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Smithsonian's Vietnamese exhibit recalls plight of 'boat people'

The water ran out after the first day at sea. The boat engine quit on the second. Hien Cao, 22, clutched her 2-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son. They and 25 others had crowded onto a five-person fishing boat, the captain paid in gold to steer them to freedom.

At the exhibit on Vietnamese refugees at the Asian Arts Initiative are (from left) Hien Cao with son Michael Quang Vo and daughter Kim Vo. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)
At the exhibit on Vietnamese refugees at the Asian Arts Initiative are (from left) Hien Cao with son Michael Quang Vo and daughter Kim Vo. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)Read more

The water ran out after the first day at sea.

The boat engine quit on the second.

Hien Cao, 22, clutched her 2-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son. They and 25 others had crowded onto a five-person fishing boat, the captain paid in gold to steer them to freedom.

Now, the sun beating down as the vessel drifted off the southern coast of Vietnam, Cao felt numb. She'd taken this chance, this escape from a country that had become a prison, to give her children a better life. Instead, it seemed, she'd brought them to their deaths.

Pink and orange Post-it notes march across a wall at the Asian Arts Initiative on Vine Street, a scrawled timeline of loss, gain, and remembrance from people who fled their homeland after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. And whose treacherous journey led them, however improbably, to Philadelphia.

"South Philadelphia, 1986," reads one note. "Father sees billboard. Decides to name son 'Rocky.' "

Another: "1979 - Parents arrived in South Philadelphia from Malaysian refugee camp."

The new reflections add meaning to "Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon," an exhibit that's awakening long-buried pride and heartache among former refugees and "boat people" here.

The Smithsonian Institution show traveled the country from 2007 to 2010, never reaching Philadelphia, then was donated to a Vietnamese organization in Washington. This year, local activists worked to bring it to Asian Arts Initiative, where it runs through June 1.

Most people know Irish immigrants came to the United States in the 1840s to escape the Great Famine, and that waves of Italians arrived at the turn of the century. In "Exit Saigon," the Vietnamese exodus seeks a place among the great migrations.

The defeat of U.S. and South Vietnamese forces ended 30 years of war, the program notes - and began the 30-year growth of Vietnamese in America, now numbering 1.7 million. Many have become hugely successful. Others struggle with war trauma, unemployment, and poverty.

"We needed to present the whole picture, because a lot of people don't know," said Gina Inocencio, a specialist with the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Program.

The communist victors herded their enemies, real and perceived, into "re-education" camps that disguised forced labor and torture. Farmland was seized, businesses closed, and city dwellers driven to the countryside.

The elite and educated had evacuated with retreating American troops. A second group, mostly ethnic Chinese despised by the Vietnamese, was pushed out. Beginning in roughly 1977, waves of Vietnamese bought passage on what were often overcrowded, rickety wooden boats.

Some were picked up by freighters or rescue ships within days. Others spent months at sea. Some people starved, or drowned when typhoons capsized their boats. Thai pirates robbed, raped, and murdered.

More than a million Vietnamese fled, many reaching refugee camps in the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia.

Cao lived in Rach Gia, a coastal town about 125 miles southwest of Saigon. She owned nothing.

In 1979, her husband escaped Vietnam without even saying goodbye. A year later, Cao plotted her own departure. She got a spot on a boat not through payment but through connection: a friend felt sorry for her.

The captain's plan was to steer into international waters and hail a foreign ship. But after 24 hours, no ship was seen. Without drinking water, the refugees began to become frantic.

On the second day, the boat engine seized and stopped - then choked back to life. When a pirate ship appeared, the desperate passengers steered toward it, hoping for pity. Instead, the pirates jumped aboard, waving axes and knives and forcing people to turn over what little they had.

The next day, another group of pirates approached. They seemed more humane, letting the women board their vessel, and giving them water and rice.

But Cao noticed the pirates were subtly separating young women from the group. Then she heard screaming. The men were trying to drag five women below deck. Vietnamese men leapt to save them, the brawl raging.

On a huge brick wall of the Chua Bo De Temple in South Philadelphia is a mural that means everything to the Buddhists who worship inside.

But it's not the benevolent face of Buddha, nor even that of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy. The image depicts a frail boat at sea, the beleaguered passengers looking toward the horizon. There, plowing toward them, is a gray rescue ship.

 "We try to proclaim our identity," said Tran Quan Niem, a temple founder and former South Vietnamese naval officer. "The youngsters in the next generation, they know why they're here."

