Interviewee: Kathleen Malone (KM)
I: The time now is 2:35pm. It’s Wednesday afternoon, January 9, 2013. I am at the Lady Recreation Club in Hong Kong. Thanks for meeting with me. May I please have your full name?
KM: Kathleen Malone.
I: When and where were you born?
KM: I was born in London in 1943 of Irish Immigrant parents.
I: How long have you been living in Hong Kong?
KM: I have been in Hong Kong since the late 70’s, for about 35 years.
I: What brought you to Hong Kong?
KM: We came because my husband is a landslide expert and Hong Kong suffered with a lot of landslides and deaths as a result.
I: Have you stayed here since?
KM: We have stayed here since, and my husband has now left the Government whom he worked for and now works for the Hong Kong University.
I: When did you first get involved with the Vietnamese refugees?
KM: Very soon after I arrived, somebody – I cannot remember who – asked me if I would get involved with some teaching. I am a qualified teacher. So I agreed and got taken over to Sham Shui Po refugee camp. And we had a connection through the Catholic Church, through Mother Theresa’s group. And they took us in and we setup teaching on a roster basis with our adults who were prepared to give some time.
I: How long did you teach at that refugee camp?
KM: That particular one must have been about 2-3 years. And then in 1980, I had another child – a third child – and after that, I went back with some more teaching, other the auspices of – I think it was UNHCR in those days – we taught at St Johns Anglican cathedral. We brought the children out and taught them at the Cathedral. It was a nice trip for the children, and it was convenient for us not to have to go to Sham Shui Po.
I: What was it like for you when you first started teaching the refugees?
KM: The conditions in the camp in Sham Shui Po were very difficult, because there was a constant noise of loudspeakers blaring almost the whole time we were there giving announcements, messages, calling people, telling them what was going on. And the weather seemed to be particularly rainy that time. And so the noise of the rain on the metal roofs and the loudspeakers made it very difficult to teach. But of course we persevered. And I still suffer from loss of upper range voice which I lost at that time, trying to sing and speak over that noise.
I: How many hours a day did you teach there?
KM: We used to do 2 or 3 hours of a few afternoons. Then simply we started with very small children, because there was nothing for toddlers. Basically we were just keeping them occupied. Of course they came with their mothers or somebody. Then later we started to do slightly older children, primary school children. We tried to give them a little bit of help with English. We also spoke to the parents about how they should try to adapt in a different climate, because of course one of the things was, they weren’t used to the cold. And they thought if they put on one thin jacket, they would be fine. Whereas we were trying to teach them that layers were better to trap the air and such like.
And so Cathay Pacific gave us, in Sam Shui Po, a mock-up of an aeroplane because they had a terrible incident where the plane had taken off and a little old lady had gone to the back of the airplane and lit a kerosene stove to cook up her rice. No one had told her she’d get a meal on board. And they suddenly realised that these people knew nothing about flying. So that was the incident where they [Cathay Pacific] gave us a mock up [airplane] seat and we taught them how to get on board a plane, tie themselves up [with seatbelts], taught them about the wash basins and told them about what happens when you get on board. And you don’t have to cook [laughs].
I: A mock-up airplane? That’s interesting.
KM: Yes. We used an old container, one of those ship containers, and they set it up inside with a couple of seats and seat belts and things.
I: Were there any difficulties for you?
KM: For me personally, I didn’t really find it difficult. I really enjoyed what I was doing because I loved teaching. Of course it was physically very difficult and it was also quite tiring because I had young children. There was a little bit of ill-rest in the camp. We could only take so many children of course in the space we were given, and there was a bit of fighting going on as to who was going to bring their child in and who wasn’t. And I do remember one or two little incidents where women were fighting to bring their children into the class. It was quite hard.
I: So then how would you solve that? Was there a roster?
KM: We did have a roster. Some people did mornings, I did the afternoons. I’m really not sure if everybody got to come in. We left that part to the camp to organise themselves. But generally speaking, it was quite peaceful. We had little incidents where the children would steal everything. Anything we bought for toys, pencils, paper. But of course we needed to reuse them; we couldn’t let them have them. So we used to search the little children, very discreetly as they were going out. And take little bits of lego, or pencils or any small thing they wanted. Of course they wanted something.
I: I’m sure there were up sides to it. You stayed there for a couple of years, so what kept you going?
KM: I met some really lovely families who suffered terribly. One family was a family of eight children, a father and a mother. The father had paid for them all to go – in pairs, on different boats – so that some of them would survive. Fortunately, all of them survived. Most of them arrived in Hong Kong. One or two of them arrived in other places. I think one son and the daughter-in-law and their child ended up in the Philippines, but eventually the Red Cross helped them all come together. And eventually they all ended up in Hong Kong, although some of them were in different camps. But that was wonderful for that family.
