Interviewee: Carrie Yau (CY)
CY: I was Principal Assistant Secretary Security, of Security Branch. The Security Branch, being the Policy Branch and also the Coordination Body for the Vietnamese boat people. This means that I was given the task of coordinating accommodation for Vietnamese boat people, first and foremost, because the influx of Vietnamese was something beyond prediction. And there could be very large numbers coming into tiny Hong Kong. And we had to find accommodation [for them]. We resorted to building tents, or using army barracks to accommodate Vietnamese boat people. But because Hong Kong was in a typhoon zone, these kinds of temporary accommodation were not a sustainable way of housing Vietnamese boat people. So at least we had to provide some permanent accommodation in the form of – even if it means huts = something that wasn’t just tents that would be blown away by the [winds]. But, as I said, because they were coming in large numbers, at the worst times, we even had to put people on ferries. We would just tie the ferries near the harbour, and after you would try to fill all the pier areas, and then you have to move beyond land and put them on ferries. So it was as desperate as that.
But I hope the Vietnamese boat people, although they had a very hard time in Hong Kong – we well appreciate that – they hadn’t gotten the picture of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is just so tiny and short of space. Even our own local people are also, even today, speak about not enough housing. So this is the background to it all. So accommodation was one of my duties. And also, I came in a time when Government had put Vietnamese boat people under closed camps for a couple of years.
I: What year was that?
CY: Well we have to look into the Chronology. It was about 1987, or ’88. I tried to do the job at that time. And then I think we had a change of policy in 1989, around that time. But Mandatory Repatriation… so this is pre-Mandatory Repatriation that I moved into this job in trying to provide accommodation. Then I was asked to look at the policy side, which is looking for durable solutions when the Governor at that time – Sir David Wilson, now Lord Wilson – was trying to talk to the international community, saying that if they wanted Hong Kong to continue to be a port of first asylum for Vietnamese boat people, [the international community] will have to play [its] part too; in the sense of the international community taking them away. This was what was meant by ‘port of first asylum’. They do not choose to come to Hong Kong. This is only a first port of call, with a view of going to America, Canada, Australia, European countries etc. And also, clearly the people coming into our place [Hong Kong], their profile was changing. Hitherto, Southern Vietnamese under a lot of persecution were coming to Hong Kong, and now a lot of them were actually economic migrants. They were trying to run away from starvation, and therefore wanting a better life.
These people, because of their status, foreign countries didn’t want to take them. They also had a bit of fatigue. So if that was the case, we had to find a durable solution in terms of repatriating them back to North Vietnam. So therefore the second task was really to convince both the local and international community that we need durable solutions in terms of screening in genuine refugees, and screening out economic migrants. Economic migrants were sent back to their home country. Those who were really subject to a potential threat of persecution, they would be taken away by third countries. So, I was involved in the first mandatory repatriation exercise, which took place – again we have to check the dates in the Chronology Sequence of Events – but it took place in the middle of the night. So with hindsight, we shouldn’t have done that. Because that shook the world, in the sense that [the international community said], ‘you tried to just ship these people back home in the dark’.
So of course after the first exercise which shook the world in an exaggerated form, I’m saying, but indeed it hit international news, and there was a lot of outcry, because they would say ‘why are you sending back these poor refugees to their country?’ But that set the scene. It was a wake-up call for everybody, saying that, ‘ok, either you take them all from the port of first asylum, and resettle them in the place that they want. But if you’re not doing this, we really need to sort out what to do next’. So the logical answer must be, those whom people don’t want to take them away because they are only economic migrants must go back to Vietnam. So after that, of course the story went on, we tried voluntary repatriation until it dried up. Then we spoke about mandatory repatriation. Then we took the due track that those who voluntarily went home had an incentive package. Then they could have more money to take back home. Those who refused – but then had been screened out – would then be mandatorily repatriated.
