queen's Park to lobby the provincial government on the unfair PST treatment of the ethnic newspapers. He finally made his way to Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Years from now, history will show that it was a shy Vietnamese publisher who emerged as a leader to save hundreds of community newspapers. It was during this time that Dat realized the power of the media and the need for more Vietnamese voices in the government.

"I think the process of appeal started with the article in the Toronto Sun. Then came another article from the Toronto Star. These articles gave me the feeling that I may be able to fight and win. Now I realize that the ethnic media can be quite powerful if we have the right cause," says Dat.

"I also realized that the Vietnamese community in Ontario needs some exposure in the governments, especially at the municipal and the provincial levels. We do not have any councillors or any MPPs in the province of Ontario. This is quite embarrassing."

Dat initially didn't want this article published. He doesn't like the spot light. But he agreed to let the story be told because it might inspire young Vietnamese out there to aspire for leadership positions in government and media. After his campaign, he realized that more Vietnamese need to step into the spot light if our community is ever going to grow in stature in this country and command the spotlight from other ethnic groups - rather than being an invisible, voiceless community in Canada.

The challenge has been set. Who will be the next Vietnamese to win the Outstanding Asian Award? The spotlight is there for anyone who is worthy of taking it.

Written by Thien Huynh

Thien Huynh is a reporter for 24 Hours and appears on SUN TV every Thursday. If you would like to nominate someone for Pride of the Vietnamese or have a story to tell, contact him at or Thoi Bao at