2009 was the first time a special humantarian shipment from Vietnam which were Kien Tuong wheelchairs to distributed to the disabled people in Bagdad, Iraq. In that event, Mr. Tien Toan Nguyen, founder and owner of Kien Tuong Wheelchair was interviewed by U.S. T.V. PBS and the program “Change the World” was aired on PBS Frontline.
Mr. Tien Toan Nguyen, the founder and owner of Kien Tuong Wheelchair
Mr. Tien Toan Nguyen is Director of Kien Tuong Wheelchair in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the manufacturer of RougRider wheelchair. Reporter Marjorie McAfee of FRONTLINE / World PBS TV, had an interview with Toan at Kien Tuong Factory about his wheelchairs’ manufacturing, the difficulties of Vietnam disabled, and experience in the war.
Below are some questions of reporter Marjorie McAfee:
Why does Vietnam have such a large population of people with disabilities?
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 my god”! Fish swims in the water, and people swim on land.” Then I told my wife, if I ever became rich, I’d give each disabled person I saw a wheelchair. Then later on, I started my job of 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.
Latter – Day Saint Charities – U.S.A
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! Let me incrible a plea for peace. In the end, in every war, whoever wins, the people always lost.” 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.
Tricycle testing at the Kien Tuong Factory
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.
Meeting with the Europe billion – Mr. Charles Ruggieri – Chairman of BATIPART Group and his daughter
Paris – June, 2009
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.
Mr. Tien Toan Nguyen and the Standard Wheelchair
Mr. Eric Wunderlich (LDSC) at Kien Tuong
Back to the story “Abrabian Night’s country”, Mr. Toan told us “The process of bring hundreds of wheelchairs to Bagdad was not easy. But we overcame all the obstacles to have 240 RoughRider wheelchairs from Kien Tuong in Ho Chi Minh to Iraq in Jan 2009. The wheelchair distribution was made by U.S. Army to Sadr Bagdad, bringging wheelchairs to the Iraqi disabled veterans. And not just the veterans, there were parents who brought handcapped children to get new wheelchairs from Vietnam, as this type of wheelchair is the best for active young people. After this first container, there have been more and more wheelchairs delivered to not only Bagdad people but also to disabled people in 24 other countries.
In order to deliver Kien Tuong wheelchairs to Bagdad, Mr. Toan worked with Dr. Marc Krizack, Director of WWI, an University of San Francisco, California. Nguyen Tien Toan explained: “Dr. Krizack researched on wheelchairs around the world and selected Kien Tuong wheelchairs to manufacture RoughRider wheelchair for humanitarian sponsors all over the world. The RoughRider is the wheelchair whose latest design was first made by a collaboration between WWI of University of San Francisco and Kien Tuong from 2002. Dr. Marc Krizack have searched many major U.S. donors such as the ABS Foundation (Arthur. B. Schultz. Foundation), LDSC (Latter Day Saint Charities), WAF (Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation) to bring Kien Tuong RoughRider to Vietnam and other countries need wheelchairs.
Finally, Mr. Tien Toan Nguyen shared more about the meanings of shipment from Vietnam to Iraq. When the war broke out in Iraq in the middle of April, 2003, and the U.S. were in Baghdad, via television we saw aircrafts, bombs and the sound of the pittiful civilians, of the wounded soldiers, war parties involved. I thought I must do something for Iraq. But the road from Vietnam to the capital Bagdad was not easy. Sending by airway through Turkey Airline was expensive so we decided to send by seaway, from Saigon port to Fao port, then moving to Bagdad, donating to the disabled. Making the trip to the land of the “One Thousand and One Nights”, we wanted to start a humanitarian bridge from Vietnam to the world, to somewhat redieve thr sorrow of handicapped people from the war.
Mr. Tien Toan Nguyen and his family
VIETNAM – WHEELS OF CHANGE
Vietnam is a country in constant motion. Without a good set of wheels, it’s easy to get left behind. That’s especially true for Vietnamese wheelchair riders like Quan Dien. He lost his legs in the war with Cambodia in the early 1980s.
“I fell once, because the ramp to the sidewalk was blocked,” he tells FRONTLINE/World reporter Marjorie McAfee. “I was going too fast, and the wheelchair hit and I flew forward.”
Because the streets of his neighborhood aren’t wheelchair friendly, Quan mostly stays home in his small apartment. To make ends meet, he rents his back room workshop to another wheelchair rider, Thanh Giang, who contracted polio as a child.