So my third task, I remember, really was to make sure that people who were sent back home were given proper treatment. In other words, there was no mistreatment by the Vietnamese Authorities. So I recall I did bring a film crew to Vietnam, and tried to visit a few families and record what was happening to them. And it seemed that they were alright. And with these stories, we then tried to bring it back to the camps; to try to lure other people to go back home early [and be resettled]. As I said, those who were screened in as refugees were then put to open camps. And then those screened out would continue to be kept in closed camps, pending repatriation. But you could imagine, this was going to cause a lot of tension locally in Hong Kong. Namely, the residents had fear of these Vietnamese boat people coming out onto the streets, you know – Not knowing what to do, and they may upset the law and order of a society like Hong Kong. And then we had to do a lot of work.
So for those who were put into open camps, we had to get the NGO’s [on board] – that’s where Christian Action came to my help – to try to find employment for these people. In other words, pending resettlement to third countries, these people have got to be economically employed, so that they could build up their own confidence, prepare their new life; they have some skills to be prepared to go to a third country. So this was the other mission that we had. At this juncture, we worked with people like Christian Action, International Social Services etc. So this was basically what I was involved in. And because we had closed camps, although they are closed camps, it’s for both humanitarian reasons and for security reasons that we also made sure that children got some education there, that we had NGO’s working inside, we also had Medicin Sans Frontier (MSF) to look after their health. Because as I said Hong Kong didn’t have enough doctors and nurses [to help out with the boat people]. So we really had to resort to asking International organisations to come and help out.
Looking back, I feel that Hong Kong also benefitted, because it was an eye-opening experience for Hong Kong community as a whole. It was a big international problem landing on our plate. It was putting all the civil servants to the test as to how to manage this problem, so that it didn’t spill out to the rest of the community causing problems elsewhere. Because if that is the case, there would be [an] outcry [which would] make our life more difficult. Life was already difficult enough in those days, because the Local District Boards clearly wouldn’t want to have a camp set up on their doorstep. But we had to do this. So we had to go to the district and tell them that if it was a closed camp, I had to assure the local community that it would be properly looked after by professional staff, and when we ran out of professional staff – namely our discipline staff – we had to get agencies to run our camps for us. In open camps, we had to assure them that there will be, again, people employed, they will also have their own … they would behave in a sense that they wouldn’t cause any disturbances to the local [people]. In fact, the reality was that, I’m sure some of the Vietnamese made friends with the local community, in looking back. But this is only with hindsight that this sort of thing happened. At this point in time, you really had to educate the community as to what this was about. You had to try and comfort them that this [sort of thing] was something that we are managing well.
I: How did you end up with the first group that returned to Vietnam? How was it?
CY: The whole operation had to be very carefully masterminded. In the Security Bureau, of course there was myself, also the Refugee Coordinator – I remember it was Mr Mike Hansen as the Refugee Coordinator – and then the Secretary for Security, the late Mr Jeff Barnes. So we worked as a very close team, so I did all the detailed work in working with the police, how the operation should be carried out. And we also worked with the Correctional Services Department, because we had to select families from the camp as the first ones to be sent back.
Obviously, families would be easier to be handled that young men or single persons. So we had to carefully select what mix of people should be put on the first plane. And obviously, that would have to be the first plane back. Now, actually if you ask me, I don’t know whether… there is probably no record of this. But as far as I recall, to charter a plane itself is difficult enough, [as] that [airline] happens to be Cathay Pacific, [which is] our own airline with whom we have a close working relationship. But when we approached them, they also had a problem, because they didn’t want to tarnish the brand of the airline. They didn’t want to be the ‘bad guy’ sending back these boat people to Vietnam, forcefully, onto the plane.
So we had to find a way to make sure that it was the Government, commissioning them to do it, so they wouldn’t have to face up to a lot of Union problems at the end. So again, in looking back, there was a lot of work that went into planning the first operation. But as far as I was concerned, it worked out well because we did deliver at the end of the day. People put up a fight in front of the camera, but once they were on the plane, it became very uneventful. And people walked off from the plane once they landed in Hanoi without any crying or any fuss whatsoever.
