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Sunday, September 29, 2002

Forgotten isle
Pulau Bidong's unusual past as a refugee camp has become a quiet tourist draw for many former Vietnamese boat people, a development that was noted by Culture, Youth and Tourism Minister Datuk Paduka Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir in Parliament on Wednesday. Yet, nothing has been done to preserve the poignant remains of the one bustling camp, reports MENG YEW CHOONG.



Sunday, September 29, 2002

Forgotten isle

Photos by Meng Yew Choong 

Pulau Bidong's unusual past as a refugee camp has become a quiet tourist draw for many former Vietnamese boat people, a development that was noted by Culture, Youth and Tourism Minister Datuk Paduka Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir in Parliament on Wednesday. Yet, nothing has been done to preserve the poignant remains of the one bustling camp, reports MENG YEW CHOONG. 

COMING back to Bidong, I was reminded once again of the powerful forces of nature and how lucky we were to have survived that journey in a leaky boat 10.5m long with 61 people on board. I was reminded of the dark-skinned Malay men in sarong in two boats who were so kind to give us water and food to carry on. Yes, I met them again last March. They are the heroes and the angels in my heart. I will never forget those images for the rest of my life. On this trip, I was also reminded that most people are good people. It was a beautiful feeling to realise that people whom I had never known or met would extend a helping hand and set aside an island for our temporary housing needs. – Daniel Nguyen, former Pulau Bidong boat person 

Daniel Nguyen was among the 1.6 million Vietnamese who, from 1975 to the late 1980s, made the perilous journey across the South China Sea from their troubled homeland in search of a safe haven.  

Almost nothing is left of the jetty that served Pulau Bidong's boat people.

Nearly 255,000 of them ended up on the shores of Malaysia and most were placed on the tiny island of Bidong, off Terengganu.  

But Bidong is a name that does not ring a bell among the younger generation of Malaysians today. My colleague who is nearly 30 years old had never heard of the island. For those who have, their knowledge is vague and they do not fully understand the significance of that 260ha isle.  

For a bit of history, the first batch of boat people (the popular term for them) fled South Vietnam after the communist North captured the capital, Saigon (since renamed Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975. 

However, the situation took a turn for the worse in 1978 when China invaded the northern part of the newly-reunified Vietnam, which gave rise to fierce sentiments against the minority Vietnamese of Chinese descent. 

With their assets being seized by the government, and their businesses grinding to a halt, many ethnic Chinese resorted to buying a safe passage out of their own country by paying hefty prices in gold.  

And thus began the huge exodus of the Vietnamese in often grossly overloaded un-seaworthy vessels across the ocean in their quest for a better tomorrow. That was how Nguyen arrived, too. 

The most visible landmark near the jetty is this statue of a father dragging his daughter out of the ocean. This is easily the most touching symbol on Malaysian shores of the suffering endured by the Vietnamese boat people in their quest for a better life.

He landed on the shores of Malaysia in the evening hours of April 14, 1980. Two days later, he was transferred to Bidong. He left the island seven months later for resettlement in the United States.  

Although living conditions on the island were far from ideal, it represented a sanctuary to those fleeing a repressive communist regime at that time.  

“In retrospect, the time I spent in Bidong was one of the most special in my life. We had to work very hard but when I look back, it was a heart-warming experience,’’ said Nguyen via e-mail.  

The trickle of refugees arriving on the shores of Malaysia turned into a flood in no time, and the overwhelmed non-governmental organisations had to appeal to the United Nations and the Malaysian Government for help. 

In August 1978, the Government gazetted Bidong as a refugee camp and it became off limits to the public.  

At its height, Bidong had some 40,000 refugees at any given time and it was a veritable mini-Saigon with its sprawling settlements of wood and zinc. From the mainland, the island lights were visible at night (at least before the curfew hours of 11.30pm to 6am). 

The authorities – UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees sponsored the camp while the Malaysian Red Crescent Society ran the daily operations – had built an administration centre, a school, a clinic, a library and had allowed the refugees to set up shops. The faithful among them built a Buddhist temple as well as a Catholic church, which still stand today. 

In 1989, Vietnam agreed to the repatriation of the boat people which finally ended the sea exodus of its people. 

By 1991, Bidong was no longer needed as a refugee detention centre and the Federal Government officially handed back the island to the Terengganu government. But its status as a restricted zone lingered until 1999. 

