Mak Pak Lam
Interviewee: Mak Pak Lam (MPL)
MPL: [Starts speaking on record] So I am seeing something, possibly Peter may not be aware, and I don’t want to infringe on any of these. In 1975 or ’76, when the Vietnamese people came in – I don’t know whether you want to put this in the records, but I am telling you the true story – that in actual fact, at the time when the prison population was low, Tom Gardener picked up the refugee boat people. Not entirely on instruction of the Correctional Services. Because he is a very careful man. He knew the population was low. He won’t take up the boat people. In Headquarters where we had the meeting. Because when the prison population is low, our establishment is under control of this population. You can slaughter us, kill us, but we [cannot] change our establishment.
My boss was a very careful man, [to] take up the boat people. So the boat people almost equated to the population of the prison at one time. Eventually they exceeded the numbers. So we started a first camp in Kai Tak. Kai Tak is the name of the old airport in Hong Kong. We were scratching our heads, where to put the Vietnamese people. Where else can you put them? We were looking for abandoned housing and so on. Kai Tak was an airport with a Royal Air force there. And then maybe they had moved away from their old building, so it was a place where we could accommodate quite a few people. So we took them in. And built the first Kai Tak East camp. Eventually there was a Kai Tak West camp.
I: What month and year was that?
MPL: I can’t recall the exact year or month. But it should be in the year 1977 or 1978.
I: So you mean after the Skyluck? Or before?
Skyluck came after. When Skyluck came into Hong Kong, they broke through the security. It was ’79. It could be earlier. Because in ’79, I left in 1980. And I saw the Skyluck and everything. So the Marine Department – or Security of Hong Kong – was quite embarrassed when Skyluck moved in unnoticed. And the Hong Kong Government was quite embarrassed and Skyluck was tied up somewhere. And then [the] Hong Kong Government refused to land the refugees from their boat. They [the Hong Kong Government refused, hoping the problem would go away]. Therefore we had no accommodation for [those on] Skyluck. But Hong Kong was in a situation that in July [of that year]; a typhoon [came] to Hong Kong. So the Skyluck refugees were very clever. They tied up their Captain; let the boat adrift so that it grounded on Lama Island. So the boat people from Skyluck all scattered all over [the island] and ran away. At that time, the Hong Kong Government accepted them without choice into the detention camps.
I: What was your role when you started working?
MPL: I was a Camp Commander. And that was the time I worked with Talbot Bashall. Talbot Bashall was at that time a Prison Officer. Since 1953, I ascertained from him that he joined in the same year as me. I graduated from the same college [as him] in 1952, and joined the Department in 1953. When you graduated from Queens College, there were two conditions. Number 1, you must be very clever. Number 2, you must have a lot of money to be able to go to University. I hadn’t got both [of those things]. [Laughs]. So I came to look for a job, then I joined the Department here.
I: What was the name of the Department?
MPL: The Department was called the ‘Prison Department’. Eventually in 1982, it changed to the Correctional Services Department. But we actually called it ‘Her Majesty’s Prison’. Hong Kong being a British colony, and even in the UK, they still call [the Department] ‘Her Majesty’s Prison’ (HMP).
I: Why was the prison department involved with assisting the Vietnamese boat refugees?
MPL: Number 1, not many people can handle the containment and control of such a large number of people. Previously, at one time there were a large number of people who [previously] came to Hong Kong too. And the Hong Kong Government assigned the job of control to the CS – Civil Aid Services. But these people were volunteers. They were not professional or well-trained staff. So [these] volunteers were called up and simply went by routine. I haven’t got much knowledge of the CS controls, but to be very frank, it was a failure. And then, the Prison Department was professionally well-trained to maintain control, operation containment, supply and everything [else associated]. It was not an easy matter with a large number [of people]. At one time, I think the highest number [of refugees] at Kai Tak was 8000 people at that time. Just imagine how we supplied food – it was not a small matter. Also, for taking baths, the water supply. And the clearance of waste. They had the boats tied along Kai Tak, and there were three or four boats simply for emptying [waste]. That’s why the prison ‘reached out its hand’ to receive the boat people. Or to welcome them.
