Interviewee: James Ginns (JG)
3:20pm, Saturday 5 January 2013, Office McCain, Hong Kong
I: Can you please state your full name and where and when you were born?
JG: My name is James Ginns. I was born in 1968 in the city of Leicester, UK.
I: How long have you been living in Hong Kong?
JG: This is my fourth time now living in Hong Kong. The first time was in 1987, when I came original to teach English in one of the refugee camps here. Then I had a spell from 1991 – 1992, and again from 1994 – 1999. And now I am back again. I have been back since 2007.
I: What brought you here the first time?
JG: Originally I came because I finished school in the UK, and I had a gap year between school and university. One of my school friends told me there was a great need for English teachers in Hong Kong to teach in the Vietnamese camps here. And I thought I had a very privileged upbringing up til that point. I had been brought up in a boarding school and I thought that this would be something that would be good to do, in a way that I could ‘give back’ something that year. So I arranged to come here by ship. I worked my passage as a deckhand on a container ship, and arrived in 1987. And started teaching English at the Chi Ma Wan refugee camp.
I: Did you call yourself a ‘boat person’ too?
JG: [Laughs] I was a different kind of boat person.
I: Did you know anything about the Vietnamese boat people then?
JG: I have to say, no, I knew very little. Only what I had read in newspapers. I had never been to Vietnam, and having heard about the camps here, I then wrote to a few agencies and had a reply from an agency called International Social Services (ISS) under whom I taught in the camp in Chi Ma Wan.
I: What was the experience like for you?
JG: It was very moving. It was my first experience of being with refugees and [seeing] the hardship they were encountering. They were in a closed camp, surrounded by high fences and barbed wire. In a very remote location on the southern tip of Lan Tao island in Hong Kong. Men, women and children packed into huge huts – like very big huts that looked a bit like aircraft hangars. But with multiple levels of bedspace. And family upon family living on top of each other. And I had never experienced anything like that before. And I got generally quite close to some of the people I was teaching. And I was very hopeful that some of them would be resettled. But ultimately most of them in that camp – I think, of the ones I knew – were resettled. To countries like Norway. I remember one of my close friends went to Norway. Others went to the States and Canada. Finland even! I don’t know how they are suffering in the winter in Finland [laughs]. They probably are used to it by now.
I: And this lasted a year?
JG: Yes, I only had a year between school and University. I used to teach in the afternoons. I worked for the ‘Mission for Seamen’ in Kowloon in the mornings, because they gave me accommodation. Then after a year I went back to the UK.
I: After you taught them English [for a year], what did you learn from the Vietnamese boat people?
JG: I learnt a lot. I have to admit I didn’t learn a lot of Vietnamese. They tried, but I wasn’t a good student of Vietnamese. So I learned a lot about how they got to Hong Kong, and the sort of, genuine suffering they had on the way. And the sort of journeys they had. They told me a bit about that. And how they basically had left everything. They had nothing, really, at all. Except each other. Some of them had family members, but some of them had come away from family. So their family was in Vietnam and they were going ahead alone. So they had no family with them. And they had left children behind, they had left wives in some cases. They had left fathers, mothers. And it was very humbling for me. I had never come across that kind of thing before.
I: What brought you back the second time?
JG: I came back to Hong Kong to work. I got a job with the Squire Group in the UK, and they posted me to Cathay Pacific airways which are part of the Group. So I started working in Hong Kong with Cathay. And I had a year in Hong Kong then I went to Paris in ’93 with Cathay. I had gotten married by then. I met my wife to be during my first year in Hong Kong. And then we came back to Hong Kong in 1994, and I was still with Cathay. And I was doing some work with an NGO in Hong Kong at the time called ‘St Stephens Society’. Both of us had links with Stephens, and they had done a lot of work with drug addicts in Hong Kong, particularly in the Kowloon Walled City, which was one of the old areas in Kowloon where there were a lot of drug problems. And for a while, they [St Stephens Society] had been working in some of the refugee camps, because by then, the Hong Kong Government had decided to open some of the camps.
