Inspiring testimonies of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ to be preserved for posterity
7 April 2003
A unique project that preserves the experiences of Vietnamese refugees who settled in Britain two generations ago will be launched at the British Library in London today. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, more than 27,000 Vietnamese refugees have settled in the UK. Labelled ‘boat people’ because of the perilous journeys they endured on the South China Sea, their plight became known across the world. Yet the remarkable stories of many first-generation Vietnamese settlers have never been told and there is a danger that their rich store of experience could be lost to future generations, some of whom have already lost touch with their elders’ stories.
Now, Refugee Action is working in partnership with Vietnamese refugee community organisations to produce a unique CD-Rom archive containing the first-hand testimonies of 120 Vietnamese refugees. Almost five years in development, the Vietnamese Oral History Project is supported by the British Library, the Museum of London and the Panos Institute, and is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The interactive, multi-media disc will allow users to read – and listen to – participants’ stories in both Vietnamese and English. It will serve as a vital educational resource, not only for Vietnamese children, but also for youngsters of all backgrounds in schools throughout the UK. The original testimonies will be deposited permanently at the British Library Sound Archive, where they will also be available to the public.
The CD-Rom - illustrated by photographs and objects contributed by Vietnamese refugees - tells the moving stories of people who showed extraordinary courage and determination in the face of unimaginable danger and hardship. The boats used to escape were often small, unsafe and hugely overcrowded. As well as surviving hunger, thirst and appalling weather conditions, many were robbed, raped or murdered at the hands of pirates. Those who survived often found new horrors awaiting in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Once in the UK, the Vietnamese settlers struggled against daunting barriers of culture, language and prejudice to make a hugely valuable contribution to UK society. Yet today there are fears that many Vietnamese children growing up in Britain know little of what their parents and grandparents went through. Thuy Tien’s family fled communist South Vietnam in 1980 when she was ten years old. She explains:
“Maybe at a certain point in your life you want to know more about your roots and culture. As far as I know this project is the first time that anybody has collected history from the Vietnamese people, not from some foreigner’s perspective, but from people who actually lived through it. When you think about future generations who know little about their roots, this is going to be quite valuable. That way, when our kids become older they may find answers to the questions I am asking now.”
The project also serves as a model for empowering other refugee communities to tell their stories. A spin-off project is already underway aimed at assisting others to carry out oral history work in refugee communities. To this end, training materials outlining the methodology of the project are included on the CD-Rom.
Sandy Buchan, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, first began working with Vietnamese refugees in 1979. His work at a pilot residential centre for Vietnamese settlers was instrumental in informing the core values of Refugee Action, an independent national charity that now works with refugees and asylum seekers from all backgrounds. Sandy Buchan explains:
“The fascinating and moving stories stored in this archive are testament to the bravery, determination and resourcefulness of Vietnamese refugees in rebuilding their lives in the UK. As well as giving Vietnamese refugees an opportunity to tell their stories in their own words for the benefit of future generations, it will also prove invaluable in widening British-born people’s knowledge and understanding of refugee communities and cultures. I hope our work will help inspire further projects which empower refugee communities in Britain to preserve their legacy.”
For more information, to arrange interviews or for advance copies of the CD-Rom, please contact: press office on 0161 233 1956 or 07810 757 752 (out of hours).
Notes to editors
120 interviewees were asked to recall their childhoods in Vietnam and China, their experience of war, their journeys of escape, life in refugee camps and their arrival and settlement in the UK. Many refugees from Vietnam are in fact ethnic Chinese in origin. Interviewees’ ages range from 17 to 80 and they are from both North and South Vietnam.
With the exception of a minority who flew to the UK under the Family Reunion Programme, the majority of refugees left Vietnam by boat to camps in neighbouring countries such as Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia. One of Margaret Thatcher’s first actions as Prime Minister was to arrange for the UK to accept a quota of 10,000 of these “enterprising people”, as she called the Vietnamese.
The Museum of London Oral History Archive contains more than 2,500 interviews with Londoners from many different backgrounds.
The British Library's Sound Archive holds over a million discs, 185,000 tapes, and many other sound and video recordings from all over the world. Its Oral History Section carries out its own programme of life story recordings through the National Life Story Collection. As the national centre for oral history in Britain, the British Library provides advice and training in oral history methods and works closely with oral history groups in Britain and abroad.
Refugee Action is an independent, national charity working to enable refugees to build new lives in the UK. We provide practical advice and assistance for newly arrived asylum seekers and long-term commitment to their settlement through community development work. Refugee Action began working with Vietnamese refugees in 1981 and today has contact with more than 50 Vietnamese associations throughout the UK.
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