Stephen Yau (SY) & Adrielle Panares (A)
Interviewee: Mr Stephen Yau (SY)
Interviewee: Adrielle Panares (AP)
6:15, Thursday January 10, 2013, Office of International Social Services, Hong Kong
I: Mr Yau, could you please state your full name?
SY: Stephen Yau.
I: Where were you born?
SY: Mainland China.
I: Could you please tell me when and how you got involved with the Vietnamese boat people situation?
SY: I am a social worker so the two organisations I worked with, both were involved with working with Vietnamese refugees. So that’s how I got involved in the Vietnamese boat people.
I: What year did you start to assist the Vietnamese boat people?
I: That was way early on.
SY: Yes, 1975 when I was with the organisation called the ‘Living Well Service’. Later, they had a new name, the ‘Hong Kong Christian Service’.
I: Were you involved with the group that came from Vietnam?
SY: Not directly. A lot of my colleagues worked directly with the Vietnamese boat people. I was involved with the planning and duties.
I: What were some of your duties?
SY: I was a social worker and part of my duties was to assist with the planning and administration of the programmes for the Vietnamese boat people?
I: So you liaised with the Government and other NGO’s?
SY: Yes, at the time.
I: How long did you work with the Vietnamese refugees?
SY: Actually, from 1975 until the closure of the Pillar Point [refugee camp].
I: Was it about May 2000?
SY: 1998 I think so. And after that, we don’t have any programmes for them but from time to time, we maintained contact with some of the boat people. They came to our offices to see us and also when I visited Vietnam and had the opportunity to see some of them.
I: What were some of the challenges that you faced at that time?
SY: The most difficult one was to get the public understanding of the needs of the Vietnamese boat people. And to get their support and also to get the funding support for our services.
I: How did you go with that?
SY: Well, one thing I remember back in the early 1990’s, I was attending a live programme on the Vietnamese Boat people by Radio Hong Kong. When the Vietnamese issue arose, much resentment and hostility [arose] amongst the general public in Hong Kong. At that time, the programme was broadcast half an hour with Radio Hong Kong, and half an hour with TVB, and half an hour with the ATV in Hong Kong. It was a live programme. And apart from myself, the programme, if I remember correctly, was attended by Mrs Rita Chan. She was then the Convener of the Security Bureau. And the Convener of the Security Panel of the Legislative Council at that time and also a District Councillor, Mr Stephen Ng. And at that time, I was with the International Social Services (ISS) of Hong Kong.
As the Chief Executive, my role in the programme was to explain to the public our belief and visions in providing education and other support services for the boat people. Our position was very simple. The Chairman of ISS said, ‘never mind the politics. It can never be wrong to teach children to read and write’. And after the programme, then I was surrounded by an angry crowd on the ISS position. Later, I think the next day, I received a death threat. I ignored the threat and even turned down the offer of the police protection [offered to me]. I believe the threat; I think it was not real. But just an outburst of angry feelings from someone who had not seen fully the plight of the boat people. But I didn’t know why I acted so cool at that time. But I most probably would act otherwise now in such life and death situation. But it proved that we were correct in our belief and in our service.
Even now, I take pride to say that ISS Hong Kong service in the camp did not only significantly improve the lives of the boat people, but also helped to diffuse a lot of attention and enabled the public to better understand the situation of the plight of the boat people. That is one incident that I believe is very challenging. As I said earlier, the general public do not understand the plight of the boat people. When you set something which is not felt as the right position, they [the general public] will be very angry at the time.
I: How did you tackle that?
SY: To just keep on speaking to the public, to let them know more about the situation of the people.
I: What sorts of support did you receive back then to assist the boat people? Firstly you said you needed some financial support from the public, from the donors around.
SY: I guess mainly the funding was from overseas. And of course the UNHCR provided funding for our services. But other services – the education, opening of a school in one of the detention centres, in Whitehead. That programme was funded by a German industrialist. That is the funding from Germany and I also went to get funding from (various) sources to get the funding body’s support for our services in the camps. They helped our programme for more than ten years. The Dutch refugees – a sister organisation. I went to different countries to tell them the story of the boat people and to get their funding support for our programme in Hong Kong.
I: What were some of the services your organisation provided besides the school?