And another family who had been in the Huey Fong and had spent years out in the jungle in Vietnam because, had four children and a mother and a concubine mother who they looked after. The father was telling me at one stage how he had carried his elderly eighty-one year old mother onto the boat. They ended up on the Huey Fong which was one of the boats where the refugees had to live on for six months. It was the Skyluck, sorry. They had to live on the boat for six months because there was just no space in Hong Kong.
And the young people pulled the anchor up and it [the Skyluck] drifted into one of the islands. And then they all hopped off. Of course, he said there was no way he could get off with two old women and four children. But they eventually survived. He was a man who was very well-educated. He spoke five languages including French, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese and English. And he was an interpreter in the camp. And [he was] a lovely man. And we invited them to come spend Christmas with us and they did. And we had a good, fun time.
I: That sounds wonderful. I just want to share your memories. What comes to mind? Some incidents or happy moments?
KM: One of the happy moments was Christmas time, when after they were ready to go home, the father said to me that he had never seen his wife laugh and smile like that for about 5-8 years, because they had nothing to make them smile. The children had never been to school, even though the eldest was eleven. And he just said it was wonderful to see her laughing and smiling. It was terrific. It was mixed with sadness, when I got invited by the other family to come to the camp and enjoy tea with them. And they invited me in, and took me along to the bottom level of the bunk bed they lived on. And the father said, ‘welcome to my home’, which touched me terribly. And they were so resigned and accepting of it all. And looking on the positive side [of things] it was really lovely.
I: Did you ever have to deal with those who were repatriated?
KM: I never dealt with anybody who got repatriated, but one incident was when the man who spoke all the languages who was the interpreter in the camp got accepted to America. But his mother had a shadow on the lung, so they wouldn’t accept her until she had the treatment. So he said they couldn’t go then, they had to all stay and he was persuaded by the Authorities to let his concubine mother go. And they said, if you don’t claim her as an old person with no relatives, she would go very quickly. Which he did. And she went off in three weeks to America, and was apparently ok. She was 81. Off to America with some of the others. It must have been frightful for her, being elderly and separated from the family. But it all worked out and they found out she was ok, and they would go [to America] eventually. There are so many interesting stories aren’t there.
I: What about the students?
KM: The students were just like any other students really. I think little kids just accept life [as it is], they accept anything. I didn’t deal with the older children who must have had more problems. But certainly, this camp only had young children as far as I could see. The little children were just like any children. They loved the singing, they loved the drawing and painting. And we took them into my ex-school which was opposite St John’s Cathedral once, and they spent a day at the school with all different age groups and classes. And those children just mixed in, you know. Some of them were pretty good at ‘rounders’, and things like that when we had sports. And it was lovely to see them mixing in and being just like other children. It broke your heart to think of what they had gone through, but you always tried to be like the Vietnamese who were always looking on the positive side, I found. People I met certainly did. They always looked on the positive side, and that they would survive.
I: What did your family think about you doing this?
KM: My children didn’t mind too much. They were a little bit cross when I gave a lot of their toys away. They still to this day say, ‘you gave my favourite toys away’. But children in Hong Kong have so much you know, that was deprivation for them.
I: And did you ever bring your children to the camp to meet the Vietnamese?
KM: Yes, one of my sons I brought to the camp once, when he came home for the holidays. I brought him in to help in Mother Theresa’s camp. But they didn’t allow young children to come in, in those days, so you couldn’t bring in young children. And I was a little bit frightened in the ‘80’s, when I had my young daughter, in case she caught anything. As you can imagine, all the illnesses were travelling around very fast in those days, although our children were well inoculated. There was a little fear that I might bring something home. The only thing, I didn’t get the nets unfortunately. I had very long hair back then which I kept very well tied up. I did get a little bit of scabies which was treated very easily. That was all.
I: How old was your son when you brought him to the camp?
KM: He was about eleven or twelve.
I: How was it for him?
KM: It was quite an eye-opener for him. He was actually… I have to admit it was actually a punishment for him. Although he had been interested in coming, he had been very naughty. And I had said to him, in that case he had to do some charitable work in the summer holidays. So he came in to help – to do whatever was necessary. [Laughs]
I: Did you and your son talk about that experience?
KM: Not terribly. I haven’t spoken to him much. He actually works in Vietnam now, which is quite interesting. He goes there quite a lot. He wants me to go, as I have never been. He wants me to go and see the place that I was quite attached to at one time.
I: Perhaps you should, you will enjoy it.
KM: We had some big business people who were very good. One of the men who ran the Tobermore Newspaper Company used to give us all the off-shoots. In those days, it was the big computer pages, and he gave us all the old paper that wasn’t right. Tobermore is quite a large company. And they gave us the paper for the children to draw on, because the children didn’t have anything to draw on [at the time]. Those bits of paper would have cost a lot. It was easy to round up pencils and crayons and things, but not lots of paper. It was a very good use of their old paper.
