Dark Tourism to Pulau Galang


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Many will be familiar with the name Pulau Galang, a tiny Indonesian island just south of Singapore that housed an Indochinese refugee camp between 1975 and 1996. The island is in my thoughts because I just finished working on a book chapter, co-authored with Boitran Huynh-Beattie, on the evolution of the forgotten camp into an “accidental museum” of the Indochinese boat people crisis. While the traces of the camps in Malaysia, Hong Kong and elsewhere have virtually disappeared, Pulau Galang is unique in that it has been preserved more or less in the state in which it was left after the last of the 145 000 refugees to pass through there had departed.

For former refugees, especially those who left family members in the disturbingly large cemetery there, or who lost them at sea on the way to landfall in Indonesia, Pulau Galang has become a kind of pilgrimage site. A trickle of curious visitors, mostly coming from Singapore, also passes through the island, which receives about 1200 guests per month. The local business association, including some former camp officials, were quick to grasp the opportunity to encourage refugee visitors and other tourists to come to the island. They represent a rare source of income in this economically stagnant, forgotten corner of the Riau archipelago. Former camp staff have turned the old administration centre into a somewhat weird and wonderful museum of camp life, and have made other small attempts to “script” it as a tourist site, such as pulling rotting boats up into a formation below the old camp centre, and erecting English signs.

Hanoi has reacted in a rather excessive way to the coming into being of this humble museum. The Vietnamese government asked Jakarta to tear down a monument commemorating the “thousands who perished on the way to freedom” which had been erected in 2005 by a group of refugee visitors led by Sydney newspaper editor Luu Dan. Jakarta complied, and local authorities knocked out the inscription, leaving behind the startling image of a centreless monument. More recently, Hanoi has asked that the camp be closed down entirely, and suggested that it be turned into a resort!

I  visited the island in 2002 when I was living in Singapore. It was an eerie and surreal experience. Walking through the old hospital, I saw one room with beds piled on top of one another to the ceiling. In another, thousands of yellowing medical files sat in teetering piles on the floor. The old protestant church was in ruins, while the Mahayana Buddhist temple and the Catholic church had been beautifully restored. Many of the former barracks were rotting away into the jungle, and Vietnamese signs for hairdressers and cafes were still legible. The cemetery was perhaps the most memorable part of the experience. The “naive” or unprofessional artwork adorning the headstones was powerful and pathetic at the same time. What really reduced me to tears was reading a misspelled inscription to a lost family member roughly scratched by a childish hand into the drying cement.

One of the key questions posed in our paper was around the semiotics and ethics of transforming Pulau Galang into a venue for what is called in the literature “Dark Tourism”, i.e. tourism to sites of death and suffering. All of the refugees we interviewed who had visited Pulau Galang were positive about the way the heritage value of the former camp had been recognised and preserved by the local administrators. They were also positive about the idea of non-refugees being educated in the history of the Vietnamese boat people by the experience of visiting the island. Some did hint however that they felt there was a contradiction between the bullying and exploitation they suffered at the hands of Indonesian officials at the time, and the totally different local attitude (in some cases in the minds of those selfsame bullies) about the value of the former camp as a heritage site today.

For my part, I am concerned at the sensationalisation of aspects of the camp’s history that I feel has gone on in the process of marketing it for dark tourists. Chinese Singaporean and Malaysian visitors, for instance, are treated by tour guides to a gory narrative about the deaths and suicides that occurred on the island. The place has gained something of a reputation for being haunted, and some go there expressly to seek information on winning lottery numbers from the spirits! Others go to the Quan Am temple to pray for boy children.

The “museum” created by the local amateur curators is also, for me, quite chilling in the way it invokes the nightmarish bureaucratic logic of camp life. The display of photographs of former internees and their identification tags shocks more than informs, and at first glance it is troublingly reminiscent of the display in Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng death camp (another example of a dark tourist site that is routinely misinterpreted by visitors because of the strategic way it has been curated). I had to pinch myself to remember that the vast majority of those in the tiny identification photographs on the walls of the old admin centre on Pulau Galang had in fact been happily resettled.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the way the meaning of the site’s history risks being diluted in the way it is presented to casual or “non purposeful” dark tourists. The Batam business association, who run the site, seeking to placate Hanoi, have proposed removing “Vietnamese” from the signs announcing Pulau Galang as a “Vietnamese Refugee Camp”. The prospect arises here of the island losing its historical meaning, and being presented to visitors merely as a generic site of human suffering, trauma and death.

While it seems hard to imagine the island completely losing its assocation with the war and subsequent events in Vietnam, the fact that the marketing of the site is taking this direction is far from ideal. One suggested antidote would be to negotiate with local Indonesian officials for former camp internees and their children, especially those with some experience in museology, to have more of a formal role in the curating of the site.

Ashley Carruthers

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  1. Barack 87 Galang 1. Đi vượt biển hai anh em tới đảo năm 1984. Ước mơ cuối cùng muốn trở lại đảo lần cuối trước khi rời khỏi đời!

    • Hi Luong. Do you have any pictures. my family were there as well in 1979. I am not sure we are related. I was too young to remember. I am curious to know more about the refugee and people are doing these days.

  2. My family and I had lived in pulau Galang from 1983-1987. Living conditions were no doubt basic. However, people were connected and kind to each other for the most part. Lots of memories, lots of good friends. Pulau Galang is not a haunted place. We called this island “the island of humanity”. My goal is to back and visit the place, set some incenses for the people at Galang III.

  3. I was there a few months ago. I did read hundreds of stories of the Galang island in 1980s. When I was there I felt I saw the happiness, the cries, the deaths, etc.

  4. It’s always tough – I visited Tuol Sleng and had the same feeling, with tourists walking about looking at skulls, bones, beds where Khmer Rouge prisoners were chained and mistreated…. yet they knew nothing of the time, and thought an image of Pol Pot was one of Mao Zedong. Now the question is what they’ve learned. In that case, many tourists had come from a trip to Viet Nam, and they were wearing the red T-shirt with the golden star, the flag of communist Viet Nam. It probably never occured to them that the communist ideas of Pol Pot led to such atrocities. I just hope that coming out of such a visit, these tourists take it upon themselves to learn more.
    I lived and worked in Pulau Galang in the early 1980s, and know that the experiences of the refugees there — the boat people — could never be told adequately. And weird as it may seem, I hope the visitors to Pulau Galang will find out more, develop more intimate knowlege, take actions, etc…

  5. I remember what it was like here: the muggy weather, the dirty barracks, the tadpoles in the outdoor tubs, and the fear of jungle predators at night. I remember that unlike the camp in Singapore, there was a pervasive fear of the island. There were so many families and little children like myself. Thanks for the pictures… it brought back some old memories.


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