So I believe that I am right in saying, some of the people whom I had worked with in Chi Ma Wan and had ended up in a camp in Tuen Mun called ‘San Yek’ – which was industrial building in Tuen Mun. Tuen Mun was a town in the territories and that was a kind of transitional camp. And in the end – those people and others – they put in an open centre called Pillar Point. And the idea was that if they opened the camp, then people could go out and get jobs and work experience and make themselves more – I suppose – attractive to resettlement countries. I suppose that was the thinking as I understood it. And what had happened was that actually many of them had gotten involved with drugs. Either selling or trading drugs or taking drugs. Or both. And it got to the point where at Pillar Point, almost every adult male was on heroin.
JG: Practically. Pretty much. Or had been [on heroin]. So it was [becoming] increasingly difficult to resettle people. And these were the remaining refugees in Hong Kong. So the other camps had people who had arrived after the cut-off point. And who were basically detainees. They were not refugees. And they were held pending repatriation to Vietnam. The original refugees were, I think, about 1,800 by the time I was involved again in ’95 at Pillar Point. And as I said, increasingly difficult to resettle as many of them had gotten into drugs and crime by this point in these camps that had opened. And they had criminal records.
I: Were they already screened out, or were they waiting for their status to be determined?
JG: They were refugees. All of the people in Pillar Point were refugees at that time. So they didn’t need screening, but they were waiting to be resettled. And some of them did get away to be resettled. And there was a trickle of resettlement going on. But many of them were stuck, because they were on drugs and couldn’t be resettled. So the UN was very excited by the work of St Stephens, because St Stephens seemed to have a very high success rate in terms of getting people off drugs. And they had seen a lot of refugees coming off drugs and therefore able to resettle. They could pass the tests – they had to go through urine tests, etc. – in order to be deemed to be clean in order to be resettled. And on the basis of that, the UN basically approached St Stephens Society and said ‘we’d like you to come and manage this camp now, so we can get as many of these people resettled as possible. We need you to come in and become involved heavily here’. And St Stephens at the time approached me – actually, over dinner – and said, they had this opportunity. St Stephens didn’t manage things, they were good at working with drug addicts but they didn’t manage things. So St Stephens asked if I could manage the camp for them, and setup a team to do that. And they would work underneath that umbrella and do the drug [rehabilitation] work. And something in me said,’ yes, I need to do that’. So I wrote to the company and said I had this opportunity to go and manage this refugee centre and that I would love to go and do it for two years, then come back.
I was [essentially] asking them if I could go and [manage the refugee camp]. And the company came back to me within about three days and said ‘yes, go and do that. And then of course come back to us’. I had to resign to go and do it, but then come back [to the company]. So that gave me the safety net I needed to go back to [St Stephens] to say I would give everything up to go and do it. And what I didn’t know – at that point – was that there wasn’t a consensus within the UN here, as to St Stephens’ involvement in the management. So part of the UN team were very ‘for it’ and wanted it to happen, and wanted to actually have a separate camp set-up in parallel with Pillar Point, where drug addicts who had come off heroin could be taken out of the camp and put into a new camp. This is a new camp that would be drug-free. And they would be looked after in that separate camp. And that was very much the idea I was told about – to manage that [new] camp. That those [refugees] who could be resettled would be slowly taken out [of the original camp] and put in this parallel camp for resettlement. The other part of the UN team were not happy with that idea. They didn’t think it was workable and supported the existing management within Pillar Point. And so I didn’t realise, having given up my job, I’d have a battle on my hands to persuade the UN that this was actually something we should – and could – do. And we could do a better job for the refugees than was being currently done. But we did manage to persuade them, and so we set-up the team. And I setup a management company from scratch.