Even when visitors were finally allowed, no photography was allowed and the island remained under guard. 

When The Star’s WeekEnder visited it in June 1999, most of the buildings were already on the verge of collapse or largely overgrown. 

When I visited a fortnight ago, the rot had gotten even worse; I fell through the rotted wooden flooring of the church.  

The sad remains of a church in which the faithful once worshipped.

Even if nature had left some things alone, vandals certainly had not. They did a lot of damage to relics with historical value (and tourism potential) after 1999, when the PAS won the state in the November 1999 general election.  

According to a local boatman, there were no more Rela (Home Guard) members on duty after 1999 as the “PAS government did not want to pay for them”. 

Since then, many buildings have been stripped of their planks, and quite a few had been torched (two of them as recently as March). 

The only jetty serving the island had also been completely stripped of its wood, and only its concrete foundations remain. Whatever equipment that remained in the vocational workshops had been smashed, and the damage also extended to religious statues in the temple and church.  

However, some structures have survived unscathed through it all, and the most important one is the statue of a father pulling his daughter out of the sea that greets visitors near the site of the former jetty. 

Also surviving are the numerous cement plaques expressing the boat people’s sense of profound gratitude to the Almighty for having survived the journey, as well as to remember those who did not. Gravestones marking those burial plots of those who died on the way, or on the island, can also be found if one knows where to look for them.  

This does not mean that there has been no interest from the state government in preserving the structures in the camp. As early as 1992, a year after the Feds handed the island back to Terengganu, it was reported that there was a proposal to preserve the relics so that former boat people could return and see their past.  

Sadly, nothing ever materialised. But interest seems to have been revived: the Terengganu state museum is holding a month-long photo exhibition till Oct 6. 

According to the museum’s deputy director, Che Mohd Azmi Ngah, the exhibition is to raise awareness of the island’s interesting past as “many Malaysians have absolutely no idea about the place”. 

“And as a result, many of the relics on the island are being vandalised, mostly by local fishermen. 

“It is hoped that with greater awareness among the people, the authorities would be spurred to undertake some form of preservation of whatever that remains there now,’’ explained Mohd Azmi. 

He added that the state government also held an inter-agency workshop early this year on how to best develop the island.  

While it appears that the state government appreciates Bidong’s tourism potential, the big question is: What kind of tourism? And, more importantly, who is going to restore the relics first? 

According to Alex Lee, proprietor of Kuala Terengganu-based Ping Anchorage Travel and Tours, there has been interest by some parties in building resorts on the island.  

“However, I’m against mass resort-style development for Bidong. Instead, the state should establish heritage development similar to what was done with the abandoned towns of the California gold rush. 

“As nearby Pulau Redang and Tioman (off Pahang) are already very developed and commercialised, Bidong should be developed in a different way,’’ said Lee, whose company is the sole tour operator that offers a day-trip package to Bidong with a Kuala Terengganu tour thrown in.  

Granted, the refugees themselves also did a lot of damage to Bidong as they stripped the island of a lot of vegetation. It is also undeniable that the construction of the jetty and the mooring of supply ships also damaged the corals at the beachfront more than two decades ago.  

But in comparison to other islands, Bidong is still in pristine condition and should kept that way, said Lee. 

To him, Bidong’s history is the main selling point, with its marine life a close second. “But someone would have to restore the island first.’’ 

In this regard, it is unlikely that the state will fork out the money for it. “The state museum alone cannot pay for the Bidong Memorial as we are cash-strapped,’’ said Mohd Azmi. 

Nevertheless, irrespective of how Bidong looks like today, there is no lack of interest from the former Bidong dwellers (and their offspring).  

Nguyen said he believed most of Bidong’s refugees were “definitely receptive” to going back to visit. 

“However, there are other factors as well. For many people, the memories of being a boat people are too painful to re-live. Girls and women were raped by pirates and men were beaten and killed. There’s also the humiliation of being a refugee...” he said. 

For him, his visit to Bidong in March was “like a spiritual and personal pilgrimage.” 

“Personally, I would have liked to stay overnight if I could. When my kids are old enough, I would like to take them to Bidong to see their family history.”  

Nguyen added that he “understood the economics of not maintaining Bidong” so he did not grieve. 

