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'My journey started on a boat': Ke Huy Quan at The Oscars

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Ke Huy Quan's Speech at the Oscars 2023

At the 95th Academy Awards Ceremony in Los Angeles this week, Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) actor, Ke Huy Quan, won Best Supporting Actor. Known for his early roles as Short Round in Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and Richard ‘Data’ Wang in The Goonies (1985), this recognition for his acting talent comes almost 40 years after these iconic performances.

And this is not just a huge moment for Ke Huy Quan, but also for people of colour and refugees. In his acceptance speech for the award, he states ‘My journey started on a boat, after a year in a refugee camp. And somehow, I ended up here, on Hollywood’s biggest stage.’ Parallels can of course be drawn to the experiences of refugees across the world in 2023, but prior to hearing this speech, the experiences of refugees from Vietnam were not something that I knew anything about.

Realising this and reading continuously about the current crises faced by refugees and asylum seekers who travel across the Channel, I decided to do some research and consider how if the circumstances are the same despite being separated by 50 years.

‘Boat People’ in the Post- Vietnam War Era

Between 1975 and 1992, approximately two million Vietnamese fled oppression and hardship post the Vietnam War in what was one of the world’s largest mass exoduses (Vietnamese Boat People, 2021). Under the regime of the Republic of Vietnam, it was illegal at the time to leave the country (Sansonia, 2019). The term ‘boat people’ has been synonymously used to refer to some 500,000 people from Vietnam who fled to sea in small, cramped vessels and were prey to pirates, whilst trying to escape and find a better life (Britannica, 2023). The crisis was largely unrecognised until numbers of refugees grew to over 350,000 in mid-1979 (Sansonia, 2019). Despite this hardship at sea, where many suffered from dehydration, drowning and piracy, the journey did not end there.

Many of these Vietnamese spent years in refugee camps, some of which were in Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia (National Geographic, 2012). It is estimated that 10-50% of all refugees did not survive this perilous journey across the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea (National Geographic, 2012). For those arriving in Hong Kong, there was at first government hostility, with Vietnamese forced to live aboard their ‘decrepit vessels moored offshore’ in squalor (Dewolf, 2019).

The UNHCR was able to establish a temporary agreement with Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Indonesia, whereby they would serve as ‘first asylums’ (Sansonia, 2019). As part of this deal, the men, women, and children were given new homes in France, the US, Germany and Australia, with only a handful permitted to stay in Hong Kong (Dewolf, 2019).

However, this was not before Hong Kong adopted a policy of ‘human deterrence’ (Dewolf, 2019). With the three main refugee camps ringed with barbed wire and patrolled by guards, not unlike maximum-security penitentiaries (Dewolf, 2019).

Therefore, having done this research, and learning more about what ‘my journey on a boat’ signifies for not just Ke Huy Quan, but many refugees in the 21st century, it is an indictment of the fact that we continue to see the same human suffering and challenges over 50 years on. And yet, arguably, we also see the same success and overcoming of this severe adversity. Here at RefuNet, we see students each week succeeding in their chosen career paths, in their studies, and in their lives.

Ke Huy Quan’s story is one of hardship, challenges, pain, hard work, and success, and most importantly, it is a story which I hope could be learnt from for future generations.

Link to a useful podcast on the issues raised above:


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