Interviewee: Bailey Chan (BC)
6:00PM, Friday 13 September 2013, The T Hotel in Pok Fu Lam
Interviewer (I): The time now is 3.35pm on the 6th January 2013. Mr Bailey thank you very much for allowing me to talk to you. Could you please state your full name and where you were born?
Bailey Chan (BC): My name is Chan Luk Eng I was born in HK in 1941.
I: Thank you. I understand that you also worked with the Vietnamese boat people in the past. Can you please tell me how and when it all started?
BC: Yes. I was a government servant. I worked with the Vietnamese program in 1979. I remember it was in May 1979. At that time I was still on my holiday leave and I was called to be transferred to the security branch. There was a specially set up team called the Vietnamese Refugees Team. I joined the team to support/to deal with the influx of Vietnamese refugees.
I: What was it like for you the first day?
BC: Well the first day I was asked to go to the government ‘godown’. Which is the place where the boat people/ so we called them the boat people arrived in HK. Afterwards they were in quarantine for 7 days and then they were sent to the reception centre. I visited then and I saw thousands of faces of people young and old in the hot summer. In fact I never have experienced in my life so many people/ so many desolate faces. However from their eyes I witnessed hope. They had hope and they had some sort of security there. I know my job is difficult and I wish I could fulfil my duties. On this visit I had the responsibility to accommodate and feed these refugees for their temporary stay in HK pending resettlement. The two principles. One is health the other is security and we cannot give them any treatment different than the HK people. We must secure their public health so that there is no spread of hygiene or disease through HK. I was to give them a secure place to stay and feed them in a nutrition way. That was my assignment.
I: So did you have any help?
BC: We had only a handful of staff and we had to decide our own rules as there is no preceding case. There was nothing to follow. We had to do everything in regards to how to feed them. We had to look for premises and at that time we used temporary places. As long as it was safe. We had to look for places that we could turn into accommodations. At the influx time we had to rent a factory building that was readymade. We had to put in toilets and find people to help.
I: So how did you go about it?
BC: Well at that time people were very helpful. We didn’t ask for luxury things. We looked for simple things. We had to put in some places/ the refugee centres at the very beginning we didn’t have proper toilets we had temporary toilets/latrines. People would come every day to collect the sewage and in one month or so we built proper toilets and all the staffs were very good they put in power supply/ water supply- everything. So in the end these camps could be fully functional.
I: Where did you cook/to feed these boat people?
BC: Now… There was problem. The kitchens were not big enough to cook for all these people. We could supply them only two meals a day. As a Christian when I visited the camps in the morning I understand the first meal was 11 or 12 and the evening meal was about 6. So from 6 in the evening to 11 in the morning there was a period of 12 hours. In my experience I would have breakfast at 7/8 in the morning and these refugees would have no breakfast in the morning till they receive their first meal at 11/12. So after visiting the camps for some time I suggested to the managerial staff can we supply them two pieces of bread in the morning so that they can have some food in the morning? So my boss said that we can have breads delivered. I think that is one of the achievements that I had to do with the people. So even in such crisis we were able to overcome/ think outside the box and to help them.
I: How long were you in that position?
BC: I left in 1984. During these 5 years… What did I learn? I learnt how to solve problems. I have met many problems which I never have had to deal with before. Every camp had different sorts of problems… Shortages with water supply; – I had to fix it. The power supply; the sewerage, the hygiene, everything. I can’t imagine that I walked into the toilet one day and it was one foot deep with this foul substance. I had to call the right people to pump away this “thing”. We had to put in some temporary toilets and make a conversion of the toilet facilities to overcome these things. Say in one refugee camp the camp is a large one and all the sewerage was thrown into one tent. Then we had to pump this away. So for two or three days the pump was not working “laughs”. So I had to decide to put a pump between the pump and the stream to protect the flow on. So we had to use our imagination. Laughs.
So you can see that everything was temporary and we don’t know the culture of the people in Vietnam in the village. They don’t have these kinds of facilities they throw everything down the river. I learnt the Vietnamese are very genius in making things to boil water. They can use a piece of iron which they cut from a can. Then they use their two chopsticks then put a sheet there with a socket and it becomes a heater to boil water or to boil their drinks. Even for taking baths in the winter.
I: Very creative
BC: Yes very creative
I: But worse than that?
BC: That should not be allowed. But still they do this.
I: How did you solve the problem with the shortness of water?
BC: Ummn… That was a large problem. Because at that time we did not know the demand for water is so much in the summer time.
I: Is this drinking water or water to wash?
BC: It was used for everything. In HK if you turn on the tap you can drink from it. In the refugee camp we did provide boiled water but it is limited. It is for the elderly or for babies.
I: So what about the power?
BC: The power is for the lighting in the refugee camp when it is open. That is so that they can go out and work and cook for themselves. There was overloading and again we had to put in additional cables to make it workable or otherwise it would catch fire.
