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  • 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