Interviewee: Mr Paul Lok (PL)
11:00am, Tuesday, 8 January 2013, Hong Kong University
I: Could you please state your name and place of birth?
PL: My full name is Lok Wai Kang, Paul. I was born in Hanoi, Vietnam on November 15, 1944.
I: How long did you live in Hanoi?
PL: I left Hanoi after 1944, then I came to Hong Kong with my parents.
I: When did you get involved with the Vietnamese boat people situation?
PL: All Immigration offices were involved with the Vietnamese boat people from the very start. This was after the influx of refugees. After the illegal immigrants from China. We saw displaced persons from Vietnam [coming] in small boats now and then, after the early 70’s. So very early [on] in my career. I first worked in the harbour section, now called the Hub Division. We went to clear immigration at the anchorages. Boats coming into Hong Kong would have to be cleared by immigration, customs, port health etc. Port Health had a designated place – we called it the ‘anchorage’. They had to drop anchor there and wait for immigration clearance before coming into Hong Kong harbour. The first contact that I had with the Vietnamese boat people was the time when I was working at the harbour section. At a very early stage.
I: Do you remember what year, what month that was?
PL: They came in, now and then. Throughout the 70’s until, as far as I can remember, the Clara Maersk with 3700 people. I was there at the time. I was drafted into the Operations team.
I: What department were you with at the time?
PL: I was working as a Training Officer for the Immigration Department. I remember that was the time when the Queen visited Hong Kong. And that was a difficult time, whether Hong Kong would have to abide by the refugee convention and let people off the boats, disembark and land in Hong Kong. At that time, there were two groups of people working on this. And of course, there was a group from London as far as I can remember. I was drafted as an operative to a company by the Deputy Director of Immigration to work out, in conjunction with my colleagues from different divisions of the Immigration Department, an operation order. This was to prepare for the landing. I mean, letting off the refugees on board to Clara Maersk . The ship – I can’t remember the name. And how to process these 3000 odd people. It was a hectic time.
We had to work within a very short period of time to work out the security procedure, the processes themselves, and the identification of each person and to group them in families. [That is] as a family unit, in a comprehensive way. That was a very hectic operation order. Maybe later, you can recover the operation order on Clara Maersk. The landing place was in a terminal in Ta Mun. A container vessel terminal in Ta Mun. At that time, that was a new terminal. We needed such a processing place, large enough to go through all the steps. That was for the policy branch to decide. It was later decided that Princess Margaret Hospital – that was a new one at that time, ready to be used – was the [processing] place.
As far as I can remember, I was the assistant to the Deputy Director in charge of the operation process, who went through each division, organised to cope with the landing. There were several designated places. The police, the CS (Civil Services) were responsible for disembarkation. Police were responsible for the transportation to Princess Margaret Hospital. According to the chart outputs procedure, they would have to be searched upon landing, disembarkation from the ship, then [sent] to the Princess Margaret Hospital. That was their first stop. It was already a mess, you know. One lorry contains about 50 [refugees], and they just don’t know where is their children, where are their [family members]. But we still have a holding place if they have these sorts of troubles, to wait for the next lot of people to arrive. To try and get their family together.
Then, we go through the identification step first. This is a step that is very important. We’ve got to know which is which, and who is who. We took photographs of them. The instant camera photograph. Mother, father, grandfather, all of them were taken together. No names yet. Each of them held the photographs themselves. They then proceeded to another point. That was the point they had to tell their names, their family background and attach the photograph to be certified. This was the proforma for a person declaring themselves as such. The names and family tree, etc. With all that, we tried to ensure accuracy.
There was false presentation and people not telling the whole truth and all that. But that would be sorted out later. Then, with the identification paper, they would have to proceed to another immigration section. That was the immigration process part. We had to reconfirm the data and tell their stories very briefly. How they boarded the vessel, where they’re from, their original place of living in Vietnam, who organised them and all that sort of investigative statements we would want to have from the person themselves. This forms a very important, fundamental paper for the later screening process and distribution of persons to different names camps in different locations.
I: Who was the Deputy Director?
