Map of South China Sea shows the Luus perilous, nearly 900-mile voyage (red arrow) from Vietnam to Galang Island, Indonesia. Submitted Photos
Kieu Luu Banks, who lives today in Goodland, was born in Vietnam, a country wracked by war and taken over by a ruthless communist regime, when she was only 8 years old. Part one of this three part series included her perspective on what life was like in Vietnam during this period. It was a terrifying experience for Kieu and her family. How bad was it? Bad enough to cause the Luus to flee the country in the dead of night with just the shirts on their backs. The Luus were part of a large ethnic Chinese community in South Vietnam, which by 1979 was being forced to leave, because of a border war with China and because they were seen as part of the capitalist class, inimical to communism. By 1985 there were very few Chinese-Vietnamese left in the country. For the privilege of being kicked out of their country, each refugee had to pay $3,000 in gold either to the communist government or to clandestine private fishing boat owners, who were more dependable and less corrupt. These private boats were illegal and unauthorized by the government. The gold which the refugees paid to the boat owners would otherwise have gone to the communist government. The government is said to have realized about two billion dollars from this forced emigration.
Overloaded fishing boat, still underway but with the stern almost awash. A squall, rogue wave, or even the wake from a passing ship would easily send this boat to the bottom.
On May 25, 1979, the 17 members of the Luu clan boarded a 60-foot fishing boat, along with 215 others, and chugged down the Mekong River to the South China Sea. Everyone on that boat was subject to arrest, imprisonment, or worse if caught. They were in the first wave of the approximately 100,000 Vietnamese refugees who would attempt to escape to freedom in that year. It was the beginning of a desperate mass migration, which by 1995, amounted to an exodus of as many as 1.5 million refugees, 5% of the country’s entire population. Of these, as many as 200,000 never made it, most dying from drowning due to the unseaworthy boats into which they were packed like sardines. The fishing boats were not built to withstand the rigors of the open sea. They were also easy prey for pirates who infested these waters. The Luus were among the lucky ones.
Mug shots of Kieu and her family were taken at the U.N. refugee office at Galang, shortly before they began the last leg of their journey to the U.S. (February 1980). Top row from left: Luu To, Kieu’s father (43); Luu Luong Moui, Kieu’s mother (42, and two months pregnant with Robin Hope Luu); Siblings – Minh (16), Nghi (13), Kieu (12), Vinh (9); Bottom row from left: Co (6), Me (5, later renamed Jennifer), and Trach (3, later renamed Michael).
A rare look inside one of the early shelters shows hardwood beds, dirt floors and cooking utensils strewn about. These upbeat teenagers are reflective of the pluck of their parents, members of a generation who were willing to sacrifice everything for a chance to live free.
The 12-year-old Kieu and her siblings were led through the predawn darkness, to the boat on which they were to leave. “We followed my father, each one holding the hand of the one behind,” recalls Kieu, “We were told to make no noise and were too terrified to disobey.” After a short walk, they came to the boat, moored along the My Tho waterfront. Other refugees were also arriving. They all filed onto the boat, finding what space they could.
It was every family for themselves as the refugees piled into Galang. With no place prepared for them they had to make do with wood and tin scraps with only palm fronds for a roof.
Life was grim along an early Galang street.
The adults were told to find a space on the uncovered deck. The children were packed into the hold, which had probably been used for the storage of fish. The adults filled up all the deck space and then sat around the edges with their backs against the bulwarks. They were completely exposed to the elements, the worst of which was the unrelenting tropical sun. The kids had it worse. “We were handed down one by one [into the hold],” said Kieu, “as more and more came down, we were jammed so tightly together that we could barely move. Mothers with babies were also allowed down.
A Malaysian coast guard vessel circa 1980. They kept the refugee boats from landing in Malaysia. This is similar to the one which rescued Kieu. It could even be the same.
While the Luus were there, the camp byways began at the beach and ended at the jungle.
As the boat entered the South China Sea, it began to pitch and roll. Even on a calm day, that sea has mighty swells. Sickened by the motion of the boat and the smell of oil and fish waste in the bilge, the kids got violently sick. “We tried to lie down [to get some relief],” Kieu said, “There wasn’t enough room and we ended up lying on top of one another. We vomited on ourselves and on those [around and] underneath us. [For our toilet], we could only relieve ourselves in our own clothes.” In this enclosed space, the smell and stench must have been overpowering.
Kieu described conditions on the boat as similar to sardines in a can. This powerful heartbreaking photo bears her out.
After a few days, the engine stopped running. The boat, now adrift, assumed a violent rolling motion, adding to the misery of all those on board. The only sounds were the creaking timbers, moaning passengers, and the retching and cries of the infants crammed in below. “We would cry and scream until we passed out,” Kieu said. During this period, Kieu’s grandfather died and was thrown overboard. Because they had run out of food or water, it was feared that his body might be cannibalized if left on board. Two others also died, including Kieu’s 5-year-old cousin who had swallowed his tongue during a seizure. His father was unable to obtain a spoon to relieve the blockage. Kieu later learned (from her father) that pirates had raided their boat, making off with the food and water and what few valuables the refugees had brought with them. They also took the boat’s compass and removed engine parts which they needed. Then they abandoned the refugees to their fate. Pirates were the second leading cause of death for the refugees during these voyages.
This boat is close in resemblance and size to the one Kieu was on. Many boats were run aground at their destination to avoid being turned away.
The U.N. administration building at Galang. It was here that the Luus were photographed and chosen to go to the U.S.
Kieu’s boat had drifted into Malaysian territorial waters, which were patrolled by the Malaysian coast guard to make sure that the refugees’ boats were turned away. Malaysia was not set up to handle this large influx of refugees and refused to accept them. Neighboring Indonesia, under the auspices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, was agreeable however and was beginning to set up a camp at Galang Island, a few miles off the southern tip of Malaysia. Despair had overtaken the refugees when, Kieu recalls, “A big silver ship (later determined to have been a Malaysian coast guard vessel) appeared along-side and hoisted the refugees up, one by one. They grabbed me by my fingers and lifted me over the rail and then gave us food and water. I will always remember that cool water. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.” After a short trip, the refugees were dropped off on a make shift wharf at Galang Island, Indonesia. They had completed a journey of almost 900 miles and had been at sea for nine days.
The camp had not yet been developed and conditions were primitive. “We were taken to a clearing at the edge of the jungle and except for food, left to shift for ourselves. There were no buildings to receive us,” said Kieu, “We built our own shelters out of palm fronds or whatever was at hand. We slept side by side on hardwood slabs, which rested on often wet and muddy ground. The shelters were only inches apart. Our water had to be fetched by us kids each day from miles away. We ate a lot of rice, but often went to bed hungry. Our playground was the beach and the water.” It was also the place where most of the camp relieved themselves. Remarkably, Kieu cannot recall any disease or sickness in her family.
After more than nine months of “living like sardines in a tin,” (tents had been provided toward the end) the family was told to report to the U.N. administration building where photographs were made of each member. Shortly after that, they were loaded on a ferry type boat for the short trip across the strait to Singapore. The next stop would be San Francisco.