Interviewee: Henry Siu (HS)
2:45PM, 9 September 2013, University of Hong Kong
I: Henry, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to interview you about the Vietnamese boat people. Can you please state for the record your full name, date of birth and where you were born?
HS: My full name is Siu Chung Kit Henry. I was born in Hong Kong in the year 1948. And I have been working in the Hong Kong Immigration Department for 32 years. I joined the Department in 1973, and retired in 2005. By now, I have retired for about 8 years from the Department.
I: Are you doing anything now in terms of work?
HS: No, I am just retired. Enjoying life and travelling around.
I: So when did you first get involved with the Vietnamese refugee situation?
HS: My first encounter with the Vietnamese refugees dates back to my job as Immigration Officer at the Harbour Control Section in 1975. And in that year, it was special because that was the fall of Saigon at the end of April (April 30). And then my first encounter with a large batch of Vietnamese refugees on the date of May 4th 1975, when Hong Kong encountered the first influx of Vietnamese refugees on the Clara Maersk. I remembered I was on duty continuously for about 30 hours during the first batch of the Vietnamese migrants.
I: Did you remember much about that incident?
HS: I think we waited for the arrival of the refugees coming up to Princess Margaret Hospital which at the time wasn’t opened yet. We started clearance from midnight until morning. I think we processed more than 3,700 refugees to have the documentation for each and every one of them before they were housed in Hong Kong.
I: Did you have notification of the [refugees] arriving, or did they just arrive suddenly?
HS: We just had… for myself as an Immigration Officer, mainly on anchorage duties clearing ocean-going vessels. Then there were special operations that we had to pull in reinforcements from every section in our department to help cope with such an influx [of refugees]. At first we didn’t know how many were involved; not until we had finished did we know that there were over 3,700+ refugees landing in Hong Kong on that night.
I: Have you ever dealt with refugees before this batch?
HS: No. It was the first boat load of refugees arriving on Hong Kong shores for the first time. [This] started the Vietnamese saga for many years.
I: Can you describe to me how the receiving process went? That is, the process of interviewing and receiving them that night?
HS: Of course you know that these were just refugees being picked up from the container vessel on the high seas. Many of them didn’t have proper documentation, so what we had to do was interview each and every one of them and try to document their personal particulars. And issue temporary papers to them for identification.
I: Did you have interpreters at that time?
HS: No. I think we mostly conducted the interviews in English. And then of course when some of them didn’t know English, we needed other Vietnamese refugees to assist in order to get their particulars as [accurately] as possible.
I: So you basically used some of the Vietnamese among the group who could speak English to help out as well?
HS: Mostly, what we experienced was that most of them were well-off people and Government Officials. One particular incident that impressed me was that they carried small luggage with valuable items that they brought along. Some even opened the bags for us to see, and we saw a lot of money, gold, jewellery and everything. I can still remember that after this, the Hong Kong Government had asked the Bank to come and take stock of all the valuable belongings [of the refugees] to store for them. And after clearance that night, they [the Vietnamese refugees] were shipped to the army camps for temporary accommodation.
I: How many of you were called in to handle the situation that night?
HS: I think from my department alone, we had mobilised at least 200-300 people to work on this preliminary documentation for the Vietnamese migrants.
I: You had to work through the night?
HS: I myself worked through the night. I remember that it was the longest shift I ever had [to work].
I: What went on in your mind after receiving them?
HS: This is the disturbance or fault of the [Vietnamese] Government that caused a lot of problems to each individual and families. Some of them [the refugees] had tragedies and we heard a lot of stories about what happened along the way.
I: So along the way, these people [Vietnamese boat people] encountered problems that they had to be rescued?
HS: Yes, [this was discovered] through our interviews. But as far as I know, after this special operation, I didn’t have much dealing with the aftermath of them. So far as I can remember, they were the first batch of Vietnamese migrants being resettled very quickly. Most of them had connections overseas.
I: And then after that, when did you come back to the Vietnamese refugee situation?
