Dr. Joyce Chang
2:50pm, Sunday 6 January 2013, St Pauls Convent, Hong Kong
Interviewer (I): Dr Chang, would you please state your full name and where and when you were born?
Joyce Chan (JC): My name is Joyce Chang Sau Han, and I was born in Seychelles, not in China. It’s a long story. But I had been to school from kindergarten onwards in a Catholic school in Hong Kong.
I: And what year were you born?
I: Thank you. I’d like to ask you a few questions about your experiences with the Vietnamese boat people who came to Hong Kong at the end of the Vietnam war. Can you please tell me when and how you started to involved?
JC: In 1975, I was the Professional Assistant to Caritas Hong Kong. And so we are the biggest and main Catholic agency working with the poor people in Hong Kong. So of course when we heard the news about the Vietnamese people coming to Hong Kong, my boss asked me to see what we can do to help. And also, we received several ‘telegs’, or telegrams. At that time, there were no mobile phones. So it was mainly from telegrams [that we received our communications]. We received telegrams from Caritas Germany and Caritas Switzerland, Caritas Spain and all the European [branches] and also from the United States’ Catholic Charities that mentioned to us they were willing to support us, as long as we were the nearest place to Vietnam. So we should go and see what we could do to help Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. At that time, I was Head of all the Professional Services.
Mainly we [provided] social services for families, youth, children, handicapped people etc. So I took the liberty to contact the Director of the Catholic Agencies in Saigon, who was an American Priest. Anyway, I contacted him, and he said it’s difficult to say so much in the ‘telegs’. And that I’d better come and see what I could do. So, together with my boss, we decided that one of us should go and have a look and see what we could do. And I think the European Caritas had indicated that if there was a need to take care of the orphans from Vietnam, they would be willing to provide backup support. But, we tried to see what we could take in terms of ‘quick action’. The rest of the needs and support they would continue to provide us with the backing. So together with a French Convent Sister from St Paul, the two of us took a plane to Saigon to see what we could do.
I: When was that?
JC: The end of April, 1975.
I: And what were you able to accomplish during that trip?
JC: During that trip, we visited the American Priest there. He took me to two or three orphanages. But I remember that at that time, two of them were going to close down. One of them, I remember was run by ‘The Good Shepherd’ Sisters. And the Agency there and the priests arranged a car to take us to all the places [we needed to go]. And in one day we completed all our trips. And then the sisters in charge asked me, ‘which one I would like to take? [Meaning the children]’ I said that I would like to take whichever ones were available. Because when I had pointed out to several of the children, they had already been [adopted]. So I said those children who had nobody to take them, I would take them.
And there was this one small boy who came to peep under the sister’s skirt, because he was curious what was inside the sister’s long skirt. And I took the little boy and held his hand, and he continued to want to look under the skirt. And so I took that little boy and said if no one wanted to take him, I would take him. [He was a] little, naughty one. So I managed to take seven of them. But most of them were 3-4 years old. The only girl was 7 years old. And the youngest one wasn’t walking yet. We had to hold him. And he was about 1 year old. But he had something wrong with his eye. I could see a white film on his eye and he couldn’t see. And I asked the sister what had happened to him, and they said that maybe some flies had dropped some dirty things into this eyes that had made him partially blind, I think. So it seemed that he wasn’t taken, so I indicated that we would take him with us.
I: So you brought seven children back to Hong Kong?
JC: Yes, together with the Sister.
I: How long were you in Saigon?
JC: Four or five days. And the Father (the Priest) managed to complete all their papers before we left. And he had the car arranged to take all the children to the airport. And the Sister and I at the airport were waiting for them. And we took them together.
I: What happened when you took them back to Hong Kong?
JC: I had already told my staff that if we came back in five days’ time, they would need to arrange a place for the orphans to stay. And luckily we had a hospital for the children – [that is] the children’s ward. We put them there for the first night. And they were well-fed and well washed [laughs] upon arrival. Because we came back in the evening, so after feeding them, they all went to bed. And the next morning, I was up there to see [them]. And of course the Sister Matron had arranged everything. And immediately, we had check-ups for all the kids. Even when we looked at their papers, it wasn’t written how old they were. It was all guess-work. So one of them, I think, the paediatrician had to check them out to say how old they were from looking at their x-ray. They found out their age [that way]. So from there, we estimated the age of each child.