I: What was your main role at the time? What were you involved in?
MPL: My capacity? They called me Camp Commander.
I: And what were your day-to-day activities with the refugees?
MPL: So at that time with the refugee people in Hong Kong, we screened them. They were classified into ‘II’ – Illegal Immigrants, etc. At that time when we first landed, the first screening was by the Immigration Officer. At that time when I was in command of the refugee people, I had the Immigration police and the volunteer agency working under my control. So the Immigration police patrol and AMS and all these other volunteer agencies operated eight camps at one time. The first one was Kai Tak East. Eventually, they had [others]. There were two types of camps. One was a ‘closed camp’, and the other one was by volunteer agencies. Maybe the YMCA would take that up too. But the volunteer agencies [ran] open camps for the people to work, and come back. And the [refugees] were screened and possibly assigned a country to go to by the UN. So in your closed camps, they had the same operation of screening. But when they were screened, they would be moved into another camp waiting for conveyances i.e. airplanes to take them to another place.
I: What were some of the criteria for screening the refugees?
MPL: That was none of my business. My business was containment. To keep them together. But it was a very ‘loose’ control, because they are not subject to control. They are free people. They had already run away from their country. So we did not apply prison regulations on them. Although we could to a certain extent. But mostly, if they had committed any offences in the camp, we charged them criminally. And once they had a criminal record, we would ‘de-bar’ them for the privilege of returning. Most of the screening was done by Immigration.
The screening inclusive of classifying where they come from i.e. are they really Vietnamese boat people? Many of them were people from China who rowed out their boats to join them. So Immigration would ask those questions and then they could identify who they were. And also, it was a very complicated sort of situation. When [the] boat people [first] came [to Hong Kong], they were [initially] from South Vietnam. Eventually they were [coming from] North Vietnam. I’m not too familiar with [them], but North Vietnamese were mostly ‘Viet-Cong’ and they were ‘warrior-like’ people. So when they arrived on their boats, we searched and we found opium and weapons and everything. So in our situation, control [of the refugees] was very difficult, as there were North and South Vietnamese. They were possibly not in good harmony with each other. So our staff would police them.
I: What were some of the incidents between the North and South Vietnamese that you remember the most?
MPL: During our time, because it was pretty early, the riots and all these things I mentioned were not during our time. Possibly because we loved them. We didn’t create any animosity or hostility. We loved them. I use the term very loosely. Because we had so many people, and during our time, we sent the police boats to bring them in. We had helicopters seeing the Vietnamese people arriving and we ushered them into the Hong Kong harbour. So they came into the camp and you know the psychology of the Vietnamese refugees when they see land, you know, they have a sense of security. They become safe. So eventually, if you treat them well, honestly, not making implications of riots, etc. That educated people are not treated well, it could partly be a factor. But during our time, because they were the first arrivals, [of the first few arrivals] the first 50 batches, they were treated well.
I had a woman giving birth outside my office. [All these things] happened. So my staff [would] usually tell me, ‘Sir, we have one baby. Shall we order a roast plate?’ We were very friendly. The only thing was, we are well-trained. Prison staff was well trained. The police were well-trained. The police would not go inside the camps at all. They were standing by, in case of something happening. AMS (Auxiliary Medical Services) would volunteer. But we don’t take care of any medical problems inside the camp. We would just call up the ambulance and refer them to the local hospital. But we had a lot of people volunteering from CS. During my time, I didn’t quite accept them. Because many of them were young, untrained. They came into the refugee camps and many of the young girls, and so, spent time talking to each other.
I: How long were you in this position when you were working with the Vietnamese refugees?
