Not many Singaporeans remember this history, but there was a Vietnamese refugee camp that had existed for almost two decades at 25 Hawkins Road of Sembawang .
In 1975, North Vietnam invaded the south and captured Saigon, reuniting the country under communist rule. It spelt the end of the Vietnam War, but it also caused hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese fleeing their homeland as refugees; many of them ventured desperately southwards by sea to other Southeast Asian countries.
Being a small nation with limited space, Singapore had to restrict the inflow of the refugees. There were also fears that some of the hardline Vietnamese communists could disguise as refugees and entered Singapore illegally.
Hence, Singapore was the first country to stop the boat people from landing on its shores and coastlines, instead providing the refugees with food, water and fuel before turning them away. Dubbed the Operation Thunderstorm, the Singapore Army and Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) worked together to carry out the mission.
Other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia soon followed suit. Many refugee boats were refused entry and were dragged out into the open sea, leading to the capsizing of the boats. Thousands perished, consumed by the huge waves. The remaining were either starved to death or attacked by pirates.
Between 1975 and 1979, nearly 5000 Vietnamese refugees landed in Singapore through commercial ships that had picked them up in the open seas. In 1978, using the site of a former British army barrack at Sembawang’s Hawkins Road, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) established a Vietnamese Refugee Camp to accommodate the refugees.
The camp occupied a small area of only 0.055 km2 (5.5 hectare), but there was a dozen old houses in which the refugees could share and sleep in. The UNHCR also provided the refugees a daily allowance of $2.50 for purchase of food and other items. Many refugees had relatively short stays at the Hawkins Camp. The camp usually did not house more than 150 refugees as the refugees were quickly sent to other countries that accepted them. The population, however, did balloon to a thousand people in some cases.
Hawkins Road Camp was considered one of the better and more humane refugee camps in the region, where horrific stories about the treatment of the Vietnamese refugees, such as tortures, rapes and murders, in camps of other Southeast Asian countries were not unheard of.
By the end of June 1996, the Hawkins Road Camp was officially closed after seeing its last batch of about 100 boat people, living here since 1990, voluntarily repatriated to a more politically-stable Vietnam. Between 1978 and 1996, a total of 32,457 Vietnamese refugees had stayed at the Hawkins Road Camp. Most of them had since move on to become citizens in Europe, Australia and the United States.
Published: 01 July 2011
Updated: 25 January 2022
I was in the spore navy at that time and those refugees that were intercepted before they reached our coast were provided with food and water and towed out and left to the mercy of the sea. looking back i think it was a shameful thing to do, the boats were definately not seaworthly and most of them perished at sea, the lucky ones made it to australia. how many died after we pushed them back into the ocean, nobody will ever know. it was like a death sentense with a very slim chance of clemency. could we have been more humane and given these people shelter until a third country decides to take them? how would you have felt if you were one of them being treated as if your life is almost worthless?
and by the way, some of the boats which were in better condition were seized by the navy and painted in the navy colours and became part of the fleet. what a joke.
anyway this sad part of our history, of how we were so cruel to our fellow human beings will never be taught in schools or mentioned in public.
yes Jo… sadly not many Singaporeans know this piece of history, perhaps due to a slower flow of information back then
Singapore certainly could have done more, but we didn’t…
same thing happened recently to the Rohingya people (Burmese minority) who were dragged out to the open sea by the Thai navy
I 1) I have never seen any refugee boat refurbished by the Singapore Navy.Perhaps Jo you could please let us know your designation in the RSN.
2) I have photographs of me and the countless of refugees (about 1000 families in my stint) at changi airport T1 bidding goodbye to them to countries they were sent to likeUSA, Scandinavia, Europe, Australia, new Zealand.
3) The Rohingya are not ethnic Burmeses Minority..they are from Bangladesh (in the good old days East Pakistan).They are 100% muslims..would you like to draw a cartoon of PM and give them personally????
4) The US of A lost 58000 good citizens and any refugee that reached the #25 Hawkins Rd Camp were 99% out of harm’s way..I was one of the volunteers that made sure they were smiled at,entertained till they left via Changi airport.
5) How can I ever foget the words that every child aged 5- 21 and adults 60+ said before going into transit:”Uncle Alfie, I am going to (country) but my heart will always remain in Vietnam.
Hi Jo, our boat was intercepted by the Singaporean aircraft as we, somehow, we managed to be in the middle of the busy shipping lane. We were not given any supplies (foods or water) by the navy patrol boat and towed out to the open sea. The tow rope was cut when we were far away from any land and the boat was sped away. We were totally lost with little supplies left. Luckily, we were rescued by a British oil tanker, Balder London, two days later and taken back to Singapore camp on Hawkins Road where we received a wonderful welcome & hospitalities from the Singaporean families.
Hi jo , i am currently doing a project on the Vietnamese Refugees back then in 1978. Will you be able to share more information about the camp with me? sincerely hope for your reply, My email is email@example.com
This is Dung .I am a Vietnamese boat people in Jan 1987 in Singapore.
I am with 20 people rescued by the Parama’s ship General manshelle arrived
in Singapore Jan 1987 .
Well, it is very important information from Jo. It is first time I heard the SIN’s navy did a unhumanity action. When I think back to CHOLON, there live a million of Chinese escaped from Mao’s regime in 1920’s- 1930’s. We welcomed them to land of freedom. In 1960 many of them became millionares in Vietnam. Why Chinese were welcome and beeing take care with warming hugs by Vietnamese in south Vietnam, but when their descendants needed help, but they did not want to give thank in return
Ithank you for your comment. That means a lot for me and my people Vietnamese
@Palm Henry Mao didn’t come to power until the late 40s.
The Navy Museum in Changi Naval Base has a whole section devoted to Operation Thunderstorm, which they present as a humanitarian mission, giving the refugees food and fuel and taking away their guns so they would not shoot each other (never mind that it left them at the mercy of pirates), They also have a model of the refugee ship that they confiscated and renamed the RSS Enterprise (ex. Troung Xuan), using it as a RSN supply ship for a while (reportedly not for long as it had engine trouble) and sailing it to Taiwan. They claim it was found abandoned near Horsburgh lighthouse.
i will come back to this camp ..stay here on oct 22 1985…so much fun….and good memory
The other neighbouring countries just shoot them with machine guns. We were much more humane.
Jin : killing is worst inhumanlty, leaving some one in dead is worser, dont care about people in need is bad ….. Can you see it ?
Thanks for posting this ! Indeed a slice of our history no one cares to talk about very much …
@Jin: Just because we didn’t murder them on the spot doesn’t mean we were being “humane”. If anything, between a quick bullet to the brain and a lingering death at sea, or drowning, perhaps the first option might have been more humane.
Yes, it’s sad and inhumane to have turned them away. I am now residing in the USA and my friend who is from Vietnam told me that she was at the refugee camp in Sembawang for about 6 months before coming to the States. During her stay there, she worked in a factory earning $3 a day. But she enjoyed Singapore very much.
No refugee was allowed to leave the camp and had to return daily and could only leave the camp with a UNHCR camp pass. And each refugee was given a daily amount of $5 or $10 as adults . Strange!!!!
You are right but some of us went out to the camp for work to earned more money to send back home. We just got 2,5 Singapore dollar each day. I stayed in the camp in Oct 1981 still 13 Dec 1981 before i moved to the Netherland still now….!!!
Between 1980-1982 my family left New Zealand for an 18 month “posting” to Singapore. My father was a member of the NZ army and was posted to Singapore as part of his job (he took a small rank demotion to go to Singapore as there were no positions available at that time for army personnel of his rank (not that he held high seniority). I was aged between 8 to 10 years old then.
We lived on Kloof Road, a dead end street located on the (northbound) righthand side off of Admiralty Road (between Ratus and Rimau Roads). Across Admiralty Rd there was the Hawkins Road Vietnamese Refugee Camp.
I have vivid memories of the groups of ten to sometimes twenty-odd, mostly adult, refugees that were often seen wandering along the street, sometimes venturing into our yard. I imagine what they were doing was simply a strong urge to leave their camp environment and break the monotony.
