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Tiffany Chung flotsam and jetsam

An installation consisting of multiple small watercolour paintings and two videos mounted on a white wall. The paintings recreate scenes in documentary photographs of the experiences of Vietnamese migrants seeking refuge in  Hong Kong, including their travel to the city by boat and their lives in refugee camps. Among the paintings are white, grey, red, and blue labels with text.

M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2016, © Tiffany Chung. Photo: M+, Hong Kong


Hi, I'm Tiffany Chung. I am a Vietnamese American visual artist, speaking to you from Houston, Texas.


Hi, I'm Carol Tong. I am originally from Vietnam. I came to Hong Kong on a boat, so technically I was a boat person, many years ago. 


Tiffany is the artist behind this large-scale work, flotsam and jetsam. It explores the plight of Vietnamese refugees arriving in Hong Kong following the end of the Vietnam war, and challenges us to reframe the conversation around modern migration. For years, Hong Kong had been the first port of asylum for many of these so-called ‘boat people’. However, the government eventually declared June 16, 1988 the cut-off date for granting such asylum. 

Carol, now a human rights lawyer, was one of those refugees. For her and her family, just missing that cut-off date would change their lives forever.  


Unfortunately, I came to Hong Kong about two months after the cut-off date, so we got intercepted and then was detained, pending screening. So, I was detained in various camps —– closed camps, all of them were closed camps —– from 1988 until late 1996. So, a total of over eight years from when I was ten, until eighteen-something. Yeah.   


This artwork draws heavily on archival research. Alongside the other media, one aspect Tiffany was keen to tell us more about was the powerful watercolour paintings interspersed throughout flotsam and jetsam. 


The watercolour paintings, those were based on real archival photos that I have collected over the years. And I commissioned young painters in Saigon to re-render those archival photographs into watercolours. And the reason for it was, this history has been erased into oblivion in Vietnam's official history. So, it is not something that people would openly discuss in public, or officially taught in school. So, I try to reactivate this historical knowledge among the younger Vietnamese. 


When I saw Tiffany's pictures, the paintings, it brought tears to my eyes actually. Because I saw our life back then through the pictures. It reminds me of the poor living conditions in the camps. It's so important. It's evidence of how we lived. You know, and the reminder of the truth, what happened back then. So yeah, I can't tell the difference. I only know that this is what happened to us. 


Finally, Tiffany reflected on perhaps the most important aspect of this piece: how work like hers might help us to reframe wider conversations around refugees and migration today.  


I guess, you know, in one way that people could look at these and think that these people were victims of forced repatriation. But on the other hand, you can see it as these people actually taking their own fate into their hands and not waiting for fate or for anyone else to shape their lives for them.  

That's one thing that we want people to see, that refugees are not only victims. Their journeys are much more heroic than we tend to think. Their protest against horrific living conditions in detention and forced deportation: those really attest to the political agency that can help shape the current refugee discourse.


flotsam and jetsam is an installation work created by Tiffany Chung from 2015 to 2016. The work includes watercolour, ink and acrylic on paper, acrylic panel, and two-channel digital videos with colour and sound. The dimensions of the work vary depending on how it is set up in the display space.

The work includes twenty-eight paintings that are hung in chronological order on the wall from left to right and staggered at different heights. Among the paintings are long acrylic plates of different colours placed horizontally. On each transparent plate is written a date between 1974 and 1994. Texts on each plate describe incidents that happened on that date. On the plates that are red, blue, or grey in colour is a word or a short phrase in capital letters.

Some of the paintings are black-and-white, while others are in colour. Each depicts a different scene related to Vietnamese refugees that occurred between 1974 and 1994. The scenes include the arrival of refugees in Hong Kong, a dock crammed with boats, decks of cargo ships and fishing boats that are jam-packed with thousands of people. Other paintings portray life in the detention centres. Some refugees look dull and listless, while others wear a smile. Another group of paintings depicts scenes of protests, disturbances, police subjugation, and a conflagration. There are also paintings that portray people leaving a closing detention centre, and people sleeping in the city under a highway.

In addition to the paintings and acrylic plates, there are also two videos played on separate screens. The first video is 1 minute and 36 seconds long. It documents a few Vietnamese-speaking people revisiting the High Island Reservoir that is adjacent to the High Island Detention Centre, reconstructing the image in their memories of looking up from the car at the rockfill dam. The second video is 4 minutes and 58 seconds long. It documents three Vietnamese-speaking women revisiting the former site of the Pillar Point Vietnamese Refugees Centre, recollecting memories outside the construction site.