PL: Mr DC Radman. Then, you could see that the procedure was planned and organised [by us], and was fundamentally to care for two important elements. One, security. We don’t want any confusion or [anything] unclear, arguable things that could develop later. This included corruption allegations. So we have each division or processing point with a person in charge of the total operation of that section. Then finally, back to the Immigration headquarters.
We had an officer at that time, who was the Chief Immigration Officer – Jim Murphy. And a Senior Immigration Officer, Gordon Chu. I was a Training Officer, leading a class of about 18 – 19 trainees. My class and I were drafted as a group to follow-up the whole procedure. And to deal with the aftermath, resettlement, liaison with consulate staff – all these liaison work. The policy side were still with the Security branch. Negotiation between States and countries still continued, but we had very good contacts and communications. We trained consulate staff and operatives. Gordon Chu was my Head. We worked very closely [together] at that time. Gordon Chu is now in Vancouver, Canada. Basically, that was an overview of the ’75 Clara Maersk landing. I will now tell you some stories.
PL: As I said, identification from the ship was a mammoth task – this was as far as I know, because I was accompanying the Deputy Director, I was having all these ‘little [chats]’ all the time. Before landing, the ship on Clara Maersk was run by different factions of people [refugees]. On different parts of the ship, [the refugee factions] were running the ship on the stern, the bow, the engine room all had ‘figures’. Actually, a faction of the crew leaders were very influential persons. You must know that at that time, who were able to board the Clara Maersk were either military, the society people and mainly the rich. So, there were lots of them allegedly buying their trips. [Lots of] organised crime, even on board the Clara Maersk. So you can imagine, disembarkation of these people – 3700 [of them] – could be such a mammoth task.
You may have the second family in front of the boat. But you were on the starboard side. So when you are disembarking from your section, you have still your family left on the ship, governed by a different faction of people on the other part of the ship. There were situations such as this. When we started searching initial identification of the refugees, there was a lot of chaos. Lots of yelling out, this and that. We had a different [disembarkation] place for that purpose. Regarding disembarkation, who were they? We don’t know. But somebody on the ship knows. They have their [own] name lists; they know how to share the benefits afterwards. We don’t know. That was the organised part of it, as far as I was told. Very difficult.
On searching, we experienced funny things, interesting [things]. Somebody had nothing at all. Just a small bag. There was nothing. No weapons. The main purpose of searching was, of course, [to find] weapons or any other harmful things. There was nothing [on board]. They grabbed the bags on their waist. We tried to see what they were holding. Nothing. Then later, we found a gold bell. Painted in bright paint, but actually it was gold. We saw also a small child holding onto a bottle. [The child] never let it loose. At the bottom of the bottle, there were gold leaves. It was funny. There was lots of gold. Later, you will find this out from the archives, how much gold there was accumulated and identified and discovered. And later they can exchange it for money in the camp. And they even cut themselves open and inserted gold leaves into their flesh. And bound themselves. All sorts of funny things they concealed.
I: So when they cut themselves open like that, was the wound raw when you searched them?
PL: Yes. That’s why we had the hospital premises for these people who went there in the first instance. If there is any sickness, wounds to be treated, we had immediate medical services accessible.
I: Who made that decision to use the hospital at that time?
PL: We don’t know. Who makes the decision? I think probably, someone at a very high level. But it was already very well built. It was built to be used. We didn’t know at that time. All we knew was that this was a sick person. We had to categorise who needed immediate care, you see. That why we had processes and procedures to arrange in such a form. So we can identify people at each point for security reasons. And safety as the second reason. [A] Supplementary reason. M. Davis was the Head of Security at that time. So, this is the human side of it. And all sorts of crime, [false identification issues]. But during the whole procedure or process, we had at least the chance to regroup them as they claim to be [in family groups]. For that to be verified later. And that would serve as the basis for camp arrangement and accommodation. That’s the landing part.
I: May I interrupt you? I thought the Clara Maersk picked up refugees straight from small boats? But it sounds like they all embarked on the same boat all together?
PL: That was yet to be verified. You will see later, all the big boats bringing in lots of refugees. Hundreds, thousands. The Skyluck too was picking up little boats on their way.