A lot of people were kind and donated toys and things for us to use in class. And books… although books weren’t that useful because the children couldn’t read English. But they could look at pictures, so that was fine for children. It’s bringing back memories for me when I think about it. I’ve got some stories from the Vietnamese refugees themselves who told me what had happened to them in Vietnam. To make them come on the boats and such, and when they landed, I know one group who landed tried to land in the Philippines and got shot at. They just turned around and came to Hong Kong where we accepted them. I always feel that the Hong Kong Government was pretty good about that. I know that other people may have other stories, but I thought they were pretty good and accepting where they could. And, we were quite a crowded nation anyway.
I: And the second time you came back, what camp was that?
KM: The second time was with UNHCR. And it was organised by – I’m not sure the man, he was from a Lutheran church – and we actually brought the children out of the camp by coach. And they came with a very nice young Chinese, Vietnamese man who had been training to become a doctor. He had only done about four or five years of his training, but he was fairly knowledgeable. So they brought him – or he came with the children – in case anything went wrong, or a child was sick or anything like that, he could help. And he came from the family where I said they put [all the family members] on different boats. A lovely family. What one of the things the interpreters did for me – after we had the Christmas time together at our flat – was to ask me if he could invite a Vietnamese chef who was in the camp so he could cook. So he brought the Vietnamese chef to my house and the chef spent all day preparing food which I couldn’t really help him much with. And he made us a wonderful meal, which was a very nice gesture, I thought. They had nothing, you know they didn’t have any money. They wouldn’t take any money for it. But they, on principle, they wouldn’t take anything for it. A very proud people, I think. They were very proud. They didn’t have their hand out for everything that was going. They were just lovely people.
I: How many of you volunteered to teach at that time?
KM: The first group was quite a big group. I think this was organised with Mother Theresa’s group. And people were very enthusiastic. I don’t know if maybe the enthusiasm waned a little bit, after the years when they kept arriving. But the second time, we had about a dozen women – mainly women, I think it was all women in those days – who would go in either mornings or afternoons to go in and do teaching or something or the other. They weren’t all qualified [teachers]. But they brought their experience and their help to the little children. We had all small children in that camp. So that was… I think the bigger group was the first group. And that was overseen by a Lutheran church, I think. I just cannot remember how I first got involved. I’ve been trying to think about it, where it was that I first… I can’t remember.
I: So your husband didn’t mind?
KM: Not at all. He used to say, ‘that will keep you out of mischief’.
I: With four children there can’t be much time for you?
KM: No time for me, with four children. I had stopped teaching at that time. I taught when I first came. And in those days, I was able to go in the afternoons to teach at Sam Shui Po. But then when I was pregnant with my daughter in 1980, I stopped teaching for a few years. I didn’t go back for a few years so I had a lot more time. We were very lucky; we have a full time amma who used to help. She was also very good. She was a good friend [to me].
I: What did the experience mean to you?
KM: Well, of course one can’t help but be emotionally involved with all these people who have terrible stories, tragic stories. My parents had been Irish and that wasn’t a particularly painful thing, but I used to think about the Irish people who had left Ireland and gone to Australia and America at the times of the potato famine in the mid-1800’s. And I thought it must have been a very similar thing, although they went on a boat journey on a big boat that catered to people. They couldn’t afford the proper accommodation on board, so they would go in steerage down at the bottom of the boat. And a lot of people died on the way there. And you would pick up all sorts of diseases and everything. And I sort of associated that with the Vietnamese problem. I just felt that we had a lot.
We had come to Hong Kong, which was a struggle to survive in Britain. But we were both professionals. We didn’t have a lot of money left over, but when we came to Hong Kong, we had good money and good accommodation. So I thought, ‘we had been so lucky’, maybe we could give back a little. I’m also a Catholic and believe in charitable works, and giving back and giving unto the least. But I did get very emotionally involved with people and wanted to do more than I could for them. I really enjoyed doing it, because I liked teaching and I enjoyed it. Unfortunately as I said, I lost my upper range of voice and I can’t sing now, which I used to do quite a lot. I suppose it’s a small price to pay. And I would love to know what happened to the families I was close to. I’ve lost contact with them and I would love to know what happened to them. Who knows, I might be able to eventually find out what happened to them. They were lovely people.
I: Well Kath, thank you very much. Is there anything else you would like to add?
KM: No. It’s just very nice to pick up on somebody who has been successful. That everything has worked out despite all the miserable times you probably had. And it’s nice to meet up with somebody again, from that era, even though you didn’t come to Hong Kong.
I: Well I hope we can meet again.
KM: And I will do some research for you, to help you.