I visited Palatine, Illinois today to speak to the local Rotary club about my research on Vietnam veterans. After the talk, one of the club members told me about a man in his woodworking group who was greatly affected by the US-Vietnam War.
Binh Pho is a Vietnamese artist who was imprisoned in a re-education camp for refusing to accept the Communist government after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He spent a year in the camp, as he writes, “to supposedly get my brain-washed.” After four failed attempts to escape Vietnam, he and 38 other “boat people” made it to Malaysia on September 29, 1978. It wasn’t until another eight months that he was reunited with his family, who had successfully escaped Vietnam and were living in the United States.
Binh Pho now lives in Maple Park, 60 miles west of Chicago, where he creates wooden sculptures and furniture. His artwork is heavily influenced by his experiences in Vietnam and as a refugee. In one piece the Rotarian told me about, Binh Pho recreates the view he saw from his prison cell to the outside world. Four seasons pass; the weather changes, but the landscape stays the same. The artist writes:
There was a period of time that I looked through the window and asked myself the question,”What is it like on the other side of that window?” I then just let my imagination go.
The shadows of the Vietnam War stretch far. They reach well beyond the families suffering from dioxin poisoning in Vietnam to the shores of this country and into its quietest of suburbs.
An investigation conducted by the Orange County Register found that 1 million people were imprisoned without formal trials after the fall of Saigon, with one in three South Vietnamese families having a relative in a re-education camp. The US State Department reports that 34,641 former prisoners found a new home in America after leaving the camps. Others were not so lucky. Studies have estimated that 165,000 people died in the camps.