We setup to run all of the community work in the camp, all the maintenance and all the administration and all the security. And this was a security nightmare. Pillar Point had Chinese gangs on the ‘outside’ trading drugs to Vietnamese gangs on the ‘inside’. Obviously ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ are easy [terms] to say as this was an open camp, so the Vietnamese were mobile around Hong Kong and could bring in the drugs into Pillar Point very easily. A lot of the drugs were then being traded out to the airport platform. A new airport was being built then, a lot of airport workers were taking drugs. And the Vietnamese were controlling the [drug] trade to the airport platform from Pillar Point. The fencing around Pillar Point was, there was no secure perimeter. So it was all crumbling. Within Pillar Point, little children were running around and stabbing their feet on needles. There were needles strewn on the ground, [which was] obviously very dangerous health-wise. They were getting needle stab wounds. A lot of violence in Pillar Point as well, related to drugs and related to mainly male addicts who beat their wives for money. And a lot of domestic violence. So when I arrived at Pillar Point, there were 8-10 ambulances being called a day for different incidents.
The police at the time largely saw Pillar Point, I think, as being really too hard to handle. And if the violence was ‘Vietnamese on Vietnamese’ they just let it be, really. So they did patrol, and they had taskforce presence in and around. But to my [knowledge] it just didn’t seem to be terribly effective. And again, when I took this on, I had no idea of that kind of situation. So the first thing we needed to do was to get a reliable security presence in order to secure the camp. And I had spoken to a friend who had been an army officer with the Ghurkhas. The Ghurkhas are a people [group] in Nepal who had supplied soldiers to the British army. And they were well-known in Hong Kong for being pretty tough, pretty reliable soldiers. And a friend of mine – I asked him if we could use Ghurkhas for the job. I thought they would be pretty good because they couldn’t speak Vietnamese or Chinese and could secure the perimeter and they were [known for being] very loyal and very reliable. And he [my friend] said yes, absolutely, they [the Ghurkhas] would be very good at that. And the previous management told me that if we put Ghurkhas on the ground, there would be a riot. So I had to make a decision. And I decided we do it, and we basically work with the UN and we had a contract with a company that supplied a security team of Ghurkhas. And that security team we employed 24 hours in the camps. And eventually we rebuilt… we still had an open camp with a gate, but we rebuilt the fence around the camp to stop the drug trade going in and out. And secure the people inside the camp, because there were a lot of vulnerable people inside the camp. And so slowly, we got the security situation right. And the number of violent incidents in the camp dropped. And we had less open drug trading going on. And I think the drug use in the camp slowly dropped as a result of that. And so we could focus on the community work we were doing, the administration and so on.
I had a wonderful team of people – obviously Ghurkhas on the security side speaking Nepali. We had ‘walkie talkie radios’ so I could hear Nepali going on the radio. And we had Vietnamese – I employed quite a number of Vietnamese people who had been involved with different NGO’s [for] refugees over the years. And they had been refugees themselves. And they came onto the team and did community work and interpreting work and that kind of thing. And we had Vietnamese on the radio too. And then, we had a wonderful couple who the husband was a former refugee himself. He had been in the camps in Malaysia. And he had resettled to Australia. And there he met a lady who had worked in the camps in Hong Kong who had then gone to Australia with him. And I asked those two – the husband and wife – to come back and run the community work team. Because they could both obviously speak Vietnamese. And so they were there as well in amongst the community work team. And we had a team of maintenance workers as well.
I had a former New Zealand farmer, who came up from New Zealand to help us with the maintenance work. He was as tough as nails, but he got the camp into good shape in terms of maintenance. And so all these different people came together in this team.We had a wonderful team. And slowly but surely, we found refugees who were unable to help themselves because of the drugs. And we identified those who actually wanted to ‘clean up’. And [we] put them in the direction of St Stephens, and quite a number of them continued to come off drugs. And many of them resettled. And slowly, the camp came into shape, and we started finding that amongst the Pillar Point population, there were quite a lot of very vulnerable people. People that couldn’t resettle because they were mentally handicapped. And those people had basically been neglected, and they had shut themselves into their rooms in the camp. And often didn’t go outside, or if they did, they were abused and bullied by the other camp residents. Some of them. And we basically identified who these people were.