They were friendly, nonthreatening, and never stole any property (unless given to them). One recurring event was their group photography. They would take photos of themselves as a group with anyone from our street who was willing – and of course most of the kids available jumped at it. Occasionally mum or dad would take pictures of them too, and we still have the photos.
Back then, I understood very little about refugees. My parents were encouraged not to interact with them, though they tolerated them being in our yard, etc. Sometimes, when not dealing with Cobras and grass, our Chinese gardener could be heard yelling at them.
Is there a reason for the photography? I’d love to know…
I live in Australia now (since 1984) and am still stunned and appalled at the xenophobia terms like “boat people” and “refugee/s” bring out in many people here…
I arrived at Galang Camp, Indonesia and later came to Singapore to the States. Compare with other places, Spore is the most humane. I came back to visit Spore back in 05. It’s hard for Spore to deal with the refugees since Spore had its own problem such as space. Whatever Spore and its citizens did for us we are grateful and I came back to visit Spore just because of this.
Me too, I had a wonderful time at Hawkins Rd camp between July 1984 to 16 October 1984 when i was still a kid. Singaporean so nice and friendly…Many thanks to Singapore
I think Singapore regretted turning away those cheap labour then. If they had been termed FT then, Singapore would have overtaken Switzerland. Instead of millions per annum, our misnisters could have been getting tens of millions every month now.
Hi, I am doing research on the boat people. I heard that there is a small group which stay in Singapore and some at Kembagan and Joo Chiat area. Any one know about this?
I just read your posting, I was at Hawkins Road & Galand from 1979 to 1980 when I was with U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service. I may have some material you might find useful. My email address is Bubbie18613@yahoo.com
My family and I were refugees living in Singapore during Nov 1979 to Feb 1980. I would love to read documents or see pictures from that time if you have them.
Sean (Cang) Mai
Hi, I just read about your post. Yup, I know of some who stay on in Singapore.. Let me know how to get in touch with you, if you are still keen….
Is there any vietnamese boatpeople were granted residence permit to resetlement in Singapore, May I ask? I knew one case there are a relatives to some Singaporeans who worked in Vietnam before Saigon’s fallen, and they got married in Singapore to a Singaporeans , if she can stay there, I’ve heard about … by the way, there are a plenty vietnamese young and pretty girls who are living now at Jow Chiat , last time I walked by there, I heard they were talking in vietnamese and problaly they are married to Singaporeans after the refugee camp was shutted down !
Hi Johann, I am a Mass Communication student from Republic Polytechnic doing a journalism assignment on the Vietnamese refugees. We would like to get in touch with you to follow up on your contacts. Drop me a message at 9792 7421 – Marcus
Hi Johann, I am a Mass Communication student from Republic Polytechnic. I am currently doing a story on the Vietnamese refugees who lived in Sembawang. Drop me a message at 9792 7421 and we can get in touch – Marcus
I was directly involved with the Hawkins Road from the time it was opened until June 1981. The first residents of the camp were from a group who burned their boat so they would not be turned away and most of them were there at least a year. I was first involved as an expat living there when I and two other American women went to the camp to teach English to the refugees and eventually became Director of Education for the camp where volunteers taught several languages and other things necessary for their transition to host countries. I found the Singapore people very supportive of our appeals for educational materials, clothing and other needed articles. Residents were able to go to local shops to purchase food and receive care at hospitals, some doctors volunteering their time for special cases. The government was very supportive, considering the size of the country and large numbers of refugees, of those who came to the camp and even arranged for joint CID investigations of abuses by Malaysian armed forces. There were times when there were many more than 150 residents….one group of over 1000 came in at once having been picked up by a French hospital rescue ship. Hawkins Road, especially the education and relocation training was used as a model for West German and Australian refugee camps as well as the Camp at Galang, Indonesia.I feel that Singaporeans should be proud that their Navy did not commit the abuses that their neighboring countries military did against defenseless people and accepted as many as they did with the limited space available. They did house many until they were accepted by other countries. I have continued to have contact with many of the refugees who have had nothing but good words for their time at Hawkins Road.
I am an orak history specialist and would very much like to find out more about your experiences with the boat people. Could I contact you? My email is ssclye(at)gmail.com.
I was one of those boat people, who was lucky enough to be settled in this camp I from June to September 1985. I am happy to share my experiences if you are still looking to collect more stories.
I am currently doing research on a project for a Sociology class. When I was about 7-8 years old in 1977-79sh, my parents attempted to adopt a girl – who I just found out this evening was in this camp. She stayed with us for a year in the USA before another family eventually adopted her. Although I have not heard from her in about 25 years, I still think about the sister that might have been, It sounds to me like you would have been at this camp at the same time – while I doubt that you would remember her specifically, I do know that she was moved to a Catholic Adoption Agency in Texas around 1976-1977, If you have any information or suggestions on where I could do some more research to find out more about her experiences I would greatly appreciate it. If you contact me, I would be more than happy to share whatever other details my parents might remember, and her name, but for her privacy I will wait to see if I hear from you.
You are correct in assuming that I do not remember the names or details of many of the refugees who were at Hawkins Rd while I was there. There were so many people I worked with there and often only knew by given names only. I was involved in education and some special cases when the UN representative Louise Druke was not available but not in the resettlement process. Your best bet is to try to contact the UN High Commission for Refugees in Geneva or U S Catholic Charities. I understand how easy it was to get very attached to the refugees, especially the children and how sad it is to lose track of them. I wish you luck and you or your parents can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you feel you need any information I can give you about the camp.
At some point Singapore changed its policy towards refugees , because some of them were living on their boats in Punggol area around 1977 . I was building a boat near this area and even hired a couple of men to help while they were waiting to be repatriated . Seen and heard about many of the tragic events that these people went through in their flight to safety .
Just don’t know how and what made me get on the net at 4 am and now is nearing 5.45am.
I read the article and just scrolled down and found your.very valuable comments as I was a loner in the camp doodling with the youngest children at the refugee camp.
I was the one that crazily cycled 777km to Penang to get donations for the refugee camp.
I had planned to build the playground in the refugee camp.
I got a “big” sum of S$200 and thought the world about it.
With $200 in hand I proudly walked into a plant nursery near Newton circus by Bukit Timah road and in that nursery they were selling playground equipment.
Guess “pride shall have a fall” and for $200 dollars I could hardly buy a single playground equipment. HAHAHAHAHHa!!!
By then parts of the camp had heard of my plan for the playground. incl the camp administrator..I think the camp administrator was a lady from one of the scandinavian countries.
Each time I came to camp, they would ask me about the playground and I would tell them I am checking for the purchase of the equipment.(nothing but the truth)
I used to dread going to the camp, for I knew I had to tell them the truth soooner or later.
Thank god there was a good turnover at the camp yet there were the familiar faces at the camp.
With work and the thought of telling them “No playground” I realised I was going to the camp less frequently.
I used to go to church (I am a catholic) and pray for a miracle which I know only happens to good people so ‘fat’ chance! anyway I kept on praying.
One day I braved myself and decided, today I shall go to the camp and tell them the truth.
When I reached the camp on my bicycle (I used to cycle to the refugee camp from tampines where I used to live before.
Whoa and behold I saw this huge beautiful structure just by the buddhist grotto in front of the camp.
It seems that some volunteer, I think a canadian, had heard of my venture and she asked her canadian friends at the canadian embassy and they gave (Canadian embassy) $20000 for the playground.
To top it all, the navy unit by sembawang shipbuilding did the construction if I recall correctly.
Oh! by the way, I was so worried about my cycle trip to Penang and being my first, I used to train and pray at the same time.
During my training I came across a magazine, Runner’s World and in that particular mag featured a distance runner named Terry Fox. I still remember that cloudy picture with Terry in the mag.
What caught my eye was that, he was using a prosthetic leg to run.
After reading that aricle and a person who can hobble for 3000+miles while my “journey” on bicycle 777km!!!!HAHHAHAHa again!
Who says it would take a miracle? I say thank god, for there are fireflies, miracles and children…..
Wish we had met at the refugee camp but thank goodness for the internet.