HS: After that, my first proper job with the Vietnamese refugees was in the year 1989 and 1990. And at that time, I was posted as the Assistant Divisional Head of the Vietnamese Boat People Division. At that time we started to organise the review of the policies in handling them, and setting up new camps because of the large influx of the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1980’s. And the Division was expanding quickly to cope with the influx.
I remember when we were talking about the screening policy which was introduced later; even [regarding] the Vietnamese interpreters, we employed more than 200 of them. At the same time [however], we had [employed] about 200-300 Immigration Officers to conduct the actual interview. But of course, the main screening part occurred during my second tour of Vietnamese boat people duties during 1992-1993 when we had the proper screening policy introduced in cooperation with the UNHCR.
I: What was the difference between the two sets of screening policies from 1989 and 1992?
HS: At first what we were doing on the Immigration side; our proper job was identifying each and every Vietnamese boat person. That is, their particulars, they background and story of coming to Hong Kong and also the genuineness of their claim as to being a Vietnamese refugee. I’ll admit that we had quite a difficult task in front of us. I believed that during that time, not many of them were telling true stories. Actually, the nature of the Vietnamese boat people had changed, because they were actually economic migrants and not refugees fleeing their home country.
After the UNHCR came in, we requested, and also they agreed to provide us with proper guidelines in screening the Vietnamese refugees according to the UNHCR guidelines and criterions. I remember that we spent a lot of time in sending our officers to receive training on the UNHCR guidelines. I still remember the blue handbook on the Vietnamese refugee claims. Our officers spent a lot of time in understanding the International practices in determining the refugee status [of the Vietnamese boat people].
I: What were some of the reasons that prompted your department to seek help from the UNHCR?
HS: Actually, I think that a policy of the Hong Kong Government at the time, because of a large influx of the refugees being stuck in Hong Kong. And we had to do whatever we could to get rid of the problem as quickly as we could.
I: Did the percentage of those ‘screened in’ change because of the use of the policy guidelines?
HS: I can’t remember the exact number of those screened in against those screened out? I believe the percentage of those screened in is not too high. And it is funny that we spent hours and hours interviewing, and our officer had to write up the reports and make recommendations to the senior officer in determining refugee status. It is funny because once a story of a refugee becoming accepted would be circulated around the camp, and then it would become the standard [story]. And I remember one of the officers submitted his report and he said that he spent almost two weeks in writing up the claim of this refugee family. It is a long and tedious process I would say. And then of course we couldn’t prescribe any time limit for the officer to finish the interview. You couldn’t stop them from making the claim and finishing the story.
I: Were the guidelines much different compared to the UNHCR [guidelines]? Before training?
HS: Before training, of course, as a professional Immigration Officer we had our own standards and set of procedures to obtain information from people, like those applying for visas coming to Hong Kong. Of course this is not applicable to the claim of the refugees. It’s different.
I: What were some of the most difficult tasks you had to handle among these three assignments?
HS: I think it was the resources and time that we devoted to the entire screening process. It was unbelievable. And the process was slow, I would say. Not to mention, then later on in fairness and equity, we had to introduce the ‘read-back’ policy. That means that after the interview, through the interpreters we had to ‘read-back’ what our officer had written in the report to the refugees, before obtaining a signature [from them] to agree on their story and assessment. So it was a long and tedious process and was a big burden on the resources of our Department.
I: What camps were you working with?
HS: Whitehead camp was the largest camp at that time, housing up to 24,000 people. And still, we didn’t have sufficient space to house all of them. I remember at that time we had set up the High Island detention centre, and later on Tai A Chau. And later on, other smaller camps managed by the Correctional Services Department such as Chi Ma Wan, Hai Ling Chau, Camp Collinson and also some centres managed by the Civil Aid Services and Argyle Street. There were many scattered over the territory of Hong Kong.
I: Were you ever involved with the repatriation process?
HS: Yes, I have also taken part in this operation, actually in my first tour-of-duty in 1989 and 1990. I remember that we had full repatriation in parallel; one was the voluntary repatriation where we tried to convince the refugees to return to Vietnam voluntarily. Of course this involved a lot of counselling, and also we had an inducement that each refugee wanting to be repatriated would receive a monetary incentive. I remember at that time it was about $400 USD per head, which was quite an impressive amount.