I: What were some of the crises that you still remember?
BC: I remember that there was once in a camp the medical staff reported to us there was people with skin problems in the camps. It was scabies. It was in the summer time and so we had to clean up all the camps and all the refugees,- young and old had to take baths. Administration of medication. Sterilisation of all the clothes. So I have to organise a cleaning party “laughs”. But the hot water supply was not enough for everybody. So the elderly and the young children had their baths first. Then everybody else took their baths during the sunny time. It’s a cold bath. Then one camp that was linked to the beach set up 20 or 30 big drums to sterilise their clothes. I had to organise some new clothes for these people to change. Also the health officers….A team of health officers came to supply them with all their medication. So it was a big operation. All the people would line up naked and waited to take their baths.
I: All naked?
Joyce Chan (JC): I think HK was very good with this. In one week everything was cleaned.
I: What was the cause?
BC: Well… Health problems. In the winter it was cold and they did not wash. And the living conditions are crowded/congested. So we had to supply them new clothes.
BC: Well. Every time we received calls. I don’t say complaints more so reports. We had to settle them quickly. All of this was a crisis. So the Vietnamese program.. We had all these sick children and we had to act quickly to solve problems. As a catholic this program gave me understanding about the gospel teaching as is in Matthew 25. “Jesus said when I was in prison when I am naked will you clothe me? When I am hungry do u feed me?” I’m doing these things and I give them clothes and I give them shelter and also I still remember one thing. There was a departure program. The Americans decided to receive a certain number of refugees and they had to leave from the Philippines. So we had to transfer this large group of refugees from HK to Philippines by boat. So we had to transfer hundreds of people from camps to the dockyard. We had to provide a comfortable last stay in HK as they had a long journey from HK to Philippines.
I: One week
BC: Something like that. So we had to set up bunks so they could sleep.
I: Do you mean bunks on the boat.
BC: No in HK.
BC: So instead of lying on the floor
I: Sorry I am confused here. They were transferred from the camp to the dockyard.
BC: They had prepared to land their craft.
I: So that particular night you had to set up bunks for them. And where did you get them from?
BC: From the prison. Laughs. No they had the industry. They prepared all the bunks.
I: And how many refugees were transported in that trip?
BC: I think more than 500.
I: And then you returned the bunk beds the next day?
BC: We dismantled them and reassembled them.
I: Was this just another example of something that came up at the last minute? And you then realised that these 500 people needed to sleep somewhere tonight.
BC: Yes. They needed a bed.
I: Wow. What else do you remember.
BC: Yes. Then …. There were some incidents. There were people that when they were about to depart HK they wanted to enjoy themselves and they wanted to cause trouble. They were caught.
BC: Yes, drinking or shop lifting. And I said to myself “Why don’t they behave. Their last two days.”- Well they were celebrating their departure. Laughs. To some people it is unbelievable but they were celebrating and maybe they were so happy they forget. The experience is that I saw these happy faces when they were boarding the ship. Well I see their faces. Their lovely faces. After being in HK and when they departed they also had faith and hope. They were looking forward to a better life. HK provided them with all this kindness and concern. This is what I could say is that we were proud of them.
I: So after you left did you miss it? Did you miss the job?
BC: Well we were used to be transferred a hundred times. Every 3-5 years we had to change jobs. But I still remember all this…. I should say… Interesting. One thing was in 1982. There was a closed camp policy. After 1982 all the Vietnamese people had to be screened. And if they are refugees they are allowed to be resettled and if they are not they will be detained for repatriation. However when they enter HK they are allowed to continue their journey to somewhere else. We would help them to provide them with; food, water, fuel or repair their boat. So after the closed camp policy, one boat came with 14 refugees. So we allowed them to go. They wanted to continue their journey to Taiwan or the Philippines but their boat was broken. So we promised them to repair their boat. One week later and we provided them with two weeks rations. It is estimated that the boat trip to Philippines or Taiwan is about 2 weeks. We provided them with 2 weeks rations, water and fuel… some first aid medicine. This kind of thing happened a lot. As a layman I don’t know navigation. But I gave them; a first aid kit, aspirin, a compass and give them a pack of cigarettes (laughs) to keep them happy. I got a police escort and asked them to head off. Some moths later I went to the port and I hear they had arrived safely in the Philippines. I got the picture in HK. I didn’t say goodbye or see you again. I said good luck to you and they arrived. I don’t know how long it took but some months later I got the report that this boat of 14 landed safely in the Philippines. So it was a good memory in my life.
I: Was their children among the 14 people?
BC: No, no.
I: Just men? Was there any women?
BC: No. That’s why I gave them cigarettes (laughs).
I: When you started the assignment, did you know how long it was for?