SY: Adrielle can tell us more details of the programme.
I: Apart from the death threats, were there any other incidents you can remember? Did you have any fun moments?
SY: Whenever I am in the camps, when I see the kids, talk to them and sometimes pray with them, that is the fun part. And also, sometimes when I am in the camp or in the refugee schools, there are adults – the parents will prepare the food. It’s very delicious. That is the fun part. And also when you see the people get resettled, they are able to start a new life, this is also the fun part.
I: So those are the moments that make your job worthwhile?
I: So after the Vietnamese situation finished, did you continue with your job? Looking back, the time with the Vietnamese boat people was more or less difficult than other parts of your career?
SY: They are not the most difficult [part]. I have challenges even more difficult than working with the boat people. But the experience, the lessons I learned from dealing with the Vietnamese people helped me in dealing with other issues and other programmes of my organisation.
I: Was it because of the magnitude, or adversities of the situation?
SY: I think both.
I: That seems to be a common theme amongst the people I have spoken with so far. The situation is certainly challenging, but in the end provides great learning tools. Is there anything else you would like to add?
SY: Maybe later.
I: Was there any particular request of service that you thought was unusual during your years with the Vietnamese boat people?
SY: You mean the boat people’s requests?
SY: Unusual requests..(thinks)..? (Shaking head).
I: Before we get to hear the experiences from Adrielle, what would you say the whole experience means to you?
SY: I’ll answer later.
I: Thank you. We’ll get back to you. Adrielle, just a formality. State your birthplace please?
AP: I was born in the Philippines.
I: How long have you been living in Hong Kong?
AP: Since 1991. Mainly with the refugee population.
I: Did you come here for that (purpose)?
AP: Yes. I started work with refugees in 1984 in the Philippines refugee camps. And that prompted me to come to Hong Kong because I was very intrigued, by the fact that I was living in an almost open refugee camp. We were preparing refugees for resettlement, giving them 6 months training with the (then) International Catholic Migration Commission. So before they were resettled, give them language training, cultural orientation, secondary school orientation, that sort of thing that I am sure you are familiar with. I headed a cultural orientation programme, preparing people to go and find a job in the States, get housing etc. What intrigued me about Hong Kong was that it had barbed wire, and detention camps and detention centres. And many people coming from Hong Kong were traumatised by that experience, but they had opportunities as well inside the camp. So I particularly looked at working for ISS.
I: What brought you to work with refugees in the Philippines in the first place?
AP: They posted an invitation in the University – a Math professor. I was travelling since I was 19, and was very involved with leadership training and youth and the YMCA. And was talking about refugees, migration all of that when I was growing up as a teenager. And then they finally posted an ad that said the only requirement was to train people to live in the States and having travelled to three or four countries and know what it is to survive. And you are basically colour-blind, because your clients would be from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, etc. That was the ‘pull-factor’. The other thing was that everyone was a refugee, and I wallowed into the opportunity of actually getting to meet people who fought for freedom and life. And I thought that was a microcosm of another type of life. If you have all of them in one camp, and you are breathing that hope and desperation combined because of the trauma, I left university and went to the camp. That was what drove me.
I: This sounds like your life story! (laughs)
AP: I have a standing joke with everybody – it’s like getting stuck with a virus without any cure. But it’s a good virus. I think my experience with the refugees was an affirmation. If something is worth fighting for, people lose everything, materially, but they have strength in character and they succeed. I have seen people go from having everything to having nothing, but having so much more inside. That was a learning you can’t get anywhere. And they weren’t telling lies, they were telling it straight out from experience and they were living it out every day. And to me, that was the greatest lesson. And I wanted to find out if that environment still existed anywhere else in the world. So I shifted to Hong Kong.
I: Did you have to apply or volunteer to come here?
AP: I actually left the refugee camps after one of the mountains exploded – Mountain Akuba – and everything was ash in the country. Then I applied for the University of Macau, supposedly to go back to teaching and have a little bit of a break. But as I was there, there was this posting from the ISS, stating ‘Coordinator in Refugee Detention Centres and Camps with Vietnamese boat people’. That was more than enough to pull me to Hong Kong for an interview.
I: How different were the situations of Vietnamese refugee camps in the Philippines versus Hong Kong?