In many cases, we had to go in and persuade them to come out of their rooms – sometimes for the first time in a very long time. They were, in some cases, malnourished. It was unbelievable, the shape they were in. And we got them in touch with various Social Services that could look after them. We got them protected, and did our best to look after them. Some of them were resettled. But it was harder with the people who were mentally or physically handicapped. So Pillar Point, sort of, [made up of ] ‘remnants’ of the Hong Kong refugee population who had ended up there. Some of them because of drugs, some of them because of [their past] criminal records. One guy had 32 convictions since coming to Hong Kong. So he had been convicted 32 times since he had arrived in the camps in Hong Kong. So some of them were definitely criminals in Vietnam as well, and continued to be criminals. Then we had people who, as I said, mentally or physically handicapped. They hadn’t done anything wrong, they just weren’t attractive to resettlement countries. And then we had the families of drug addicts, who were perfectly fine, but let down because one of their family – maybe, in many cases their father – was on drugs and couldn’t look after them. And was taking all the money the family had to buy drugs. So the whole different group of people who ended up being this remnant of refugees.
I: How many of them?
JG: When we started, about 1800. And when we finished, maybe just over 1000. So about 800 were resettled during my time at the camp.
I: Was that camp under the responsibility of the UN?
JG: Yes it was.
I: Because it didn’t sound like the [Hong Kong] Government was involved.
JG: The background to this – and again, I didn’t know anything about this when I took on the job – was that the UN were responsible for the camp. And it was on the UN budget. So as a management company, we were employed by the UN. And we had a budget from the UN, which was quite limited, but we had a budget. There was an ongoing battle between the UN and the Hong Kong Government. The Hong Kong Government were trying to hold the UN to account for the money that had been spent in looking after the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong over many years. And the Hong Kong Government had to pay a lot of money to support the ongoing effort in that way. And basically wanting to hold the UN to account for that.
The UN were saying that it was Hong Kong’s responsibility I think, and it was an ongoing tussle between the two. So the Hong Kong Government wanted minimal involvement in Pillar Point. Minimal. Minimal. So I tried to speak to the various representatives of the Government and Security Bureau to say that we had a real situation here, with people in desperate need, and you [the Government] needs to open up Hong Kong Social Services and offer these people help. They need Social Services very badly. We had mentally handicapped people who needed help. We had people who were being abused in terms of domestic violence who needed help. We needed more policing, we needed more support from the Security team.
My Security team were out on the frontline there, trying to hold this perimeter and trying to secure this camp. We needed the help and support. And we had very little response. Fortunately, there was one man in the Government who was brave enough to step forward and say that he could do what he could to help. And that was Ian Stracken, who was at that time Director of Social Welfare who stepped forward to say he could do what he could [to help], in terms of making social welfare facilities and people available to us. So that was one channel whereby we got some of the mentally handicapped people able to be cared for. But the other thing the Hong Kong Government was worried about was committing to these people, a) because of the UN and what they needed to hold the UN to account for, and b) it was not known what was China’s attitude toward the remnant refugee population when the handover occurred in 1997 which was just looming, just ahead. This was at ’95, ’96. So in ’97 there was the handover to go through and nobody knew how China would react. So those were the things on the minds of the Government at that time.
I: So they tried not to have anything to do with the situation?
JG: They washed their hands [of it]. And then it got even more complicated, because as I said, there was a plan to put a parallel camp into place. That very quickly died a death, because the UN wouldn’t pay for it, the Government wouldn’t cooperate and offer any more land for that camp to be set up. So it was not possible. So the whole idea of taking refugees out to be protected that had come off drugs couldn’t happen. And we had to try protecting them where they were in the camp. And on top of that, it got really complicated because there was an NGO at that time, operating quite successfully in court against the Government in Hong Kong, led by a lady called Pam Baker. And I can’t remember the name of the NGO now, but basically they were taking to court cases of detainees who had been screened out, but who, in their view were being illegally detained. And they won a succession of cases, and they Government had only one place to put these people. And that was in the existing open camp. So they came to Pillar Point and they basically put all these people into the same camp as the refugee population. And so we had to look after those people as well. And those people we had to protect from the existing population.