I: Did the children know that they were taken out of the country?
JC: Yes. They were happy to come with us. And they had such a good time on the plane, because they had food to eat that they hadn’t seen in many years. And I remember the little one – the youngest one – was one to one and a half years old. And we kept on feeding him with only milk, because we weren’t too sure if he could swallow things. And the Sister was trying to… because it seemed as though he didn’t know how to [swallow]. And he was crying on the plane because he could see the others were eating and he didn’t have any food, just the milk. And afterwards, the Sister said she couldn’t manage this little boy who was crying. So I said, ‘let me try’ and I grabbed him. And I saw him looking at the others eating. And so I used a spoon and I took some food from the other children to feed him. And he grabbed the food. So apparently he could eat solid food. So I told the air hostess to give him a big portion. And he refused to have the spoon. He was feeding himself with his fingers. So I realised that he was older than what we thought, that he could be more than one, one and a half years old. Or close to two years old. It was just that he was shorter than the others.
I: After the examinations, what happened next?
JC: After one week in the hospital, we put them in a nursery. I found a place in Caritas in Han Ho where on the upper floor, there was a vacant space. So I put all six of the children there. And then there were two Sisters living on that second floor. So the two Sisters were foster carers for the six of the children. And during the day time, they would attend the nursery on the ground floor. So it was a good arrangement. Every Saturday, I would take them out to the surrounding area to swim and walk in the park and things like that. And after six months’ time, it took us that long to arrange overseas agencies in Switzerland. Two of them were arranged to go to Holland, Netherlands. Caritas Netherlands took them. And four of them [went to] Switzerland. And the youngest one was immediately adopted by a couple in Hong Kong, who were going back to Germany. That helped us because at that time, he was the youngest one not running around like the others. So this couple left within six months to Germany.
I: Do you hear about them? How they were doing?
JC: Only those from Switzerland. I heard about them. They are doing fine, they all completed secondary education and are working. Except one, who had a drug problem. [That was] the little peeping boy. He had a drug problem.
I: How was the one who went to Germany?
JC: No, Switzerland. He’s very handsome looking. But then, he quit drugs. The mother told me they had a hard time. But the mother was very supportive to him. And then he requested the parents to send him to South America for treatment. And he stayed on a farm for two years and really quit drugs. And then he returned back to Switzerland to work.
I: And that was the first group of Vietnamese people you assisted through Caritas?
JC: Yes. Personally, I was also involved. But the others, we went in hundreds and hundreds – the programs we arranged [for them]. First of all, we arranged relief work for them. For example, when they first arrive, they need diapers for the children or clothing for the children.
I: You mean the Vietnamese boat people? Do you remember the first time you assisted the first group of Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong.
JC: Yes. There was a Military Chaplain organising the Nepalese military soldiers to take care of a few hundreds. I don’t remember exactly – about 200-300. In Fan Ling. And in the first week, we went to get children’s clothing, milk powder, things for the kids to play [with] and to keep them occupied for the first week.
I: What year was that?
JC: 1975. That was even before the UNHCR started their office here. I don’t remember when they started their office here, but it was before that. We were working directly with the military chaplain in Fan Ling. That was the first group. And then afterwards when the UNHCR came, we had other camps in Kai Tak airport, in Wan Chai (Harcourt) and also in Sam Shui Po area. Then afterwards, [there were camps] in the factory houses in Fai Leong. Caritas was the one agency that started to help them from the beginning, until the end.
I: So that’s about 20 years?
JC: 25 years. And we were also the main agency to help the UNHCR to put in all the Vietnamese families data to apply for them to be resettled abroad. And we handled about 125,000 families.
I: You were with Caritas the whole time, these 25 years?
JC: Yes. Caritas seconded staff to the UNHCR office to work with the Vietnamese. But at that time, our staff couldn’t speak Vietnamese. So I requested the religious Vietnamese speaking Sisters and Priests to go and help in each of the camps. So every Sunday, for those who are Catholic, they have mass. [They held mass] every Sunday in the refugee camps. And the Sisters go on weekdays to teach them English and act as interpreters also.
I: What were some of the services Caritas provided for the Vietnamese boat people?
