Taiwanese documentary showcases forgotten story of a Vietnamese refugee camp from the 1970s

Screenshot from the documentary “A Camp Unknown” from Taiwan's 公視綜合 YouTube channel.

Even though Taiwan still lacks an Asylum Law, it has not always been lukewarm to refugees. In the 1970s and 1980s, it accepted a wave of refugees from Vietnam, as one new documentary, “A Camp Unknown,” showcases.

The documentary, premiering in English in Taipei in late April, discloses a little-known aspect of Taiwan’s history: the island state hosted a refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people from 1977 to 1988. 

“A Camp Unknown” ( 彼岸他方 in Chinese) is produced by Taiwan's PTS and tells the story of over 2,000 Vietnamese boat people who managed to travel to Taiwan on 51 boats between June 1977 and 1988. They were then granted asylum in two separate camps on the Penghu islands, southwest of Taiwan. Between 1977–1988, this community expanded as babies were born in the camps.

One of the characters in the documentary is Liu Chihsiung (who also goes by the name of Asio), a Taiwanese documentary filmmaker who has dedicated nearly thirty years of his life to the subject. His story started decades ago when Asio, who served as a soldier on Penghu islands in the mid-1990s, learned more about the camp before its barracks were demolished in 2003. Together with his brother, he eventually filmed the buildings, then conducted research in archives, as well as online, to find information about the camp as well as former inhabitants and their relatives who are now scattered around the globe. The camps were closed in 1988 as its inhabitants were either allowed to stay in Taiwan if they could prove ethnic Chinese ancestry; or were given a chance to resettle permanently, mostly in North America and Europe.

The PTS documentary captures a moving scene where some of the people who were born in the camp return to Penghu islands. They explain that returning to this place brings closure regarding their identity and family history. On the day of the English premiere on April 30, one member of the audience stood up and explained she came from the US, and is herself a daughter of a refugee from the camp.

As part of his activist work, Asio has established an NGO to preserve the memory of this little-known history, the Chiangmei Refugee Archive Association (CRAA), which helps to raise funds for future archives and his current documentary work.

Indeed, Asio is just at the beginning of his lifelong film project. As he explains in an interview with Global Voices conducted in his Taipei office in a mix of English and Chinese, besides the TV documentary, he is now working on a feature documentary film trilogy, as well as on a book to fully detail the story.

Here is how he explains the origin of this obsession with the topic:

I can't really explain, as I initially don't have any connection with Southeast Asia or refugees. As student, I published an underground university newspaper as we still had martial law. When I had to serve in the army from 1994–1996, I was thus assigned to be an assistant editor for the army's newspaper given my background. This is when I had a dream in which a Cambodian young woman, probably a victim of the Khmer Rouge camps, spoke to me and said in English “Have you ever been there?” I had two more dreams related to this story, the last being in 2003.

Here is a video where he explains this experience in detail:

Asio also unpacks Taiwan's view on Vietnam:

It seems foreigners are more interested in this topic than Taiwanese. Yet Taiwan is a frontier that received refugees fleeing mainland China in its history. At the same time, most Taiwanese think they are superior to Southeast Asians. As a result even our Chinese-Vietnamese community is very silent in Taiwan and doesn't make its voice heard. We do have a significant Vietnamese work and marriage migrant community in Taiwan, mostly since Vietnam started its Đổi Mới reform policy which coincided with the time Taiwan changed politically and ended martial law.

After the army, Asio worked as a journalist and eventually taught himself to be a filmmaker and cameraman. At some point, he had to work as a bus driver to fund his life and was close to quitting the film altogether because of how difficult it is to make a living as a documentary filmmaker in Taiwan. But in 2012, he returned to this project after meeting people who were directly related to the management of the camps.

He concludes the interview by saying:

This process allows me to revisit my childhood and teenager years that ended in 1988. But mostly, this project has made me less lonely. The international community ignores and refuses to recognize Taiwan. Now that I have done all this work, and the trilogy is almost ready be released, I feel connected to Southeast Asia. It made me a more complete person.

The complex history of Taiwan-Vietnam relations

Vietnam and Taiwan have a complex history, as Taipei, which was ruled by the anti-Communist Kuomintang from the mid-1940s, developed strong relations with South Vietnam, which was fighting Communist North Vietnam with the support of the US until 1975, when Saigon fell, and the country was reunited under Communist rule. 

Vietnam always had a significant ethnic Chinese community from mainland China but also from Taiwan or other Chinese diasporic centers. Besides, a number of Taiwanese moved to South Vietnam in the mid-1950s when the South Vietnamese established diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1955. South Vietnamese students also came to Taiwan to study, and Taipei provided technical and military assistance to Saigon, while both countries had a number of official state visits. Tellingly, just before the fall of Saigon in 1975, also known as the liberation of Saigon, the South Vietnamese president escaped to Taiwan, where his brother served as an ambassador.

After a long freeze of relations, Taipei and Hanoi started developing economic relations in the late 1980s. Today, there are over 200,000 Vietnamese migrant workers in Taiwan and many Taiwanese travel to Vietnam for tourism.

Heated debate in Taiwan over the lack of an Asylum Law 

The story of the Vietnamese refugee camps is largely unknown in Taiwan because, to this day, the country has no Asylum Law and does not officially accept refugees. This is mainly because Taiwan is close to the People’s Republic of China, with a population of 1.3 billion people, many of whom might request political asylum if given a chance. 

The issue became even more taboo after the infamous incident in which at least 19 boat people coming from Vietnam were apparently shot dead by the Taiwanese army in 1987. The memory of the case is still very much alive, as a recent report by the Taiwanese government showed when it was released in 2022.

Today the debate about the lack of Asylum Law has been reignited for two reasons: first, because the UN does not recognize Taiwan, even though it is a fully independent state, and second, the recent attempt by many Hongkongers fleeing political repression from Beijing to move to safety to Taiwan, the last remaining free haven in a Chinese-speaking state.

As this Taipei Times article explains, while Taiwanese lawmakers remain reluctant, public opinion seems to be ready for changes in the legislation:

Regarding potential asylum mechanisms in Taiwan, slightly more people agreed than disagreed with passing some kind of a refugee act (regardless of whether that included Chinese nationals), while most people did not have an opinion on this — which reflects the lack of discussion in Taiwanese society. […] On the other hand, 50 percent believed that passing such a law would highlight the human rights values of Taiwan, and the difference between Taiwan and China.

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