Keep well and God bless,
Hi. I was in the camp in 1986 for a week. I don’t remember seeing the playground but thank you for all your effort.
I don’t know how I stumbled across this page but I am one of the Vietnamese boat people who has stayed at Hawkins Road refugee camp. I am in tears because reading and seeing this brings back so much memories. It has been 35 years since I left the camp but I still remember. I wish I was able to remember more. We were transitioned from Galangal II, Indonnesia. I was there around December 1981 waiting to continue on to the US. I was a little girl 8/9 years old then and remembered only bits and pieces and flashes of my days there. I remembered that there were volunteers who would come and bus the kids to a church and other activities. I also remember that someone took us or bussed a bunch of us to a mall. I have been back to your country a few times and each time, none of my host friends could shed any lights or had any aware of the Vietnamese refugee camp. My family’s experience there was very happy and positive. For those of us who were transitioning from other refugee camps to Singapore, we were on the fortunate and better part of the end destination. What that means was that, singapore was the happy stop before heading off to our permanent host country.
I am thankful for people like you and those who have shown compassion to us boat people.
I hope to hear from you. I will be visiting your country this June again.
There were abuses in the Vietnamese refugee camp in SIngapore and they were sexual by the way. If we quantify abuses then I would say there are none in Singapore’s refugee camp.I used to photograph children and families that were in the Refugee camp and I I still have their negatives of about 2000 individuals or a little more..I remember there were some Khmer refugees too that were travelling via Malaysia….Btw most of the children I befrended were the ones neglected in the camp…and they enjoyed my company though and mine theirs.I used to be at the house for unaccompanied minors(children).It was painted green and later on realised (was told) that there were mutiple raped victims (girls) on their journey from Vietnam.
Hi Meredith my name is Tuan. I was at the camp Oct. Nov. My English teacher name is Jill from New Zealand. I forgot her last name. If you know her . Please contact me . Thanks!
Hi Tuan. Jill was also my English teacher at the camp, we recently reconnect with each other through FB (Hawkins Refugees camp) , her full name is Jill Saunders from Christchurch, New Zealand. Hope you can reconnect with her too after all those long years of losing contact. Thanks.
Hello Tuan, I am Jill from the Hawkins Road Camp in 1982-1984 Where are you now?
I am working to create a comprehensive web site which consolidates information about Refugee Camps in SE Asia. The site will be created by and for refugees. We have many stories, and much information, scattered all over the web and the world. I am so happy to see this web site with your post about the camp. Not many Singaporeans know about the refugee camp. The Hawkins road no longer there, can not find in maps.google. I would like to ask permission to use your information on my website and also put a link to this web site.Thank you for speak up.I am arrive to Tengah in 1979 , 529 people on the boat VT 268.
I would like to hear from you. Thanks
I’ve been looking for information/photos about refugee camps, particularly Singapore 1980. My family were 10 people, I was 2 years old. We were brought ashore Singapore by a Dutch ship – Smit-Lloyd 14 (my dad never forgot). We were fortunate to be resettled in Australia after 3 months at the refugee camp in Singapore. I’ve been hearing stories from my parents and uncles all my life. Would love to visit your website when you’re done.
Are you on twitter? Please tweet me when your site is up: @huynher5 I am so happy to have recently found info on the Smit-Lloyd 14, and now the Singapore refugee camp. I wonder if anyone has info on the Captain of the Smit-Lloyd 14 that brought in 186 Vietnamese refugees on june 12, 1980. My family would love to know who this great man was and where he is now…any info on him really.
It’s Bich Thuỷ . I was at Hawkins Refugees Camp in Sembawang Singapore, in September 1980 – 1981, about the time when your family was at the camp, hopefully.
Im an old woman now. I’m curious and would like to know where about your family in Australia? I’ve been living in Melbourne since 1981.
On the 4th Sep.1980 , with 196 people on a small fishing boat, we were rescued by the M/T Brimanger (W.Larsen) Norwegian . And just like all other Vietnamese refugees, I’m always thankful to the Norwegian and Singapore government who rescued and had opened arms and hearts for people who have been running away from the communist like us.
Do you mind to jot a few words and let me know how has your family been since? I guess your parents and I are the same generation :))
Many thanks Jessica.
I am looking to contact with Bich Thuy who replied to your post.
I was on the same boat as her in 1980 and would love to find her!
I have a blog at http://www.paulduongwriting.com dedicated to an up and coming book about Vietnamese Refugees experiences. I am wondering wondering if you would like to do a link exchanges?
I don’t know if you are still interested in stories about the Vietnamese Refugees. I had not checked this site for a while because of health and computer problems. While I was working with therefugees at Hawkins Road I wrote a story about discovering that one of my students was deaf and, with the help of other volunteers and other people in Singapore, was able to help him to hear again. A condensed version of the story was published in the UNHCR newspaper and is still used in lectures by the former UNHCR director of the camp at that time. I can relate several of the horrible stories about what happened to the refugees while at sea and in Malaysia. I still have some photos etc from that time. If you are interested you can contact me. I believe that we should continue to put as much information about what so many went through…and accomplished…before the public.
Between about June 10, 1980 to about August 14, 1980, I was a young boy who stayed at this camp. I have many good memories there. I remember that next to the camp there was a mental hospital. Also I had some chances to go to the market nearby. I definitely will never forget there was a time when a few Indians (Asian Indians not American Indians) passed by the camp and threw American dollars at us. I picked up the first American dollar and I was very happy. Thank you so much for the hospitalilty of the Singaporeans and especially those Indians-Singaporeans.
Hi Hoa, I visited Hawkins Road camp in 1992 when I was 12 years old with my school. It was part of an Elementary school graduation trip. I remembered us singing for the vietnamese refugees. It was a rare chance for me to mingle with the people who went through so much. There was a chapel in the camp for the refugees. I was glad my school organised the nostalgic trip to Hawkins Road camp. Ever since, I have been thinking fondly of my experience with the refugees. Mind telling me what happened to you after leaving Singapore? How’s life now?
Hi Hoa, I was there too at the exact time you did, and left for Australia on the 14th August 1980. You didn’t come to Australia did you?
Hi Su, and Hoa,
I was there June thru Oct 1980. I am in the US now. Do you by chance know the people by the following names, Mr. Le (Quang or Van) Lan, in the 60s or early 70s years old now ,who was rescued by the Ebalina and resettled to NSW in 1980. Also Ho trong Hiep from central VN, also went to NWS, Australia. My email is winds_storms@yahoo. Many thanks.
Me too, Thank You so much for everything and everyone involved for their efforts.
I remembered they use to walk all the way in group from Hawkin Road to Woodlands Centre To buy some foods.
Where is Woodlands centre looking out from the refugee camp ? Is it on the right toward Sembawang, or the other way ? Can someone give more description about this place b because the name sounds familiar but I can not recall ? Was it there in the late 70s ?
It is on the left hand side about 3km towards the Johore causeway.A no.169 bus (now rerouted ) passes the (Marsiling wet market nearby) to the woodlands ctr.I will be happy to email you pixs of the woodlands ctr and marsiling wet market where the Vietnamese used to do their shopping.Woodlands ctr has not changed since then however it is going to be demolished in about 3 years time..
I just randomly found this website and have many fond memories of volunteering through the United Nations at the Hawkins Vietnamese Refugee Camp during 1989. I was an expat who moved to Singapore during my husbands employment. Looking for something meaningful to fill my time in my new life there, I discovered the opportunity through the American Women’s Association. Helping these newly arrived boat people during their transition, was one of my most rewarding things I was every able to do in my life. I had an English class in one of the metal military barracks which was so hot. I will always remember the eagerness of these sweet people arriving to my class in their pi’s and flip flops holding their babies. They seemed to feel very fortunate to have landed in Singapore instead of other countries. Many of the families had been separated during their journey. It was heart breaking when a new boat was picked up and the bus arrived. They would rush with anticipation to greet the bus to see if their family member was on that group. I often wonder whatever happened to those I had the chance to know. I don’t remember their names but do have several precious photos of them in my class which I treasure. Near the end of my visits there when I was getting ready to return to the U.S. I took my camera in, took several photos of them all, then made little photo albums of our class for each of them to keep.