I: I’m aware of the big ones coming in later – Skyluck, etc. I wasn’t aware that the Clara Maersk was one too. From the press, what I’ve got so far was that the Clara Maersk came with 3000+ passengers rescued at sea from small boats in distress. So that’s not the case?
PL: That was yet to be verified. And people may believe in that, but as I myself… You see, if they are not organised, you won’t see these people in such a [form]. They are rather on the upper hierarchy in [Vietnamese] society. To think, within four months they were ready to be accepted elsewhere. Very quickly. I mean, the resettlement country who were willing to help, because first, they are well-educated, basically. Some were very rich. Really very rich. And some are military. So they are more readily acceptable [to be resettled by other countries]. So if they were not organised and picked up, you can imagine one small boat can carry less than twenty refugees… if there were 3000 refugees, would you be likely to encounter so many small boats at sea? So, I myself for one don’t believe in that [idea]. You know every ship has a logbook. I don’t believe the logbook statement. But the truth will never be known. If people are willing to, really, tell.
Different people telling different things at different times. We don’t place too much importance [as this is not all that relevant]. And then, all that really matters to Immigration is that they are not picking in people to their family which was not their [original] family member. That can be [considered] a corruption practice you see. This is more important to Immigration and a resettlement program, and we have got to safeguard that. To the very last. We were not that easy to believe in their family tree. They provided them to the camp, or consulate later, which was different from the family tree they gave us on landing. So we need clarification and all this elaboration, confirmations etc. before we amend our record.
My team – I was an operative Training Officer at the time, drafted through the refugee team – took charge of the 18-19 students of my class. Our response was, one record-keeping. Record-keeping is very important as I said. Accuracy and integrity. The second part was to organise, liaise with consulate staff to select the refugees that prefer for settlement in their country [of preference]. That was a very, I mean, we needed honest people [to undertake that task]. We need clear records which we can say that we are reasonably confident in. At that time, my team and Gordon and Jim Murphy were trying to do this. To protect the refugee acceptance country, as well as my Department’s integrity.
I: I assume that you conducted the interview in Vietnamese for those who couldn’t speak Chinese or English. How did you find interpreters?
PL: That’s the interpretation part, a very difficult part. At that time, there were not many Vietnamese-speaking Hong Kong people that we have confidence to allow them to be interpreters. And we didn’t have many interpreters. We had to rely on our judgement within the group. I mean, firstly, the faction leaders will not be interpreters.
I: So you mean you used the refugees themselves, those who could help with interpreting?
PL: Yes. We needed people with an educated background, i.e. some were teachers from a middle-class background. But then, when they moved out from Hong Kong elsewhere, we were in trouble. Then the Security Branch came in and advised that we should establish recruitment teams for interpreters and selection from Hong Kong. But that was later. For Clara Maersk , we didn’t have too much of a problem. For interpretation. The stories they told us, it was very fundamental information that we required. Of course, their backgrounds weren’t being investigated into. That much, we know only a fraction of it.
There are still people in Hong Kong who might find it useful to have much more information i.e. Police Department. They are also [responsible] in moving and finding information that may be of interest [to them]. And then, people from the consulates. They will surely find out much more. And Immigration does as well. Immigration will try to pick up much more personal information, [such as] their background information, political, social etc. Because they have to work on resettlement programs.
I: So at what stage was your responsibility with the Clara Maersk finished?
PL: I almost finished a year and a half. Then I handed over to somebody else. I continued my part as a Training Officer, because I got promoted to lead a class of, well, University Graduates, Immigration Officers, direct recruitment.
I: About the refugees on the Clara Maersk . After you disembarked and created their files and handed them over to other Departments, did you continue to work with this group?
PL: We don’t hand it over to other Departments. The Immigration record will never go out. Then, Gordon and Jim Murphy worked together with the consulate staff, and let them go to the camps. There were three camps – one in Harcourt Rd, where the Supreme Court now is. Just next to the Supreme Court, there was a garden. Harcourt Gardens. It was a camp. Harcourt Camp. The other camps were the new territories. One in Fan Ling and one in Saigon. That was it. Three camps. There were more than those… Corrective Services (CS) helped with managing the camps. It was very different from later on when it was less numbers and the CS team were in charge. The resettlement side of it – they first came to us. Then we provided them with a data form. And they initially go through the data form to identify who they want to see. And we arranged for them to go to the camp, accompany them to the camp and introduce them to their ‘family’ through the camp manager.