At the door of the temple flies the flag of a country that no longer exists, the yellow field and three red stripes of South Vietnam. The same flag hangs from neighborhood porches and stores.

Until Saigon fell, no Vietnamese community existed in Philadelphia.

Most of the boat people who arrived in the late 1970s and 1980s settled around Eighth and Washington, near the Italian Market. In 1980, the city's Vietnamese population was 2,038. It more than doubled by 1990 and by 2000 had doubled again, to 11,608.

Since then, it's grown 24 percent more to 14,431.

The regional growth is equally strong. In the seven suburban counties around Philadelphia, the Vietnamese population has surged from 2,157 in 1980 to 14,874 in 2010 - a 590 percent increase.

South Philadelphia, once defined by its Italian and Jewish roots, today boasts great Asian markets, restaurants, and shops. Vietnamese live across the city, but the highest concentration dwell between Tasker and Mifflin Streets and Broad and 18th Streets. There they constitute 13 percent of the population, compared with 1 percent citywide.

The temple at 13th and Washington started out as a jazz club and later became an Italian tavern. In 1995, a group of Vietnamese bought what was then a rundown property and began renovations. They called the temple "Bo De," the name of the tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment.

Tran and his wife, Cuc Tran, live in Marlton. As Saigon fell, the twice-wounded navy captain collected his family and steered his military ship to an island. Navy officers planned to regroup there and continue the battle. Before that could happen, South Vietnam surrendered.

After months in a Wake Island refugee camp, Tran, then 33, arrived penniless in Turnersville. The only job he could find was helping to repair washing machines at motels in Atlantic City. At night, he wept - him, a commander who fought and bled for his country, toting tools.

But he was always good with numbers, and after six months got an entry-level job in a big accounting firm. He worked 25 years in the field.

Tran, 70, has never returned to Vietnam.

"I'm like a fish in the freedom of the ocean," he said. "Why should I go back to a pond under their control?"

Nhu-Quynh Tran has gone back - once, for her grandmother's funeral.

"I'm very Americanized," Tran said.

She left Vietnam at 9. But once in a while, her mind flashes on a memory so gauzy that for years she wasn't sure it was real - until an aunt confirmed how close she had come to death on the seas.

In 1985, Tran's physician father, home after three years in a re-education camp, explained that she and her 11-year-old brother were going to leave Saigon and travel to the countryside with an aunt. He didn't say why.

After several days in a farm shack, Tran was awakened in the night and told to follow. The moon shone like a beacon, and she remembers the adults were worried.

"Do we go or not go?" someone asked.

She and the others crawled 200 yards to a river, where a man waited with a boat. He ferried them to the seashore and onto a larger vessel.

To Tran, at 9, the trip was an adventure.

After four days, a ship drew close and threw down a rope net. She began climbing, climbing, toward the deck two stories above. At the top, a man grabbed her arm to help her aboard, then lost his grip.

Tran fell - but caught herself, dangling by one hand, staring down at a heaving sea. If she fell, she'd be smashed on the deck below. Or crushed between boats.

A child's thought popped into her head: "It's a good thing I can swim."

Then, with the confidence of a girl who had endured war and perilous escape, she reached her free hand back to the netting and pulled herself up and onto the ship.

Today, Tran, 37, lives near Conshohocken, deciding on her next step after a career in finance. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, she volunteers at the South Philadelphia offices of Boat People SOS. She teaches civics to young Vietnamese, to help them become U.S. citizens.

On the fifth day at sea, Cao figured they couldn't last much longer.

She imagined her and her children's bodies would float across the seas on this boat, never to be found. Or the boat would sink, and fish would dine on their remains.

At dusk, she noticed a light low on the horizon. It looked like a bright star. But the light grew bigger and stronger and soon blinded her with its brilliance - the searchlight of a massive Dutch ship.

Minutes later, Cao and her children were pulled aboard. Someone handed her an apple and a bottle of water.

At a refugee camp, she got a letter: Her husband wanted her and the children to join him in the United States, at a place called Lancaster. They did. Four years later, the family moved to South Philadelphia, where the parents remain.

"Some people, they forget the past," Cao said in an interview, "but I don't want to forget it. I feel lucky. I feel blessed by the gods."

The 2-year-old girl she held to her breast at sea is now a scientist at Johnson & Johnson. The boy works in the wholesale seafood industry with his father.

"My mother has that strong will and courage," said Kim Vo, 34, who worked to bring "Exit Saigon" to Philadelphia. "Every time I hit an obstacle, I remember my mother, and that gives me strength."