I do remember that during that time the Singaporean government did not advertise what was going on out there. It was rarely in the news when a boat was picked up and of course they did not tell of many times they pushed the boats away. So heartbreaking and inhumane. Also, I remember that all the volunteers who I knew where either Americans, European or Australian not Singaporean.
With Fond Memories of Remembering Singapore,
I was one of the volunteers at the Hawkins Road refugee camps and met the children who never had the chance to attend classes. They were too young and somehow no preschool or kindergarten classes.So instead of (iso) setting up classes I taught them as I played with them outside those classes. I saw the teachers in those classes,. I was so proud of you lot cos I had always wanted to be a teacher but had no teaching credentials.There were singaporean volunteers but almost all of them had ulerior motives. As an accidental volunteer from the outside looking in… some of these “volunteers” thought me valuable lessons on how they exploited vunerable refugees. Now almost 30+ years have passed and I am about to embark on helping Burmeses refugees.The terrible eye opening lessons I learned about “volunteers” and I am quite quite sure I will be a better voluteer to the ethnic Burmese that I will be serving. However you will be amazed at the reilient hearts of these vietnamese refugees and what they did for invaluable people such as you Kristine who helped them.I managed to contact one of the children in the States and what she told me on how they (the little ones) repay the people who helped them while at the refugee camp. It is the way, method and tools they used is to me rather amazing and that is perhaps why all those little children are etched into my heart.I used to be gung ho and always thought I was going to make them happy but in the end I ended up happier. Children are truly gifts.
Thank you for your quick response. It’s wonderful to connect with you and hear about your times at Hawkins Road. I am assuming you still live in Singapore. Since my departure from Singapore in 1989, I have been living back home in California. I so wish I could have continued to do more volunteer work which was such a rewarding experience. It’s wonderful you are now going to be helping out the Burmese refugees. Where will you be during this time? It sounds like you have touched many souls positively with your kind work you have done. All those children you helped and made happy during the overwhelming hardships they faced. I had no idea of the abuses they experienced at the camp and that is so heartbreaking. Who were the terrible predators who victimized those sweet people? So many stories and hopefully they went on to create happy prosperous lives in other countries.
I just discovered by Googling; Vietnamese Boat People Hawkins Road, a wonderful group website. There are stories and many photos of residence and their times there. I was so surprised to find a photo of me along with my students. If you take a look, I am the brunette American along with several young men. The 3rd photo in the top row. I was touched that one of them was inquiring what my name was. I did post my information and hope I get a reply. It would be so awesome to find some of my former students from way back then.
Please tell me more about your Burmese volunteer opportunity, where the camps are and how they are being treated. Your part of the world is lucky to have you there making a difference for these people going through such struggles.
So good to connect with you.
God Bless and Be Well,
Kristine Power Diener
I was a Singaporean volunteer and I did meet you at the airport when I said my farewells to the unaccompanied children. I Organised classes for the unaccompanied children and Organised some camping activities with them. I still remember the teenager Tin Pham who was a scout and with a few other teenagers who could play the guitars, we Organised singing activities for the unaccompanied children. Not sure why you said the singaporean volunteers had ulterior motives..but I can tell you the people I worked with then were quite sincere. Tin has gone to the US and Ngoc is in France but they have done well.
Early morning on Saturday in Norway, sitting here and drinking coffee and reading “New comment on Remember Singapore” by Belinda in response to Alfie Cheah. It brings me back to my past in 80’s when I was teenager in the camp. I read until the line ” Not sure why you said the singaporean volunteers had ulterior motives..” something gets me hurt why people said about “ulterior motives” here ? was it true ? if it was not true why they said it ? If it’s true why they did it ?… by the way , when I arrived in Singapore with empty hands, and left Singapore with new clothes and some saved money, that is all I thank to God for saving me from the dead in the ocean, and thank to Singapore for hosting me with care of the catholic church’s people. Everytime I am in Singapore for visit or work, I will always use a few hours to visit the place where the camp was, even there is no longer camp there, but in my mind, the picture of the activities in the camp, and people were living there still live in my mind … Thanks to God that I have that special memories not many can have.
I was there when the classrooms were being built and attended the first English class. I appreciate all whom had put their life on hold and volunteered their time and energy to prepare us for our new beginnings. I also like to point out that often Singaporeans would stop and give us food and money as we played beside the road. We were never short of food but it was always a great treat and much appreciated
Somehow i came across this post, it blew me away because I could not believe that this site exists. It feels so real and feels like time has stood still and I am getting a glimpse of the past.
Thank you for all that you!ve done for boat people like me there. I was a refugee at that camp around December 1981. It was a transition stop for my family from a refugee camp Galang II Indonnesia before heading to Camp Pendleton, CA for our final destination to Massachusetts.
I was 8/9 years old at that time. I remember being bussed to a church for activities and toys and games but I did not speak or know English to understand more. I did remember that we were treated well. We were also bussed to a mall nearby but with limited allowance $, we could not buy anything.
Thank you for showing and sharing your compassion. I hope to hear more about your experience there.
Hi Christine. .. 1989 i arived in the camp..i was 14 . I could be in your class. I remember 1teacher took a few of to her apartment and make us some toast. She has brown and blonde hight light curly hair, could you be that teacher.
I am still residing in S’pore.There was a US senator who actually came to the camp but was turned away by the relevant authorities(both foreign and domestic) cos the people that abused ( was primarily sexual) these vietnamese people were very careful hence they were never caught or just “faded” away when they were caught for political reasons).There are many burmese in the neighbouring countries who are exploited.so I enconter them almost every time I go across johore bahru in Malaysia.I learnt a valuable lesson from the hawkins road camp is that (in fact the vietnames children taught me) that every child faraway from home that they know they may never step foot on again, they are the LOVE of that country as where they are standing. So a kind word or listening to their stories may not seem much to you and me but it is perpetual to them. I never realised it till I used to see the vietnamese children off at changi airport under a large metal carved figurine (terminal 1) the children used to cry buckets and they have that certain hug that is so tight.
Until today every single child that could speak english (thanks to teachers like you), used to tell me in their tearful goodbyes, “Uncle Alfie I am going to (name of country) but my heart will always be in Vietnam”. It is not what they said that haunted me but the way they said it it made me feel like they were speaking to me from their very souls (till this very day).I used to get some adults to translate as some were very young like 5 years old and everyone of them said the same thing in the same way.
I still do go back to that same place in Terminal one and say a prayer for all of them souls and their loved ones.I only mentioned Burma, Kristine, but the trafficking of girls as young as 12years/men from burma who work without pay is in all the neighbouring countries. I have started in Malaysia and slowly work my way to Burma.My primary people will be burmese “refugeees”.
ps saw your pretty pix at the Hawkins road camp.#
So good to hear from you.
I am so touched to hear of your love for these people and your desire to help them. I am sure you have made an impact on many with your kindness and hopes to help them. It is heartbreaking to hear of the abuse that went on at the refugee camp. As if these people had not already been through enough. I wish I was there to help in some way with the Burmese or the poor children caught in the horrible sex trade world.
I have seen many documentaries on what goes on in throughout South East Asia in the sex trade world. It is so horrible, dangerous and such a mess of red tape. Is Malaysia doing anything to prosecute these criminals or making any attempts to protect and rescue these children? I wish there was something I could do from here in California so, so far away. Is the United Nations involved with these Burmese camps in Malaysia?
When I was there Mr. Darrel Arnold was the US Ambassador to Singapore. (Unfortunately, he and his wife Shirley were both killed in a tragic auto accident in California many years ago) He actually lived at the Ambassador residence just across the street from me on Grange Road. The first year our family lived at the Colonnade on Grange and then the next year we moved to Beaverton Court on Ulu Pandan by the American School. My precious twin sons attended the American School during our stay there.
It is so wonderful to connect to you and hear of your special experiences you have had and I’d love to hear more of your work with the Burmese. If you like, you are welcome to google me and join my Facebook page.
