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Like the Foam on the Stormy Sea– Vietnamese Boat People in Taiwan

Felix Brender

Immigration to present-day Taiwan is a fact immediately apparent to anyone who sets foot on the island. This has not only given rise to great artistic and academic output across the social sciences, often expressing a sympathetic stance towards the xinyimin新移民, but also to heated public debates. While key works on migration to Taiwan – among them Lan’s Global Cinderellas (2006), arguably the most comprehensive piece of scholarship on migrant workers in Taiwan – focus on the status quo, I aimed to take a different approach in my Master’s thesis by shedding light on an overlooked episode of recent Taiwanese history: Combining historical analysis and person-centred ethnography, I offered an initial comparative study of the identities of Vietnamese boat refugees who had come to Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s and of their children, the second generation, or rather – as I suggest – first generation Taiwanese.In my thesis, I argue that while the Taiwanese general public and politicians alike are still debating whether immigrants could ever be or become Taiwanese, there is historical precedent showing how immigrants arriving in Taiwan (decades after the retreat of the KMT in the 1940s) have completely integrated into mainstream society in a process entirely gone unnoticed by public discourse. In this short piece, I would like to give a brief historical overview of boat refugees in Taiwan, an aspect which has not yet been the subject of in-depth research neither within my field (anthropology) nor within Taiwan Studies.

In the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon in April 1975 and the subsequent unification of Vietnam under the North Vietnamese regime, hundreds of thousands if not several million Vietnamese fled the country by boat across the South China Sea, the only route still open to them as Vietnam’s land borders were closed. For this reason, they are commonly referred to as the boat people (船民, thuyềnnhân). A great number of publications by NGO’s, government agencies, and international organisations recount – from different perspectives and with different motives – the events of this refugee crisis which was only officially declared resolved in 2005. Nonetheless, there is only very limited scholarly literature of substance on the boat people (Dalgish, 1989). Although these works often display clear bias, in virtually all western nations which accepted Vietnamese refugees – the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and others – a great amount of research has been published on the ‘Vietnamese diaspora’, as well as handbooks on matters pertaining to integration and, possibly most famously, countless memoirs.

The case is rather different for Taiwan. Even comprehensive studies on the boat people do not make mention of Taiwan as a port of call. Still within Taiwan, there is very limited documentation of ROC government policies at the time. According to a 1982 official account by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Council (OCAC, 僑務委員會), the ROC government directly evacuated Vietnamese Chinese, assisted them in relocating to Taiwan from other third countries and granted asylum to those who reached Taiwan by boat.

After the first 64 refugees had been put up in an interim shelter (越南難民臨時接待說) in Hsih-Yu 西嶼in Penghu (the Shelter Centre for Refugees from the Indochina Peninsula (中南半島難民接待中心) also locally known as 講美村) was built in Pai-sha白沙, a small fishing village counting fewer than 1,000 residents. While official records (OCAC, 1982) claim that 1,866 refugees lived there, Lý (2012) argues that more than 2,000 found temporary abode at the shelter. A second centre in a marine base in Kaohsiung served as a temporary home to 3,939 refugees (OCAC, 1982). The report also claims that an additional 4,500 Vietnamese Chinese children were evacuated from Vietnam and Thailand via chartered flights in cooperation with the Red Cross. According to the report, more than 11,000 refugees had been received by the ROC by 1979 overall, with the government expressing its willingness to receive another 2,000.

Supervised by the Task Force for Rescuing Overseas Chinese Refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (救助越、棉、寮難僑專案小組), bringing together personnel from the Ministries of the Interior and of Education as well as provincial and municipal governments, adult refugees underwent professional training; children were sent to Taipei to attend school.

This tallies with general policy-making and attitudes at the time. Despite having forfeited sovereignty over most of the territory it claimed, the KMT continued to construct itself as the sole legitimate ruling power of China. In contrast to the Chinese Communist Party, the KMT had been successful in rallying ethnic Chinese overseas, and as the KMT considered all ethnic Chinese to be ROC nationals, the authorities felt obliged to protect their nationals to assert their political claims both domestically and internationally, particularly after the ROC had lost its seat at the UN. Considering that the ROC had aligned itself with the US and was obsessively committed to the fight against communism, protecting overseas Chinese was an invaluable propaganda tool: Publications by the World Anti-Communist League such as Luo (1980) framed Vietnamese Chinese, predominantly from the “good, Christian, democratic” South, as victims of a sinophobic, communist regime, while stirring up emotions against ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh) from the North, constructed as spies trying to infiltrate the “free world” as refugees.

In my research among the boat people in Taiwan, I found that most of the refugees considered themselves Vietnamese, often were only fluent in Vietnamese, and sometimes in Cantonese, but never in Mandarin. They did, however, soon learn that their status as overseas Chinese made them eligible for privileges such as full ROC citizenship. While the political elite, which had been sinicizing Taiwan to justify its own rule over the island, welcomed the refugees even if only rhetorically, local residents in Penghu did not consider the Vietnamese refugees their compatriots, as Lý (2012) and my informants report.

In my fieldwork, I found that the personal histories of my interviewees are embedded not only in the grand narratives but also reflect the paradigm shifts observable which have led to the construction of Taiwanese identity as it is today. In light of current social and political discourse in Taiwan, the relative quantitative insignificance therefore should not overshadow the qualitative importance of the boat people and their Taiwanese-born children. Therefore, I hope to research this aspect of Taiwanese history more extensively.

Felix Brender is a London-based conference interpreter, translator and trainer, holding a BA in Southeast Asian Studies and an MA in Social Anthropology from SOAS, University of London, and a PGDip in Conference Interpreting from the University of Leeds. He hopes to continue his research on Vietnamese boat refugees and Vietnamese Taiwanese in a PhD.