Archives of Vietnamese Boat People

Conqueror of the Ocean

By Lat Yip
I had almost forgotten I was an artist as I had not held a brush for twenty four years. Memories flooded back to me upon opening an old photograph album where there were photos of my oil paintings. These paintings were produced in the refugee camp and given to UN officers and some friends in the refugee camp; now, they are scattered across different continents.

In April 1975, Saigon was claimed by the Communists and renamed Ho Chi Minh City. After the Communists assumed power, our future was left uncertain; wealthy families fled and 135,000 Vietnamese left. Over the next five years, at least 545,000 more of my compatriots also escaped, many by sea and thus we became known to the world as "boat people". By October 1975, the Communists had started the "Communism Reform" throughout the country. Residents in the urban cities were forced to migrate to forest or mountain areas that were collectively known as the "New Economic Development" zone. If part of my family were not "willing" to move to the countryside, the government would force us (my family had a total of thirteen members) to leave and forfeit all of our properties without mercy. In order to try and keep our house in Saigon , our family separated; my two brothers', older sister, father and myself left for our new "home". (I thought it wasn't possible to keep the house in Saigon since the government forced EVERYONE in the family to leave?)Life in the development zone was tough; we spent long days clearing areas of dense jungle and tried to cultivate the land. Farming became part of our daily life. In a communist fashion we worked together and shared the harvest. However, since no one really could own their own land and enjoy the full benefits of their fruitful labor, no one could really concentrate on their work. Meanwhile, due to the harshness of the land, we were living in poverty and struggling to survive. Three years passed without much change, Often individuals tried to escape back to the city, but if you were caught by the government, you would be jailed and relocated to a harder labor camp.I was one of those individuals who escaped and went back to Saigon . I had to hide because my residence permit had been cancelled. Meanwhile, my brother was planning to flee the country and had been secretly constructing a boat. But my father didn't allow me to leave with my brother, since he thought it was too small to survive in the ocean. I had no where to go but hide on the small boat, it became my home for the next six months. The boat could only carry six escapees. On the night it was ready to sail, one passenger was afraid to die in the ocean and didn't show up. Finally, my older brother agreed to take me with him. I could have the chance to leave Vietnam and open the door to my new life.

The following six days and seven nights tested our physical and mental resilience. We battled thunderstorms and encountered pirates, before landing on a small uninhabited island. We had run out of food and water. Hungry, we searched for sustenance; coconuts quenched our thirst and we caught fish with our bare hands. I also carved coconut shells into bowls and spoons. After one month, a passing boat with foreigners spotted us and communicated our position to the authorities. The UN officers rescued us and escorted us to the refugee camp in Malaysia, which became our home for the next three years.

While at the camp, aid workers from the United Way noticed my art, and asked if I would start an art class. My students became like family to me; as they left for their new lives in foreign lands, I gave them paintings so they would not forget their experiences. In 1981, the Canadian government sponsored my brother and I to start a new life in Toronto . I attended George Brown College and learnt graphic design. I really enjoy this type of art. Today, I run my own Graphic design business called In Out Design.

Recently I was approached by Mrs. Alva Gao, (a famous artist in Toronto). She encouraged me to design a poster to promote her upcoming art exhibition. Her oil paintings reminded me of my own love of painting. I thought to myself, why not take up painting again? After all, my children, who were not excelling in their art courses, had never had the chance to see me actually paint. All they saw up to that point in time were only the oil paintings I drew 23 years ago hanging now in our house. I decided that I wanted them to know that "drawing comes from their heart and soul"; so I started painting again. Emotions that were hidden in my heart for over 20 years emerged. That passion was unexpected...

In the meantime, I plan to educate my children about my past,sharing my story with them as well. I figure the more they understand my hardships in the past, the more they will treasure our life today. Canada has given us back our freedom and peace for which I am very grateful for.

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