Interviewee: Lionel Lam (LL)
10:10AM, Saturday September 11 2013, Lionel Lam’s Office, Hong Kong
I: May I please have your full name, your date of birth and where you were born?
LL: Lionel Lam-Kin. I was born on the 5th of December in 1945, officially, in Shan-Ho China. The reason why I mention ‘officially’ was that my date of birth – as far as concerned in Hong Kong – was translated from my lunar calendar date of birth. My true date of birth should be the 18th January. Because people in China didn’t always record their date of birth according to the lunar calendar, I was born on the fifth day of the twelfth moon in 1945. Hence I have two birth dates.
I: I have heard similar stories in Vietnam too.
LL: I’m sure a lot of people in Hong Kong have the same problem.
I: Which date do you prefer to use now?
LL: Well officially it is the 5th of December.
I: Well you can always have two birthday celebrations.
LL: I have three, in fact.
I: How come?
LL: There’s the official date of birth, there’s the regular date of birth and then there’s lunar New Year – or lunar calendar – date of birth, which is the fifth day of the twelfth moon every year. So [my birthdates are] 5th of December, 18th January and the fifth day of the twelfth moon. So I have three birthdates. [Laughs].
I: And if there is ever a lunar year or a lunar month, you will have four. Is that correct?
LL: If it’s a leap year, I might have four.
I: Now, when did you get involved with the Vietnamese boat people?
I: And how did it all get started?
LL: I was in charge of the Homicide Bureau, of the Hong Kong Police; [known] then as the Royal Hong Kong Police. On the 19th of December, the ship – Huey Fong – arrived in Hong Kong outside the Hong Kong boundary, which is called a ‘square’ boundary. It is the seafront of Hong Kong. The Police had to setup a special investigation team to deal with this situation, and I was appointed as the Deputy Head of that unit. The Head was another Senior Superintendent by the name of John Clements. He was then in charge of the Criminal Intelligence Bureau, whereas I was an Acting Superintendent in charge of the Homicide Bureau. The idea was that other than being the overall Commander of the Special Investigations Unit, he would be mainly responsible for the intelligence side of things. And I would handle the investigative side of things.
I: What was the main reason for your special unit to handle the arrivals?
LL: This was something unprecedented in Hong Kong, and we wanted to find out…
I: Was this for the Huey Fong?
LL: Yes, the Huey Fong. If you want to go back to the history of these ‘refugee ships’, the first one that came to Hong Kong was the Tung An, which passed through Hong Kong and tried to come in, but was prevented from coming in, in that they were reprovisioned and sent away to eventually arrive in the Philippines. The Tung An was eventually moored in the Bay of Manilla. Then the ship Huey Fong – which is a Panama-registered ship belonging to a Hong Kong shipping company, crewed by Taiwanese seamen, arrived in Hong Kong on the 19th of December outside the square boundary, or Hong Kong waters.
I: What’s the difference between the Huey Fong and the Clara Maersk that came in May 1975?
LL: I have no knowledge of the Clara Maas.
I: That was the very first time Hong Kong experienced the [arrival] of the Vietnamese boat people. It was in May 1975, but the Clara Maersk actually picked up these distressed people at sea and there were more than 3000 [of the boat people].
LL: I have no knowledge. I haven’t come across that case.
I: Let’s go back to your case. At what time were you called in?
LL: As soon as the ship, Huey Fong arrived, we had to set it up.
I: Was it daytime or night time, do you remember?
LL: It must have been during the day, I was in my office. When she [the ship] arrived, she sent a ‘teleg’ – or telegram – to the Marine Department of Hong Kong, saying that they had picked up these refugees from the high seas. They were floating in small boats in the high seas, and the [ship] had salvaged these people and taken them to Hong Kong, and asked permission to enter Hong Kong. But then, of course they were stopped, because we knew that this wasn’t the truth. And eventually through my investigation we found out exactly what had transpired.
I: What did you find out?
LL: In fact, this ship had been hired from Bangkok and sailed to the Port of Vung Tau, outside Ho Chi Minh City. And all these people had paid real gold by way of fares to board the ship, to be brought to Hong Kong. There were approximately 3,000 of them [boat people]. The rate they had to pay was twelve tales [Chinese gold weight measurement] of gold, and we even found out through investigations that there was an address in Ho Chi Minh City. If I remember correctly, it was the Nguyen Du, a street in Saigon opposite a cinema called Rang Dong – The Palace Cinema. On the first floor of that address, they had set up tables, and the Vietnamese Officials would sit on one side and these people would come in producing gold – mainly in the form of gold leaf – of six inches by one inch in size, and one Chinese tale in weight.