It was such a problematic population already, in many ways, and then you had a group of former detainees coming out of closed detention centres in Hong Kong because they had won legal cases. And there were hundreds of them arriving in Pillar Point, needing to be housed [and] needing to be looked after. And we took those people on as well, and did our best to protect them and look after them at the same time as looking after the existing refugee population. But it got very complicated. I hope we did a good job, I mean we really tried our best to protect them and to look after the two populations side by side. And it was tough for the people who had just come out of the detention centre and didn’t have refugee status. They were in real limbo. Everybody was in limbo at Pillar Point. Even if you were a refugee, you were already in limbo because you had been waiting for so many years. But the detainees were in even more ‘limbo’. They could volunteer to go back to Vietnam to be repatriated, and that was about the only option left to them.
So at the end of two years, having got the camp secured, the vulnerable looked after, the children protected, we basically said to the UN, ‘look, there is only one option here. You need to close this camp and you need to allow the remaining population to stand on their own two feet and to look after themselves. And then the drug addicts will – we think – shape up. They will have to come off drugs because they will stop being supported on a UN budget, on NGO funds from the UN and they will have to face reality. Which is that they will stay in Hong Kong’. That’s where this remnant population will be. What already many of them were living in downtown, a place called San Sri Po, they were moving between the camp and San Sri Po quite a lot. So some of them were already living in the city, and moving between the two. And of course the UN said no, they couldn’t possibly do that. The Government would never allow the camp to be closed and the UN wouldn’t make that case. And I presented the same case to the Government, to the Security Bureau, who said the exact same thing. That’s not going to happen. The camp will remain open.
So our response to that was that in the best interests of the people, we will stop managing it and pull out at this stage. Because we were just managing it to status quo. It was not helping anybody. And we got a lot of criticism for doing that, from the Government, from the UN and the other NGO’s operating in the camp that were happy with managing it at status quo. We said that these people need to settle here, and the best way we can help to make that happen was to pull out and see what happens. And sure enough, the camp closed. But not immediately. I think we left at the end of ’96 and I believe it was closed in 2001 or 2002. Maybe four or five years later. And people settled into Hong Kong. But at least by the time we had finished, we made sure that everyone was provided for in terms of security and protection. And as many resettled as possible.
I: Would you have stayed on past the two years if things were different? Or you thought that was enough?
JG: I think in terms of the interests of those we were looking after and those we were serving – the people in Pillar Point – it was not in their interests for us to continue. Everybody was relying on us, and we felt that by stopping at that point, we would make people in the Government and the UN think about the wisdom of continuing with operating Pillar Point under those circumstances. It wasn’t right for the people, it wasn’t right for the way that UN funds should be spent. There was no – in my view – responsibility in the way that was done. The UN shouldn’t have been so, sort of, ‘not generous’ was not the word. Precious UN funding should not have been spent on that remnant population at that stage. It was time for them to settle into Hong Kong. Now the UN would say that the Hong Kong Government wouldn’t let them, so we had no choice.
I: So the group of people who were there at Pillar Point were there because of a particular category? Were they trouble-makers, did they have any riots?
JG: As I said, they were the remnant of the Vietnamese population in Hong Kong and were there for a number of reasons which stopped them [from] being resettled up to that point. So either they had a criminal record since coming to Hong Kong or they had a drug history or an existing drug problem. Or they were families of people in those categories. Or they were detainees who had been released from detention centres into Pillar Point who couldn’t be resettled and were due to be repatriated and the Vietnamese Government wouldn’t send back. So a whole combination of [issues]. Or they were mentally and/or physically handicapped and resettlement countries hadn’t taken them. Or a combination of those.
