Meet the Neighbors

Meet Tom Tran, the Survivor with a Sky Tattoo

Skyluck pic

Name: Tom Tran

Occupation: IT Technician

Education: College Graduate

Country of Origin: Vietnam

City/State: Washington, DC

Number of years in the U.S.: 30

 Vienna Mbagaya: Thank you for sharing your story Tom. I hear you have a tattoo that is meaningful to you.

Tom Tran: It’s on my tricep and it says “sky”, and is a replica of the logo that’s on the main hull of the Skyluck boat, a 3,500-ton freighter that was used for human trafficking after the Vietnam War. The tattoo is a reminder of where I came from, because in 1979, when I was just a year old, I was one of the passengers.

VM: How many people were on the boat?

TT: About 3,466 people were on the boat, including my parents, my then 5-year old sister, and myself, then termed the “boat people”.

VM: Tell us about your family’s journey that brought you to the Skyluck.

TT: My father had no choice but to leave. He was part of the Southern Vietnamese Army and after the war, the Vietnamese government put sanctions in place that would have made it difficult for him to stay. One of them was that his children could not pursue education beyond what is the equivalent of the 8th grade. Had he stayed, my sister and I would not have had the opportunity to pursue a high school education or beyond.

VM: So in 1979, The Skyluck represented a voyage to better opportunities for his family, especially you and your sister. What was the destination?

TT: Hong Kong. But it didn’t happen that way: for 28 days, the captain of the boat was going back and forth from Vietnam to the Philippines. He was afraid of being arrested for human trafficking if he went towards Hong Kong. Finally, the passengers protested took over commandeering the boat. That’s when the captain and co-captain started heading towards Hong Kong.

VM: When did you finally arrive?

TT: We first stopped in the Philippines where some passengers were dropped off. After that, we headed towards Hong Kong and arrived on February 7th, 1979 with 2,700 passengers. The Hong Kong police did not recognize the boat until we anchored on Victoria Harbor. When they did, the captain was ordered to anchor and we were not allowed to land. The boat was then towed to Lamma Island, where we were anchored and confined for over 4 months.

VM: Were you considered refugees, but just not allowed to leave the ship?

TT: Yes, and the Hong Kong government did conduct site visits, and provide us with food and water, assuring us that they were in the process of finding a place for us to go to once we got off the boat.

VM: How did you and your family end up leaving the boat?

TT: There were hunger strikes and some passengers even escaped and swam off to shore to plead with the Hong Kong government and the press through the wire fence, to release us. Out of desperation, my dad and other passengers started cutting the anchor chain that held Skyluck in place, until it finally broke and the boat drifted towards the harbor. Some people jumped off and escaped to shore and the hills, but were later rounded up by the Hong Kong police.

VM: From there, where were you and your family taken?

TT: We were then moved to a refugee camp, which was actually a prison, turned into a holding camp for refugees. My family and I stayed there for 2 years before we moved to the U.S.

VM: What is your “coming to America” story?

TT: It was hard growing up in America with Vietnamese parents, so rooted in that culture. It took them a long time to open up and start actually relating to the American culture. At that point, we were able to establish a middle ground on which we could meet and understand each other.

VM: Because you grew up in a Vietnamese household, did you feel as though you were close to that culture?

TT: Not at first; it took a lot of growing up and maturity for me to begin to understand my parents’ culture, and integrate it into my own. I am American, but I know I belong elsewhere. For that reason, I feel as though I would want to start a family with someone who has a similar point of reference.  Maybe someone who is an immigrant, or grew up in an immigrant household, and most importantly, understands certain sacrifices.

VM: Someone that can relate to the sacrifices you father made?

TT: Yes. Before the war, my dad had multiple degrees and was an Engineering professor at a university. He was a brilliant, highly-respected man, was well off and had a name. All of that was lost and he suffered for ideals he believed in. When we came to the U.S., he couldn’t even get his degrees accepted, and that was hard for me to witness. I can’t even begin to imagine what that must feel like, and I wish he had it better.

VM: That’s a common thread among many immigrants when they come to this country. You meet security guards at federal offices who used to be doctors in their country, or taxi drivers that were lawyers or engineers, but had to give that up when they got to the U.S.


TT: Exactly. And it is part of the reason why I got the Skyluck tattoo: I wanted to be branded with a constant reminder of my parents’ sacrifice. It’s only recently that I found out about how my sister and I would have been limited to just elementary education, had my parents stayed in Vietnam. I felt guilty because when I was younger, I goofed off in school, and did not have the maturity to grasp the sacrifices they made for me.

VM: Another common denominator among children of immigrants; we feel as though we owe it to our parents to make them proud and have them see that their sacrifices are worthy.

TT: It’s why at this point, I want to be better. I hate school, but have enrolled back to further my studies. It made my parents happy to see me do that. I want to do something big with my life.

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  1. Great interview and awesome tattoo

  2. Nice storie Tom.. I like the tatoo better now :-)

  3. Khang Nguyen says:

    Tom Tran,
    I was the one of thousands people on the Skyluck ship 1979,
    You said your Dad was the engineering professor of Phu Tho University,I am looking for a friend who was engineer and also he was on the Skyluck with me, I am happy if i talk with your Dad.

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