“Still, I felt a sense of loss to see it abandoned like that. Bidong was a painful experience that we (former refugees) don’t want to re-live. However, it’s a part of our heritage as much as it’s a permanent part of Malaysian history now. 

“Ideally we should work together to maintain a cultural sanctuary for Bidong. It should remain a beacon of freedom, a symbol of Malaysian charity and hospitality and a gesture of friendship between two peoples. 

“The boat people created a memorial on the island dedicated to the cause and the Malaysian people. It should be something all boat people should take their children (born in the United States, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, etc) to see. 

“But it should be seen by all Malaysians as well.” 

Sunday, September 29, 2002

Getting to Bidong

PING Anchorage Travel and Tours started its Bidong package in 1999, and, thus far, the majority of tourists are Vietnamese and Western nationals. 

In fact, the company is in talks with foreign tour operators to bring in a large group of former boat people for a reunion on Bidong some time next year.  

“We will try to sell it as a package for no one will fly in here just to see Bidong. We’ll probably have to throw in Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Terengganu tours to complement the package, which can then sell year after year. Vietnamese agents in the United States and Europe have made enquiries and some have even surveyed the island,’’ said Alex Lee, proprietor of the Terengganu-based company Sadly, most Malaysians are not particularly interested in the historical aspects of Bidong. 

Said Lee: “Marketing the heritage part alone to Malaysians will not work, although public awareness of it is slowly growing. Given that Malaysians are not heritage-conscious, we have to sell the colourful fishes as well. So far, local tourists only come ashore to take a cursory glance at the campsite, then hurry off to snorkel or to dive. 

The Vietnamese boat people had a thriving community on Pulau Bidong.- Photo from memorial website dedicated to the UNHCR.


One can hardly blame them: Pulau Bidong is a sad, rotting shell of its past as a bustling refugee camp. 

In its heyday, this once bustling “township” had amenities like hair and nail salons (separate ones for men and women), bakeries, a music shop, noodle shops, and a stage for weekly cultural and musical performances. 

However, it is hard to tell what structure is a bakery or a nail salon, for the signs are no longer around and the structures, built mostly of wood, are in a terrible state.  

Thankfully, four of the most important relics on Bidong are still pretty much intact, despite the effects of of the weather and acts of vandalism largely attributed to uneducated local fishermen who stop over on the island to rest.  

These relics are the Buddhist temple (with a statue of Guan Yin, or Goddess of Mercy, still intact), the Catholic church (the crucifix and the statue of Christ can still be seen), and two cement memorials with very touching words (some in English) inscribed on them. 

In addition, there are two cemeteries on the island where the boat people were buried according to their respective faiths (most were Buddhist, Catholic or Cao-Daist).  

Visitors normally take a speedboat to Bidong, which is 20 nautical miles from Kampung Merang, a sleepy fishing village located 30km from Kuala Terengganu town.  

If sea conditions are right, the ride takes about 30 minutes.  

On Bidong, you will be given a guided tour (how long the tour is depends on how much you really want to see) before you are ushered away to do some snorkelling nearby.  

Of course, if you just want to see historical Bidong, the boatman will gladly oblige. Just don’t expect your guide to know everything about the former Vietnamese camp as they tend to be rather young chaps who had never been to Bidong when it was still a refugee camp – no fault of theirs, for the island was off limits to the public anyway back then.  

n Ping Anchorage’s Bidong Island Plus package (ex-Kuala Terengganu) offers a three-day, two-night package that gives you a good glimpse of Kuala Terengganu in addition to Bidong. If you prefer to tailor the package to your own special requirements, contact the company at 09-626-2020, or visit it at An alternative to packaged tours is just to hire your own boat from Kampung Merang. The rate is RM380 (round trip) for a speedboat that comfortably seats eight adults. Larger boats are also available, and the friendly folks at Kampung Merang will gladly arrange one for you if the price is right.


Sunday, September 29, 2002

‘We all have the same story’

WHAT was life like on Pulau Bidong for the thousands of Vietnamese boat people detained there?        Huong Dinh fled Vietnam in 1978 and made his way to the Philippines before he was resettled in the United States. He returned to South-East Asia to serve as a community development counsellor on Bidong from March 1989 to January 1991 when the camp was closed. 