AP: I went into a state of shock (laugh) for the first few months because all the camps in Hong Kong were run by the police, or the correctional services. They were prison camps with prison conditions. You have a camp where it is divided into certain units. If you are in Section A, you literally cannot go to Section B. If you have your father in Section B, and you arrive later in Hong Kong, it takes a long time to be reunited with your family. It was very diverse in its services, so we actually were running primary and secondary schools, recreation, adult programs, social work services, information campaigns.
You can imagine us in cramped situation, literally using the walls to teach the kids. And the distance between the dormitory and toilet becomes a tennis court. And at night, (we) put out the tents, (brought) in a video and tried to show them the newest films in Vietnam. These are the kind of things we used to do in the camps, and we would have to do it under very strict conditions. It was very daunting at first, to literally walk into a camp and have all the barbed wire fences etc. And you can see the faces of the kids and the adults, looking at the barbed wire. Because all the NGO workers were coming at the same time on buses. So if it’s a holiday, nobody arrives right? On holidays, we sometimes compromise and just do something (for the refugees) because we are their only connection to the outside world. So our greatest job was to make it as normal in those camps.
The worst thing that Governments do is to set up these camps in the most beautiful spots, where the kids can only take a good peek at the beach. Beautiful islands, trees isolated from the city. But I need to get them a permit to get them (the kids) out of the camps to the shoreline. And literally put the kids on a tightrope to just do a ten minute walk back to the camp’s entrance. So that was a highlight. I guess the other thing that hit me was ISS was both the culprit and the ‘good guy’. For the time, we were really good because we provided all these services comprehensively. They saw us everywhere, from being around the kids, teens, adults and parents. And we would hire the teachers who were qualified from Vietnam to actually teach the classes. So we were paying the refugees themselves to teach.
We were printing Vietnamese books – we literally had our own publishing area. We would be holding books from Vietnam, from Primary 1 to Secondary, then printing, photocopying them and using them. And we had our own report cards, because if they go back, we want them to see that they had been taught the same books. And they had report cards. And we went to Vietnam to negotiate an accredited report card so the kids wouldn’t lose out. So if you were Grade 3 when you left and came back at Grade 6, they would accredit it because we had the same books. You could test the kids – this was one of the key things. We were also being blamed because we were the only centre where our space was where everybody could meet. So if there were ten sections in a camp, you would see all of them converge in the school.
So when protests or rallies happen, big activities across the ten sections, I would get called. Because they can only think of ISS as the planning venue. Because it is the only place where everybody can meet. They can’t meet in any other places. And the guys we worked with were the most intelligent, the most educated. So naturally when they want to combat the policies and put up strikes and everything else on screening procedures etc. on certain anniversary days, i.e. the fall of Saigon, we were always on red alert. And we always get called. So we planned the whole mid-autumn festivals, Lunar New Years, those were the fun parts.
You wouldn’t believe it – I would order 28 sacks of the red seeds – melon seeds to give away to one camp. We would put it into little plastic (wrappers) to make it look like Chinese New Year. It was pitiful in a sense, because we were trying to live the culture. But it was like maximum creativity and tolerance (put) to the test. Because people can actually kill each other over chilli. Because the kitchen was run as a prison kitchen. And then they get their own rations. And they get paid like camp rates, like prison rates. So we give then salaries of $180. I remember I would have to take a taxi just to get the coins. And then give $180 per month. And they will use that to buy snacks, clothing, or spices. Because it’s so crowded, if you get to steal even one chilli, it could start a whole fight in one bunk. So these are the internal challenges that only a detention life would (bring).
Our therapy was a big deal for us. The kids were just drawing and drawing everything you can think about. From my old Vietnam, to my parents, to my grandparents I left behind, to the rejection I got from my screening, to my best friend… It was like every crisis every month for protest actions was relieving pain. And there was really no solution because you can’t even take them out. It’s such a (sad) thing. I guess the biggest contribution of ISS which we’re very proud of was to develop people. So kids who came at 13 years old became our secretaries. And ended up learning (how to use) computers, English and doing work for us. And when they finally got repatriated, they were the only computer-literate guys. And so they ended up as mangers of hotels!