With many blessing to you and fond memories of Singapore,
This may really be a “small world” if you stayed at the Colonnade. Did you know a person named Judy or Judith Hamery she lived in the Colonnade.I remember inside the Colonnade it felt formless meaning I got lost. She had an eclectus parrot named Patrick as it was a male and green hence Patrick???? The American school is no longer at Ulu Pandan but has moved to Woodlands about 3 km from where I’m at.I just passed by the Hawkins Rd (renamed View Road) this evening. The sex trade is a billion dollar industry so every nook and crany, there will be someone whose hand is in the “pie”.The United Nations/ Red Cross have their hands tied politically. Most of the arrests are for show. In malaysia most of the flesh trade are from Vietnam.Sad to hear about the fromer US ambassador in S’pore.Thanks for the invite to facebook. In malaysia where I am nearby just across the border of S’pore there is a mixture of “over stayers” and the govt is rather humane and sympathetic and hardly arrest them be it vietnamese/thai/khmer/ laotian/indonesian/rohynga + burmese;so long as they do not commit any sort of crime they are allowed to live freely.In public transport, or out lying areas in towns in Malysia they can be seen.Eg.The other day I strayed into a rubber plantation and the rubber tapper was an overstayer from Indonesia and was in my opinion living in abject poverty…He was tapping rubber from 5am till 7am. At 1pm in the afternoon there were mosquitoes all about us biting, and he shared a mosquito coil that was around his waist and told me to stay close to him for the effect.He was sharing the area he lived – with sets of wild boars that frequented the rubber estate at night.I tried tapping rubber, was not that difficult but the next time I see a car tyre I will remember where it started from.Adject poverty is something I am trying to come to terms with as they are almost here there and everywhere all I have to do is stray away and there it is.The poverty in neighbouring malaysia is physical but in singapore it is mainly mental.
ps just read the comments left by Thuy on this page…I remember I saw some of the vietnamese cutting their long hair..now I know cos they never told me that they were selling it for money.If I had known I would have given them the money and I used to always tell them they looked pretty with long hair and they used to say it was hot so cut.##
Good Morning Alfie,
Unfortunately, I do not remember your friend at the Colonnade. I met so many people in my time there and it’s been so many years now. I am so sorry, I do not remember. The Colonnade was such an austere place to live. So white, so elegant but so cold. I so remember the terrible echo which bounce off our huge walls. It was so bad it was sometimes hard to have a conversation. Near lots of attractions like Orchard Road and the Tanglin Pasar Malam which I loved going to eat, shop and watch the Chinese Opera. I preferred living up by Ullu Pandan and the American School so my children were closer to their activities. I also loved to shop at Holland Village and Lorong Mongbong. Probably the thing I miss the most would be the amazing food at Westlake Eating house, and East Coast Parkway or just about anywhere we’d go.
I have been searching the web for more information about the sex trade industry in Singapore and I must say I am shocked that a country which is so prosperous and boosts of it’s “clean image” has not done more to crack down on the horrible people who back that world. Singapore does not allow Playboy or Penthouse Magazine in it’s country, has fines for not flushing toilets, chewing gum and other crazy things along with extremely harsh punishment (barbaric cannings) for over staying a visa, drug possession and “outraging someone’s modesty”. The government has such a tight leash on everyone there but has not effectively dealt with this huge human rights issue for the safety and lives of these poor children. Also, they have do the minimum to protect the foreign workers (I am talking about mostly the Philippino Amahs) by not enforcing employers to let the girls hold their own passports. This is just the beginning of these poor people falling into a slavery type situation of abuse and possible sexual exploitation. What’s so unique to Singapore is that it is such a tiny country, an island with excellent control of what comes in and out that they of all countries could make a difference there by cracking down on these human rights issues. Shame on Singapore. I also remember the alarming number of suicides I would read about in the Straits Times. It made quite an impression on me. So many young people jumping to their deaths for failing and exam. So heartbreaking.
It’s wonderful to hear of your compassion and big heart you have, Alfie. I am sure you have made a big difference in many poor souls lives.
Did I mention I found my photos???? 30 photos of my sweet students with their endearing smiles. I’d love to share with you once I figure out how to do so. I cannot seem to just post them on this website or the Facebook page.
Since discovering the Vietnamese Refugee websites, I have now been connected to other refugees which is so touching and wonderful. I love hearing about where they are now and what they have done in their lives.
Hope you have a wonderful day and look forward to chatting with you again soon.
I was a young girl about eleven years old back in the late 70’s early 80’s. I don’t remember much only a couple occasions that stuck in my mind was.. My mom long thick jetted black hair that she has grew for years and when a couple of people came to our camp area one day and asked to buy it from her. I remembered she said no and when they came back another time, she didn’t hesitate to say yes (because we needed the money) so they chopped it right off. I remember I screamed so loud when I saw them pulled out a giant scissors. My mom told me it will grew right back. But that was the last time she had her hair long. Other thing I remember was a group of young Americans that arrived on buses. There were about 15-20 of us kids and each was assigned a young lady to guides us around a theme-park-liked area (I don’t know the name or what place it was??) but it has games, foods and anything we children wishes to get with the money that was given (by a charity) to spent on us. I remember some of us were skeptical to spent any money, for we were told by our parents that it isn’t polite. So I kept shaking my head when (my sweet beautiful young blond hair with blue eyes lady who always held me by my hand for I was too scared to let go of) asked me if I wanted any toy or played any games. I didn’t want her to spent too much money on me (because at the moment I thought she has to pay for everything). Though I remembered I really wanted to play all the games and have some toys too to take with me to show it off to my parents. I later found out and wished that I understood what she’d said. I wished I had something to keep as a souvenir. There were lots of money left that they’d divided equally among all of us kids to take to our parents though. Those were the best moments as a kid I will never forget. The love and kindness that they have shown, gave and care for us kids. If we didn’t know any English to say how grateful we were then. I wished they know now that we were and are very grateful even though thirty plus years has past, but better late then never, I would say from the bottom of our hearts.. THANK YOU ALL!! ❤
God bless you.
P.S. If anyone remember anything mentioned above or know what I'm talking about or have any pictures to share. I would love to see or hear about it. Thanks! (:
hi kristine, I were one of the refugees there in september 1988 to november 88, I were 13 yrs old, I still remember I were in mrs. Connie Foster class, do u happen to know her, i still have alot memories about her, the last time i heard she lived in Cincinnati Ohio, i love to hear from u, thanks for all the teaching and volunteer work that u and others peole did for our people
It’s great to hear from you. Unfortunately, I did not know your teacher. I wish I had written down the names of all my students. It’s been 23 years now and I just remember faces and how sweet and appreciative all the refugees were. I felt so privileged to think I was of some help to the refugees. It truly was an honor and an experience I treasure. I think after all the refugees went through on their boat journey’s they felt lucky and happy to be in Singapore. Also, Hawkins Road camp seemed to process the refugees through quicker than other camps.
Where are you living now and what are you doing?
I hope you have had a happy life.
Your memories are very historical and you should never forget what your family went through for finding a better life.
Take care and be well,
Another Vietnamese refugee camp was located at St. John’s Island. The photos show former Minister for Home Affairs Chua Sian Chin visiting the refugees on the island.
Never heard about his Ref. camp at all ! very interessting information !! thanks
Please do writing on Lao people being treated like “dogs” in Thailand camps.
email me email@example.com
I was there for 6 months (July85 thru Dec85) at Children’s House. Annabelle Postier was my English teacher. I arrived in the US in Jan86. It was quite a trip, and I will never forget.
I was there from July 12 -1985 to December 24-1985( was rescue by Hoshing Arrow)
Please! I love to share the information.
Hi Duong and Ho
I was also in the Camp from November 9/ 1985 to January 21 (or 22) 1986. I together with 36 other adults and children settled in Denmark since 1986. We 92 persons were rescued by Albert Mærsk ship belonging to the Danish ship container company.
I am very happy to contact with you two and others who lived there.