BC: At that time the situation was a little bit stable and pending departure. Through this no. of years I got the working experience which I never learnt before. Every night I had dreams about what would happen tomorrow. What I would have to face tomorrow? There are a no. of things every day. Every day we had to solve problems; [such as building a ramp] to transport an x-ray machine to the camp so refugees could have their chest x-rayed. Then we had to sort out the permit for that. Because with x rays this is radioactive and had come into HK under a special license.
I: Did you take it from camp to camp?
BC: It stayed in one camp and we brought in the refugees to use it. We handled many things. Sometimes the refugees wrote in letters; – “I want a picture of the governor”.
I: To send a complaint letter?
BC: No. (Laughs) Because they say he allows them to come into HK. So they say I want to have his picture. Then we send from the records to get them a picture.
I: What do they do with it?
BC: To keep in their album. Just like you write to Obama and his office will give you his picture.
I: Did you come into contact with any Vietnamese people directly?
BC: No they were dealt with the camp managers. With the staff. We didn’t stay in touch with them. From the start we had to do some education programs. We had to tell them how to use the toilet. How to manage head lice. Also show slides and visual aids so that they can be shown/ the proper use of the toilet/proper use of toilet paper. For the ladies the use of sanitary napkins. So that is from the start like an orientation. For some people it is unbelievable but it is a fact of life. We had to tell them/ so to speak what a modern life is. The majority of them came from villages. So they had to become used to a modern life.
I: So they would throw trash everywhere?
I: Especially in the sewers.
BC: Yes. Well I understand from the Vietnamese. In the villages they wouldn’t use anything to clean their bottom. (Laughs)
I: What would they use?
BC: They would use a stick to clean and then we had to tell them this was a very primitive way.
I: Wow. You never would have dreamt of doing that.
BC: Yes (laughs). And again they would cook the rice and dry it and make wine. They were very creative.
I: Did you ever get up in the morning and didn’t feel like going to work?
BC: No. No. No. I understood that every morning when I went to work I would have new challenges and I had something to learn from the day. At the end of the day I would say my prayer. I had a very blessed life and I didn’t need to run away from the country. I had meals. I had this and that. I had my family and the Vietnamese had to leave their home. They were risking their lives with the boat journey. So I called my life a blessing.
I: Do you think your religious faith had helped you through that job?
BC: Yes. Yes. Yes. Apart from the blessing that I have. It gives me the opportunity to help. To care for the less fortunate. Although they have a temporary stay in HK we pray for them. We give them a place to stay, a piece of bread, a roof over their heads that is warm enough.
I: So it was a meaningful period?
BC: Yes a meaningful period. 5 years. Of my life. A special blessing. And when they are aboard the plane their faces were full of joy and hope.
I: We are very lucky to have people like you around.
BC: Well there was a whole team. Everybody shared this work for the people.
I: But not everyone had the same mentality or feeling as you. How did they cope?
BC: Everyone has their own… Lifestyle. Some may think that this is just my job I have to do it. Some say there is no alternative. When I am within this job I have to do this. For me,- This was my special assignment from God…. To care for these people. Even though they were difficult. They were a problem- the refugees…. But still we had to accept them.
I: Do you still think about it from time to time?
BC: Yes from time to time when I pass that area where there were refugee camps. (Laughs) I think this is where I was and the refugees were there. I still remember, – I solved the problem over there.
I: When you hear the term Vietnamese boat people what is the first thing that comes to mind?
BC: The first impression is unwelcome. At that time unwelcome. It still gives me some problems. Why me? Why should we receive them was my first impression. But after I visited the camps and after looking at their faces and their conditions on these small boats you realise they have gone through a very difficult journey. One or Two weeks on a very small boat from Vietnam to Hong Kong on the rough sea. I couldn’t imagine how it would be if I was them; without a bath, without sufficient food or water for such a long journey. How could I survive? And then put myself in this position. Then why should I reject them. After this difficult period they should be welcomed with care. This is my reflection on the first day of my duty. It changed me completely.
I: Why thank you very much. Thank you for everything you’ve done.
BC: Well. I think that this has been a very valuable experience in my life. I can count on when the day I go to God I can count on this thing. (Laughs)
I: Reedeemed (Laughs)
BC: You said to give them food (laughs)
I: Yup. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
BC: Yes. (Laughs). Well this is the day when one thing I want to add. When I was on duty I learned from the office when the people arrived in HK we put them in the quarantine for 7 days. Every day we fed them and this operation was called Operation Galilee. In the Bible it was the feeding of the 5,000. So we called this Operation Galilee.
I: Who came up with that term?
BC: I don’t know.
I: When you came to work this operation already existed? It was called Operation Galilee?
BC: Yes. We were feeding thousands of people. It was wonderful.
I: Ok should we finish?
BC: Yes. Thank you for interviewing. Recalling to memory all these wonderful things.