MPL: In the prison service I worked for twenty years. I joined the same year that Talbot Bashall did. I just confirmed that. And we left at almost the same time. I left in 1988. So I had 20 years in prison service. But for the camp, I took over from Bonnie Wong. Bonnie Wong was assisting the European Officer by the name of Garth Heiss. Do you know him? That was the time when he took over from Freddie. Garth Heiss was one of the Officers in the Prison Department as well. So that was 1970. I worked in the refugee camp for about two and a half years. From 1976 or ’75. I can’t quite remember, it was roughly that year. In 1979 I went back to prisons. Because I was acting as Assistant Commissioner in the Prison Services. And then I was sent to the UK, and I was working for an Institute.
I: When you look back, what did those few years mean to you?
MPL: Honestly, what I can remember was that I was overwhelmed. I was very busy because I had to travel from one camp to ensure man-control. Man-control was when you take the powers of the atmosphere in each situation. I was in charge of all the prisons in Hong Kong. But practically everywhere I go, I’m not taking credit… All the prisons I took over – Garth Heiss is a very good friend of mine – because he knew me, he said when I took over from him everything was peaceful, because there was no [triads] society, except one mixed society. [Laughs]. So I practically was in charge of these prisons and that was the time when [speaks Chinese] Chet Ho was the drug ring leader in the area. He was arrested, and put inside the [prison].
I was in charge during that time of Peter Kot Ba [Laughs]. Peter Kot Ba was arrested by the ICAC and he was a high-ranking police officer. When ICAC was setup in 1972, it was an independent Hong Kong at one time, rightly or wrongly, because this is its history, was very corrupted. So I am not proving or confirming the corruptibility of the Hong Kong police or anything, but it was quite common [corruption]. So when I said that he was ‘set-up’, they arrested quite a lot of police, [but] they had no evidence to arrest high-ranking police. But at one time, they had the opportunity [to arrest] a British high-ranking policeman, a chief superintendent who was very high-ranking. And he was put inside here [the prison] for five years.
I: With the Vietnamese refugees, what were some of the difficulties you had experience?
MPL: Honestly, I was not too much on the ground. I wasn’t on the daily patrol or daily living, daily routine. This was the work of my officers who helped me to do that. I don’t think there were too many disciplinary problems. It was bound to happen, things like smoking. Vietnamese people were very fond of smoking and when it was prohibited, another thing – rightly or wrongly, you may know better than me – a Vietnamese man is really a ‘man’. The woman is secondary. So the man doesn’t do anything and lets the woman do everything. So our police, or our staff, were very justified when they would say ‘let your wife walk first and you follow’.
Vietnamese men are more… in public they are the boss. And Vietnamese people, when they arrive in a large family, they have many children. And the men walk in front, and his wife will carry two big baskets, and a line of little ‘ducklings’ follow behind. So actually, we treated them very gently, calmly. And there was no offense. But sometimes, you just correct them in a nice way. So eventually when they are classified, and received by the US, or Northern Ireland, England etc. So they have to send a plane to arrive in Hong Kong and pick them up. I treat them very well, the twenty truckloads that arrived in Kai Tak. And I organised them like boy scouts going camping, you know. ‘Number one, number two…[laughs]’.
I: Which camp did you control?
MPL: East would be under the control of the Prison Service. North was Red Cross.
MPL: I had very few contacts with the volunteers, because I was busy enough. They had different ways of treatment, like, ‘you can come and go’. They had no contraband, prohibited, etc. You can bring in cigarettes, and they don’t care. But we cared. Because, number one, we don’t want the contamination of the air, we don’t want fire hazards etc. And sometimes, you know, even if they were provided with food and everything, it was very troublesome. In Hong Kong, what is the biggest bakery? Garden. Perhaps the Hong Kong Government purchased from them [Garden] loaves and loaves of bread. They were treated so nicely, overprovided [with bread]. Sometimes the refugee people would start to sell the bread outside Garden bakery. Garden bakery provided them free bread, they get overprovided the bread so they have leftovers so they set up a store outside Garden to sell bread.