I: How many people were on that first flight?
CY: Again, you have to check. We are talking about maybe, 10 or 20, at the most 30. I can’t exactly remember the numbers. But it would be young couples, with maybe children. I can’t remember. But it should be in the records. But the air hostesses were so nice. I mean they were from the hospitality industry, so when these people were on the plane, children were given little gift packets, and they were served tea and things like that. And they also sympathised with them, saying, ‘these poor people have to go back to Hanoi without knowing about their future’. But all in all, as far as we are aware, it’s not just sending people back home, but it is a durable solution in the sense that we’ve got monitors – namely UNHCR – continuing to be the monitoring agent. To make sure that people that have been sent back would not be subject to ill-treatment. So there was a system in place. That’s how we managed things.
I: How long did it take the Government of Hong Kong to negotiate with Hanoi about the repatriates?
CY: Quite some time. It was a long process. The negotiation was Government to Government, at not only dealt with at the Hong Kong level but obviously at the UK level, supported by our Hong Kong team. You also had to negotiate with the UNHCR, because it had to be backed by the UNHCR. Unless it was backed by the UNHCR, the system was found to not be sustainable. It was in finding a durable solution. So before we implemented [the system], we made sure all parties were satisfied, that this is going to work out well in the long run. Hence as I said, it’s not just the repatriation per se, but also the monitoring system behind [the system]. And also some extra money was to be given to these people, so they could go back home to start their own businesses etc. So they would be given a small allowance, not much. But it was one package. So I just hope that, again, because not all people can see the whole picture. So people probably still held a grudge, thinking, ‘how come I was the first to be repatriated?’ But after so many years, it will be interesting to find out whether or not they held a normal life. And thanks to the sort of decision of sending them back, what’s the point of wasting your prime time in a closed camp doing nothing? Wasting your life away? So that was the whole concept behind the mandatory repatriation policy.
I: When you were first appointed to this position, did you know what you were getting yourself into?
CY: No! [Laughs] As I said, I belonged to the Administrative Officer grade, so of course I’m used to being posted to handle different jobs. We called these ‘postings’, every two years you had a posting so that you broadened your horizon of things. So we belonged to that – calling ourselves General Grades. We were expected to take on any task given to us as short notice. But when I was posted to the Security Branch, all this was at the evolving stage. People talked about it, the problem was getting bigger and hence we needed a new direction. So nobody knew what was going to be the next step. That’s why I was very fortunate; I was put under a very steep learning curve when I stepped into that post. Because I had to open the camps under a new policy, to change from a ‘closed camp policy’ to an ‘open camp policy’, this needed a lot of explanation to the local community, and also [to the] international media.
I: You mean you changed from open camps to closed camps?
CY: No, [they changed] from closed camps to open camps. Because if you look at the whole story, you’ll find that we moved from an open camp policy because too many people were coming. Therefore they changed it to a closed camp policy, hoping this would deter people from coming. Then, we found that this wasn’t deterring people from coming. People were still coming, despite the fact that you had a closed camp policy. So we ended up running short of people to look after – a population held within the closed camp.
But imagine, if you lock up so many people within one place for so long, there was bound to be fighting, people getting bored and you have a lot of problems as you have seen in the museum. People would have to be innovative when making weapons etc. Who can blame them as they were so bored? So then, we realised this wasn’t a solution so what was next. So from a closed camp, we moved to a closed and open camp policy. In other words, refugees were placed in an open camp. Economic migrants [on the other hand] were placed in closed camps to be repatriated. That was how the story goes.
I: So your task was…?
CY: My task was, when people are so used to closed camps, being a Hong Kong resident the Vietnamese boat people were really none of my business. Because all these people were kept in closed camps and looked after by the Authorities. Now they [the Hong Kong residents] would worry that the camp next door would have Vietnamese boat people, taking the same bus, taking my jobs because they would come into the same job market. Then [this is how] the Hong Kong people would start to worry. So my job was then therefore was to calm them down. And say that, ‘look, we’re talking about not a lot of people. And eventually they will go home. But it’s only in the interests of the whole community that they get jobs, they prepare themselves for resettlement etc.’
