• Pulau Bidong 2014

    Welcome to the last of the travel post; this one will be short and sweet.

    I went back to Pulau Bidong and it was like going home.

    This time I ventured further into the jungle and happened upon a local fisherman wondering around. I decided to follow him and noticed that there were white arrows painted on trees, which I was also following. At some point I lost the tree markings and the fisherman, but he had obviously saw me as he came back to ask me to follow him. Up the slope of the island I went with him, with no idea as to where I was going. He without a lick of English and me without a lick of Malay…

  • Grand Old Narrative

    Talking is one of the joys of my life, particularly when it becomes a heated (respectful) discussion. However, my limited Vietnamese means that I spend more time listening than I do speaking. More often than not I find that I end up listening to the retelling of old memories and sometimes new ones.

    So here are a few for you…

    The Hunted Man

    So, by now everyone knows ‘My dad the people smuggler’ the project that materialised last year and has grown a life of it’s own since then. For those who are yet to have an idea then you can see the work here.

    Back in 1981 when my brother was just born and my father was in the process of organising a boat for a large group of people. The authorities were tipped off about his operation. It wasn’t known then, and well I didn’t know it until recently, but this boat was not to be his last.

    The story goes that he missed his son (my brother) and despite knowing that he was being hunted came back in the middle of the night to visit my mother and my brother as they slept. Little did he know that the authorities were floating around and came to raid the house to look for the traitor, my father.

    In order to paint a picture for you, there was no electricity at night; it was rural Vietnam in a run down old French Colonial house that had all but caved in on itself. There was no ceiling, rather beams and the exposed underside of roof tiles. Surrounding the house was little more than rice paddies, where my father was suppose to be hiding.

    On that very night two men carrying flashlights came, ‘Surely your father would have been beaten to death there and then’ one of my cousins believes. My father quickly climbed onto the roof beams of the house where there was a small sheet of wood. There he lay quietly in the pitch dark, my mother and brother sleeping in the corner unaware of what was happening around them. The two men came through the front of the house heading towards the back where they lay. Lights were shone around the house and into the roof spaces. Eventually falling upon the sleeping mother and child in the corner. Seeing this they decided to leave.

    I hear this story every time I am in Vietnam, told to me by several different people. Each time it is slightly different sometimes there is a level of fear, sometimes it is comical, other times indifferent; whatever the case the core of the story rarely change.

    Aunt and Niece

    One of my favourite stories to hear when I am in Vietnam is that of my grandaunt and my oldest aunt. These women are now in their 90’s and 70’s, and though they live in different areas of South Vietnam they still care deeply for each other and remember their shared hardships.

    One particular story that I have heard a few times is of a single day in which these two, one in her 20s and the other still a child, going to the market. A simple story about a young lady and a child going to buy food and getting caught in the rain, sharing an umbrella and holding each other to stay warm.

    Though not much of a story, it is the tone in which this memory is expressed that moves me. Having grown up far from extended family I have never really understood or experienced these relationships, but in listening to a 93 year old tell a story that is dripping in love and sadness for a niece who is now close to 80 gets me in the gut every time.

    The Red Khmer

    Red, red, red, red…

    Little pockets of money, culture, communism, blood and good fortune…

    On one of my last days in Vietnam I sat and listened to the coherent ramblings of an old man. At 80 my uncle’s memory is crystal clear.

    One of the events that I had to attend while in Vietnam was the wedding of my cousin. For their honeymoon they decided to go to Cambodia for a few days, which triggered a lot of reminiscing about the ‘good’ old days in Phnom Penh.

    As mentioned in an earlier post my mum’s family fled to Cambodia with the rise of the Viet Minh in the 1940/50’s, where my mum was born. The rise of the Khmer Rouge forced them to slowly migrate back to Vietnam during and following the War. My Uncle 7 who is married to my mother’s sister was also part of the group of Vietnamese who were forced to leave Cambodia during this period.

    Though most of his family fled Cambodia during this period his father had remained to protect their house and belongings, because there was no way of selling; the policy at the time being that if you ‘abandoned’ property, it was taken by the state. Figuring he was already an old man, there was little to lose. Once everyone had fled the country, someone vandalized the house throwing rocks though the windows. It was only after a neighbor intervened stating that it was the house of a well-connected Khmer that the vandalism stopped.