Minh Duc Tran, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
i was there from june 1985 to September 1985 ( was rescue by KRITI RUBY ), I was live in house number 11,what is your house number? very good to hear from you,I now live in Australia
In 1975, I came with a group of children (~100) from Cam Ranh City Christian Orphanage, which was established by U.S. Men and Women of the Chapel of Cam Ranh Airbase. We were out in Singapore waters, hosed down with fresh water and given bread to eat… didn’t know how long we hung out there in the Singapore vicinity. Our Orphanage Director sent a note via patrol officers to U.S. missionaries he knew who fled to Singapore from Vietnam. These missionaries pleaded our case with the Singapore Minster of Defense, arranged for our trip to America, bought clothes and shoes for each kid and staff member… We were allowed in to an island somewhere in Singapore for processing before we went to the States. I wish I knew the exact place where we were. I wish I could remember the specifics more. Can you help? Pictures from our time there (a few days or weeks? in April/May 1975) would be so awesome to have. We were treated very kindly, given shots and other medical care before leaving for the States. There were soldiers there who sang English songs to/with us to cheer us up at a special meal for the children and orphanage staff. I remember in particular the song, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…” I don’t know if the soldiers were U.S. soldiers or Singaporean… They spoke English. Were we at U.S. military camp? Anyway, God was merciful on us all. He proved Himself to be “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows…” Psalm 68:5 I am truly grateful to be given new life and opportunities in America! I am so sorry to hear about the sad fate of so many of my countrymen! Kingfisher@writeme.com
Hi every Ones!
wow! it is so good to read about these messages on this web site!!! Me too, I used to stay in that GRATEFUL refugee camp Hawskin Road, Sembawang Singapore. i love that camp and I also love everyone and every thing there, because i have been had a very wonderful time there with my relatives and my fellow Vietnamese refugees and the gratefulness/good hearts of the International Volunteers; Services Men & Women and the Norweigian Teachers. As our 79 people-boat was rescue by the Norweigian Texaco Baltic Ship in 1983. Next month is the 30th year Anniversary that 79 souls of us must always remember. ( The majority people of our boat are living in Norway, and these people had their chances to say thanks to the Norweigians Ship’s Captain and the Screws) Yes I will always remember the good hearts of those Norweigians ship’s screws, and the Singaporeans, the Americans and the Australians as well as the people of the UNCHR. Once again I thank you all for what you have done for us refugees..God bless you all and best of luck to you and your families!!! what a memory and such an unforgetable history!!!!
Donna, do you happen to remember the name of the Norwegian ship that rescued you on the sea? Year was 1984, and Thanh Van Ma was the leader of the VN group whom they rescued. Thanx.
Any of you remember me at the refugee camp at Sembawang? Not sure if it was this camp. A priest, Father O’ Neil used to go there also with me, Shirley Dressler and Annie Ortega were regular visitors to the camp. I made a fantastic Christmas event for the camp of that year. It was around 1975/79 era.
I do remember the dearest father O’Neil !!! I was in Singapore lately for looking for “brother Simon” (that time in 1981) I hearded he is now priest but I could not contact him by email. How can I visit his church or people who had helped vietnamese kids in May 1981 ?
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When the governments of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam fell in 1975, there were students from these countries studying at the Regional English Language Center (RELC) who then became stranded and could not return home. There were at least 13 of them. Does anyone know about this story? I would be very grateful to hear from anyone who knew about these students or who were at RELC anytime from January 1975 to April 1976.
My name is Tri Thanh Luu. I was also at 25 Hawkins road refugee camp from 8/1989 to 11/1989. Boat #136 rescued by Norweigian Commercial ship named ?Ostresland. I would like to reconnect with other people who came from that camp, especially from my boat. email@example.com. Thanks
Dear friend, I recomment you these websites builded in norway, you may through them and search for friends who were rescued by norwegians ships http://vietnet.no/ or http://www.thuyennhannauy.com/
the history of refugees from vietnam, escaped from communist regime should archived in the museum of national. One day one of the refugees or his son becomes a big boss or mighty man, he will return to the camp for reminding and being thankful to Singaporians and its heas of state
Hi there! My name is Xuan Kim Nguyen, 24 years old and daughter of Xuan Phong Nguyen. My dad left Vietnam in a tiny boat with 66 other people. They were rescued on November 5 1980 by a giant ship from the Netherlands (called Nedlloyd Dejima). My dad arrived to a camp in Singapore on November 6 1980. He stayed there for +/- 3 months. I asked him if he remember the name of the camp, but unfortunately he doesn’t. When dad’s talking about his time in Singapore, he’s always smiling and saying it was a blessed he could stay there.
He has some photos from his time in Singapore. The photos shows a young, healthy boy with an amount of energy. Dad loved to play football (soccer). He told me they were a loud to go outside the camp, but they have to return at some point of the day. But he and his friends were most of the week (Monday till Friday) outside the camp working for extra money. Dad had an older brother (he passed away in 2001), but my uncle always stayed in the camp, he never sneaked out like my father. Dad told me it wasn’t necessary because he earned enough money for the two of them. After 3 months my dad and his brother stepped on the plane to the Netherlands. My dad met my mom (Thi Kim-Ha Nguyen) here and they married in 1986. I have 1 younger brother, David Nguyen.
I’m telling this story because I’m doing a research about my parent’s refugee time. I’m looking for other Vietnamese people who were on the same boat as my father. I know there is little chance to find someone, but I really want to give it a try! If you recognize anything in this story, or know someone who was on the same boat at my father, please contact me: viviannguyen467[at]msn.com.
Oh! My dad recently ran into an old friend of him who was in the same boat and later also went to the Netherlands. But they lost the contact after a while. But now they’re working on their friendship again =) His friend (Hien) gave him a short movie (+/- 5 minutes) from their rescue! One of the crew members filmed their rescue! So if you were on the same boat or know someone who was, and are interested in the short movie, I can (trying to) upload the movie for you.
In the link below you can find some photos from the rescue and from my dad’s stay in Singapore:
Xuan Kim Nguyen
(Sorry if there are any grammar mistakes ;).
Little correction, my dad’s name is Xuan Phuong Nguyen!
Singapore has a chance to atone for these historical mistakes. Singapore was more of a one-party state run by a stricter regime then. We are now planning on growing the population by several million, so we have the room (it was a myth that we didn’t have the room in the 1970s). There are many vulnerable people risking their lives sailing to Australia and right by Singapore on their way. We should open our doors, offer them shelter, we are a wealthy country and have a desire to grow the population. Or are we just racists? Most Singaporeans are only a few generations away from being refugees from China – so lets have a heart.
And some living in Singapore were refugees themselves from the persecutions of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in the 60s.
Thank you for remembering this part of history. Many don’t know what it’s like I be a refugee. I was a child, 12 years old when I arrived in Singapore, but the memory remains inside me forever. I was so fortunate to have survived and had an amazing life that was giving to me. I know there was so many that wasn’t as lucky. Thank you again for this story
I was involved in Ops Thurnderstorm too in late 70s to early 80s. Witnessed and felt the sufferings of the boat people. I hope all the Vietnamese refugees doing fine now.
I’d like to send the most sincere thank you for your participation in the Thunderstorm Operation. As one of the Vietnamese boat people who passed through Singapore in May 1975 during our escape, I appreciate the help that we got from concerned individual like youself. I recalled one of the soldiers who we (my family) got to know briefly during our few days on the Sea of Singapore. His name is Johnny Lai, and if there is any way that we could to contact him please let us know.