So I had to do the explanations, because I was one of the few Chinese-speaking Officials in the Security Branch, so I went on television a lot. The joke was, probably more than the Governor at that time. That’s just a joke. But it’s true, when you have these big forums where they debate and officials were sent to… It’s just like Hyde Park. Do you know about Hyde Park? It’s just like a place where you went to on a Sunday morning, where people grilled you and you have to provide answers. So I was there. And the Governor was watching me, because I only realised that when I then met the Governor on the following day, he said I did a good job. That was because after the Chinese forum, you were interviewed by the press in both English and Chinese. So the Governor was probably watching me, and when I said to the English media, saying that the Vietnamese people were just ordinary people. This was to calm people down. This was the sort of PR exercise I was handling. And I was very grateful, because I learned a lot. Because it was like a ‘crash-course’ on meeting [with] the media. We had very few people handling a very big problem, so we had to be multi-skilled in those things. And we did a lot of things.
I: Did the challenge ever discourage you? Did you ever think of changing and doing something else?
CY: Oh no, because as I said, we were Administrative Officers. So I got this posting, and if I survived for a few years, I would get another posting, hopefully a better one.
I: How many years did you end up with this post?
CY: Not too long actually, because it may be two-three years. A normal posting, that is. But as I said, it was very eventful during those two or three years.
I: What were some of your most memorable incidents, or things that just stayed in your heart?
CY: Well, as I said, when you first entered into the job, the people all appear as numbers. Because I had to tell my boss how many numbers had come [into Hong Kong]. So, ‘x’ number had to go on boats, and ‘x’ number had to be sent to the factories, and ‘x’ number sent to the tents. That was the only way you could manage the problem. But one day, when I was visiting these old people on a ferry, and there was a very compassionate Civil Aid Services (CAS) colleague. He showed me pictures and named people’s names. So I realised we were not just handling numbers – we were handling people. So I was quite affected by his compassion.
Of course, all of us felt that this problem has caused us to work long hours and is so troublesome – that’s the first feeling you had in the job. But in time, you feel that you are helping people. And I’m sure a lot of these frontline people tend to… I worked in the Bureau in a coordinating agency role; [in] playing this role. Unlike my colleagues who are on the frontline, feeding them, taking them to hospitals, resolving their problems on site and eventually seeing some of them being resettled, saying goodbye to them when they board a plane to America etc. They have a relationship with the people, which are easier than us, as bureaucrats, trying to coordinate things and handle numbers, making reports etc. But this was a job that you can’t really just sit behind a desk. So I also then got to walk the camps. And I also got to talk to my colleagues and make sure whatever problems they had, we could help them to make their lives easier. So that’s one thing.
What else? I think what touches my heart is really the spirit of people working together, my colleagues, the fact that they were all under all sorts of constraints, we had no money. What I should say is, my colleagues came from different departments – Correctional Services Department, Police, Medical Services – and their departments had probably said to tell the Security Branch they didn’t have additional bodies, additional staff or additional money to handle this. So they were under pressure too. So what happened was, when I told them they had to do ‘x’, such as the refugees needed to be fed, medically taken care of etc., it’s easy to say this sort of thing. But who was going to do it? So they would have to make do with whatever resources they had on the ground to do it. And they did deliver at the end of the day.