    It was interesting that my uncle was quite vocal in telling everyone there were also good Khmer that protected the family. As if the general consensus was that the whole populous of Cambodia at that time was pro Khmer Rouge.

    At this point the story drifted into general comments; different methods of murder and torture. The bamboo spearing of people as they fled, the running down of people with vehicles, trucks full of people being driven off cliffs.

    Eventually the discussion turned into talk about headless corpses and mountains of bodies. Countless skulls… then the talk abruptly ended.

  • Revisiting the Island

    I am still in the process of writing one final post about Vietnam despite leaving yesterday. It’s a long one! 

    So, I thought before that post goes up I would revisit a trip that I made to Pulau Bidong in 2012. The below text formed the written component for last years exhibition ‘My Dad the People Smuggler’ and was derived a letter written to friends and family on the day after my journey to explore and document the refugee camp that my parents lived in after escaping communist Vietnam.

    Hello from...

    Merang, Kuala Terengganu, launching point to a plethora of 5 star beach resorts, tropical islands and countless beaches; it is also the starting point for my excursion to Pulau Bidong Refugee Camp.

    You may or may not be aware of this, but my artistic practice is very meticulously organised - I have timetables, plans and conduct extensive research. However, the reality of this carefully-planned expedition has caused me to reconsider my overly structured working methodology. It is well and good to have plans and visions of what I hoped to achieve on this trip, but all the best-laid plans in the world could not prepare me for the emotional reality of visiting an abandoned refugee camp that housed my family 30 years ago. For some reason I had expected this to be easy. Coincidentally, the day I arrived at the site also happened to be my father’s birthday, which led to a few weepy moments alone in a forest clearing, recalling the series of interviews I had had with him in the 6 months leading to that day.

    The day started with a quick drive to Merang jetty, where I waited for the boat to take me to the island. Once on the boat it was a quick and very bumpy ride to the island. Upon arrival, I immediately recognised particular monuments and details that still existed from the few photos that my parents had taken of the camp in 1981. After taking a few minutes to calm my nerves on the jetty by stopping to examine the clear tropical waters brimming with colourful fish, coral and other sea life (blissfully unaware of the significance of their habitat), I headed inland, towards what remained of the Vietnamese settlement.

    Closed in 1991, the camp has been left to return to nature, but not before being pillaged by the locals. Nails, nuts and bolts had been removed; usable wood had been salvaged for housing, while now-headless Buddhas guard the concrete steps leading down to a secluded beach. Whilst some travelers I encountered expressed dismay that the site had not been preserved for its historicity, I felt that there was something romantic in the idea that the locals had utilized materials salvaged from a site of political shelter to build their own social shelters, so that even as the site was returning to its natural pre-1975 state, parts of it lived on, thus unintentionally perpetuating the life of the refugee camp.

    I made my way through the camp by a path that snakes around the island, but found that most of it was inaccessible and had been reclaimed by the forest. However, the biggest obstacle I encountered in collecting material to make this artwork was the sense that the camera was getting in the way of my experience, so I made the decision to shoot mostly video, which then allowed me 5-10 minutes of silence to absorb the experience while the camera recorded. At this point, I am still not sure what I have managed to capture, or what I will produce, but I think that the point of this trip was to share in the experience of my elders.

    As I am still trying to process the implications of this trip for myself, I must keep this short. I have been staying at a nearby resort for 4 days now, and it is only after visiting the camp yesterday that I have come to realise that the island I can see from my balcony is actually Pulau Bidong. Needless to say, I have been humbled by a number of realisations on this trip, and chief amongst those is the revelation that although I am thoroughly grateful and have gone to great lengths to understand where I came from, I will never fully comprehend what my parents suffered and persevered through to give my siblings and I what we have today.

    To make up for this vast chasm in understanding, I realise that I must instead succeed in telling their stories and making sure they are heard.

    With much love,

    Phuong Ngo

    02 July 2012

  • Galang: Disney Land of Refugee Camps #RefugeeCampSelfie

    So, I figured I should write about this now. Though I am still a little unsure about the place, as it is truly weird…

    Galang Island in the Riau Islands of Indonesia operated as a refugee camp between 1979 and 1996. It is estimated 250,000 refugees were processed through the camp during this period.

