By most standards, David Tran is an American success story. A major in the South Vietnamese Army, he escaped to the United States in the late 1970s and went on to become a billionaire from his world-famous Sriracha hot sauce. Tran’s success is also a Hong Kong story.
Former Hong Kong Marine Police officer Les Bird includes Tran’s story, among many others, in his new book, Along the Southern Boundary: A Marine Police Officer’s Frontline Account of the Vietnamese Boatpeople and their Arrival in Hong Kong. Bird and his colleagues were often the first people in Hong Kong to spot and help these refugees, so he has a unique perspective and shows how the history of the Vietnamese refugees is also closely linked to Hong Kong’s own modern history, ie, how tiny Hong Kong took on an open role in international politics by sheltering more than 200,000 Vietnamese refugees when the rest of the world all but turned its back.
The Hong Kong Marine Police was developed back in the 1840s before there was a need for land police. After all, the waters around Hong Kong had been populated by pirates for hundreds of years before Hong Kong became a British colony. By the time Bird joined the Hong Kong Marine Police in 1976, a new development was just taking place on the South China Sea: mass migration from Vietnam following the fall of Saigon.
At first Bird and his fellow officers encountered smaller boats of refugees trying to enter Hong Kong water. In 1977 and the first part of 1978, about 1200 Vietnamese refugees sailed to Hong Kong, a place that had long been a refuge for people fleeing unrest.
We would offer First Aid to the refugees from my police launch’s tiny First Aid box—which, in those days, contained no more than a box of plasters, a bottle of iodine and a packet of aspirin. This trickle of small vessels into Hong Kong was not seen as much of a problem for the Marine Police. These few refugee boats were not more than a minor distraction.
Throughout the book, Bird also includes firsthand accounts from his fellow Marine Police officers and from former refugees who have since settled in the west or were repatriated to Vietnam. In one account, an inspector named Ross Mitchell recalls his first meeting with Vietnamese refugees.
I had never seen a Vietnamese vessel before, let alone one full of refugees. “What made you come here?” I asked. “What made you come to Tai O?”
“That,” said the man, painting up at the British flag flying above the police station. “When we saw that flag, we knew we were safe.”
Yet by the end of 1978, it had turned into an international crisis. Bird writes of Taiwanese captains bringing 2000-3000 Vietnamese refugees to Hong Kong at a time, crammed into every corner of old ships that should have been decommissioned years earlier. When the Hong Kong government refused to allow these large numbers of refugees to land—sometimes mooring in Hong Kong waters for several months with no end in sight—the international community expressed outrage. The Hong Kong government gave in and by 1979 were sheltering more than 30,000 Vietnamese refugees.
Many of the early Vietnamese refugees were ethnically Chinese; many spoke Cantonese. But the huge number was getting difficult for Hong Kong to handle. The UN convened a meeting about the refugee crisis in Geneva in mid-1979. Sir Murray MacLehose, the Governor of Hong Kong, attended along with representatives from around the world. Vietnam also sent a representative and, under international pressure, promised to stop supporting the traffickers.
As Bird writes, those big boat ventures stopped, but China’s attempted invasion of Vietnam that same year just worsened the refugee crisis. Chinese Vietnamese were persecuted more than ever and sought out Hong Kong, and for good reason.
The Hong Kong Government, with backing from London, declared itself a “port of first asylum”. This meant that no Vietnamese refugees arriving in Hong Kong would be turned away and, once in Hong Kong, they could, with the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) organise resettlement in a third country. With Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand quickly moving to shut their doors at the same time, Hong Kong became the “safe haven”—the destination of choice for Vietnamese to start a new life.
The United States, tired of the refugee problem and, unlike its reaction during the big boat crisis, complained that the Hong Kong government was being too lenient with letting in Vietnamese refugees. Hong Kong altered its refugee policy and by 1989 Bird and his colleagues were given laminated signs written in Vietnamese, Chinese and English to show to new arrivals. These sheets explained that if the refugees chose to land in Hong Kong, they could be sent to closed detention centres if they were deemed to be economic and not political refugees—with the possibility of repatriation. Hong Kong built more than a dozen of these closed camps, some right in the middle of residential areas. Fights sometimes broke out and the staff working at the camps were told to separate refugees from the north and south, but that proved difficult.
Most of Bird’s account of the refugee crisis takes place between 1979 and 1989. He includes colorful photos he and his colleagues took of the boats, refugees, and camps, all of which add to his vivid narrative. Bird writes that many of the younger refugees now have no recollection nor photos of their time in Hong Kong and are grateful to Bird for his photos and stories of that era in Hong Kong. Not all successes like David Tran, but the ones Bird spoke with reported being grateful to the Hong Kong Marine Police for their humane treatment and the Hong Kong government for allowing them to dock and helping them to find new homes elsewhere.
Parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam may be overdrawn, but the humanitarian crises look all too similar. Now, as then, refugees are being denied entry by the very countries that played a part in these exoduses, leaving smaller places—that weren’t involved in the first place—to bear the burden.