So that was something that I felt was really … I forgot about this until one day when I was confronted with another disaster – SARS – which again, hit the world news. Hong Kong was a city that was hit by SARS and we had people dying of this unknown disease. So one day, I was doing my job and then the decision came that we had to remove people at short notice to a camp, because this building was at risk. That was called the ‘Amoy Gardens’, because we still couldn’t trace the source of this infection, and that people coming down with this disease, Government made this decision to remove them overnight to a camp. So it was during that exercise, when I opened that door, because I was having this meeting, and I was working with the very competent Eddy Chan, saying to Eddy that he had to round up the troops because it looked like we had a major operation to carry out in the next 24 hours. So when I opened the door after returning from a meeting at Government House, I found some of the ‘old faces’. I then realised that these were very competent Officers who had gotten their training back in the training of the Vietnamese boat people days.
So I could trust them to undertake the operation – it was different, but they probably had the skills and integrity and confidence to do it well, without my telling them what to do. I couldn’t anyway, because there was only 24 hours to get everything into place. So it was that kind of… that moment that has driven me to think that perhaps the ‘Vietnamese boat people’ was a story that was worth reporting. Because it is the civil servants who have handled such a crisis in that period, that was going to be repaid many years afterward to become very competent in fighting a new crisis. And indeed, I think Hong Kong came out, despite all the criticisms etc. Hong Kong did a good job in stopping the disease from spreading to other places. Not to say, stopping it in Hong Kong altogether. So it was critical that the collegiate spirit of people that makes a difference. So I’m sure the same would apply. Those young people, there would be bound to be young colleagues who fight SARS, they will tell me the story many years down the road; that they were able to fight this ex-crisis because they have the experience of fighting SARS. So I am telling you that, at least for my generation, we were able to fight SARS well, because we have very good people who have accumulated a lot of experience in handling the Vietnamese boat people.
I: Almost every single person I have spoken to so far, they have all told me they were grateful for the experiences they gained from handling the Vietnamese boat people situation.
CY: I am no different.
I: I think everyone said they learned so much from this incident, and grew in leaps and bounds with their experiences career-wise. And by far, the most difficult part of their career. But none of them had regrets.
CY: I think this is very genuine. This is something that… because it was so eventful during those couple of years that you had been doing that job. For other colleagues at that Departmental level…for Bonnie, I’m sure; she would have seen more incidents than I had. It was so very eventful, seeing how you would handle the infightings inside camps etc. But the fact that you can’t put an army there to stop things, you have to think of some ways of self-management, so that they could introduce a self-management system. Almost like electing their own village representatives inside the camp, asking them to come to terms with each other. This was something that no boss, ‘up there’ would imagine being given that sort of direction. People would have to improvise on the ground to make ends meet. This was in fact what Talbot Bashall’s story was all about. When I read your book, I was very touched. Although he [Talbot] was my senior and I never met him, he was saying exactly what was in our hearts.
I: I now realise the situation with the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong was by far, the most complicated and unique [situation] compared to all other host countries in the region. And that’s why I’ve shifted my focus to the situation in Hong Kong.
CY: Because in other places, either they have the space, or they don’t have typhoons. So they have some breathing space to sort things out. But in Hong Kong, you don’t have the time or luxury or sorting things out. So as I said, the moment you thought you had solved a problem by housing them in tents, the next moment, you heard the observatory saying ‘there’s a typhoon coming that would blow away the tents’. So what would you do?
I: Not only that, but in other parts of the region hosting the Vietnamese boat people, they didn’t have the issue of North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese.
I: Here, because Hong Kong is so close to Hanoi, to North Vietnam.
CY: Has anybody introduced you to the term, ‘coast-hopping’? The reason why we have so many North Vietnamese is because they could come to Hong Kong by coast-hopping. That means you do not need a very nice boat, but just a boat that would carry you along the coast of Mainland China. You don’t have to go into the open sea, in other words. And then you can make your way into Hong Kong.
I: So there are so many more stories, but it’s all fitting into the same theme. The complexity of the situation and the Government can easily be burned out. But you can’t just give up, so you keep trying and you come up with different ways. And as soon as you know you can solve one thing, something else happens. So it’s an amazing [thing].