He is now a medical adjudicator for people with disabilities with the Social and Human Services Department in Washington . Huong provides a glimpse on life on the island, in response to e-mailed questions:  

“My (job) was to advocate for basic human and asylum rights on behalf of the VBP (Vietnamese boat people) with the local authorities. I was able to secure a decent working relationship with both the Malaysian Special Task Force and the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS) to allow the Vietnamese to set up a Self-Managed Administrative Structure (with free elections of their leaders). 

An artificial boat built besides the temple on the island to commemorate those who arrived on Bidong,as well as a tribute to those who perished at sea during the journey to Malaysian shores.

“The goal was to recreate a Free Vietnamese Community with basic activities like those back home (before) the communist regime. The VBP on Bidong were able to build their churches and temples according to their respective faiths.  

“With the support of the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) and MRCS, they were able to set up classes for foreign languages, primary schools for the children, and limited vocational/trade schools for those who had time to attend. 

“The VBP were able to tend to gardens, set up shops (tailoring, coffee, electronics, etc), markets and so on under the Income Generating Projects that were developed for them.  

“I was able to build a small park (located between Zone B school and the MRCS office). I also encouraged the VBP to plant Japanese roses all over the island. (Sanitation was always a headache and such beautification somehow helped to alleviate the situation). 

“The Tracing and Mailing Services operated the post office and cheque-cashing services for the VBP. From another perspective, I would say the economy on the island was much better than that of locals from Terengganu because the VBPs’ basic needs were already provided for by the UNHCR/MRCS and at least half of the VBPs received regular financial support from their overseas relatives. 

“For entertainment, a weekly (musical or cultural) performance was held unless there was severe inclement weather. The Canadian Embassy provided a matching grant of RM20,000 for us to build the stage for the performances. (the MRCS matched the other half.)  

“The MRCS also provided several televisions which were managed by each zone. Being avid soccer fans, the VBP were drawn like bees to honey every time matches were broadcast with a few hundred men watching one single television.  

”The VBP (also enjoyed) picnicking at the Pantai China beach, accessible by a short trek through the forest from their longhouses.” 

Wrote Daniel Nguyen on his visit to Bidong in March: 

“Coming back 22 years after I left, I could only recognise the Religious Hill and what’s on there. The rest of the camp has almost gone back to being a deserted island. My wife and I took a dip at Zone C’s beach. It was an indescribable feeling to know that I used to swim along the very same beach, savouring our new-found freedom and hoping to re-settle in the United States. It was a place we used to go to escape the heat, the boredom of a refugee camp, the harsh labour we had to perform. We ate so much rice and canned sardines with beans that I could not bear to look at another can of sardines for another 20 years in the United States. In fact, I just started eating sardines again about two years ago.” 

Former VBPs keep in touch via the Internet and sites like have set up photo galleries or repositories of their Bidong experiences and memories. Memories like these two former VBPs: 

“I came to Bidong in 1988 when I was 16 years old, and stayed for two years. It is impossible to forget those friends and the time when we were at Bidong. The memories of carrying buckets of water, lining up for food or letters from relatives, swimming in the ocean with friends, have always stayed in my heart. 

“My childhood was there and Bidong was a part of my life. I always tell the story of my journey to (others).  

I would like to keep in touch with those who came to Bidong, irrespective of whether (they) came in the 1970s or the ’80s…. We all have the same story to tell, the same sorrow, unforgettable sufferings, the same reason for bursting into tears, the same hopefulness and the same laughter. – Thinh That Ton, California  

“It has been 21 years but I haven’t forgotten it one bit. The person I miss most is my best friend. We lost touch and I wonder what has become of him. I can still remember clearly that day. It was full of people. After we said goodbye, I checked in and got onto the transport ship (leaving Bidong). I lost track of him in the crowd on the beach until my brother pointed him out to me. He ran to the rocky ridge so that I could see him. He stood there for an hour-and-a-half waving periodically until the ship pulled away from the pier. I still can remember him standing there waving and waving.…” – Hoang Nguyen, Calgary, Canada 



Ping Anchorage Travel & Tours Sdn. Bhd.
77A, Jalan Sultan Sulaiman, 20000 Kuala Terengganu, Terengganu, Malaysia.
Tel : (609) 626 2020  Fax : (609) 626 2022 / 622 8093 E-mail :
(KPL/LN2117 / 209874W)


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