I: Was that money given by the Hong Kong Government?
HS: Yes, I think so. Of course after receiving the money, it was a tedious process to negotiate with the Vietnamese Government to receive the refugees. Of course during those times, they agreed to receive back these refugees ‘in dignity’. [The Vietnamese Government’s terms were] their return ‘in dignity’.
I: What did that mean, their return ‘in dignity’?
HS: I mean that they were not being forced to accept this option. Even for this option, I still remember after their return, some of them double-backed. And they became the leader in finding a boat, and getting the people to come back to Hong Kong.
I: Was it a high number, or just a few incidents?
HS: I can’t remember, but there were incidents in which they double-backed.
I: So when you introduced the [monetary] incentive, was it successful to the scheme? Were there a lot of people who volunteered at first?
HS: I can’t remember the exact figure, but in my memory, I think it was a [moderate amount].
I: What was the second category?
HS: The second category was mandatory repatriation. I remember I was on the second batch of the mandatory repatriation, what we called the MRP. The first batch, evolved from negotiation with the Vietnamese Government, having them ‘return in dignity’. Mandatory repatriation was when they were forced to return, and of course it must have the agreement from the Vietnamese Government.
We hired a Hercules aircraft from Indonesia, if I remember correctly, on some of the chartered flights. Each time, I think we sent about 50 refugees back on the mandatory repatriation exercise, and each flight had Immigration Officers in uniform, representing the Hong Kong Government in bringing these people back to Hanoi. We also had escorts from the Department on the flight. I remember I took part in the second operation; I flew to Hanoi and then handed over the refugees and then returned.
I: Could you describe that experience for me?
HS: For the mandatory repatriations, we had to use minimum force to get them up on the aircraft, under our escort and then to Hanoi. Of course upon arrival, we had a lot of counselling [services offered] to their families and those being selected to go back on these flights. Also, upon arrival in Hanoi, of course we couldn’t force them to get off the airplane; they had to get off [the aircraft] [on their own terms]. This was one of the requirements of the Vietnamese Government, so we had a lot of counselling to persuade these people to walk by themselves from the aircraft and to be handed back to the Vietnamese Government.
I: Were they notified in advance [of their departure from Hong Kong]?
HS: Yes, of course, a few weeks in advance. We would have to undertake all the counselling work to convince them to go back.
I: Did any of them try to hide or anything like that?
I: And what time did you pick them up for the repatriation?
HS: Well, normally we started our operations very early. The refugees were being housed in different parts of the camp, and normally before the repatriation they would be gathered to stay in one part of the camp. Early in the morning, we would round them up and convey them to the airport. And normally we would start the flight about 8:00am. As I said, before then we had a lot of counselling work [to undertake with the refugees].
I: How many of these trips have you done?
HS: It’s only one I have done. Later on, there were several. I can’t remember the exact number, but as I said they were performed by different departments in joint operations.
I: Did you experience any resistance from the Vietnamese people on that trip?
HS: Not on my flight, but I admit that on other flights, there may be some disturbances and people would have to be restrained and delivered from on board the plane.
I: You were lucky that your trip wasn’t so bad.
HS: Yes, I was lucky my trip was trouble-free.
I: Did you ever experience any rioting?
HS: Yes. We had riots happening in Whitehead, in Tai A Chau. Within these centres, we had officers stationed there to do the screening work. I remember that we received notice that there were signs of disturbances inside and we would have to pull out all our officers from the [other] camps. To suspend our operations.
I: Did you ever personally experience a situation where there was rioting?
HS: Normally when such riots happen, because we are not the Department that is involved in containing the riots, it is the job of the Police and Correctional Services Department. So normally we would retreat and go behind the scenes. So we do not have experience on site.
I: So you would just receive reports on that?
I: What were some of the main reasons for the rioting?
HS: I think some were clashes between North and South Vietnamese. Some were frustrated about the long wait to receive their outcome [on achieving refugee status].
I: On average, how long did they have to stay in the detention camps?