We started their resettlement process and visa [arrangements]. I still remember there was one very interesting case. During the whole process, we met small kids. Clinging onto adults as [if they were] their family member. It could be so, but they are still orphans. I mean, children without parents. Because, at the final stage of verification, we identified they belonged to the same family group. When we questioned them, they had to tell us [who they were]. [Some would say] ‘They have given me the children to carry over to Hong Kong’… actually, the child’s parents were still there [in Vietnam]. We don’t know. For these orphans, we had separate lists. ‘Not verified lists’ for [these] children that we handed over to the consulates. [Stating] these children may not be a family member of this particular family [as identified]. When we interviewed them, we could select them together [with their identified family]. They may be connected, but actually, we don’t know. We can’t be sure of the parents, you see? Quite a lot of these children are in such a position.
There was one very interesting [case]. Nobody claimed anything on him. He was such a jolly kid, who ran around. He was about 9-10 years old. Running around, very cheerful, not knowing anything. I mean, pretending not to know anything. But when we grabbed him and tried to talk to him – you know, tried to understand who this boy belongs to – it was so funny. Nobody knows him. Then, I vaguely remember that at the corner of the ship, this boy sat with a group. The groups said to me, this boy is the ‘hawker’. He is selling things, along the beach. [Laughs]. And when everybody was jumping up on the ship [in Vietnam], he jumped on the ship as well. Carried on selling [things] to us. It takes about a year and a half for the consulates to decide [what to do with him]. Because nobody knows where his parents are. And he didn’t know himself. He was just a ‘hawker’.
I: At the end, he went somewhere? Did anybody adopt him?
PL: I don’t know. But I think the accepting country put him in a certain ‘group’, that they were willing to care for him.
I: It was interesting you mentioned about some of the infants, where the family claimed the infants belonged to them. What made you, in the first place, think that was not the case?
PL: Well, [laughs] that’s the instinct of an Immigration Training Officer. When there were people coming in front of you, and you look at them, there are certain instincts that you will have to make an assessment on this person in front of you. Try to put appropriate questions [forward]. So, it’s not too difficult for Immigration Officers on the frontline to do that. The process goes through all the chains, so you would probably know that different stations would have different spots that alert Immigration as a whole, of the group. Such as, ‘who are they?’ ‘What to do with them?’ Basically, we would have a certain picture of the group.
I: What were some of the highlights of the second time you came back in 1979?
PL: Disembarkation was completely different that time. It was even less well-organised. Because on the part of the second phase of the influx, there were some big boats coming in with thousands [of refugees]. Actually, we had no time to go through all these organised landing processes. They were a couple of them of the ship who were making a fuss out of the scene. I’m sure the Security Department; including Marine Police etc. would have to deal with safety rather than security in the first instance. Ok, let me tell you about the night before the arrival for Hai Hong.
Hai Hong was a much organised trip. I was working as Assistant Principal with Tom Peters. Gordon wanted me in again. I was in charge of the coordination centre of the Immigration Department. We know the ship was coming into Hong Kong and we worked very closely with Hong Kong police, not Marine Police. There was a superintendent called Linus Long King. We worked very closely, to chart out when this ship will arrive and how we would deal with it. He got a piece of information that there was a Hong Kong man who was the organiser of this boat who worked within Immigration. [To check] movement records of this person – actually there was three of them, i.e. did they leave Hong Kong and where did they go. The first arrival after Hong Kong was Bangkok. Then they go from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, then Vietnam.
We made all these movement records, checked them for about six months. How many trips they made, etc. From Hong Kong. We tracked the movements of the organisers. We worked for about 24 hours on the whole set of movement. We looked to see their Vietnamese network in Hong Kong. That was the part before their arrival. So, how did they organise the disembarkation? Of course we had no Princess Margaret Hospital environment, so the procedures were not very perfect, to our desired standards. There was one good point. The Police team, having Immigration records of their spot man. When they first boarded the ship, I was one of the first ones to board at the time, to get alongside the ship.