And those who didn’t have sufficient gold leaf would top them up with gold ornaments, which were all weighed and taken by the Officials, as a consideration for these people to go on board the Huey Fong. The money was apportioned – ten tales would go to the Officials. One tale would be taken by the racketeers who organised the ship to go to Saigon. The remaining one tale would go to the ship’s crew. Children under the age of twelve did not have to pay. So they were all – in other words – fare paid passengers. Not refugees per se. And most of them were rich ethnic Chinese, from Saigon. Some of them had even tried to leave by boarding small boats in a fishing village called Ben Tre. Some of them had come all the way from there.
I: Who hired that ship?
LL: A group of ethnic Chinese, plus one Vietnamese person by the name of Nguyen, who obviously had a connection with the Government. The ethnic Chinese was a family called Chan, who were involved in press stock business. And they got to know someone from Hong Kong – a Chinese person by the name of Kwok, who was married to a Vietnamese lady in Saigon and they had a son. And this person was doing trading between Hong Kong and Saigon. And he had connections with a shipping company on Hong Kong. And he had gone to Bangkok to strike up this deal with the ship’s crew, and he then took the ship from Bangkok to Saigon. And when they arrived, this is how we found out from telegrams we seized from them that they were using codified messages etc. They had arrived at the Sand Island halfway through to rendezvous with the pilot ship, and then taken to Vung Tau where they moored and set anchor.
I: So with the Officials collecting ten tales out of twelve, were they the ones who paid the rental fee?
LL: No! The rental fee was the one tale that went to the ship’s crew which was eventually seized by us from the ship. The reason that Kwok was involved was that his so-called wife – I think it was his mistress – and son out of Saigon. I think that was his advantage.
I: So the Government got a whole lot [of gold] and didn’t even have to pay for rental? [That’s] unbelievable.
LL: No. [It was the same for] the racketeers who also came with the boat. The Chan family was in Hong Kong – they had already arrived and were already doing business in Hong Kong – the father and son. They were eventually arrested of course. Nguyen Kuok was the main organiser from the Vietnamese end. And this Kwok was the Hong Kong liaison to escort the ship to Hong Kong.
I: So what happened to Nguyen? Was he sentenced?
LL: Yes. Here in Hong Kong. I haven’t got the details, but I will try to dig out the report which should have been microfilmed by the Police records service.
I: I have newspaper clips about that.
LL: I think six defendants were all jailed in the case. The captain of the ship was a retired Colonel from the Taiwanese Navy. And he was a native of Szechuan, and spoke only Mandarin. And that was the reason I was involved, because I am a multi-dialect person. And it is one of the reasons I was given the task, because I can speak to them.
I: What happened to the Vietnamese Officials? Were they ever questioned?
LL: No, they didn’t come with [the boat people].
I: But the Hong Kong Government didn’t raise anything with them?
LL: Yes we did. The then Governor of Hong Kong, Sir MacLeHose, or Lord MacLeHose, went to Vienna and in a UN Conference, he disclosed that these ships were not refugee ships. These were fare-paid passengers. And he quoted what I just told you. Even the address in just told you, [stating] that this was where the gold changed hands. And it was a big expose to the world, so to say.
I: So back to your experience, when you were first called out to Huey Fong, what was your reaction? What did you see?
LL: Well the first time I boarded the Huey Fong, I was disguised as a member of the Marine Official Party. Because I didn’t want to disclose my identity as a policeman. And I had myself all wired up, because I knew that I would be talking to the ship’s captain and the crew. And it was stormy with rain pouring down when we boarded the ship. And I interviewed the ship’s captain unofficially. I got the crew’s list and there were thirteen of them. And I asked him details on each and every one [of the crew] because I knew that eventually I would have to interview these people and it would give me some background information to my investigation later on. The second time that I boarded the ship was after all the refugees had been allowed to land and that was a big operation. We had to use double-decker vehicular ferries to be used as a pontoon, for them to be transferred from the ship to smaller ferries to go ashore. And that is why I suggested that we should perhaps bring in an Immigration Officer to help me with all the documentation and processing.
LL: The person who was involved at the working level was Paul Lok, and his boss was Tom Peters – my counter-part at that time.
I: How long did it take you [to transfer the boat people across]?
LL: Just one day, because it was a very well-planned investigation.
I: So your job was more involved with investigating the criminal element of the ship.
LL: I was given one month to put together a case against these perpetrators, by the then Secretary for Security in a meeting.
I: And who was the Secretary in charge [at the time]?
LL: Davis. Greg Davis.
I: Ok, because I [had previously] met Alastair Asprey.
LL: He was Alastair’s predecessor. I was called to a meeting at the Government Secretariat, and I was the most junior, lowest-ranking officer at the meeting. He was sitting at one end of the table, and I was sitting at the other end of the big conference table. And he pointed his finger at me and said, ‘Superintendent, I want you to put together a case against these people at all cost’. And like a fool, I didn’t name my price. I should have said, ‘yes, get me an instant promotion to Commissioner of Police’ [laughs].