One guy who kept on playing at the tennis court ended up a tennis coach back in Vietnam, and ended up with big money teaching how to play tennis. That’s all he did! Certain skills, such as assistance in the office as interpreters worked out for them. In fact, my secretary who was a teenage boy, his only dream was to sit in the ISS Head Office. Because he knows everybody on the phone! He knows how to order stationary, who to call in the office and he’s never been out. So from the camp, he was taken to Vietnam. The first time he came back, he looked for this address and literally called me from downstairs because he was already with his father-in-law attending a trade exhibit in Hong Kong as one of the primary exporters of Vietnamese products. And the only thing he did was come up this floor and say, ‘who is this, who is that?’ He was just imagining everything that was in his brain as a kid. He just cried profusely, saying ‘so this is ISS’.
These are the things. And one time we went to Melbourne for a regional meeting with ISS Australia. And I was walking the streets and there are a lot of Vietnamese restaurants in Australia, and I love Vietnamese restaurants. And I was going into the restaurant and wanted to eat noodles. There was a very familiar guy who approached me, and I said ‘I’d like to order this’, and he heard my voice and said, ‘ISS?’ I looked at him, head to toe and said ‘Name?’ And he started hugging me, because he was our best student in the refugee camp. And I said, ‘what are you doing here?’ He said he stayed with a refugee card. And he said he was studying to be a doctor and get a scholarship. I asked who else was with him and he said three others were with him at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. All three held refugee cards, but on scholarships. That night they had only one request – ‘please, we’ve never been to any bar. Can you please treat us to our first bottle of beer?’ And that’s what we did for the first time. These kids were this high (indicates) when they started with the ISS. They were looking for the ISS because we were a part of their lives. It doesn’t stop. We still hire people now who have worked with us from the camps. We still have teachers who are teaching Cantonese through our migrants programme. Still continuing to work with us.
I: Was there any moments that were dangerous for you?
AP: Yes. Major accidents in history. Like the Shek Kong refugee camp where they burned a hut down. The fight was between the northerners and the southerners and the entire hut was burnt down. I was in the lower camp, and my boss said, ‘go to Shek Kong and deal with it’. And nobody wants to be in that area because they felt that there were ghosts every night, and I remember we did at least sixteen rituals every night from all the religions, just to, you know ease the population yeah? And everybody was suspicious of each other as to who lit the fire. The whole investigation process wasn’t dangerous, physically for me, but dangerous because everyone I knew was traumatised. You can’t hold a programme where teachers can teach kids who are just crying. That was difficult. The depression level was so high that you didn’t know what to do. We became so creative that we just bought cookies and orange drinks and that became the lesson for the day, for a whole month at least. That was horrible, because you would step into the camp and see crying for months.
Whitehead detention centre was very dangerous. I think when they finally did a protest action and they burnt everything inside that made the news. And of course, that was the most stressful incident. So we, as social workers, the whole team had to come in immediately, because that was the first response we had to give. But we didn’t even know if they wanted to see us. We didn’t know if they would even listen to us. Those were the tough moments. Personal danger to me was in one camp, when a group of Buddhist monks decided it’s time to take their lives. They really threatened management and simulated what they would do.
The head monk, who was a good friend, came to my office, which was a container with only one door. I was sitting there and he came in, doused with gasoline, and he said, ‘I’m saying goodbye to you’ with a lighter in his hand. He said ‘I just want to say thank you because I don’t think there is any hope in this. I wouldn’t know any more what to do with our people’. And I said, ‘who’s going with you?’ because he was very influential. And he said, ‘twenty of us’. I said, ‘where?’ And he said, ‘out there’. So first I was afraid he would light himself up in my container – I didn’t know what he was going to do. I just embraced him and said, let me come with you and walk with you. As I was walking, I was signalling the guard, basically saying ‘follow me’. And right at the back, in between the bunks there were twenty monks doused with gasoline ready to kill themselves. I was scared. That was one.
I: What year was that?
AP: Shek Kong was 1995. Fire in Whitehead was probably in 1996. One after the other. This whole school was talking about being burned down – we couldn’t control them. That was when they announced the first repatriation program. Literally carrying people down planes. In High Island, because the manner of living was bunks. Very close to each other. People were so desperate to get refugee status and they were not getting it, it was very rare. Movement inside the camp, right after we got out of the bus, a father came crying carrying a nine year old child, bleeding all over in the genital area, and the father said, ‘my child was raped, full penetration by a nineteen year old neighbour’. And the child was rushed to hospital, with totally wrecked internal organs, about 50-50 for a few months. All the father could say was, ‘now can you give us refugee status?’ Everyday people would come to the office and say, ‘help me get refugee status. How much more do I have to lose?’