Firstly we wanted to board the ship by helicopter. But later it was decided by the Security Branch that this was too dangerous because of the size and marks of the ship. We took the first police launch, the very big one, and berthed alongside and boarded the ship to have an overview of the ships’ size and how they placed themselves and trued to identify the organiser who was pretending to be one of the Vietnamese refugees in vain. But it was a brief time. Only now, we determined who is taking charge of what part of the ship. And we had to do the process all over. And during the process, we were able to identify the Hong Kong guy.
We were happy the Immigration team kept a record – not just the movements, but the identity, [so that] we could recover the central records. I mean, records of the documents issued, i.e. passports, certificates of identity, any related records of these people. We had the photographs of these people, and we were happy. And then, Linus (Police Chief) did the rest of it. The Police team found gold in the Engine Room. Lots of it.
I: Something like about a million dollars’ worth?
PL: More than that. And individuals carrying gold, unknown to us.
I: So what happened to those Hong Kong men [the three organisers]?
PL: You know, in the Immigration section aiding and abetting entry into Hong Kong illegally is a chargeable offence. So we charged [them].
I: Did you deal with those three individuals personally?
PL: No. In Immigration, we have a Prosecution section. [Also] An Investigation section that works differently. I was in Controls. Let me tell you about [the] organisation. The Immigration Department handles all the personal details from births to deaths to marriages. We issue identity cards and travel documents. [This is in] The part we call the Documents division. We have Physical Control divisions – airport, borders etc. That covers Physical Control. Then we have Investigation divisions – outside investigations, internal, and prosecution. Mainly, that was how the Immigration organisation [functioned]. Then of course, we had Administration which included personnel, human resources, training, internal affairs and management audits. There was an internal audit department. I’ve gone through; I myself have worked there about two years internally, in auditing etc. The Immigration worked within the three divisions.
I: Without a hospital facility, where do you disembark them?
PL: That was the difficult part. We had a ferry. You still remember if you have been to Hong Kong before the ferry, the Yamati ferry, the vehicular ferry. A double-decker. It was quite large.
I: I saw a picture of that.
PL: You can imagine how difficult that was. We had to convey batches of refugees to a big double-decker ferry. That ferry was like the camp.
I: So firstly, you used that as your office, to process them, and then kept them on it afterwards. How many of those ferries did you use, or do you have?
PL: At least four, as far as I can remember.
I: So how long did it take you to do the disembarkation process?
PL: Under the legislative powers of Immigration, we had 24 hours to examine, detain a person for examination. We had another 24 hours to process before making a decision whether this person would be repatriated, removed or else. We had, legally, under the law, 48 hours solid. So we tried to make good of this 48 hours. Not easy.
I: So you mean you signed a waiver for them afterwards?
PL: No. So if you needed longer, you would come to the Security Branch [for the waiver to be signed]. But very rarely did we sign these.
I: Under the circumstances, did you get an extension?
PL: We would have to trouble Security for that signature for further detention. So we tried to avoid that. They were busy enough to look after these trivial things. I mean, processing was actually a very basic, administrative duty. We would never allow that escalated to Security level. We tried to finish it [ourselves]. 24 hours is the International Law for detaining and questioning people. Beyond that, we were very reluctant to extend for further detention. Because the longer we detained them, the longer we would be infringing upon Human Rights [laws]. More than that, they applied for Court. And even worse, we had a very difficult time.
PL: Perhaps we should say something about the third disembarkation. Skyluck was the third disembarkation. Immigration couldn’t do the processing before that. It went to Lama Island and there were 2700 of them all over the island. Marine Police were responsible.
I: How did you disembark the Skyluck?
PL: There was no disembarking. The ship just simply ran aground.
I: In terms of processing them?
PL: Well the process goes like this. First Marine Police would have to [run them out], then put them somewhere. We asked CSD to open up Chi Ma Wan prison for holding these guys.
I: How did you handle that? How different was that from the other [previous times]?