Thank you again for all the help and care when we ‘re so desperately needed it!
my name is Qui Nguyen, I was in Hawkins Road Camp from Christmas Eve, December 24,1978 until Febuary 20, 1979.Our boat was rescued by US ship World Lion.I would like to reconnect with friends at the same with me in camp and prior group especially Vuong thai Hung went to Canada about 2 weeks prior my departure to USA.
can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Mr Alfie,
I hardly remember anything from my time as a refugee in Singapore, but I think it was the camp u usually went to… I just remember there was a buddhistic female bodhisattva statue (Guan yin) near the fence, n next to her there was a slide for us children to play. I guess it’s that playground u talked about in ur earlier post… I had a photo of a class w 2-3 female western teachers, but I’ve lost that photo… I think u would recognize the teachers on that photo… I would want to thank all the people involved at the canp for saving our lives, giving us food n clothes, n even toys sometimes… I was only 4-5 yrs old at that time, in the beginning of 1986 I think… My dad n I were sent to Sweden in June 1986, do u have some pictures from that time? Were u the one taking us to the airport? There r so many things I want to know, that I don’t remember… I wish someone could tell me… Would u be that person? 🙂
Hi my name is Duc Mai, i was 1 of 48 other picked up by US Navy the USS BUNKERHILL CG-52 in Sept 1989,staying at the camp on Hawkin rd still Nov 1989 and left for the USA where i am now married and have 4 kids.I would like to thanks Singapore and all of the volunteers,teachers,if anybody having any info or photos please contact me thank you
Hi Alfie! Just wondering you have any photos of Vietnamese refugees during Sept 1980. We arrived in Hawkins road in Sept after being rescued by a Norwegian ship named Long Charity.
I was a refugee in this camp back in 1989. Im.in boat 47. Live in house number 16. Im now searching for the cargo ship that rescued us. All i can remember is the ship name STRADBOROUGHT. But when i google it.. i can’t find any results of it. Maybe i got the name miss spellings. Can any one help..
Former Vietnamese refugee in Singapore on quest to find Norwegian rescuers from more than 30 years ago
04 September 2016
The Straits Times
When she was barely four years old, Australian-Vietnamese social entrepreneur Yen Siow was one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees that fled the country in flimsy, overcrowded boats across the South China Sea in the years that followed the fall of South Vietnam to the communists in 1975.
Packed in a fishing boat meant for 10 people that was filled with 82 refugees desperate for shelter in any neighbouring country, the child and 12 members of her immediate and extended family spent five days adrift at sea in October 1980 with no land in sight, knocked about by severe storms.
They were running out of food and water, and the engine of the boat repeatedly stalled. Multiple ships passed by, but did not stop to help, said Ms Siow, 39, recalling what her older cousin had related to her of the traumatic experience.
“Why would they want to pick up boat people? We would be a burden to any ship, and were basically waiting for death to come knocking,” said the mother of three boys aged between five and 10, who is married to a Singaporean working in management consulting.
But on Oct 20, a Norwegian oil tanker by the name of Berge Tasta did just that. It passed by the rickety boat before turning back and welcoming them on board, eventually taking them to Singapore in late October 1980 where most of them were given shelter at the Hawkins Road Refugee Camp in Sembawang. The camp, which was run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 1978 and 1996, was the first and only refugee camp here.
On Aug 23 this year, Ms Siow decided to start tracking down her Norwegian rescuers so that she can meet them to express her gratitude to them for saving her life. Armed with a postcard picture of the oil tanker that had been given to her cousin by a member of the crew on the ship, she made several posts on Facebook groups with ties to the Norwegian community here.
She had merely asked for assistance in translating an e-mail into Norwegian, but received spontaneous offers of help from good samaritans on a group for expatriate women here, called Real Singapore Expat Wives. She was put in touch with two seamen who had been on the ship that saved her about a week ago .
“We were all overwhelmed with so much joy and excitement when we first connected,” recalled Ms Siow.
“I really want to meet these people and say, you did the most awesome thing. You stopped in the midst of your travels to help strangers who you had no connection with. And today, I’m alive. And my family’s alive. My children are alive. And we are back in Singapore.”
The first, Mr Bernhard Oyangen, 54, was only 18 then and had been on his maiden voyage as a seaman. He will be visiting Singapore in October, when she plans to meet him. The second, Mr Per Pettersen, 63, was an engineer on the ship. Through e-mail, he showed Ms Siow a list of the names of all the 82 refugees the ship had rescued – including the names of her and her family members.
“I was moved to tears when I saw the list, which connected the dots for me,” said Ms Siow, who hopes to travel to Norway with her parents, children and husband to meet him and other crew members in December or early next year.
“I definitely will be giving the man the biggest hug, and will hold his hand, look him in the eye and say thank you – you went out of your way to give us shelter and a place to stay,” said Ms Siow.
From 1975 to 1996, Singapore hosted a total of 32,457 Vietnamese boat people. At that point, Vietnamese refugees who could prove they could go to another country afterwards were given food and temporary shelter here. Many were also able to find employment outside the camp as cooks, waiters and movers, among other jobs.
Others were turned away, with restrictions on their influx keeping the camp free of the overcrowding and disease that plagued other camps in regional countries like Indonesia.
The majority – 32,364 – were resettled in third countries, while the remaining were voluntarily repatriated to Vietnam in 1996 when the UNHCR decided to close all its camps in the region.
Ms Siow and her three siblings were resettled in Melbourne, Australia with her parents in March 1981, where they were granted citizenship. Her parents, now aged 67 and 65, took on jobs in factories and farms to support the children, and they relied on the kindness of strangers who donated items like furniture when they first moved into a two-bedroom rented apartment where six of them shared a single room.
As a Christian, her desire to seek out her rescuers came from a spiritual desire to pay forward what others had done for her, and to understand her own purpose in life as she approaches her 40th birthday in October.
“Instead of completing a bucket list of amazing things that most people want to accomplish before they hit 40, I thought of doing something a little out of the box, and find out about how this whole experience of being rescued came about,” she said.
Relocating to Singapore from Melbourne early in 2015 because of her husband’s work was also a kind of happenstance that reminded her of her earlier connections to this country. As a way of showing her gratitude, she has been conducting educational workshops on a pro bono basis at several shelters here, including one at the Gracehaven children’s home near Yio Chu Kang run by the Salvation Army.
” I really need to show honour and respect to a tiny nation that had nothing to do with the Vietnam war but still allowed us to have temporary refuge here. I also want to honour the Norwegian people who had helped us…what they did has touched many generations, and given us a future that we would never have had,” said Ms Siow.
She had learnt about her past from her father and other family members, and hopes to put together the missing pieces of the puzzle of the history that they had shared so that she can pass on the tale to future generations.
“One person’s actions has changed the course of someone’s life for eternity…I want to tell my own children that we need to be thankful for each day of life that we have. Without these rescuers who had showed us such generosity and kindness they wouldn’t have been around.”
Her own experience has taught her that every life matters.
“The poor people count, the rich people count, the ones who escaped wars count, the ones living in home shelters matter. We have to think about what we can do to give these people a second go at life.”
There is a vietnamese boatpeople who were rescured by norwegian ships in 80’s and get resetlement in Norway. They have the website of those norwegian ships which had picked up people from the sea.
Here is the hyperlink :
Surprised me when I see my picture posted in this page with the sign of refugee camp on top of this page, I am the skinny man on the left This picture taken in the camp Jan 1980 If someone still remember me, you can send email to email@example.com
I’m very happy to read the stories & comments in here.
I was a boy (13 years old) who lived at the camp from May-October 1982.
We were rescued by the Danish container ship MÆRSK & majority of 46 people on that boat left for Denmark October 1982. I only have good memories from the time in the refugee camp. People treated us well. I can never thank enough to all who saved & helped us through that difficult time.
I was 16 years old boy who left Vietnam on 13 meters long wooden boat with 111 other people in March 1980. After a few days on the East Sea a pregnant lady gave birth to a child prematurely. It was night time and everyone was sea sick except for me so I helped a doctor by holding up a flash light for him to deliver the child. I don’t remember if it was a boy or a girl but because of the that infant, we were all picked up by an Italian ship a day or two later. That ship’s name was Esquilino so the parents of that child name him/her Esquilino. I stayed in Singapore (Hawkins Road) for less than 2 months and settled in the US right on April 30, 1980. In Singapore, I shared a place with two brothers, Dat Tran who was my age and his older brother, Trach Tran. I became good friends with them and they really took care of me. I can tell you this, the Singaporeans were very hospitable, although each refugee was given 2.5 Singaporean dollars a day by the UN, enough for 2 meals, the people there brought rice, instant noodle, and can food to us everyday. They allowed us to work day job (we were paid $10 Singaporean Dollars a day with lunch). Looking back, those are the most memorable days of my life.
