Thursday, August 16, 2012

Returning to Galang

I first went to Pulau Galang in October, 1987.  Located southeast of Singapore, Pulau Galang was the primary refugee camp for Indochinese refugees (predominantly Vietnamese) in Indonesia.  Established in 1979 during the first wave of boat people fleeing Vietnam, Galang had served as a first asylum camp and a reprocessing center for refugees accepted for resettlement in the United States.  By the time I arrived in 1987, the reprocessing center (where refugees going to the US spent six months in language and cultural orientation classes) had closed and those refugees sent to similar camps in Phanat Nikhom (Thailand) or Bataam (the Philippines).  So when I arrived, Galang was only a first asylum camp, with a population of about 8,000--10,000 refugees.

This was neither my first time in Indonesia nor my first time in a refugee camp. I had previously worked in camps in Malaysia in the early 80s.  After that, I had taught at the national oil and gas training academy (AKAMIGAS) in Cepu, Central Java for several years.

Although very different from Pulau Bidong, going to Pulau Galang felt very familiar.  For one thing, I was reunited with Tom and Mike, some friends I had worked with in Malaysia.  Mike was the program director and Tom was another supervisor.  As teacher-trainers/supervisors in Malaysia, we had much closer contact with the refugees, as the schools in the camps there were almost entirely staffed by refugees.  On Galang only some of the very low level classes were taught by refugees, with most of the teaching being done by Indonesian teachers who were graduates of universities and teacher-training programs in Indonesia.  They were all able instructors and made my job very easy.  It was on Galang that I met Tjing, one of the teachers I supervised. Six years later we got married, so Galang was a special place for us.

This summer we went back to Indonesia to visit family.  Spending most of our time in Tjing's hometown of Kediri, we had brief visits to Bandung and Jakarta where her brothers and their families live.  We also arranged for a short visit to Galang, where we planned to meet up with Ing, another one of the teachers from Galang.  Unfortunately, Ing bailed on us a week or so before we were to meet, conscientious as always about her commitment to her job.

When it was still functioning as a camp (it was finally closed in the mid 90s), Galang was isolated, difficult to get to.  The only way to get there was by boat, and without a camp pass provided by the local authorities no one was allowed onto the island. Few refugees landed directly on the island, most landing at smaller islands scattered nearby, many times after being pushed off from Malaysia or Singapore.

Today the story is different.  With a series of bridges that now connect Galang to Batam, getting to Galang is now a simple drive of a little more than an hour from Batam.  When we were living and working there Galang seemed so isolated from nearby islands.  Going to TJP for the weekend was a treat and staff had to reserve a spot on the boat early if they wanted to go.  Now, hordes of tourists from Batam and Singapore drive to the island to spend weekends on the beaches.

Visiting Galang now, I realized how much effort it took to build the camp and provide the infrastructure.  Other than the places of worship--several Buddhist temples, the Catholic church, a small mushola--and a small museum with artifacts and photos of ceremonies that took place in the camp, there is little to see of the camp itself.  For people who had never been there in the 80s,  it would be hard to realize what life was really like in the camp.  The schools, the barracks, the staff living quarters, coffee shops and stores have all been engulfed by vines and vegetation.  There is little sense of the dynamic, vibrant community that the island once harbored.

The Site I pagoda, Quan Am Tu, has been completely renovated.  When I left in 1989 it had been abandoned and was succumbing to age and the elements.  The walls and ceiling were beginning to collapse.  With a view of the harbor in the distance, the temple was a place I used to walk to some afternoons to get away from the camp.  Geckos scrambled up the planks of the walls.  It was a place of great tranquility.  In renovating the pagoda, the old structure has been replaced.  The new pagoda is a structurally sound building, but reflects more the Chinese Buddhist community in the area than the pagoda that was built by the refugees.

As much as I wanted to enjoy our return to Galang, I left feeling somewhat disappointed.  The museum has an interesting collection of artifacts left behind by refugees, including numerous religious icons of Quan Am (goddess of mercy) and the Virgin Mary, and hundreds of pictures of visiting dignitaries, but little that shows everyday life in the camp.  There are no photographs of the barracks, the schools, coffee shops or stores that were in the camp.  While the two jail cells have been preserved, none of the schools have.  There is one wing of barracks away from the road that has not been overgrown by vegetation, but it will soon be swallowed by the relentless vines that cover the island.  I left the island feeling disheartened so little of the daily vibrancy of the camp had been captured.

I'm including some photos of the camp from the time when I was there.  I hope that others may have more pictures to show of the day to day activities in the camp.   I would invite anyone with pictures of the camp who would like to share them to post them to the Facebook group Galang camp.


  1. Thank you for this post. My parents and uncle lived in Galang site II from 1985-1989 before resettling in Australia. My uncle had an American teacher named Tom (who is very very tall!). I wonder if it is your friend Tom.

    1. I'm sure it had to be Tom. While I wouldn't describe Tom as very tall, he was around 6' and could be an imposing figure. He frequently had a fu-manchu mustache that many of the Vietnamese found to be rather frightening. Tom was very involved in the vocational program, creating the curriculum and teaching it himself so he could learn where improvements had to be made.


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