CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In an era of greed and entitlement and a vanishing work ethic, his story provides pause for thought -- and inspiration.
Ha To Ta, known to most everyone as "Ha," grew up poor on a farm in Vietnam. He worked hard, first on the farm, later in Saigon, where he worked while training as a hairdresser.
At 18, he opened his own beauty shop. Then, the communists took over, took everything.
In 1978, he finally escaped. One of the "boat people," he survived a miserable journey to Malaysia. More misery awaited in the Malaysian refugee camp.
In 1980, sponsored by the Baptist Temple here, he arrived in Charleston, washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant and lived in a one-room apartment with three other refugees.
He eventually earned enough to start Reema's Beauty Shop in Kanawha City. A year ago, the shop moved to a new Kanawha City location. He renovated the place himself, working for seven months after hours.
He loves work. That's what bootstrap success stories are made of.
"I grew up on a farm in Vietnam. Animals were all around. We were a poor family. On the farm, you work and work and you cannot go nowhere. There was no equipment. It was all manpower.
"To go to school, we walked far, far away. My mother always roasted peanuts in the morning, and we would put them in small packets and bring them to school. In the break time, we would stay in the corner to sell peanuts to bring some money home to our mother.
"I didn't have any childhood at all. Always, we had to help our parents. Early in the morning, we would go pick up eggs.
"Farm life was so hard. You would have a good year, then the next year, you would have bad weather and lose it all and have to borrow money and start all over again. It's a difficult life. I told my mother to let me go to the city and try.
"When I was 14, I decided to leave the family and go to Saigon to work and go to school at night. I wanted to get my high school diploma and get a license to work in a beauty shop.
"I worked really hard to save up money. I took any kind of job I could find. When I was 16, I worked in a beauty salon to train to become a hairdresser because it didn't require three or four years of college. Beauty school only took eight months to a year, and then you could make money to support the family, a quick way to help.
"When I was 18, I had earned enough to buy my own shop and move my poor parents and my sister and brother to the city. We supported each other until 1975.
"My parents set up a small coffee shop, and they worked in the coffee shop and I worked in the beauty salon. In 1975, the communists came. They don't allow you to have a business. It's a crime. Everything belongs to the government. They shut you down.
"I had to figure out a way to get out of the country. It took until 1978. It's hard to get out. You have to escape. We tried a couple of times and got caught. My family had to figure out how to get the money to the government to release me from jail. It was hard labor. They work you until you are dead.
"It took me three or four tries to get out of the country. I left in 1978 and made it all the way to Malaysia on a fishing boat. From '76 to '78 a lot of people did that. They called us the 'boat people,' and a lot of people died on the boat.
"My boat was small. They put more than 500 people on the boat. When we got to Malaysia, 119 had survived. We were allowed to carry three days worth of food supplies. The rest of the time, we caught fish and ate them raw. If you cooked them, you would lose all the liquid. I don't even eat sushi now. Anything I eat, I cook.
"From 75 to '78, I had to move from one city to another. There was no united central government. It was local control, individual government, so I had to keep moving. I couldn't stay in one place too long.