    I won’t write too much factually about Galang, as most of it can read online. See:

    Today the camp is quite a bizarre place. Despite being the most well preserved camp, it is also a local tourist attraction. It was quite an odd experience to visit the local cemetery, former housing, boats and hospitals, while witnessing the birth of #RefugeeCampSelfie. Particularly because I know people who lived here, people who were born here and people who struggled here.

    Back in 1980-81 Galang served as home for several of my family members who now reside in the States. They arrived after 31 days at sea on one of my father’s boats. I have heard secondhand that their plight became so desperate a decision to cannibalising one of the people who had perished on the journey was made. Fortunately they were rescued and sent to Indonesia shortly after making that decision.

    I appreciated Galang as a well-preserved site, but there was something about the well-manicured lawns, boat displays, Vietnamese pop music and tame monkeys that felt rather contrived and artificial. Particularly compared to the photos of the camp when it was operational.

    As a former refugee camp it was weird, as a tourist attraction it was beyond weird…

    I guess that the ubiquitous nature of the selfie means that it is pretty much a cultural virus. Though my understanding is that Anne Frank’s House, Auschwitz and the Killing Fields are ‘tourist attractions’, and that those places represent loss and tragedy on a mass scale, whereas this refugee camp represented survival and hope. 

    Ok so lets can the last bit…

    I did a Google search and came across this: as it turns out the selfie isn’t ubiquitous, it is a disease! I wonder if in two generations Aussie kids will go and take photos of themselves on Christmas Island, ‘you know where that boat thing happened’ or ‘giving a thumbs up in a selfie on Manus Island’, of course by then it will likely be a more annoying an inappropriate cultural trend!

    But then again is it any different from me posting photos of refugee camps as I visit them?

    I guess if I can @pthngo and #Article141 photos from the camp others can #refugeecampselfie and I shouldn’t be such a bitch about it…


  • Death Traditions and an Off Tangent Rant

    My grandmother died on 11th of the first month of the lunar year in 2002. This year that date happened to fall on the 10th of February, a few days after I arrived in Saigon. It is a culturally important to commemorate the day on which a family member passes as a way to honour and serve the ancestors.

    So this year, three generations* of my mum’s family gathered for the day to fulfill a range of cultural traditions that are played out as loose ceremonies. Offerings of food in the form of a banquet, tea and alcohol are given to the deceased; sometimes this is tailored to the person who has passed. In my case I am hoping my family remembers that I like deep friend greasy food (when I decide to leave this world)!

    One of the traditional offerings is in the way of joss paper that is burnt of the dead. Joss paper is a form of underworld currency for the dead and those who occupy the realm of the dead. It’s contemporary is the Hell Bank Note which is also burnt as an offering to the dead to carry onto the after life or as a ‘bribe’ to the gate keepers of hell for safe passage into the afterlife.

    Article 14.1, borrows from this particular tradition of offering hell money as a way to honour those who perished at sea. It is estimated that up to half a million people went missing while trying to escape communist Vietnam; though this number is really only an estimate as there are no real records. Despite this sobering statistic people continue to risk life and limb for a small chance at freedom from governments and regimes that, simply put, persecute difference.

    The fate of the Vietnamese during the period of exodus following the fall of Saigon is not unique or exclusively ours. The events on Christmas Island on 15 December 2010 have clearly showed us that this is an ongoing issue of human rights. It is an issue for Australia as a signatory of the UDHR to address in a manner that is respectful to our claim as a liberal democracy.

    I would like to offer something I wrote as part of my 2005 thesis on ethnic minorities in Vietnam and China. It is a little off topic, but I think to some extent it is relevant. The international system is a system that is managed and maintained around notions of the Nation State. At the end of the day it is the job of governments to ensure that the rights of its people are upheld and protected under the UDHR. However, the problem with this system though is that governments as the guarantor of human rights are also the biggest violators of human rights.

    It is like leaving children in the care of a known abuser.

    An obvious statement, but is there a way to fix this? Governments are only put on trial once they have been toppled and even then it is hit and miss. Just look at Idi Amin.

    How do we make our democratically elected government REALLY accountable for it’s actions?

    *Note: there are actually 5 generations that are alive and kicking. My mum is the youngest of 13 and so the span in ages for any particular generation is quite large. The oldest of my generation is mid late 50’s and the youngest is still a teenager.

