Behind Melbourne’s Mekong: Pho and a decade of community giving through the Tertiary Scholarship Fund
Posted by on Apr 25,2015, Meld Magazine

CELEBRATING 10 years since the establishment of the Tertiary Scholarship Fund, Melbourne’s iconic Vietnamese restaurant Mekong founder Yin Choi Lam opens up to reporter Echo Chen and offers a rare glimpse into his private life and his passion for education.

Scores of students would have dined at Mekong, but few would know the story of how the Vietnamese noodle house came to be, or how its owner became the driving force behind a scholarship fund here in Victoria.

Since 2005, Mekong owner Yin Choi Lam and his family have, through the Tertiary Scholarship Fund, been presenting the annual Excellence Awards to recognise students for their academic achievements and contributions to community.

Born into a Chinese merchant family in Vietnam, the adversity including domestic wars in later years drove Mr Lam to leave his hometown. With the hope for a better life, he went to Hong Kong in 1969. He did small businesses with friends there, before settling in Australia with his family in 1986.

Coming from an immigrant background, founding a scholarship was not the first thought that came to Mr Lam’s mind when the family arrived in Melbourne with their four children.

“We did whatever work that was available to us. We had no choice but to seize every opportunity to earn money and make ends meet,” Mr Lam said in Chinese.

One year later, the family opened up a souvenir shop on Flinders St. The business continued for seven years until Mr Lam saw a better prospect in selling food and decided to start Mekong in 1995.

“Our business was doing just okay at the beginning. In 1997 and 1998, it began to grow, partly because many international students started coming to Melbourne,” he reminisced, adding that running the restaurant was a tough job for him.

“At the time I felt, because of the lack of education, I didn’t have enough knowledge to deal with various things, and the only way to succeed was to work very hard…hard work is certainly necessary, but if you have good education and combine knowledge with hard work, I think the situation will be much better.”

Mr Lam said his generation’s limited access to quality education and the consequent hardship it brought got him thinking about starting a scholarship for tertiary students. He hoped the fund would encourage young people to make the most of their education.

Mr Lam hopes the scholarship would encourage young people to make the most of the opportunities available to them. Photo: Megan Ong

In 2004, he decided to turn the idea into reality. His family was supportive and his friends, including a few working in local Chinese newspapers like the Australian Chinese Daily, were willing to volunteer with him.

“I told them none of us should be on the judging panel. We will find recognised university professors in Victoria, because they know better about education than we do,” Mr Lam said.

“Only in this way can the award be fair.”

A year later, a funding pool of $10,000 was set aside – a large amount of money at the time for the family-run business.

“It was indeed a bit stressful for us to set aside the money, but I thought as an individual, you should do something for the society anyway… we are less wealthy than many others, but we can do our bit to help. And I personally feel it’s meaningful,” Mr Lam said.

A decade on, his passion for education – and belief that it should be an opportunity for all – is still going strong.

The scholarship is open to all tertiary students, local or international, regardless of nationality, income level or fields of study.

“I thought of opening the scholarship to only international students, but then I felt everyone should be equal here…we have come to live as part of the society here, so we want to support its university students, no matter whether they’re local or international.”

Mr Lam hopes the scholarship can act as a touchstone that tests students’ academic achievements and community contribution, and encourages applicants to perform better and try for the awards again and again.

Through the scholarship, he wants young people to know just how lucky they are to grow up with material abundance and social stability, and that they should make the most of it.

“Every individual has his or her own power to influence the society to different extents. Many successful youths come from societies and communities that value and support them. They have responsibilities to do something in return.”

Particularly for students from developing countries where living standards have risen enormously in recent decades, he doesn’t want them to take the good life for granted.

“Families and parents may look after you now, but eventually you will have to earn your living in society. You can’t predict changes in the social environment and in your future life, but if you seize the present time and devote yourselves to learning and practicing, the knowledge and skills you obtain will stay with you for life and prepare you for unexpected challenges,” he said.

Mr and Mrs Lam inside their restaurant. Photo: Megan Ong

He believes dedication to community improvement is also indispensable to individual success, and that is what the scholarship recognises in addition to academic achievement.

“Every individual has his or her own power to influence the society to different extents. Many successful youths come from societies and communities that value and support them. They have responsibilities to do something in return.”

Mr Lam referred to the old Chinese saying that “growing up in happiness, one fails to appreciate it”. For him, funding the scholarship is a way of reminding the younger generation of the opportunities available to them, and fostering their academic excellence and community contribution.

Committed to continue funding the scholarship, Mr Lam said he would welcome other interested in working together to support promising youths in the Australian society.

“As long as Mekong still has the ability (to provide the fund), I will definitely keep it on…we have received all sorts of help including co-funding held by many others throughout the years. It would be great to see more people joining us, no matter how much support they can offer.”