MPL: Talbot Bashall should know best. We had Northern Ireland taking about 50 of them. They had a plane arrive. Nobody wanted to go on the plane. These were the English men, and Talbot Bashall – he was British – said, ‘I don’t blame them, I wouldn’t go to Northern Ireland either.’ Because of the IRA, political situation and the cold. So we don’t blame the people, as long as they were safe and came back and met the schedule [in the camps]. If they stayed overnight… as I said, the Vietnamese people had large families. If they had five children, labour-efficient, they would find a job outside. You know the psychology of the refugee people, they have to keep some money. They came out with nothing, and they go to the States, they want to start with something. So when they leave, they would carry big cassette radios, and some of the ladies would dress up nicely. We had trouble getting them on board aircraft, because they would bring so much luggage with them.
I: What were some of your fond memories of your two years with the Vietnamese refugees?
MPL: I had a couple of very musical families. They were received by the Canadian Government and were assigned to Ottowa. They couple and a brother and sister were really, really musical. The sister was a violinist. Quite young, about 15. And her brother was 13. First-class pianist. And when they were landed, when their plane arrived, I picked up the violin and played ‘Oh Canada’. That was their national anthem. And people were really cheerful.
I: How long have you been living in Toronto?
MPL: 32 years.
I: Have you met any Vietnamese who were refugees in Hong Kong?
MPL: Oh yes, there are many. When I left Hong Kong to go to Toronto that was in 1980. Whitehead hadn’t even started yet. Because the third influx, as they called it, hadn’t even started yet. So that’s why Bonnie only has something to do with the refugees because she came up to headquarters and was assisting the Commission when the Vietnamese boat people [came]. The first experience that Bonnie Wong had was Kai Tak East, when she worked with Garth Heiss. I took over from Garth Heiss.
Two weeks later, they mentioned a number of riots. I was confronted with the first riot, when Li Kwan Ha was Commander. We worked together. There were not many, about 2000 in Kai Tak. And one of the reasons we got away from that was because we controlled [the situation] and finished it very peacefully. Because the complaint was that the United Nations was too slow in screening [the refugees]. And people got frustrated. That’s why animosity shifted without good reason.
I: Since you were living in Toronto, have you met any Vietnamese refugees who passed through Hong Kong?
MPL: Probably many. When I go to the restaurant, I don’t have to wait for a table. They call me [speaks Chinese] Camp Commander. I got a good table [laughs]. I met many of them. They were quite well-off, you know. I met a young man who worked in a restaurant and I chatted with him, and he said he was in Kai Tak East camp. And his daughter was now learning ballet, and he speaks French. When the Vietnamese boat people were screened, they took people who spoke French. Being bilingual – speaking French and English – was an advantage to being selected to go to Canada.
I: Did they recognise you or did you recognise them?
MPL: They recognised me more than I recognised them. And there were so many of them. And then the brother and sister who went in Ottawa, they still send me letters from Ottawa. The violinist. And at one time, people gave me a newspaper cutting. I don’t know their name you know. But they sent me a cutting and said they were from Hong Kong camp and they became brilliant artists. That was a long time ago, 1983 or whatever. In actual fact to tell you the truth, I went to Canada purely because I worked closely with the Canadian Government. At one time, at the end of ’68, Ottoway gave the Hong Kong Canadian Commission that within six months, they had to screen and accept 10,000 refugees. How can they do that in six months? If you just simply take at random 10,000 it’s easy. But they had to screen them for the best. The second best would go to Australia or somewhere else [laughs].
So at this time there was this commotion at the camp, and you were bound to have trouble. Even husbands and wives may… [be separated]. At one time, we closed the camp for a little while. The Canadian Commission in Hong Kong was trying, saying ‘how can we meet the target within six months if you close the camps?’ I said, if I go back to the camp and send you everything you require? And I did. I said I was going on leave, but I couldn’t finish the task in the six months. I needed another two months but I was on leave. But I couldn’t go on leave, I had to finish the task.