I: Would you be happy if you were promoted?
LL: Well I would be happy to be promoted but not to [the position] of Commissioner.
I: So how did you complete it? Did you complete it in one month?
LL: Yes I did. I worked seventeen hours a day. Because when we started off, we had no idea how to get in. All we had was this bogus story told to us by the ship’s crew. And the boat people [refugees] were getting sick and had to be air-lifted to land, and taken to hospital for treatment. And I would be sending teams to the hospitals to interview these people. And they would come up with the same old story because they were being coached, being primed [for arrival in Hong Kong].
I: Do you mean they were being coached on the ship before arrival?
LL: We learned this later, the captain, through his interpreter had talked to all the people and told them that if they were ever questioned by the authorities, this is what you should tell them. He was a fellow-countryman; his wife was also an Immigration Officer who eventually worked after the handover for the British Consulate for a short while.
I: So back to your investigation. Did you have to interview them in the hospital as well?
LL: My team did. And they all came back with the same old story.
I: That would have been frustrating.
LL: But that eventually became part of our evidence against the perpetrators, the syndicate. The reason why I had to work 17 hours/day was because I only had one month to ‘crack the case’, essentially. So I would send teams out. Before I sent the teams out, I would brief them as to what I required and expected of them. And they would all go out, and then come back afterwards to be debriefed by me. I would take their statements which I would go through, and then I would plan work for them the next day – assignments for the next day. In the meantime also, the team of Junior Officers who could read English; who had a higher English standard would then go to the Cable and Wireless in Hong Kong. When we first went, they wouldn’t allow us access to the telegrams, so I had to go and get a Court warrant to do that.
Eventually, they agreed to assist. It was through this that we surfaced the telegrams that said ‘rendezvous at this place at such a date’. And this was how we found out about their voyage. And eventually when we came to question the crew, we already had something to go on with. And it took them by surprise, in two ways. When I saw the crew for the first time, I told you I [had taken] down their details. And so I lined them up and said, ‘First Officer, from Guangzhou, who is Cantonese’ [and then] ‘You, First Engineer, from Taiwan and you speak Ethnic Amoy’ and then I pointed at the two radio officers and said to them, ‘you’re both from Shanghai, Tze Chiang. Both of them were from Shanghai, [that region].
The funniest one was the cook, who was ethnic [speaks Chinese] but from Cambodia. I said to him, [speaks Chinese]. Same with those from Taiwan, I used my Amoy dialect which I could speak. They thought I knew a lot about them. So it’s interesting. So when we eventually, formally interviewed them, they all told the truth. They all opened up, except for the gold. There were three hundred pounds, or the equivalent of three thousand tales of gold on the ship which was the share of the crew. Where did they hide them? [The gold] was hidden in the disused oil tank of the ship, which had a skeleton, or shelves. And they were wrapped in poly-urethane papers in twenty-eight packages, resting on the shelves.
Then they pumped seawater in to cover them. And through investigation, the Chief Engineer – through interrogation – eventually disclosed [where the gold was hidden]. So I had to get assistance from the Customs Department, Customs Service and the Marine Department Engineers to empty the oil tank. And we sent divers in to retrieve these twenty-eight packages. Right away, I had them shipped ashore under escort by my senior assistants. And weigh them straightaway that night, to make sure it was the right quantity. And that same night, [I] also deposited the Government treasury boat.
Eventually all these bits and pieces had to be examined by the Government Chemist to certify it was all pure gold, 99.9%; because that is evidence in Court. There was always the possibility of the defence arguing that this wasn’t gold but gilded metal, so it was all part of our proof. It’s interesting putting together a conspiracy case, in one month. I personally interviewed a captain – the ship’s captain – and the hand-written statement came to fifty-two pages which was eventually produced in Court and wasn’t challenged. The defence council was the Queen’s Counsel (QC), nowadays known as the Senior Council, and he said he was happy that the statements were taken properly without duress, coercion or threat. And they were admitted as evidence.
I: What happened to the boat people?
LL: They were allowed to land. And I mentioned earlier we used double-decker vehicular ferries. Before that, I had to go onto the ship to look at the conditions, and that’s when I got emotional. I saw children reaching out to me from the manholes, the windows and I had brought for them chocolate and biscuits to hand out to them. And when you see fellow human being treated like cattle, it’s not nice. And even for me, supposedly a ‘macho’ person, I broke down in tears. So I can imagine the things you went through, the hardship you went through.
I: I sat with my knees to my chin with my little brother and sister on each side and I was sixteen [years old]. And we were shot at by Malaysian military.