HS: I think a few years, particularly the highest influx occurred in the late ‘80s. Even though I remember when we started this whole screening [process] in 1991 or ’92, still, even after they had been screened in they would have to wait for the resettlement by the UNHCR which was a long process and a long wait. And some ended up in having criminal offenses in Hong Kong, [making it even worse] for them because resettlement countries wouldn’t accept them.
I: Even though they were already screened in?
HS: Yes, because there were instances of people escaping from the camp and breaking some laws of Hong Kong.
I: During your time there, were there any fatal incidents? During the rioting, did people die?
HS: I think the worst was in Tai A Chau. Of course I can’t remember a lot about the casualties in that incident.
I: In looking back, were there any particular incidents that stand out for you in dealing with the Vietnamese boat people?
HS: There were changes in policies in dealing with the Vietnamese migrants. Like in those times we had the closed and open camp policies, some of them who were refugees who were screened in were allowed to seek employment and education for minors. So this was a lot of work for the Hong Kong Government. And even especially for the handover of Hong Kong [to China], we had to speed up the ‘Vietnamese migrant problem’, either in terms of the screening policy or the resettlement of these Vietnamese migrants; [resulting in] a lot of work for the Hong Kong Government in the year before the handover.
I: There was a lot of pressure? Where was the pressure mainly coming from?
HS: Yes, a lot of pressure. I think [the pressure was] overall, for the Hong Kong Government to resolve this problem. Even the local community placed a lot of pressure on the Hong Kong Government.
I: Do you have any personal incidents you remember, good or bad, anything that has remained in your mind over the years?
HS: The most impressive incidence of course was the clearance of the Clara Maersk. This was the first time ever that we had handled such a large number of Vietnamese refugees to Hong Kong; and then also my experience in searching for the camps in Hong Kong.
HS: Because of the limited space in the existing Hong Kong camps, we had to look for new space [to house the refugees]. Even though we had built the Whitehead centre, this [space] gradually became insufficient because a large number of these migrants were coming to Hong Kong. So we had to start looking for places. I still remember we went on helicopters to go around the entire territory of Hong Kong to look for places, and finally we ended up in Tai A Chau.
I: Why did you choose Tai A Chau?
HS: Tai A Chau was on the south-west of Hong Kong, and it was inhabited by people… there wasn’t a large existing population there. It was a remote island, and I remember we had a lot of work to build this camp. First of all we had to set up the water and electricity supply and this caused a lot of problems for the architectural services department [who were responsible] for having these basic utilities connected to the island. Also, the levelling of the island to find sufficient space for building the camp was required. I remember that camp housed 5000 refugees and it was far away from the city. At that time, my division was based in Kowloon Peninsula. I remember I had to ferry these officers to the island to undertake their screening work. The journey took almost an hour (each way from my office to the island and then back again).
I: Was one of the criteria [in looking for a place for the camp] to look for a place that is removed from the city and the rest of the population?
HS: Yes of course. You know how hard it is, given that it [Hong Kong] is such a small place. We really don’t have suitable space for the building of these camps. They really couldn’t be placed in the city and most of the surrounding area is hilly. [These are the reasons why] Tai A Chau was one of our options, given that it is remote and [doesn’t involve] the removal of [existing] residents from that place.
I: How long did it take you to build Tai A Chau?
HS: Just a few months, after all the basic utilities had been resolved.
I: You used the term ‘remote’. Were there requirements to put them in a remote area?
HS: Actually I think it was the only place we could find at the time.
I: And how long was Tai A Chau in operation?
HS: I can’t remember, it was after my time and work with the Vietnamese migrants. I think it lasted for about 5-6 years before the whole Vietnamese migrant problem was resolved in Hong Kong.
I: What does this whole Vietnamese refugee experience mean to you?
HS: Well it was quite a new experience for [me] and my Department. We had to follow the international patterns on the determination of refugee status. It is a new area of work, and also an international cooperation [between different countries].
I: So if you were ever given a choice, would you ever do it again?
HS: I hope it never happens in Hong Kong again.
I: And if you were given a choice and had to do it again, would you do it differently?
HS: Of course with the experience we have gained, there might be a slightly different way for us to handle this problem.
I: Thank you.
HS: Thank you for your time with me.