I: And sadly there were children who were stuck there.
JG: They were stuck there, largely because of their parents. Yes, it is really sad. And there was a lot of violence. The Ghurkhas had to do a lot of disarming of people with knives. And I organised with the police a security sweep of the camp every month to six weeks. And there was a large cache of weapons found every time they did the security sweep of the camp. They found large numbers of weapons. So it was a violent, drug-ridden, tough place for children growing up. Very difficult. I’ll give you an individual story. When we arrived – this is just one story –the community work team found a Vietnamese lady who very badly wanted to come off drugs. And at the time, she was close to dying. She was injecting into the one vein left where she could inject heroin into which was in her thigh. And she was living in the camp. But her daughter was also with her. I think her husband was in prison. And that’s another aspect to this I haven’t mentioned yet. Quite a number of the Vietnamese population at Pillar Point were in different prisons in Hong Kong for different offences.
We had quite a large number of people who we didn’t see because they were in different prisons in Hong Kong. Some of them are still there. They were on the caseload for Pillar Point, but they were in prison. When we started, they had never been visited by anybody. So we had to go through the list to work out who was in prison ‘where’, and go out to visit as many as we could during the time we were there. Anyway, I think the husband of this lady was in prison. Or they had separated, I can’t remember. She was on her own anyway, with her daughter. Anyway, she badly wanted her daughter to be protected and looked after. The daughter was at that stage, about 7 [years old]. So the daughter went out to live at St Stephens. And she was living in a house quite close to where I was living. I wasn’t living in the camp – it was too dangerous. I lived outside and drove to the camp each day. So what I did was, I brought her to school in my car in the morning. So she came into the camp with me each morning, went to the school in the camp and went home with me in the evening. Or with one of the team. And the daughter’s name was given a Chinese name, ‘Su Yen’. And the lady – her name was ‘Huong’ – decided to go to St Stephens and come off drugs. So she left the camp and came off drugs successfully at St Stephens. And that was good, she stayed away from drugs and stayed outside the camp.
Su Yen kept going to school there until we finished. And then about two years ago, I had a letter which came to me at Cathay. Now I’m back in Hong Kong, I got a letter. The letter was passed to me via somebody else. And it was from Huong. And she wrote to me in Vietnamese and she had it translated into Chinese, and then someone else helped me translate it into English. And she wrote to me to say thank you. And she wanted to update me about what happened. And she had gotten married to a Hong Kong guy. And they were both working with St Stephens still. And she is still with St Stephens, living in the territories with a new family. Su Yen was then about to go to University to study Sociology. And she had three more children. So the family were all still together, still living here. And so I wrote back and said, ‘would you like to visit [me] at Cathay?’ And we set up a visit and the whole family came to visit me at Cathay, and we had lunch near the office at Cathay outside the airport. And it was good to reunite and to see what had happened. That was just one case. A successful case, a nice story.
I: So Huong was young at the time?
JG: Yes, I guess when she came off drugs she was in her late twenties. I’m guessing. Mid to late twenties.
I: I can understand now why you continued to work in that environment. What about your security, your safety?
JG: There was one occasion where the Ghurkhas were attacked. They did their security job, they were at the gate. A group of men came in quite late at night one evening, and they were challenged to produce their ID. And they refused. And then they started attacking the Ghurkha guards. And we only had a team of 22 Ghurkhas. So only 10 or 12 could be on duty at any one time. So they were completely outnumbered, because the group of men grew bigger and bigger and they were surrounded. So they [the Ghurkhas] retreated, to a control unit around the gate we had put in, a metal container. And they shut themselves inside the metal container. And they called me, late at night. Maybe 1-2am, and said they were surrounded and had the potential for a riot. They had called the police and said to me I’d better come in. So I went over there in the middle of the night.