LL: Now that’s another story. Another ship called Hai Hong, went to Malaysia and they were not allowed to [enter]. They were reprovisioned. The Officer I mentioned earlier – his name was John Clements – went to Malaysia to learn more about the whole thing. Eventually after the investigation [was over], we set ourselves up as an Intelligence Agency and we would monitor ships leaving Vietnam. And we identified them. And there were quite a few of them. We got details from the Marine Department and we announced them through the International Media scene, which would stop them [discourage them] from coming to Hong Kong.
I: So you knew they were in Malaysia and you wanted to make sure they [the ships] wouldn’t come here [to Hong Kong]?
LL: Well, basically from the Hong Kong point of view, we tried to stop all these refugee boats. We couldn’t cope with them [because] we already had the Huey Fong, and then later on the Skyluck, the Tung An and a few others. And there was no way we could cope.
I: Through my research, I’m aware that the situation of Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong was by far the most complicated. In so many aspects, especially the condition of Hong Kong compared to the other regions.
LL: I must say that we treated them in the most humane way compared with the other countries. I know this for a fact, you will have personal experience.
I: Well, my boat was pulled up to an uninhabited island by local authorities and left there. We were in the jungle and people started to die. At sixteen, I tried to deliver a baby. And my sister and brother and I, we all had high fevers. We were all ready to die. So I know hardship. So after the Huey Fong, how else were you involved with the Vietnamese boat people?
LL: Well as I said, we continued with intelligence-gathering and all that. But I wasn’t doing this whole thing – the special investigations – on a fulltime basis. Although I had to work seventeen hours a day, at the same time I had to look after my original Homicide Bureau. So I was doing two jobs at the same time.
I: So you weren’t allowed to just focus on this only?
I: Not just time-constrained, but it would have been hard to focus.
LL: With the Huey Fong, I was fully involved. I was really in charge of it and ran the whole investigation. But there were other investigations going on at the same time being undertaken by my unit – murder cases, for instance. So I had to supervise those as well.
I: For the Huey Fong, did you ever have to send anyone to Vietnam to verify anything? Or just based on what you had here?
LL: No, we had enough evidence. The gold itself spoke for itself. It wouldn’t have just dropped from heaven.
I: After that, were there any other incidents with the Vietnamese boat people that you experienced?
LL: The Tek Ang was a small boat, less than a thousand tonnes. It was hired by some racketeers from Macau, and it went to pick up refugees from Hun Tao as well. The ship’s operator was a family with the surname Po, and they brought back less than a hundred [boat people]. And one of the family members that I mentioned to you earlier was the ‘Ni’ family. This young lady, as soon as they arrived, they weren’t allowed to land initially. So she contacted the American Consulate, and she was taken to the American Consulate to be fed and looked after and made comfortable. And she came up with this story that her uncle had been murdered on the ship. So we had to step up and investigate. In the meantime, we also investigated the operation of the ship and eventually they were prosecuted. The murder case was committed in international waters on board the ship, when it was in international waters there was nothing we could do about it. It turned out to be a mentally deranged person – the uncle – and he was thrown overboard by the ship’s crew on the high seas.
I: Was it to protect others on the ship?
LL: For whatever reason, he was causing trouble or whatever. They didn’t want him to cause trouble.
I: Your unit was to investigate really serious cases or any conspiracies?
LL: My unit was mainly involved with serious crime, e.g. murder cases. The Huey Fong was different. It was something that called for my investigation expertise and ability to speak different dialects.
I: Anymore cases after these two?
LL: No. Related to Vietnamese refugees were just those.
I: I was just interested in those relating to the Vietnamese boat people.
LL: I’m sorry I don’t have much to tell you.
I: You can pick and choose from history and hopefully it will make sense of something that happened. And so I thank you for your time and for sharing. When you look back at these two events in time, what does it mean to you? Did it make you feel one way or another; do you wish it didn’t happen?
LL: Of course I wish it didn’t happen. I feel sorry that such a tragic experience should happen to fellow human beings. As I told you, I personally went through the experience of having to leave my hometown and come back to civilisation again. But compared to those people on the Huey Fong, it is nothing. I am much luckier than them.
I: The outcome of the case; in your mind was justice served? Did those men serve for the crime appropriately?
LL: Well if you could call it a crime, then yes. Justice was served. But … trying to be philosophical, these people were also victims of history. Although they tried to make use and profit from the situation, you could argue that if the ship didn’t go to Vietnam, all those people would have to find other more risky ways of leaving the country, or continuing to stay in the country and suffer even more. In a way, they were saviours. And life is like that.
I: It’s true.
LL: But as far as I am concerned as a Police Officer, my job is to investigate crime and it was a crime perpetrated by different parties of people. And we have brought justice, and justice was done.