MPL: I said eventually if you receive 10,000 refugees, what about receiving 10,001? They asked who was that one? I said me. That was the truth. So when I left Hong Kong to go to Canada, the Hong Kong Canadian Commission gave me a souvenir. I thought it must be a million dollar wallet. He gave me a booklet on Canada. I said, ’what a cheap photography book’. It was a limited edition from the Queen. It was signed, saying ‘thank you very much for assisting with the refugee program’. I can still make a copy of the handwriting and send it to you.
I: I guess Canada was very good to take 10,000. They knew they had to work fast to get the best.
MPL: Yes. So I’m partly responsible for assisting with this.
I: The other Governments ended up taking [less than the best].
MPL: You know that’s why people who work in the ivory tower… many people would ask, ‘why would you leave Hong Kong when you were Acting Commissioner?’ I was bound to be Commissioner. Bonnie Wong was my student. All these people. I don’t know why, at that time I had the opportunity that the Commissioner simply signed me up. And then, my children were studying in the UK. At that time, when you worked for the Hong Kong Government, your children were eligible to send your children to the UK to study with an allowance. But you have to send them pretty early, at the age of 11 and 13.
My wife was not so happy about that. And very often when you send your children to the UK to study, they don’t come back. We know about the return of Hong Kong to China. But if Hong Kong stayed as it was, as a British colony, you would never see your children again [after they would study in Britain]. So that’s why we went to Canada, to bring our children there. So my son eventually became a dentist in Toronto. We were happy as a family unit.
I: Looking back, what did experience working with the refugees mean to you?
MPL: Honestly, I put a lot of effort into the refugees. The refugees were not only a group of people who earned sympathy and affection from another group. It is a worldwide sympathetic consideration. And therefore, in my position, apart from the policing of prison control, I was seriously involved in a Christianity business. And I am working very closely with the Methodist Church and another church. And we organise activities. So I treated it as something different from the prison world. It was a social service. We talk about prison work, rehabilitation etc. Well I have nothing against that, but rehabilitation is a beautiful word. But to tell you, criminals may not be easy to change. It depends on the criminality and his nature. Some people can never change. If someone who was arrested and has a nice character and if something that he falls into – some difficulty – you can release him in two days and he can become a good man. And even for homicide cases, it’s very emotional. And sometimes, you kill people, not with premeditated arrangement, planning. Then he has no criminality, you can release him. You cannot release a convicted murderer, a criminal. But usually these are the people who make a good opportunity for success. Not petty theft. Petty theft becomes occupational. How can you change them? But I am all for the belief [in change]. But it’s a long way to go. It’s human.
But so far, back to your question, I really enjoyed the time when I was working with entirely different from what eventually happened… when they had the third influx. I had never heard of them, it had become a sizable problem. And honestly, with people who work in the prison service too who knew me, because in man-control, the personality of the person in high command is very important. Now, during the time when I look back on the number of people, I knew them all. But it became so violent. Honestly you see so many weapons there. It’s humiliating. It shouldn’t be there if you have good control. Another thing, purely personal, if you find in that area they put so much above the [speaks Chinese] tactical unit. I have written correspondence with Tom Gardener when he left. In my correspondence, I said, the tactical unit should not be in prisons. The CSD tactical unit. Not the police. Now sitting in an ivory tower in Security, in our situation, in our operation situation, we are not in hostility with prisoners. We are treating them well, educating them and helping them to rehabilitate. If there is something serious, we just call the police. Tom Gardener fully agreed with me. I have a lot of correspondence with Tom Gardener after he retired.
MPL: Because our role was not to just ‘police’. We lived it… that was my philosophy…
I: Is there anything you’d like to add?
MPL: I just hope that now this situation with where Vietnam is concerned goes back to normal. Many people are going back to Vietnam which I think is a good thing. It’s a situation which has solved by itself. Because there is no other country that can help another – it’s your own people. And what other thing did I learn from the Vietnamese boat people? [speaks Chinese]
I: I did not get to record your name and birth year?
MPL: My name is Pak-Lam. Family name, Mak. The Honourable Mr Mak.
I: And what year were you born?
MPL: I was born in Hong Kong. I was ‘made in China’. 1953. No, 1933 [Laughs].