In Hong Kong, I think they had to prove their refugee status. In the Philippines, I knew they were all refugees, nothing more to prove. But here, they were going through a screening process, and the level of desperation was so bad. And ISS, because it was an International NGO, we had the uniqueness of being looked up as a strong advocate for them, because of the International name. So we got many letters asking for help. And sometimes we had to go to the Security Bureau. I don’t think anyone would forget us because of all the advocacies we’d have to make, from ‘please don’t enforce that policy’ to ‘please don’t use those tear gas canisters because the kids are on the front line’, or ‘please we’ve got massive suicides on our hands’. Negotiating at that level.
I: I was reading in the newspapers of ISS services, that it provided advocacy mainly for the children correct?
AP: It was difficult, because when men were in the line of protest, the children are first, then the women then the men were last. And I would scold them, and then they would look at me and suddenly the logic made sense. (They thought) If we put the children first, they would listen. If we put our bodies first, they would kill us first and then the children won’t talk. It didn’t make sense then. We were caught in the unique position because the security people, the camp management would ask our staff all over the camps – as we were in about 7-9 camps – ask the ISS staff to negotiate with the population because the brightest were the teachers, the principals. Our staff.
I: How many of you in your team?
AP: 3,500 at one point! Over 3,000, including the Vietnamese staff. And we were fun because we were a ‘hodge podge’ of every nationality you could think (of). People would come from different specialisations. We had Vietnamese, African, British, Japanese staff – name the nationality! The international flavour was there for all the things we did.
I: What were some of your successes?
AP: My definition of success is to see one life become better. I remember when they were closing the refugee camp, they told us. They had already closed the detention centres and this was the only remaining camp. And they didn’t know what to do with the kids. And we had 210 kids that we were training to go overseas for resettlement. But technically, they couldn’t be resettled because their parents had [committed] a lot of crimes. Like illegal activities. So our school was inside the camp. A UNHCR guy looked at me and said, ‘Adrian, we have to meet with the Security Bureau and negotiate’. [I said] ‘What to negotiate?’ They had made the policy statement, right? And so we went there and he looked at me and said, ‘how long will it take you to make them speak Chinese, if I give in to your requests to integrate these kids into the local schools?’ And I said ‘one year’. He looked at me quite cynically and said that if we couldn’t even get them to speak English in many years, how can you make them speak Chinese in one year? And I said that with a promise from him to integrate these kids into local schools, I would do everything I could to get them to speak Chinese in one year. That kind of thing [happened].
When we got out, the UNHCR guy was unsure whether we could do this with one extra year of funding. I said we would do it – with the parents and the kids. And that’s what we did. We had to tell our local teachers… we had to say goodbye and that we were no longer an English curriculum. We had to fire 90% of our staff. We needed to hire Chinese teachers because everything was in Chinese, (like) Math. The only thing in English was the English subject. Even Arts and PE were in Chinese. The books all belonged to the Education Department. But we promised we would do it in one year. The parents would come home and teach them how to speak Chinese. Then the kids would be in school and we would teach them how to speak Chinese. And on the weekends, we would do activities with everything in Chinese.
At the end of the year, we invited them and we did an entire programme, from MC to drama to the whole production in Chinese. They got the kids in. 210 of them. But the sacrifice the parents and kids made was high. The one I saw in Australia was meant to be a Grade 6 English Medium. He had to go down to a Grade 3 in Chinese. He was the tallest Grade 3 student, the oldest. But we had kept on the Education Coordinator (one of our Chinese teachers) and we made him go around to all the schools to reassure the kids. And we would organise (camps) for the kids. Primary level at 14 years old, just because of the language (skills)… he’s now a medical doctor (the one from Australia). That’s what keeps you going.