JC: Relief work, giving them material goods, organising volunteers to teach them English, work with the women, sometimes even Health Education, family planning and things like that. Then at one time, we were allowed to conduct schools for children under 12 years old. So we had nurseries and schools. But later, the International Social Services did all the schooling and we only [taught] the women and the nursery, the health clinic and the elderly. And community development projects, because when Government built the camps for them, we went according to the ‘street’.
So in each street, we determined how many housing units [there were], and we had group meetings with all the leaders so as to involve them to run their own camp. I remember at one time, we had many donations of goods, like for Christmas we had ice-cream and some additional things. We would inform the Vietnamese they had these things, and let them distribute it by themselves. But we discussed with them how to do it. And we asked the Vietnamese leaders to do the distribution. So not everything was done by the staff. So in that way, we had the cooperation of the Vietnamese to handle their own things.
I: What were the birth rates among the Vietnamese boat people at the time? I heard it was quite high.
JC: It was quite high. Medical and clinics were being done by the Government. We weren’t asked to handle that.
I: How many staff did you have [in general] to assist you with your work?
JC: Different times, different numbers. The largest number at one time was close to 100. But normally, it was less. Because I had a team working with the UNCHCR on all the family dossiers for resettlement, [and] then we had volunteers teaching English. Then we had pre-employment skills training for the young men to prepare them to go overseas. It all depends, at different times we had different skills and different people. And also we had staff to do the camp management.
I: Was Caritas, at that time, involved in other projects outside of the Vietnamese boat people? Or did this always occupy your time?
JC: No, we had others. I still regularly ran other projects like family counselling. We had the largest in Hong Kong. We are in 10 or 12 districts. Each district has a family service centre. Each district has a community centre that works with the local people. So we have other things [going on].
I: Did you find working with the Vietnamese boat people challenging?
JC: Very challenging. And I think I also grew up with them, because it was right… I started to work with Caritas in 1969. And six years later, the Vietnamese boat people came. So I grew up with doing service [for] them. And then, I also had to take part in overseeing conferences. For example, the Commission of Catholic Migration Service, that worked with migrants. I was one of their Council Members, so … how I became a Council Member was because I was asked to report on all the works that were being undertaken in Hong Kong to help the refugees.
So I was first introduced to that group for this purpose. And after that, they invited me to visit the first settlers going to Brussels. I was there in the morning when the first group were going to Brussels – there were about 100 of them. And I remember, listening to them getting down from the plane. They said, ‘It’s like an ice-box here’, because it was very cold when they arrived at 6am or 7am in the morning. ‘Like a refrigerator’ [laughs].
I: What month, or season was that?
JC: That was May. Because usually [the Commission] have meetings in April or May. Because I was reporting about our situation in Hong Kong [to the Commission] – [for example] how we helped [the Vietnamese boat people] and what our difficulties and problems were. And the President of that Commission said, ‘would you like to come to Brussels and tell us how we should work with the refugees?’ And I said yes, but I needed to apply to go there, because I held a passport from the Seychelles, not a British passport. So I had problems with visas in certain places. So he said he would get me a visa to go. Because apparently, Belgium is a very open country and you can easily get a visa at the airport, even. So he said he would get me a visa and a ticket to go there. He said it wouldn’t take me too much time, just a few extra days. And it happened that was the day the Vietnamese from Hong Kong [the first group] was arriving.
So I went to see how they were doing, because when they were in Hong Kong, we were trying to get rid of their lice from their hair. And also, some of them were holding the medicine while they were going there [to Brussels]. Because I know that when they did [their medical] check-ups, there were problems with worms in their intestines. And I said that these people needed [medical] follow-up. And those who had TB, also they recovered, they were under medication and needed to continue their medication in order to control the disease. So I took them some of these things that we saw in Hong Kong so that they could follow-up. And they were very grateful I was there to help them because they had no idea how to follow-up.
I: And of course the language barrier?
JC: It wasn’t so bad, because the first group of re-settlers in Brussels could speak French. A lot of Vietnamese can speak French, because they were working with a French company or an American company. That’s why the French-speaking group could easily be resettled, and the English-speaking group could easily be resettled in America.
I: What year was that, the first group that went to Brussels?
JC: I think 1976 – ’78. Between those two years.
