Francis Tse Siu Fung
Interviewee: Mr T (T)
9:45am, Wednesday, 9 January 2013, Correctional Services Office, Hong Kong
I: Mr T, thank you very much for allowing me to interview you this morning. Could you please state your full name and where and when you were born?
T: My Chinese name is Tse Siu Fung. I was born in Hong Kong. Normally, those people working in the camp called me Francis, including NGO workers, UNHCR staff and Vietnamese’s camp people.
I: What year were you born?
I: When did you start working with the Vietnamese boat people?
T: June of ’88.
I: What was your role there?
T: At that time, I was the Welfare Officer. I took care of those Vietnamese migrants, later called Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. The location I worked at that time was actually refugee camps.
I: At that time, the Vietnamese situation was very well-known in the community and there were a lot of problems then. So were you assigned that job or did you ask for it?
T: No. Actually, it was an internal appointment by [the] Correctional Services Department. Before I was working in the camp, I was also a Welfare Officer in a correctional institution.
I: How did you feel when you were appointed to that position?
T: Nothing special. Just like a Correctional Officer in an institution because it was an internal appointment.
I: Was it like anything you had experienced before?
T: It’s strange, and in fact the whole situation is different to that of penal institutions in the Correctional Services Department. It is more like a social worker.
I: How many years were you in that position?
T: I started to work in 1988 inside a Vietnamese boat people centre, until 1997. That means, I spent almost nine years in refugee business.
I: Do you remember some of the significant incidents that happened during your years?
T: Yes of course. For that whole period of nine years, there were a lot of things happening in the camps. But some are quite significant to me. We received Mother Theresa in 1988. That was the only time she could visit Vietnamese boat people centre in Hong Kong. It was because at that time, her followers also provided volunteer services in some of the refugee camps. And those Catholic sisters used to come to our camps in the morning and conduct some prayer groups, and also some lessons in English teaching for women, old people and children. That was why we had built up a certain connection with Mother Theresa’s followers at that time. And it was wonderful, because they actually are not involved with Vietnamese refugee business.
I: What were some of your duties on this job?
T: I was responsible for taking care of the welfare of the Vietnamese refugees in the camp, as well as to communicate with the workers in the camp, including UNHCR workers. My main business was to coordinate all NGO’s and UNHCR to provide the best welfare service for those refugees if we can. In particular, I was transferred to Whitehead that was the biggest refugee camp in Hong Kong. At that time, Whitehead accommodated at the most 25,000 Vietnamese’ refugees.
I: What year did you go to Whitehead?
I: Is it true that there were almost 25,000 refugees in that camp?
T: In the beginning of 1990, I believe there was around 20,000 or less.
I: When you said that you provided the welfare for the refugees, what does that entail?
T: My colleagues in other sections would take care of the medical services, security etc. My section main concerns were with family, to take care of the family services. And also some other services like marriage. You know at that time, there were a lot of NGO’s working in the camps. For example, International Social Services, Save the Children, Community Family International services. These are various NGO’s providing different categorical services in the camp. So the welfare section was mainly to coordinate with all these NGO’s to provide such kinds of services, inside the camp. And also, in Hong Kong, sometimes the Vietnamese boat people would have their own requirements for certain Government services. Including if you have a newborn baby, you would need a birth certificate. Or if you wanted to marry someone outside, or inside the camp, you would have to go to the marriage registry to make an appointment to attend a ceremony, scheduled for the marriage. And eventually, to get a marriage certificate, these are the foundational business that a Welfare Officer [is responsible for]. At that time, I was the Principal Welfare Officer, in charge of all these kinds of services.
I: Was the birth rate high amongst the refugees?
T: I can’t say it was very high. As far as I can remember, the birth rate inside the women’s camp is almost the same as the outside community in Hong Kong.
I: What were some of the complications of your job?
T: That’s a good question. The reason is that because, on the one hand, my Department has to take care, or represent the Government to maintain security and/or discipline inside the camp. On the other hand, those NGO’s and also UNHCR tried to strive for the welfare benefits of Vietnamese boat people in the camp. And you can see, for these two different groups, you would definitely have some conflicts. Sometimes, misunderstandings between the two sides. So the welfare situation at that time was to be a type of mediator, or person in between these two parties. To actually coordinate with different sides of people, managing the camp, or providing services to the camp, in order to try and strike a balance.
I: Was your job at any time dangerous?