I think with ISS, it has invested in things that are not proven to be, ‘workable’. But it made sense in the development of people. There was a lot of risk as to whether it would work or not. A lot of advocacy was required. We would have to sit in front of Government; we would literally beg donors because we couldn’t even convince people at times. But when success comes, suddenly everybody is in the picture, saying ‘yes, we were assisting’ and we would be smiling at the back remembering the times we had been turned down. That’s the thing that made ISS sustain itself, even beyond the refugee project for the Vietnamese. It was knowing all these things. All these stories.
Mrs Maud was one of the eldest of our Board – she is now 86. To this day, she writes to a Vietnamese (lady) who is now in the US. And this client was a grandmother who helped her grandchildren escape. To this day, she gets Christmas cards from the entire family. Mr Laurence is our 100 year old member of the Board. If you ask him what is the (most) fun thing he has done, it will be going to the camps and seeing the lovely Vietnamese ladies dressing up and treated to Vietnamese songs, dances and food on teacher’s day, school graduations or festivals.
SY: We just celebrated 100 years, (the board member’s) birthday last August.
AP: Without the cooperation of the Vietnamese Government when we went there… we actually wanted to have a school in Vietnam to sustain our operations, but the Government didn’t even want to give us any property. They wanted us to buy everything! [laughs] We were an NGO, there was no partnership. We had to buy! That was difficult. But all these people I’m talking about actually went to Vietnam and visited these people [resettled refugees]. ‘Unaccompanied minors’ were the toughest group for us. Because they held on to the promise they gave their parents. So when the forced repatriation programme was implemented, we were literally hollering at kids on the light towers, because they’d rather die and jump off than break the promise from their parents.
Every day I would report to them, saying ‘three are up on the pole’. We couldn’t close the office. The only solution we came up with was that we had a delegation of three people; we took videos of the kids asking permission to their parents to go home. And letters. And I went to every house from Hai Phong down to Da Nang, down to Saigon, chasing at least forty addresses. It was crazy finding any house in Vietnam. I was taking shots of their parents with an interpreter, saying, ‘please give them permission to go home’. And after taking shots of their mothers saying it’s ok to go home, I would give them the shots of their children on the poles. I was asking them to make the choice.
We were doing counselling at the camps in Vietnam, and counselling here for the people. And that was the only reason the kids believed. But it was tough! We came back after nine days of that trip feeling emotionally drained, exhausted. That was during the forced repatriation at Whitehead when they created the voluntary repatriation inside. I created the youth programme. I was making the unaccompanied minors youth leaders. And then I would suddenly see my youth leader going up the pole! It was a dead end for us. We were just lucky to convince the UN to give us money for the trip. To this day, I will never forget the look on their parents’ faces when they knew their child was alive and ok. We did this because we didn’t want the kids to hurt themselves.
I: How difficult was that, for you to convince the parents? Were most of them cooperative?
AP: They had the misconception that if they went to Hong Kong, they would go to the US immediately. It was hard to convince the parents that this was not going to happen. This whole screening process was difficult to explain. Because to them, the minute they left Vietnam, that’s a future. So returning to Vietnam for them was like a dead end. Why get them back here? And their parents were angry, because they showed us how difficult the life was (in Vietnam). Some parents would tell us the reality that before he left, we had a house. Now look, we are in a bamboo shack. At least there, he could eat, sleep and eat three square meals a day. If he comes back, what will I do with him? I remember going to Hi Fong, going to the charcoal driven areas in the outskirts looking for this ‘mum and dad’. And the difficult part was actually knowing that one of the parents had died. And it was reality.
It was hard to convince people of the truth. And they wouldn’t believe me, just by my words. Both sides – parents and kids. So I had to take the videos. They won’t believe Vietnam was becoming more open, so we had to take Vietnam movies. I remember my greatest fear of my life. We were smuggling the Vietnamese movies, knowing this was going to be a nightmare. And my partner was the wife of the Consulate, saying her husband would kill her. Because we were literally smuggling the videos because they were all produced in Vietnam. At least they would know that we were not frauds, fabricating anything. This was the kind of thing we did, on the side.
I: You are unbelievable.
AP: In ISS, we jumped the cliffs.
SY: Now, what does it mean to me? [Stephen remembers] Everything is possible with persistence and determination. [Laughs] That’s what I have learned all these years.
AP: We had to believe that what we were doing was right, under the most difficult circumstances. Even if everybody thought I was crazy.