CY: Thinking back, I feel that it really is worth putting into the record in a sense that little Hong Kong is steering the world as to how to find a durable solution. It comes from Hong Kong, which is not even a country. But, you know, because we are so hard-pressed, so when you are hard-pressed, under that [pressure] in a situation, the intellectual plane is such that it would drive us into a direction of finding a durable solution. And in the end, it enters into the whole Vietnamese boat people history – durable solutions. Which, I think at that time, I underestimated the importance of them. ‘Durable solutions’ is no more than a word to me. But the reflection on this is, if you look at today, how many politicians and people look for durable solutions? Everything is about ‘quick wins’ or ‘quick fixes’. But in those days, real leadership qualities were judged by those who really had both the heart and the vision to work things out in the long-run. And as far as this case is concerned, of course it is a problem that has dragged on for many years. But at least from that point onwards, it does start to try to take things to its logical end.
CY: I just hope that at the end of the day when the story is being told, people would realise that all the anguish at the time, or bad feelings – it’s understandable. But in looking back, there should be better appreciation on any party’s side to look at the story from another plane. It’s a humanitarian problem that has happened. But at the same time, it’s a problem that has put people to the test at all sides. The Vietnamese boat people become tougher having gone through the saga, we as civil servants become more competent because of all these tests we have gone through, the leadership – those who have to tackle the international politics or what not – also rise to the challenge. And Hong Kong also, for the first time, gets onto the international map. And then people get to know about Hong Kong, because of this problem. So all this is quite meaningful to me in looking back.
I: Everyone has their different ways of looking at it, based on their experiences but [also] looking at it as a whole. I think the main part that stood out for both sides of the fence was the humanitarian aspect of it.
CY: And we learned a lot. Because had there not been the Vietnamese boat people, Hong Kong people would be very parochial, living in a ‘little village’ mentality of our own. Again, I said this with evidence because when SARS hit us, I was very worried when another boatload of people were calling into Hong Kong, when they in fact should stop in China rather than coming into Hong Kong. They were suspected of SARS, and they wanted to receive treatment in Hong Kong. So therefore I was thinking that maybe the Hong Kong people would feel angry, saying ‘why should we be doing this when we have the whole problem in front of us?’ But when I tried to explain to the community, saying that we are under international obligation to take these sea-faring people in, to treat them if they have a problem, people accepted that.
So the next day when you opened the newspaper, when the reporters tried to prompt people into saying that we shouldn’t do this, you had a common man on the street saying, ‘we have an international obligation to take these people in!’ So again, in looking back, everything comes. So Hong Kong has become such a… because of the free-flow of information and this learning experience and this humanitarian side of things is really international business, it raises the quality of the [Hong Kong] community. At the end of the day, this is something quite accidental. And not every city has the privilege of having this baptism of fire, I would say.
I: I was just, extremely surprised when I read the background and how small and overcrowded Hong Kong was. And as much as you get the luxury of handling them one group at a time, they all just come in every day. It’s [relentless].
CY: And again, you cannot just cram them into any place. We have standards to meet. So we really have to provide something decent. [For example] making sure there are blankets, making sure there are napkins for both babies and ladies – that is very real. You have to tackle that on the ground.
I: Is there anything else?
CY: That’s it for the time being. As I said, it was not very well-organised but it was worth looking back. But my involvement was really, very… you won’t miss it. Because I was asked to produce Eco papers – some six or seven of them in a series – within a very short period of time. To the extent that my personal Secretary after that [left] for another posting because it was too much work. But that was because the problem was so big, that the Governor at the time had decided that we must change the policy.
Mandatory repatriation was the way to go. So that was the time when I was involved. So when you check the timeline, you’ll find where I was. I remember it was after the birth of my son, so that’s why I can remember it was 1988-89. And fortunately I have a very good domestic helper. So she literally looked after the family for me when I had to handle this very tough job.
I: I thank you for sharing, and I also would like to take this opportunity to thank you personally for being there for the Vietnamese boat people.
CY: As I said, like my colleagues, it was a privilege in looking back.