Charlene Lin Ung, a 1985 graduate of Alhambra High School, was known as Nam Moi in her childhood. In those days her ethnic-Chinese family owned a thriving business in Saigon. When communist forces gained prominence, Nam Moi’s father was faced with two decisions: either smuggle his family out of Vietnam, or face further persecution. This culminated in a series of harrowing events that, eventually, led Nam Moi to America, where she would be later known as Charlene Lin Ung, an engineer manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Charlene told her story in the recently published Nam Moi: A Young Girl’s Story of Her Family’s Escape from Vietnam. The book recalls the oppression her family had endured in Saigon, the dangerous trek her family had taken to find freedom, and the trials of adapting to a new language and way of life. Below is an excerpt that describes the time she’d spent on the Tung An, the freighter that Nam Moi's family boarded to leave Vietnam. Nam Moi would spend 10 months on board the ship as it searched for a place to dock. The passengers lived in unspeakable conditions, and barely survived on the little food that was given.
Not Allowed to Land
We left Brunei, discouraged and still looking for a port of refuge. A few days later, on December 26, 1978, more than a month after boarding the Tung An, we entered Manila Bay in the Philippines. We were very excited to see the lights of a big city.
The next morning, a customs patrol boat circled close to our ship. A news story by reporter Manual Silva appeared in the Philippine Daily Express on December 28, describing our plight from the eyes of our potential host country:
More than 2,000 Vietnamese boat people lined up by the railings atop the bridge of the “Tung An,” a freighter of Panamanian registry anchored on the explosive area of Manila bay opposite Isla Putting Bato. This is about 8 kilometers from the shore.
As we approached on customs patrol craft P58 at 7 p.m., we were met by the foul smell from the jampacked freighter. Men stripped to the waist could be seen on the bridge together with some women and children who stared at us.
At the forecastle railing is a large streamer saying, “We Wish to Get On Land” in big, red letters…The refugees looked weary, malnourished and exhausted. They showed eagerness to communicate with us but we were prevented by the Coast guard authorities from talking to them.
Coast guard men in barring us explained that “we have no orders to allow you.” In spite of the size of the freighter – about 4,000 tons – the refugees are packed like sardines. Clothes lines crisscross along the deck. Some of the women refugees were observed lowering tin cans tied to a string to fetch water from the sea.
The next day a helicopter flew overhead. My brothers Num and Buu went with me topside to see the helicopter. A picture was taken of the Tung An with us on it (photo below). The blue tarp in the picture was where my grandparents lived. Mom had brought along the tarp, but since we lived in the lower deck, she gave it to my grandparents for protection from the sun and rain. On the left of the blue tarp, close the edge of the ship, was where Uncle Hai and his brother in-law were camped out on a metal bench. They had seating room only and their luggage was stowed underneath the metal bench. In the picture my brothers Buu, Num and I are leaning by the railing, watching the helicopter fly by.
The first order of business for the Philippine government was to provide food and water to the thousands of starving refugees. With a Philippine coast guard boat anchored alongside the Tung An, the sailors passed out water and bread rolls. Many hungry refugees were so excited that they practically spilled over the rail trying to get to the water and food. So many people crowded on that side of the ship that the Tung An started to list. The captain screamed over his loudspeaker, asking people to return to their respective side of the ship or they would capsize the boat. The refugees responded with alacrity, since the memory of the Gi Mai was fresh in everyone’s mind.
Several Philippine officials came on board the following day to assess the living conditions. One of the people on board took a picture of us with a Polaroid camera. We had eighteen people packed in our little area at the time, with seven out of ten kids under the age of six, an elderly and a pregnant woman, eight months along. One of the seven children required
The Philippine government, however, would not allow the Tung An refugees to go ashore. According to the foreign ministry, they had already accepted more than 3,000 Vietnamese, and any more refugees would severely overcrowd their Fabella refugee center.
However, for humanitarian reasons, the government agreed to provide us with food, water and medical supplies.
Deputy Foreign Minister Jose D. Ingles defended the decision, saying, “The Philippine government has done all it could within its limited means to help refugees, having accepted nearly 4,500 of them from 1975 to 1978, of that total 2,000 are still awaiting resettlement.”
Ingles also met with a representative of the Social Service Commission and the Ministries of Defense and Health to seek for ways to alleviate the deplorable conditions on the Tung An ship.
His office also worked with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to look for permanent settlement answers for the Vietnamese refugees. An operations center was set up to coordinate Philippine government assistance, and the following measures were agreed:
1. Provision of food and other immediate necessities
2. Medical treatment for the seriously ill
3. Vessels to be stationed near the Tung An for 24 hours for such necessities as may be required by the refugees, especially by those with ailments not requiring hospitalization
Five people suffering from malnutrition and other medical problems were taken to a Manila hospital for treatment. Three were in their late sixties, one was an infant a few months old and the other was a young woman who had given birth a few days before. The baby hadn’t survived and had been tossed overboard.
A Philippine navy vessel visited the Tung An twice a day, bringing food from Manila.
The morning breakfast delivery between 8:30 and 9:00 consisted of one small piece of bread for each person. The afternoon delivery between 2:00 and 2:30 brought each person a small square piece of beef or pork, a clump of rice and a small bag of green beans or bitter melon.
Nam Moi: A Young Girl’s Story of Her Family’s Escape from Vietnam may be purchased on Amazon, or borrowed from the Alhambra Civic Library.