SY: The idea of the portable school, (nobody believed it). They thought it was crazy. We managed to get the German donors. I remember we signed the contract at the Sheraton hotel. It was a start, you know. And he managed to donate $1 million at that time to us to build the school. Then he would come every year and give the kids sweets and goodies like a Santa Claus. I still maintain contact with him. From time to time, he sends a message to us.
I: Could you describe to me the portable school?
AP: It was forty foot containers assigned as one classroom. So each container was air-conditioned, fully equipped. Looks like containers stuck one after the other, but once you get in, it’s fully air-conditioned, good flooring, wooden panels and all the equipment.
I: And were they on wheels?
AP: No, they were stacked one on top of the other on metal ladders. It was like a great, geometric design of metal work. And then, we would say that it our school. Everybody would say, ‘it doesn’t look like a school’. And we would show them it had better facilities than the camp schools.
I: How many levels were the containers?
AP: All the Primary 1-3 were there in that school. 4 and 5, you had to go inside the camp. I think we had about thirty classrooms. Three floors of containers at least. One floor was about four containers with a teacher’s room and a faculty room.
I: How many camps had the portable schools?
AP: Just one. It was too expensive. The rest of the camps wouldn’t allow us. Whitehead was large enough to accommodate it. You know what was the fun part? We chose Primary 1-3 because the kids had a free playground whenever they went to school. Because even the police would have fun playing with the kids in the container area with their own playgrounds. The CSD (Correctional Services Department). Each camp had its own uniqueness. Whitehead was the biggest and most difficult to run. It was the strictest. But Tai A Chau was like a resort island. Tai A Chau was an island that was a camp.
If you want weird requests? People would ask for three fishing boats. We would ask why? Do they want to go back to Vietnam? (laughs) At Board meetings, I had to ask on behalf of the three communities for fishing boats. I came up with an alternative solution for them to fish. We gave out fishing rods. There’s a part of the island that they can start fishing, hunt for crabs, build temples. They would look for a good position to build their temples. It would range from the Buddhist to the church. I would learn about all the religions, just by looking at all the items going up around the island. We had a hut there that was not a container. It was one big playground area that was covered.
I: Do you have a list of all the donors?
SY: I think we do.
I: Because I plan to acknowledge them in some way.
AP: You would be surprised at some of them. Cameron Mackintosh. We benefited from Miss Saigon. The producer of Miss Saigon. He gave us money to start the schools. Skills training, etc. So we had the Mackintosh funds for adult education and skills training.
I: I couldn’t thank you enough.
AP: There’s something about the strength of refugees that drives you, as a worker, as a servant to actually give your best. Because it is just so humiliating not to do it. When you look at how much investment they have done for a better life, it is more than a job and a commitment. You can’t do any less. It’s actually a privilege to be able to work in the camps and see all these personalities. One of the biggest experiences was in the Philippines was a Level F Class – beyond interpreter level. First language was English. The Vietnamese class only had ten people. A pianist, a painter who was well-known in Vietnam, a graphic artist who was well-paid, a Cambodian-Vietnamese lady who was a philanthropist. They had all gone to the States and when they got back to Vietnam, they were caught in the war. And their only way out was to be rescued. There was no curriculum to fit them. I was the only teacher available to them. I would ask them what we would talk about today. And this glorious doctor of Mathematics would say to me, can we analyse the chess championship last night? We spent fifteen minutes on this, and everybody asked to do something else.
I don’t think I will ever experience a class like this again. But in these six months, I learned more from them than from me. They held a concert. From poetry reading, to a presentation all about readiness for another life. The next project we would have with the ISS was looking at the other side of the refugee experience. The people of Hong Kong can only see the cost, the problem, the social burden. Part of our responsibilities includes letting them see the beautiful side. I think part of our success right now would be that at least 99% of our social workers and councillors are Chinese. And they are appreciating the work they are doing. Which wasn’t the case in the past. We had to get foreigners (to volunteer and do the work). It was difficult to get the Chinese to do it. Now, 99% are Chinese staff, wanting to give these people assistance. Which we feel good about. When you look at growth in terms of ISS, (this is) not published. We are very low-key. You will not see us in any media, (getting) publicity etc. Because we are comfortable that way. Because we are better resourced that way.