Boat People Recall Misery

More than 140,000 Vietnamese boat people passed through Hong Kong over a quarter-century, and many are haunted by memories of life in the camps that housed them.
2009-05-11
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Vietnamese boat people are moved from Hong Kong’s Whitehead detention center to another facility on April 7, 1994.
Vietnamese boat people are moved from Hong Kong’s Whitehead detention center to another facility on April 7, 1994.
AFP

HONG KONG—Three decades after refugees from communist Vietnam first took to the sea in search of asylum, many Vietnamese overseas and those sent home against their will still have painful memories of the years they spent inside Hong Kong detention centers.

"The rules of the detention center were the same as those of the prisons of Hong Kong," Sister Christine Truong My Hanh of the Chien Lanh Catholic Church, who worked for several years in Hong Kong's Vietnamese refugee camps, said.

"Two meals were given every day," she said. "The refugees had no names, but simply numbers, and they had to jostle and jam with each other."

...Everyone sat on the floor to eat from the tray with his or her plastic spoon."

Christine Hanh

From the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 until 1999, 143,700 Vietnamese refugees were resettled from Hong Kong to other countries. More than 67,000 others, deemed to be economic migrants, were repatriated.

The first waves of boat people were mainly South Vietnamese who feared political persecution after the communist North won the war. Later arrivals included Chinese-Vietnamese who feared ethnic persecution as well.

Hong Kong's early policy of allowing refugees to live in open camps and find work finally gave way to incarceration in "closed camps" and, years later, to forced repatriations, as a trickle of asylum-seekers became a flood and offers to resettle them diminished.

"Three people shared a single bed," said Hanh, now director of the Youth and Family Service Center in Atlanta, Georgia. "Each bed had three decks. They lived in very hot aluminum-made buildings surrounded by barbed wire fences."

Hanh said the Vietnamese detainees, many of whom spent years in Hong Kong, were awakened early in the morning and required to put their hands on their heads.

"When the roll call was made, the refugees had to stand up and shout out their numbers in Cantonese. Some old people could not remember how to pronounce their own numbers in Cantonese, so they were punished and beaten about the head with sticks," Hanh said.

"At mealtimes people fought each other, because the rule of these prisons was that no bowls and plates were provided. A metal tray was distributed to each family. A plastic spoon was given to each member of the family," she said.

"Rice was given to each family in its metal tray, and everyone sat on the floor to eat from the tray with his or her plastic spoon."

Closed camps

Inmates of the camps, including the Whitehead and Chimawan Detention Centers, witnessed ferocious clashes at first, when Northern and Southern Vietnamese who had been on opposing sides in the Vietnam War were housed in close quarters together.

"I witnessed incredible assaults between them," Hanh said.

"The Hong Kong authorities had to use helicopters to drop their soldiers into the camps to suppress the troublemakers."

"The old Republic of Vietnam Armed Force soldiers from South Vietnam were badly beaten. Some died. About six of them had their tendons cut by the Northerners. I took them to the hospital. So far two of these men have suffered lifetime disability," Hanh added.

Even after the Hong Kong government segregated Northern from Southern Vietnamese, fights still broke out in the camps, caused partially by a frustrating and oppressive atmosphere in which detainees simply lay down idly and waited to be fed year-in, year-out, former inmates said.

Gangs emerged

Refugees were also bullied and terrorized by criminal gangs, called "bear heads," that set themselves up inside both Northern and Southern camps.

The refugees accused the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Hong Kong authorities of largely ignoring the harassment meted out to other inmates by the bear-head gangs.

...We lived in great anxiety because we did not know where our future would be."
Former Whitehead detainee, Chi

Ly Hoang Phuc was held for several years at Hong Kong's Chimawan Detention Centre for Southern refugees.

"The Hong Kong government used the bear heads to govern us," Phuc said.

"Our lives in the camp were filled with nervousness and anxiety. We were afraid of being repatriated to Vietnam and bullied by the bear heads at the same time."

Former Whitehead detainee Pham Thanh Van, now living in Alabama, said the bear heads watched over every aspect of life in the camps.

"These bad guys were aware of all the visits from relatives," Van said.

"They searched [us] and inspected the supplies the visitors brought. For example, if our visitor brought in 10 packets of cigarettes, they then confiscated seven packets and gave us only three."

"They used to confiscate half of our cash gifts," Van said. "The bad thing was that the bear heads were all Vietnamese."

Difficult communications

Communication with the outside world was notoriously difficult, former refugees said.

"There was not a piece of paper or a pen. There was nothing at all," Phuc said.

"We young people had to wait in lines to get our meals. Once, we saw a piece of paper posted on the wall. We then grabbed it off the wall and found a way to sneak our brief message to the outside world."

Phuc described food rations within the camp as a piece of bacon and a packet of instant noodles to be shared by eight refugees, though rice was plentiful.

"At that time they were putting strong pressure on us to push us into repatriation," she said.

"Many refugees failed the screening test. Several staged hunger strikes. Others pierced and cut their own bellies with knives and died because they could not get immediate emergency care. Others had diarrhea, but didn't get proper medical care and died," she recalled.

U.S-based Nguyen My Hue had similar memories.

"It was very hard for us to contact anyone outside our camp," she said. "We knew nothing about the outside world."

"We had abandoned everything to leave our homeland in the hope that we would find freedom in a safe country," said Hue, who eventually resettled in Georgia.

"In fact, we didn't know whether we could make it or not."

A former inmate of the Whitehead Detention Centre identified only as Chi said inmates lacked basic living supplies and any form of occupation or entertainment.

"We lacked both material and mental things. We were not even provided with adequate clothing," she said.

"The public bathing hall was very large. It was a place where hundreds of women bathed at the same time. As far as our mental condition was concerned, we lived in great anxiety because we did not know where our future would be."

Born inside

The lives of Vietnamese in the camps were punctuated with vicious fights, camp inspections, and police repression of unrest, amid an atmosphere of great tension.

A whole generation of children was born in the camps who had never known life outside the barbed wire that encircled them.

"When these babies were allowed to get out of the camp and watch everything around them, they thought dogs and water buffaloes were big rats, because in their forbidden camp they could see only rats and nothing else," former refugee My Hue said.

Original reporting by RFA's Vietnamese service. Director: Diem Nguyen. Translated by Thuy Brewer. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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