  • Q10 - Food and Family

    So, somewhere between the last blog post and this one I visited Galang refugee camp in Indonesia. Emotionally, mentally and physically it is (now) such a bizarre place that I am yet to properly process it for myself. Hence why this post is coming before that one.

    Last year I gave very short talks for two Next Wave events, Breakfast Club at the ungodly hour of 8am and Supper Club at an hour that actually exist for me. One was on the topic of family and the creative process and the other about food and the creative process. And though I do not claim superior knowledge in any of these areas, I do know the role that both of these play in my own creative/artistic practice.

    Hence this post combines both food and family…

    The first Indochinese War started on 19 December 1946 and with it came the overthrow of French colonial rule. My maternal grandfather as an executive of a French tobacco company made the choice to uproot his family during this war and relocate to Phnom Penh, Cambodia sometime during this period. It was there that my mother was born in 1958, and they stayed throughout the Vietnam War alongside other Vietnamese.

    As part of the educated French literate class and being Vietnamese, the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge marked my mothers family as undesirable. The fear my grandmother had for the safety of her children, in particular her daughters meant that she would quickly marry them off to anyone she saw as decent who could take then safely back across the boarder to Vietnam.

    My mum had told me stories of Vietnamese girls, who were identifiable by long hair (as traditional for those who are not yet married), being decapitated as they went about their day in public, and trucks that were suppose to repatriate Vietnamese driven off cliffs. I’m not sure if any of this was true, but given the extent of atrocities that we now know occurred at the hands of the Khmer Rouge I would not be surprised if it was.

    Throughout the 1970’s the family trickled back into Vietnam, most of them settling in what is now Q10 (district 10), the Khmer ghetto. This is where my Di 7 (Aunt 7) and several other family members still reside.

    Besides being the biggest flower market in Saigon (possibly the country) Q10 is also known as the best place to get hủ tiếu, a rice noodle dish with pork served in a stock or dry. I had always assumed of this dish as Vietnamese, until a few years ago when I made my first trip to Vietnam as an adult and it was explained to me that the dish originated in Cambodia and was brought by those migrating back into Vietnam… Where Q10 is concerned anyway.

    Today I went to get some hủ tiếu at one of the more popular places in Q10 and while sitting there with my niece, nephew and cousin I couldn’t help but think that within this cheap plastic bowl was a story of colonialism, war, displacement, dictatorship, ethnic cleansing and more displacement. All of that for 20,000 VND or 1 Aussie dollar…

    Bad Iphone picture of my breakfast

  • 25 Hawkins Road

    The fall of Saigon in 1975 signaled one of the largest human exoduses and migration of people in modern history. As a result refugee camps were set up in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan and Indonesia. Singapore as a city-state was the first to enable its navy and armed forces to carry out and implement Operation Thunderstorm, a ‘push back’ policy. Refugees were given water, food and fuel and forced back out into the open sea.

    Eventually a former British barrack located in Sembawang was converted into refugee housing. In 1978, 25 Hawkins Road became one of the smallest refugee camps in the region housing no more than 150 refugees at any given time. In 1996 the camp was closed and the last group of 99 refugees who arrived in 1990 were repatriated to Vietnam.

    Hawkins Road, Sambawang no longer exist. The place that once housed a small population of Vietnamese refugees is now nothing more than an overgrown patch of land between View Road and Woodland Avenue. Despite this the memory of this place still permeates the memory of many all over the world and in Australia.

    Singapore’s policy towards boat people in the 1970’s is being closely mirrors by those in Australia today. Towing back the boats, refusing entry, sending out armed forces out to ‘take care of business’. All driven by an entrenched racism that exist within both countries. 

    I visited the site of Hawkins Road on Sunday. Very little remains of it, and as development starts to encroach on this place it will be little more than a memory. The only markers that indicated that anything was there, was a few street lamps and a few meters of Hawkins Road, which curiously invites you to explore as if it was some rich archeological site… so that is what I did.

  • Welcome


    This blog has been designed as a document to record the development of research that has informed and will continue to inform Article 14.1 and my practice. 

    Next week I commence a 6-week trip to record and document 4 different countries, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia (in that order). One of which is the land of my ancestors and the others are three lands of purgatory (transition) for many who fled their homes, existence and country following the fall of Saigon.

    This video is a short collection of the news stories that were produced during this period of exodus.