HS: After the return of the Vietnamese migrants back to Vietnam, upon the request of the Vietnamese Governor we stationed [one] Immigration Officer at the British Embassy at Hanoi. Their main job was to monitor the progress of these returnees and how they settled in their home country and also he [the Immigration Officer] would visit them [the returnees] in their various places and how they [assimilated] back into their society. The second point was that among these Vietnamese migrants there are also those known as the ‘ECVII’s, that is, Ex-Chinese Vietnamese illegal immigrants. Actually, they are not directly from Vietnam. They are sort of Vietnamese migrants who have settled in China for some time, and they found a way to sneak into Hong Kong. They posed themselves as Vietnamese migrants and so we have to distinguish them from genuine Vietnamese migrants. After the determination of their status, if we were sure they were ‘ECVII’s’, we would negotiate with China for their repatriation back to China. We had operations to send them back across the border.
I: What were the numbers of these returnees?
HS: I don’t have the figure right now in my mind.
I: Was it a high number? Were there a lot of them?
HS: Yes, there were quite a number of them.
I: And what were some of the findings of the [monitoring] Immigration Officer of the returnees?
HS: I think just to bring some positive feedback to the migrants in Hong Kong that instead of resettlement overseas, they had the option to return to Hong Kong.
I: So did they find that they [the Vietnamese refugees] were resettling ok?
HS: Yes, they found that they [the returnees] were re-assimilating into society and they were doing fine. And also it would be an incentive for them to join the voluntary repatriation process instead of waiting for resettlement overseas.
I: Were there any cases where they were harassed by the Vietnamese Government when they returned?
HS: No. We didn’t hear anything about that.
I: And how long was the Immigrant Officer in Hanoi for?
HS: I think we sent two batches of Immigration Officers there; I think from ’91-92 to ’95 or ’96. Yes, [it was a long time] in two batches. When I say ‘batch’, what I mean is one single officer was stationed there, and each term of their tour of duty was about 2-3 years. So far I remember there were two officers sent there.
I: And each one stayed there 2-3 years?
HS: Yes, 2-3 years.
General discussion between Henry and someone else
HS: I remember in those times I worked at the border in the early ‘80’s. I started managing the control point and I also looked after the ‘ECVII’ Centres there. We had a number of operations for returning [the refugees] back to Mainland China in the morning at 8:00am.
[male]: I did that, the very first one by truck as well at three separate centres. Because of the UNHCR – or somebody’s rule – there was supposed to be one ‘responsible officer’ there to hear last minute appeals. So I had to spend overnight with the refugees in winter, and it was freezing cold. We didn’t get around to sleeping. We had to stay awake the whole night, it wasn’t fun.
HS: Tak Ku Leng [at the Hong Kong border] is the coldest spot in Hong Kong.
[male]: And those holding centres were very much bare concrete. Anyway, those were the days. The first train was physically quite easy, because it was a nice, comfortable railway train. The only problem was the loading, because they had to specify ‘Car No: 1’ would have ‘A, B, C, D, E’. [This was because] every station that the train stops at was detached. This goes all the way to the last train, so it was about working out who goes into which car. [This was because] there were 600 hundred of them and they were dispersed in different detention centres in Hong Kong. What we had to do was the day beforehand, we had to send our teams of police officers to round them up and put them in one single institution. And that was the Victoria Detention Centre in the central [Hong Kong]. And then on that night we would have to send the whole convoy of trucks for [all] 600 of them. [And there was] probably an equal number of trucks for police officers and immigration officers all the way from Hong Kong to the border.
HS: That would be about 30kms. An impressive convoy I would say.
[male]: It’s actually more difficult that you would think, to work out, for example, if you have to do the convoy, remember that for every single car there is a time lapse of a number of seconds. When you calculate how long it takes to go from Victoria [detention centre] to the [Hong Kong] border, you can’t just simply do it [by simple calculation].
I: Had anyone written about this in a chapter yet?
[male]: Well each of these exercises we had to do an ‘operation order’. On that occasion, the police tried to ‘pull a fast one’ on us and say to us, ‘why don’t you write it?’ [Laughs]