Language and Landscapes of Vietnamese Refugee Life

This project comprises of an arts research film and a forthcoming research publication on the cultural history of spatial and temporal identities conceptualized by Vietnamese refugees. Over a quarter of a million Vietnamese refugees made Pulau Bidong in Malaysia their temporary home from anywhere between a few months to ten years. The research publication examines how Pulau Bidong became a social site of diasporic community through informal networks of emotional support, small business, and religious fellowship. Yet, given the tentativeness of each refugee’s relocation status, Pulau Bidong also was a liminal space of waiting. I consider how the tropical island landscape of Pulau Bidong, provisional infrastructures, and the isolated containment of refugee life shaped Vietnamese refugee sense of temporality and belonging. I also analyze the contemporary transformation of Pulau Bidong into a pilgrimage site for Vietnamese diaspora who return to the remains of the refugee camp through Malaysian tour companies in the last two decades. I draw from multifaceted sources: archives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, and the International Red Cross; photographic and film records of life in the refugee camp, and extensive oral histories from former camp refugees. As the first extensive study of Pulau Bidong, this project offers a paradigm shift in the interrelated process of community and the environment by focusing on temporal landscapes of refugee experience.

The arts research and documentary film component, titled “Translating Across Time and Space: Rewriting the Landscape and Narrative of ‘Refugee’” have been successfully funded by the competitive Brown Arts Initiative grant and is currently under development. Parts of the arts research have been released as a short autoethnographic and experimental film titled “The Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn” which have been screened at the Viet Film Festival (2019), Harvard University (2020), and published in transpacific publications such as Ajar Press and Diacritics. This multipart research and arts film project contributes important public and critical scholarship to environmental studies, critical refugee studies, and migration and mobility. Furthermore, this project decenters the study of migration and identity formation away from the West and examines how intra-Asian migration formed important key points of migrant community and identity formation. This project on cultural landscapes of the Vietnamese diaspora also demonstrates my scholarly and artistic breadth which spans into critical work on the environment, migration, and memory.