PL: We had no staff as we did before with Clara Maersk . We had difficulty in determining how much work [was required]. When the ship went ashore, the Security Branch decided they couldn’t handle the situation, as it was such a mess. Firstly, we had to round them up. I mean, this was the fundamental [things]. We didn’t know who was on board, or how many, and whether this was a true figure given out by the captain. You can’t just believe in that, you see. First thing was to go to the island. Luckily by that time, [the] Hong Kong people all knew about refugees and could identify the refugee people for the Government. Of course, it was easy. To group them, CS put them into bunks and tried to manage the camp as far as possible. This was the only place available for any purposes.
At Chi Ma One, there were two camps – the upper and lower. And they were put in the Upper. Afterwards, the Immigration Officer organised an Investigative team. It was not as organised as the first time. If you are comparing Clara Maersk with the Skyluck, remember Clara Maersk existed at a time when there was 3000 or so, on one ship. But when you are dealing with the Skyluck, there were 60,000 [refugees] in addition to the Skyluck in Hong Kong who kept on coming at the rate of 500-1000 [refugees] a day. We were completely stretched, and could only get minimal staff from here and there. We could only provide a very brief operational order. We would order them very quickly, ‘emergency-style’. There was no more staff available. Don’t forget there was a resettlement program going on [in the background] and the ‘ECVII’s’ were still arriving to be screened. I mean, to differentiate [between] them, to determine who was who [was very difficult]. People were telling lies all the time.
I: And where did you keep the ECVII’s?
PL: They came mostly later, after Skyluck, and they were kept separate. Once we identified them, they were kept separate. First of all, they were not given refugee status and not transferred to refugee camps. They were in fact kept in prison, under Immigration detention. This was until they were repatriated back to China.
I: Physically, where did you keep them?
PL: In prison institutions all over, in Victoria prison. They were treated like any other Immigration detainees. For normal Immigration detainees, we normally kept them in Victoria prison, right in the heart of Central. But because there were so many of them, we probably shunned them off somewhere else. But they were never in open camps. Once you let them into open camps, you can’t find them ever again.
I: So the problem of housing these refugees was just too difficult, for both the refugees and the returnees? I’m talking about housing these Vietnamese people, accommodation for them.
PL: That’s another big problem. Remember I was actually drafted for this purpose. I was doing something else, then within 24 hours reported back to Security Bureau. I reported back on the afternoon of the day when Skyluck beached itself. It was my lucky day.
I: So in the end, what are all these experiences mean to you?
PL: When you spoke about the ECVII’s – we called them Illegal Immigrants (II’s) We tried to move them out as quickly as possible. As my boss remembered clearly, we even repatriated these II’s by train. I organised that one. And we worked 24 hours throughout the day, picking up these II’s from different prison camps, including Collinson, for females, and bundling them in accordance with the farms. These farms were where they belonged to before arrival in Hong Kong.
In a group of certain numbers, in accordance to the normal release. In accordance with the carriage, the number of the carriage (train carriage). Because they dropped off the carriage to one farm, then to another. That part of Immigration duty… [laughs]. My boss knows this well. We worked 24 hours, throughout. Trying to organise [things]. Putting them together, knowing where to pick them up in the prison and when the train would arrive [at the] Hong Kong border. We tried to put the batches of ‘II’s’ to the right carriage. That was a huge … [task].
I: Last question. After all this, what does this experience mean to you?
PL: [Laughs]. Very interesting. I must say that I’ve been very lucky. And of course, at the same time, very sad to go through all these processes. I was most thankful to my boss at that time in the Security Branch and my boss in the Immigration Department. We worked very closely [together]. And I was sad because that was my prime time in life, to see all these sad things. Human, sad things. Sometimes it was very sad. I know their lives in the camps in Hong Kong, in the open camps, not in prison of course, they were well-organised in prison camps. In open camps, their lives can be very difficult. There are Syndicates in the camps. Sometimes their lives were mutilated by their faction leaders. Syndicate leaders. These were in the open camps. In closed camps, there were fights all the time. This was usual, for people who had been through the war, for Vietnamese fighting the Chinese, the French, themselves.
I: You said in the open camps, sometimes it was more dangerous?
PL: Yes, sometimes. I think so. You will find more interesting stories from a camp resident elsewhere.
I: Thank you very much. Anything else you would like to add?
PL: No, sorry my memory seems to be failing me.