T: I have to say that the Vietnamese people would respect the welfare staff. Maybe they understood the welfare centre staff, were the people who were helping them in the camps. And they could work through the welfare system to get the services. They would like to have financial [services], or to get certain kinds of things they would like to make inside the camp. And the welfare sessions could be their only official channel they could approach in the camp. So, my section staff would normally respect the Vietnamese, and they have maintained a very good relationship. Or, you could say a very harmonious relationship with those people in the camps. I don’t think there were any safety concerns.
I: Were there situations like riots for repatriation, did you have to get involved with that?
T: With the repatriation program operated by my Department, my section only took part in a very small area. Say, when some Vietnamese boat people had been screened out and ordered, or given instructions by the Immigration Department to go back to Vietnam, my section worked to try to help to identity people to get as far as possible, those things that they want. For example, some Vietnamese boat people, before they are returned to Vietnam would choose to meet some of their friends and relatives outside. We would arrange interviews or certain kinds of visits for these Vietnamese boat people, before their departure from Hong Kong. This would require some coordination, telephone calls, etc. And we would do that.
Some Vietnamese boat people would choose to get some say new clothing, before their departure, because they would say that when the returned back to Vietnam, they wanted to return looking good. My welfare staff would also try to coordinate with some NGO’s and [they would] send some donations from local communities to get some clothing. And get them into the camp and try to give it to those people returning to Vietnam. And these were some of the things we would have to do. And of course, there were a lot of other things we would have to settle for the boat people before their departure.
I: Were there any particular moments or incidents that stood out for you?
T: I can remember one very particular case. Of a female unaccompanied minor. That was 1988 when I first started working in the camp. I met one girl, almost at the age of 16-17 when she came to Hong Kong. She actually was a North Vietnamese coming from Hai Phong. Her story is very touching. In fact, it was very sad. She was raised by her mother. Her mother was married to another man in Hai Phong. When she was 16 years old, she was raped by her stepfather. Eventually, she was pregnant. And after her arrival, she approached the welfare section and we referred her case to an NGO called Community Family Services International (CFI). The girl was so sad and I can say that at that time, she suffered from depression.
With the joint effort of CFI workers and together with myself personally, we helped that young girl to overcome the problem. And about 6 months later, after the delivery of the baby, she signed an undertaking to handover her parental rights to the Hong Kong Government. And at the time of the delivery in the hospital, the baby was immediately transferred to a Children’s Centre in Hong Kong. And that girl returned to camp and stayed in the camp until her departure to Vietnamese, sometime in 1995. This is as I can remember. So it was one very sad story at that time I encountered. I think it is a certain kind of story that is forgotten by the people in the camp.
I: So she was screened out, and came back to Williams?
T: There’s another good side to her story. Now, it was that time about the end of 1988. After her delivery of the baby, she returned to camp and stayed in camp and worked in the camp as an assistant with those NGO’s. And she learned English and also other things in the camp. And she also got a salary from the NGO. Later, I know that she came across another boy in the camp. A Vietnamese’ boy. And they sure enough, fell in love. And probably after 3-4 years, they were engaged. And applied for marriage in Hong Kong. And before her return to Vietnam, she actually was married to that boy. At that time, they were probably 20 or 21. It was a good sign of their story. And they both returned to Vietnam. So this is one case I can remember.
I: How would you describe your nine years with the Vietnamese boat people situation?
T: I cannot say it in one single word or sentence. It is very hard to describe. A lot of things were happening in the camp. At the beginning, because there was no screening policy, all those Vietnamese boat people detained in the camps, there were some who had permission to leave the camp and stay in Hong Kong until they migrated to other countries. And some, they could not get permission to leave the camp. And they had to stay in the camp until their departure back to Vietnam. This was probably before 1994. So the camp was quite stable. We were all working there, serving as Social Workers, taking care of those people – or you could say, those underprivileged people – and they are confined in the camps without any access to outside Hong Kong. Within that period, our main duty was to organise a lot of activities with the NGO’s. For example, we organised a day camp for the children with ‘Save the Children’ and others.