Dat and Trach last Singapore for Italy a couple weeks before me and I never saw them again. If anyone was on that boat and part of the Esquilino refugee. Please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interesting post and many fascinating and moving stories that followed. I was a refugee but went directly to resettle in the US in the early 1990s without having to experience the boat people’s hardship. I did go to Galang a few years ago to see the camp where my uncle and many relatives used to spend their time in the 1980s. In Singapore the old camp is no longer there and that part of Singaporean history has largely forgotten. In Vietnam a whole new generation of Vietnamese grew up not knowing much about their own boat people either.
I have been looking for captain and crew of a merchant Singaporean ship named Kota Pusaka who rescued 118 Vietnamese refugees on the 12th June 1983. We were taken to Singapore Refugees camp, we had wonderful times at the camp, care free !!!
It has been 36 years long but we would never forget such act of kindness and are forever grateful to the captain and crews, without them, we would have died at sea due to exhaustion and starvation. As long as we live, we have a duty to find them and to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts. If anyone has any information about this ship and its captain and crew, please do let me know. Thank you. Teresa Huong Thuy Tran
The month of April always bring back very sad memories of the fateful events on 30/04/1975 when the South Vietnam was invaded by the communists from the North Vietnam. On this day, we pay tribute to all those who gave their lives protecting our freedom against the communist of VN. We also pause a minute to remember over half a millions of Vietnamese refugees who did not make it to the safe land: either died at sea or in jungle during their journey escaping from the notorious communist regime.
Ever since I joined the Vietnamese Boat People Refugees Hawkins Rd Singapore web page, I felt the urge to look for the captain and crew of the ship that rescued our boat with 118 peoples on board more than 36 years ago. Without their act of humanity, we would not be alive today!
It has been my mission over the past six months to search for the ship named Kota Pusaka (Merchant Singapore Ship). …
Turning back time on a dark summer night, our family tried to escape for the 3rd time, it was in June 1983, our boat was heading to the direction of the Philippines. The owner of the boat was worried about pirates, therefore he chose to sail a longer route rather than the short-route through to Thailand or Malaysia, as there are many women and children on board.
Almost two weeks at sea and our little wooden boat was about to meet with strong hurricane & storms. I was exhausting, hungry, sprawling and lying there on the open air…with no hope, just waiting to die…people on the boat starting to cry and pray to their respective Gods! We ran out of provisions and more importantly ….water !!!
nothing left that can feed 118 people in one meal ! one more day at sea and we will all be bait for the hungry sharks circling around the boat! The only thing that was left on the boat was 200 litres of petroleum! The owner kept more petrol on the boat than food thinking the long distance may require more petrol but forgot food!
Then our prayers had been answered, a merchant ship named: Kota Pusaka, sailed by and saw our distress signal, but like many other ships that were passing by before them, they were very concerned about pirates and did not want to stop! Eventually they turned around and rescued us. This 5 minute deliberation between the captain and crew resulted in 118 lives being saved. The captain later told us what made him changed his mind at that time was that he was very worry for the safety of the people on the boat as the hurricane is fast approaching from the horizon, our boat would definitely capsize and we would have all drowned at sea. He quickly ordered the crew to turn the ship whilst he made a few phone calls to the nearest port which was Singapore to notify Singapore authority of his rescue and seek permission to take us there, as soon as we got onto the big ship, we look down to our little boat, it was nothing than a black dot in the middle of the immense ocean and slowly it disappeared as we sailed away to Singapore. I will never forget the day we were rescued: it was the happiest day of our lives, full of hope, joy, felt like we were reborn again. 4 days later, we finally docked in Singapore.
I have been searching for the boat at many different web sites, I sent emails to Ships Nostalgia, checked with marine traffic historical data, etc. most of the replies to my enquiries was that the “ship has been decommissioned.” But I am determined to continue looking for our benefactor, I will not give up until I found the crew that rescued me. Better late than never!
To tell them how grateful we were , are and will be forever to their act of kindness. The only thing, as a consolation for me, is that I try to make positive contribution as a refugee to the country where I now live, so that our benefactors can be proud of us, proud of our achievement and that they know that their act of kindness 33 years ago, had made the rest of our lives eternally happier. They planted seed, has become a fruitful tree.
If anyone who can give me any information that can assist with my search for the ship, please let me know.
The Singapore Refugees camp in Singapore has since been demolished, the camp is no longer there physically but its memory remain very close to my heart….. it was the first place where my family and I landed after escaping from the notorious and brutal Vietnamese communist regime , we were able to breath the air of freedom we risked our lives searching for…..
Hi Tran Huang Thuy,
My father was the Captain of Kota Pusaka(Capt.M.P. Gopinath Menon), when he rescued you all and brought you to Singapore.
I was a young boy of 13 then sailing with my father onboard Kota Pusaka and was witness to the the rescue.
I was just a couple of days back reading the letter of given to my father from UN for rescuing you all.
Please do get in touch, I think i still do have some photos taken before you all disembarked the ship at Singapore.
My email is email@example.com
Capt. Vijay Shankar Menon
Between September and October 1986, I was embarked as an engineer officer on the Algerian ship BECHAR. We had just left the port of Shanghai to reach Singapore. At 48 hours of arrival we had intercepted 32 people (men, women, children) of Vietnamese origin in a boat adrift. They had no more fuel, no more food. We had embarked them on the BECHAR to bring them back with us to Singapore. Upon arrival, the local authorities quarantined us for 2 days. We had all been vaccinated and our passengers supported by the local red cross. The outcome of this operation led to a happy ending for all passengers who were to join some of their families in the USA. They left us on the platform, moved to tears. I still remember them when they got on a bus with a goodbye sign. It was in 1986.
First of all, I am forever grateful for you and the entire crew of Bechar! I was one of the 32 passengers you rescued on October 6, 1986. I was 13 years old.
My daughter was researching Vietnamese boat people for her her podcast show and came across this page and your comments comments. This is the first time ever that I have encountered anything regarding the ship named Bechar that rescued me. This is an incredible find!
Most recently my daughter entered a NYTimes student podcast contest in June. She recalled my escaping journey and selected as one of the winners. She is continuing my story with focusing on my experience in Singapore; Hence, the research.
I would love to have a chance to connect with you if you don’t mind. My name is Thinh (Tim) Nguyen – firstname.lastname@example.org
In the meanwhile this is my story thru my daughter’s podcast.
Hello, my name is Jill Saunders and I was working in the Language School in Singapore Refugee camp in 1983 -1985. I have been very interested in reading all the posts to this page. They bring back many memories to these days when I met so many beautiful Vietnamese people. These people are in my many photos and yet not all the names do I remember. I will be very interested to hear from any persons who remember the time when I was there, and to reconnect with them. I was there organizing language classes and teaching, but you all taught me so much.
I am the man standing in the left corner of the last picture with a little boy, he’s my son, I stayed in Singapore Jan 1980 to Feb 1980.
I was also there Jan to Feb 1980. I was 10 years old at the time. We might have bumped into each other walking by 🙂
Hi, I was, back in 1980 one of the sailors who was able to help resquing some of the refugees that was brought to Hawkins road. We resqued approx 60 refugees. I was lucky to be able to visit Hawkins Road 2 times to see the refugees and supply some food etc and had a greate few hours with them, Ill newer forget..
I was here from March 8 or 9 1980 to April 30, 1980 as a 15 years old boy refugee from Vietnam. An Italian Ship named Esquilino picked and saved us from the open sea. I remember each individual was given 2.5 SGD a day for food enough today a dish of chicken rice for lunch and dinner at Sembawang. We also did day labor for some Singaporean cleaning up the road in prepare for a new airport, 9 hours a day of hard labor for 10 SGD and a free lunch. I was happy making some extra bucks to buy some clothes. Being alone and underage, I was allowed to reunited with my brother in the US. After 42 years, I returned to Singapore today for business and will be staying for 1 week. I plan to visit Hawkins Road knowing the camp is no longer there, but I have to find the place that gave me shelter and a transition to where I am today. It already brings back lots of memory and emotions as I landed this morning.