Era: 1965 - 1990 Cultural background: Vietnamese Collection: Powerhouse Museum Theme:Boats Escapes Folk Art Models Refugees Settlement
Model fishing boat, Kie Gang Kg 02979, c.1980. Courtesy Powerhouse Museum
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia.
The Model fishing boat named Kie Gang Kg 02979, is the type used by fishermen who worked the coastal waters off Vietnam. It was made by Lai Duc from wood, glass, twine and metal at Lai Duc at the Camp Pu Lau Bi Dong, an island refugee camp in Malaysia in the 1980s. The model is the single hull fishing boat stern wheel house and cabin type in which ‘the boat people’ made their escape from Vietnam. The model was made from salvaged wood. It features a keel mounted blue metal propeller, a wooden anchor secured by green twine and a foremast boom is suspended a sign with the name of the maker on one side and the migrant camp on the other. Other inscriptions are Kie Gang and KG 02979 which refer to the makers’ town of origin, Kieng Gang (Kian An, North Vietnam). The stand is of the same wood, with a flat base and two upright cradles. There is also a detached rudder, hatch cover and a letter from the stern inscription. Dimensions: 353mm high X 170mm wide.
Vietnam has been invaded many times. In the nineteenth century it became part of France’s empire in South-East Asia. During World War Two, Vietnam was invaded by Japan. Supported by the United States, Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh led guerrilla fighters in attacks against the Japanese. In 1945 Japan was defeated and Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France.
France did not want to relinquish its colony and sent troops to quell the independence movement. This guerrilla war lasted for almost ten years until Vietnamese guerrillas defeated the French troops at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
After the French left, Vietnam was divided into two countries, North and South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh ruled the north from his capital, Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh’s communist government was supported by the Soviet Union and China, while in the south a new government was established in the capital Saigon. President Diem, the leader of South Vietnam was afraid of the increasing power of the north. Raids by North Vietnamese guerrillas along the border exacerbated these fears. Many South Vietnamese supported the north and formed a guerrilla group called the Vietcong. Arms and equipment were sent to the Vietcong from North Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Vietcong worked inside South Vietnam to undermine and defeat the government.
The United States had been sending money, arms and advisors to South Vietnam since 1955. By 1961 there were 10,000 American soldiers in South Vietnam. These advisors were not officially fighting the North Vietnamese and were supposed to be training the South Vietnamese on how to defend themselves. In 1962 Australia also sent equipment and a group of about thirty army instructors to support the United States. In 1965 the United States sent combat troops to fight in Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1970 tens of thousands of American troops were sent to Vietnam. The Australian government started sending troops in 1965 motivated by a desire to support its ally the United States and to stem the spread of communism in Asia.
By 1970 it was clear that the conflict had reached a stalemate. The United States had more troops and better equipment, but many of the South Vietnamese supported the Vietcong and worked with them against the Americans. After long peace talks in France, a cease fire was negotiated in 1973. The American and Australians returned home, but fighting between the North and South continued. In April 1975 North Vietnam soldiers captured Saigon, the capital of the south. South Vietnam surrendered and Vietnam was again united, but under a communist government.
In the late 1970s thousands of Vietnamese fled the new communist regime, escaping the country in small boats. In 1976 the first vessels carrying Vietnamese refugees reached Darwin, Australia. By the end of 1979, 2011 Vietnamese had survived the perilous voyage from Vietnam. Many more died trying. In 1979 Australian immigration officers accepted most refugees remaining in camps in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Those with relatives in Australia, useful skills and who could speak English were selected, as well as a small number of students and diplomats.
The model was made by Lai Duc from the town of Kieng Giang or Kian An in North Vietnam c.1980, while awaiting entry to Australia on Pulau Bidong Island, a Malaysian refugee camp. Through the early 1990s this model was on display in the offices of the Indo-China Refugee Association.
The Model has historic value for its association with a key phase of Australia’s migration history. These were Australia’s first ‘boat people’ whose arrival and acceptance both reflected the dismantling of the White Australia Policy and encouraged further reforms. While only 2,000 of Australia’s 200,000 strong Vietnamese population arrived by boat, escape by sea remains the defining narrative of the Vietnamese experience.
The model has aesthetic significance in the design and manufacture of Vietnamese folk art and models
The model has intangible significance to the descendants of Vietnamese refugees as a means of understanding their family’s migration experience and their homeland’s history. Its acquisition by a national institution is a compelling validation of these refugee voyages and experiences.
The model represents a particularly Australian perspective on a global story, one which continues to capture international attention. This story encompasses a range of issues that include social justice, political and religious freedom, the new Australia and its place in the global village and in particular its relationship with Asia. The model can be used to explore the experiences of all those who have taken great risks to escape oppression, and in particular those who embarked on the perilous sea voyages as boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
The model is a rare example in a public institution of a model made in a refugee camp in Malaysia and its detailed construction suggests a long wait to come to Australia and craft to relieve boredom.
Historically, Australian migration policy has always been directed at restricting non Europeans whether they are Chinese diggers heading for the gold fields, South Sea Islanders recruited for the cane fields, or refugees from the Middle East, central Asia, Indochina or Japan. The model is significant for its symbolic analysis of and present immigration debates. By locating the vessel’s passengers, it also helps humanise and amplify the experience of all asylum seekers.
The model is well provenanced from its construction by Lai Duc. Through the early 1990s this model was on display in the offices of Indo Chinese Refugee Association who donated it to the Powerhouse Museum in the mid 1990s.
The interpretive potential of the model is substantial as evidence of the experience of Vietnamese refugees escaping their homeland and the years they endured in refugee camps in Malaysia waiting to come to Australia.
Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Was it only Yesterday? Australia in the Twentieth Century World, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.
Lawton, L 2006, A refugee boat called freedom: Crossing borders and linking communities at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Museums Australia Exploring Dynamics Conference papers, Brisbane.
Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.
Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.
Written by Stephen Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
June 2007 – updated 2011
Crown copyright 2007©