And I had a Security Manager, a former Ghurkha Manager who was there with them. And basically they decided they wouldn’t fight back because if they had, there would have been a riot. We had installed a camera at the gate, so we knew [from the] video who it was that had attacked them. And there was a group of three men there who, two weeks later, attacked somebody very badly in the camp. All three of them were involve in another incident. And as I remember, they were arrested for that. Not for the attack on the Ghurkhas, but they were arrested for the attack on one of the other residents. And all three of them were sent to prison for quite a long time I think. A number of years, whether they are out now I don’t know. So slowly but surely, we managed to get the real trouble-makers. And that helped to clean the place up. But yes, it felt dangerous. It was very dangerous for the Ghurkhas. Not so much for me, because I wasn’t there overnight. But I was there during the day when people were running around with knives and causing trouble. Needles with drugs. It was definitely a dangerous environment to work it. My first Maintenance Manager resigned because he found it too violent, too difficult to work there. And he came to me and said it was too dangerous, he couldn’t do it anymore.
I: Were you concern about AIDS?
JG: Yes, obviously with needles like that, and with a lot of residents sharing needles – there was a practice of sharing needles to inject. There was a major problem with HIV transmission, so yes, a real problem. I think the other agencies in the camp, and ourselves as well to some degree, did as much HIV education as we could do with the residents there.
I: Was there any real cases of AIDS or any concerns?
JG: I only know of one confirmed case during my time there. Only know of one. But how and when the transmission in that case happened, I don’t know.
I: Where did the detainees get the money to support their drug habits?
JG: because Pillar Point was an open camp, many of them were working in construction. A lot of them were working on construction at the new airport platform. The new airport was being built at that time and was scheduled to open in 1998, a year after the handover. So major construction was happening in the mid-‘90s. And construction was quite well-paid at the time. They were earning money from that. So I would say that was the average profile of the male Pillar Point refugee. During the daytime he was a construction worker and at nigh time, a drug abuser. But that’s a generalisation, but they definitely would have gotten the money from that kind of job.
Many of them were involved in buying and selling drugs. So some of the nastiest individuals I have ever met were running gangs in the camp. They never touched drugs themselves. They had everybody do everything for them. And when they left to be resettled – and they were resettled, because their records were clean because they never touched the [drugs] themselves. And I remember one particularly nasty individual going to Australia, and I’m sure he is doing similarly nasty things in Cabramatta, or wherever he is. And we had to help him to go to an ATM and get his money out, ready to resettle. Because he had to take his cash out on the lorry when he was sent to the airport. And we literally had to stand by the ATM as he unloaded his cash, and he had hundreds of thousands of dollars. So there was a lot of money involved in this.
One of our residents in the camp was eating at a noodle store in San Sri Po in the middle of the day, and he was shot dead from behind from a guy who came out of the blue. And apparently he was wearing a white suit, an assassin, who walked up from the crowd and shot the Vietnamese in the back of the head at the noodle store then disappeared. But there was that kind of incident, that kind of severity of incident was rare, but nonetheless, that shows you the sort of violence that was going on related to the drugs. So it was a difficult and very complicated situation on numerous levels. And I had no idea when I set out to take this on that it would be that difficult or complicated. And I had a very… I’d like to think that my motivation was right. It was to go and help people whom I thought needed help. And I think at the end of the day, they did need help, many of them. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I: Your experience on both sides, and both times, were totally different from one another.
JG: Very different. The remnant population, by the time I had gotten involved the second time, was very different to the population I worked with the first time around. Although, you could see that there were signs that might happen. One or two quite violent individuals in Chi Ma Wan as well. So you could see that if they opened the camp and allowed people to go [outside]… things could go [badly]. Although the motivation was right, to try and get people to go outside and get jobs and such, there was always the danger that they were going to end up on the wrong side of the city. And that’s what happened, in many cases.
I: What did it mean to you at the end?