“Vietnam still has a lot of shortcomings,” Thanh says. “They haven’t yet been able to find a way to improve things for disabled people. Usually, when they build things, they don’t think if it’s convenient for anyone. So, disabled people put up with a lot of difficulties.”
But a world away, there’s a new wheelchair, and it’s making an impact.
“I can hit it hard, and nothing happens,” says Ralf Hotchkiss, an engineering professor at San Francisco State who’s been thinking about wheelchair design for a long time.
“The wheel’s axels are very strong. You can come down a high curb, hit hard,” he demonstrates. “Nothing fails. This wheel – there’s no way I can break it.”
After becoming paralyzed in a motorcycle accident 30 years ago, Hotchkiss started out just trying to make a better wheelchair for his own use. But he ended up making a bigger breakthrough with something he calls the RoughRider.
“It was necessary to come up with the RoughRider because there was no other wheelchair that worked well enough in all of the difficult situations in developing countries,” he explains. “Everything you do you have to go long distances over rocky or sandy or muddy roads.”
Hotchkiss gathered design ideas from around the world. The front wheel comes from a shopping cart in Zimbabwe.
“Very flexible, very light. Made out of auto tire retread rubber,” he says.
After years of tinkering, Hotchkiss decided the RoughRider was ready for the rigors of the developing world. In 2006, he approached a factory owner named Toan Nguyen to talk about producing the wheelchairs in Vietnam.
“I saw that two people from the opposite sides of an ocean could meet to make this wheelchair,” Toan says.
Toan makes the RoughRider using locally available materials and inexpensive labor. It’s Hotchkiss’ visions that the RoughRider should be easy and cheap to make any place in the world. His associate, Marc Krizack, travels to Vietnam to check in with Toan whenever he can.
“It’s been how long, one year since I was here?” he says as he greets Toan.
He’s brought the latest innovation from San Francisco with him, a design modification that will allow for a smaller-sized wheelchair. As always, there’s no charge for design. Hotchkiss’ technologies are open source. And his Whirlwind Wheelchair Network also helps raise money from Western foundations to help the $175 cost of the chair.
“Wheelchair users don’t make the market – they can’t afford to buy their own wheelchairs,” says Krizack. “So what Whirlwind does is not only just transfer the technology to factories like Kien Tuong, but we also market the chairs. We try to raise the money so they can actually sell the chairs.
With Whirlwind’s help, Toan regularly donates his RoughRiders to those most in need. McAfee finds him at a disabled athletes tournament giving away chairs to the participants, including Thanh Giang, the man from Quan’s workshop.
“When it comes to competing, the wheelchair is very comfortable,” Thanh says. “It doesn’t block my arm movement.”
After the game, Thanh takes a ride through the neighborhood. He says it’s very sturdy and stable. Thanh’s landlord and friend, Quan, is more skeptical. He thinks his old chair suits him better.
“For me to get up in this chair, it’s very easy,” he says about his old chair. “Getting in and out of the RoughRider is impossible. I tried it. I’m not strong enough to push myself up from the ground with my hands.”
“The first rule of the wheelchair provision is ‘Do no harm,’” says Klizack. “You can give someone a wheelchair and it can be a very inappropriate wheelchair. It’d be like, you know, giving somebody a little sports car. Even if it’s the best Mercedes Benz sports car in the world, if the person lives in Alaska in the wintertime, they’re never going be able to use that.”
Klizack heard about Quan’s concerns, so he decides to pay him a visit, bringing Toan along as well. It out Quan got his first chair from Toan more than 20 years ago.
“Meeting again, it’s very emotional,” Toan says.
Quan explains that the RoughRider’s footrests are of no use to him, as he has lost his legs. Klizack says that the wheelchair is designed to be easily modified. Within minutes, they’ve raised the footrests to create a step. And they find another benefit – the footrests also can be used to carry groceries and the like. Quan decides to keep the chair after all.
For Hotchkiss, it’s been the same story all over the world. He’s brought the RoughRider to dozens of countries, including Mexico, Iraq and South Africa through partnerships with several factories abroad.
“I would like to see Whirlwind Wheelchair become unnecessary as soon as possible,” Hotchkiss says. “I would like to help to develop a self-sustaining competitive industry of wheelchair building all over the world. Once the marketplace is populated, hopefully by then there will be so many people working on and inventing wheelchairs, making wheelchairs better than ever, that maybe in 10, 20, 30 years we won’t even recognize today’s chairs. They’ll be history.”