Kim Dang: Boat Person, Refugee, Survivor and Photographer

War is hell. It is a supremely destructive force of humanity. It kills people, destroys communities, separates loved ones. It also presents people with opportunities to unveil their real character. Acts of courage, heroism, and love abound, pushing back the boundaries of evil inherent in war. Only fortune, acts of God, and the hearts of men and women shape the outcome.

That is part of the fabric woven into Kim Dang’s life story. Her father died in 1968, during the Vietnam War. By 1975, the War was officially over, but for 25-year-old Kim, her life was shattered when the North Vietnamese overtook Saigon, the city where she was born and raised as the youngest of four children. All the joy in her life was gone.

Both Kim and her boyfriend, Chinh Quoc Tran met at work, formerly the tax office of the south Vietnamese government, which was subsequently taken over by the communist regime. He had been a law student at the university and had almost finished his master’s degree. After the communists took over, he still worked at the communist Vietnamese version of the IRS, but he was not replaced because he was young and smart. He also had relatives in the north, so he was protected to a certain degree. Kim’s role in the same organization was at a lower level, was not so safe. She feared she would be conscripted into the communist army and sent to fight in Cambodia, as had already happened to friends and acquaintances.

She and her family attempted to escape, but were caught, and her sister was sent to prison. Rather than succumb to fear, she became more determined than ever to escape this oppressive, evil regime. Chinh was not in favor of escaping at that time, as he was the eldest son in his family, who was expected to say behind and remain with the family.

Loving Kim and not wanting to lose her, he proposed marriage, but she feared that would lead to pregnancy and then she would never escape. She declined his offer.

In a period Kim calls “Black April,” she once again made the choice to risk her life and attempt an escape. She told her boss she was taking a week-long vacation. Instead of staying behind, Chinh’s love for Kim and appreciation for her indefatigable spirit led him to join her in the getaway. Kim and Chinh left behind siblings, parents, and friends and all her earthly possessions.

It cost money to escape. The normal cost of escape was 10 to 15 bars of gold. Kim saved for five years. Because the man planning the escape was a friend and colleague of Chinh’s, he accepted only the two gold bars she had. This friend also owned a 13-meter fishing boat, which he used to help 50 people embark on the arduous and dangerous escape journey out of communist Vietnam.

Everyone was instructed to dress like farmers, dig fox holes at night, and hide in them during the day. Men and women were separated, so Kim and Chinh lost track of each other for awhile, frightening Kim, but not deterring her. They only had a few morsels of rice to eat every day because people who were helping hide them and feed them had to do it on the sly. At 11 o’clock at night, someone with a flashlight signaled them to crawl out of the holes. Dirty and sweaty, they quietly made their way to the boat awaiting them inside Vung Tau City on the Baahria River. They all knew if they got caught, they risked imprisonment, torture, or death. To avoid detection, they lay like sardines on top of each other on the boat bottom. Once they reached international waters of the South China Sea, they tossed everything possible overboard to lighten the load.

The first night sea was stormy. The boat hugged the Thailand coastline for three or four days and nights, crossing choppy, sometimes violent waters. There were no toilets, so conditions were highly unsanitary. Only a handful of rice and little water was apportioned to each person. They finally landed in Malaysia, where they sought safe haven in the first of several UN refugee camps, including Pulau Tanga and Pulau Bidong, where they learned English, underwent psychological exams, and interviewed for sponsorship to her adopted country. Dirty, exhausted, and hungry, Kim also experienced belated relief when the reality of her survival sunk in; they had heard that almost everyone died on two earlier boats that never landed safely.

Kim and Chinh first moved to Seattle, where her brother-in-law had escaped in 1975, and the two subsequently married in Seattle in 1987.

Kim returned to Vietnam in 1992, returned again every year from 2000 to 2008, and not again until 2018. During the latest trip, Kim unveiled more of her family history, discovering secrets and lost relatives.  Using the eyes of her heart, Kim also captured some of her most powerful and timeless images.

Kim’s photographs showcase her native Vietnamese community through a highly sensitive and intimate approach to her subjects, lending each one a gentle, quiet—yet profound—dignity.

In 2000, Kim Dang began taking photographs with a film-based camera, whose images she believes might be worth resurrecting in a digital format. Kim has been an RDPW member for 6 years.

Kim Dang’s images are currently on display at the San Mateo County Art Fair from June 9–17, 2018.

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