JG: It meant a huge amount to me at the end. I had an experience of a lifetime, really. And I mean that. I mean, I had a wonderful time doing it. We had a lot of fun in amongst all this. You had to laugh, just to keep your sanity. But we had this wonderful – as I said – multicultural team speaking all these languages. So putting them all together and working with them was a lot of fun. And it was wonderful to see people like Huong who came through that in a way that she wouldn’t have done if we wouldn’t have been there. I think she might have died [if we hadn’t intervened]. And she does probably agree with that.
So those things made it all worthwhile, and made it feel wonderful to [accomplish]. And it was a wonderful experience too. And it made me look at the UN and NGO’s and Government Security Bureaus in a totally different way to how I would look at them normally. And I understood the politics behind all of this, which I hadn’t understood before. And I think I went back to Cathay and Squire with a lot more management experience than I ever would have had, had I done something different those past two years. So, it was an incredibly meaningful experience.
I: Would it be fair to say that the challenge kept you going?
JG: Yes, definitely. It was a daily challenge, and it was a challenge of trying to go out there and make something out of it. And make something better for people there than would have been the case if we hadn’t been there. And that was sort of the daily challenge. And it was a lot of fun, as I said. I remember one story. I remember the security company that provided us with the Ghurkhas, when we originally invited them to come and do a survey of the camp before they decided to commit themselves. So I hosted them with some of the others. And they brought their Senior Ghurkha with them and they walked around the camp, then came back to the office afterwards and sat down.
And I said to the Senior Ghurkha – his name was Nam Seng – I said to Nam Seng, ‘so if one of the Vietnamese got very violent as you were trying to check their ID cards, how would you cope with that?’ And he said to me, ‘well Saab, I think I would take him into the Security Control room and sit him down, and ask him if he would like a cup of tea’. [Laughs]. That’s how they were all the time, very polite. And their Manager who was a former British Army [person] himself who came to do the survey was very worried about the dangers to the company if it all went wrong. So I had to try and persuade him to commit the Ghurkhas, because without them we wouldn’t be able to do it. And he couldn’t understand how it was all working. He didn’t understand about the open camp, so he said ‘let me get this right. You’ve got baddies on the inside trying to get out, and you’ve got baddies on the outside trying to get in?’ [Laughs]. He couldn’t get his head around what was happening.
I: It is really complicated. I am trying to understand and see how things unfold through documents and material, but when I hear people tell their side of the story and what they witnessed and experienced is just unbelievable. I never knew how complicated it was here, because in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, there were also hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people as well but under totally different circumstances.
JG: I think Hong Kong – in my view – deserves a lot of credit. I don’t know much about what happened in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries but I do know that generally, the experience of refugees in Hong Kong was better than what happened in those other places. And they were generally given shelter, and not pulled back out to sea. And taken in, and ultimately, many – if not most – were resettled. So I think it would be fair to say that Hong Kong, overall, did a good job.
I: When people mention ‘Vietnamese boat people’, what comes to mind?
JG: Resilience, I think is the first words that comes to mind. They are incredibly resilient and resourceful, whatever they were doing. You know, whether they were good people who were genuinely suffering, they were resilient in the way they went about their day-to-day [tasks]. And the people who were doing the drug-trading were incredibly resourceful and skilful in the way they managed to avoid the police and avoid getting into trouble. I think they were sheer resilience and resourcefulness. Those are the words that I associate [with the Vietnamese boat people].
I: Were you glad you got involved [with the Vietnamese boat people]?
JG: Yes. I was glad I was involved. I was glad I was able to turn the place around. I think we were acknowledged as having done that [being a positive influence], so I was very glad to have done that. That meant a lot.
I: I take it that it was a meaningful part of your career?
JG: Definitely. Squires [company] still ask me everytime I see them, whether I regret going to do it or not. And I always say I never regret that. It was a great thing to have had the chance of doing. That’s the story really.
I: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JG: No, I think that’s pretty much the full story. Thanks for listening.
I: Thanks for sharing.