I: I mean the time you went to Brussels?
JC: Yes, that was ’76-78. About that time, I remember. Because the ICMC had meetings every two years. So either ’76 or ’78 I was there to speak to them about this. But of course the first group of settlers were more competent and skilled people. They had been working under French companies or English-speaking companies, so they were easily settled in the first line for the first few groups.
I: Over the years, working with the Vietnamese boat people, what were some of the difficulties that you experienced?
JC: Of course, in the beginning it was language. But later we were able to get some Vietnamese- speaking people from the community. Because Hong Kong was so strict that we had Vietnamese-speaking people who had settled in Hong Kong years ago. And then, of course later when people from the farming groups came, we were unable to help them. We had difficulty in helping them because Hong Kong is mainly urban and they came from a rural area. And there was a gap [for them] to fit into their career or work experience. I found at that time, that was the difficulty.
Then the other difficulty was we didn’t know which country would take which group of people. We could easily start language-training for them as early as possible, but we didn’t know whether, for example after learning German, Germany would take them? It was completely out of our control, which country would take what kind of people. So the main language classes we conducted were mainly English or French. We didn’t dare to teach so many other language classes because we didn’t know if they [the respective countries] would take them.
I: Did you ever think it would last that long?
JC: No we didn’t. We always thought it would last two or three years. But it lasted 25 years. It’s almost one generation.
I: What were some of the most memorable moments for you?
JC: I think it was in the beginning, because they were freer, because they weren’t put inside a camp. I remember even in Sam Shui Po, in the English military camp at that time, it was very near our centre. We had a centre [there]. The elderly centre there closed at 6 o’clock, so we could easily conduct classes, like cooking classes, or whatever kinds of classes in the evening for the Vietnamese refugees. And they were very happy, they could do cooking. For example, we had some ‘exchange’ or ‘fun fair’ days where the elderly would cook certain things, and the Vietnamese would cook Vietnamese egg rolls for them. And they all enjoyed [together].
And there really was no barrier between the Vietnamese and Chinese. It was like a family, where during the Chinese New Year, we had all kinds of food and it was all mixed where each group would provide different kinds of food. It was really like a big family, that even the local people weren’t resentful of the Vietnamese people at all. It was only when we started to put them into camps that people started to say, ‘these are camp people, these are not ordinary people’.
I: When did that start?
JC: 1982. I remember we started to carry our Identity Cards that year. And then the Vietnamese had to carry their papers, stating that they are ‘Transient Residents’.
I: Looking back, after working with Vietnamese people for 25 years, what did that experience mean to you?
JC: It meant a lot because I used all of the skills I learned in Social Work in all kinds of aspects. We also had to advocate for the Vietnamese in front of the Government, arguing why can’t they have schools? Because they couldn’t attend our local schools, I said, ‘why can’t they have a school within the camp?’ I was really not afraid of anything. I was arguing for the Vietnamese to havw schools, clinics and the right for doctor’s consultations when they needed them. But there was a problem when the Vietnamese committed some [crimes] like burglaries, or [exhibited] violent behaviour towards other Vietnamese in the camp.
Then there is a problem, because it’s beyond our imagination how to handle them. Then the Government just put them in prison. Although it solved our problem, it was a problem for the Vietnamese themselves, because after being in prison, they couldn’t go abroad [to be resettled]. It was a vicious cycle, you see. We had a lot of things to learn from day to day problems. And we had to face the media, and sometimes we had so many visitors to the camp. I remember twice I was in a helicopter with a Bishop to take them to see the Vietnamese camp situation. And I was thrown in doing PR and getting funds from them, and writing reports to justify our use of their funds. And all sorts of [laughs] work I never dreamt of. I was just thrown into that work.
I: ‘Diversify’ was an understatement.
I: Do you have any regrets?
JC: Oh no regrets at all. In looking back, I think I enjoyed the work more than any regrets. I couldn’t think of anything to regret, except, once I think I was very stern with my staff. I told them they couldn’t behave that way towards the refugees. I don’t remember what it was, but that girl must have remembered, because she was crying on the phone. But I forgot what it was about – it must have been something serious. But I don’t remember really.
I: Thank you very much. On behalf of the Vietnamese refugees and myself, I thank you for your good heart… Is there anything you’d like to add?