To allow the children to go out and participate in activities in the local community, I remember Ocean Park – even some Vietnamese’ boat peoples’ children – there were a range [or children] accompanied by welfare staff of about 60 to go to Ocean Park and to enjoy some happiness time. And we also worked with other NGO’s to provide education, although it was quite basic. But still, we could provide Primary education and Junior Secondary Education in the camp. I can see evidence of thousands of children around the perimeter fence of the camp, waiting to go into the school inside the camp. It was a picture that was very touching in your heart. You could see many young boys and girls. They were very happy, for a time in the morning to wait to go into the school. And on the other hand, we also arranged family reunions. [This was] with those people because, Vietnamese boat people were coming into Hong Kong in different batches. Some of them came earlier than their wife, for example. So, some already stayed in another camp.
There were many cases of application for family reunions at that time. The problem was, they had no identity documents sometimes. It was very difficult to establish their relationships, their actual relationships. So we were just like social workers outside, working with their records and other NGO’s to get the information from both sides to try and establish the relationships. And after that, we had to report to the UNHCR, and with their approval, we let those different parties join together. This was one of the businesses we [undertook]. And sometimes we saw families that had been separated for a few years. They hadn’t seen each other [in that time]. And once they were approved to have the family reunion, they would be put aside into one single camp. And you can see their joyfulness, their happiness. This was part of what the job was we were doing in most parts of the refugee camps. But when you were talking about repatriation, yes. After 1994, I can’t quite remember whether it was ’94 or ’95, some of my staff in the welfare program was involved in the repatriation program as well.
I: What was it like?
T: I can say that, as welfare staff, we only supported and provided some logistical support for the repatriation scheme. We were not directly involved.
I: What about the riots? Did you experience any of those?
T: There were a lot of riots, starting in the camp when I was there. There were a lot of riots between different groups. In the beginning in 1988, we had already witnessed, or encountered some riots. You can’t say they were major riots. They were some kinds of conflicts, between two groups of Vietnamese’ boat people. Sometimes North Vietnamese against South Vietnamese. Sometimes Hai Phong people against the Quang Ninh people.
Of course, the welfare staff, they would be instructed to try to be the mediator between two groups. To ask these ringleaders of the groups to cease their fighting if possible. But sometimes, it is very difficult to do. And I think the welfare sessions stopped at that time, if the camp situation was interrupted or deteriorated into a riot. Our main duty was to take care of those people that are not actually involved in the fighting. We tried to help these people to stay in their own dormitories. And also provide water and food and also other assistance they would like to have. But for the fighting itself, the violence itself, it was settled by Security staff.
I: So would the fighting amongst the refugees happen more in closed camps or in open camps?
T: I don’t think open camps had more fighting or riots than closed camps. I think there were more in the closed camps.
I: Well obviously they stayed in the camp and didn’t have much to do. And were frustrated.
T: I can say that at that time, at the open camp at daytime, when they would go out to work, they would run a camp in the very late evening. They would stay in the hostel in the night-time and evening. And in the morning, say 6-7am, when they would start to leave the camp and work outside, I don’t think they would have any time [for fighting and/or riots]. Of course, there were still some single incidents of assault cases or even murder cases. But these were individual cases.
I: So apart from having conflicts amongst the refugees, what about refugees versus the authorities?
T: There were two stages of the camp. Before 1994, before the repatriation – the mandatory repatriation taking place – the camp was ok for the management. After the mandatory repatriation taking place, there was violence, some resistance groups against the mandatory repatriation. That is all I can say.
I: What was one of the biggest riots against the authorities that you can remember?
T: There was one in Whitehead on 4 May 1995, if my memory is still ok. It happened around 3-4am, because at that time, the mandatory repatriation had already taken place for a couple of months. So inside the camp, there was tension and people resisted going back to Vietnam. There were a lot of male Vietnamese, who got together on that night, the 4 May, in the early morning, 3am, they started to create trouble for the management. And over thousands of male Vietnamese used some tools, some kinds of furniture, big furniture in the camp to break off the perimeter fence of the camp. And started to run out of the camp [by the] hundreds.
It was a very large scale disturbance that night. And they started to set fire to some Government vehicles, and also some staff vehicles. And also some Government offices, surrounding Whitehead detention centre. And I returned to the camp about 4am. I caught the bus and witnessed over hundreds of males holding iron bars, running from one side of the camp to another side of the camp. And all the CSD staff were forced to retreat to outside the main gate. The whole camp lost control, until the morning, say 7 or 8 o’clock, when the police reinforcements and CSD staff came back. And the management started to regain some control of those office areas. But we couldn’t go inside the camp.
I: Were there any casualties during that incident?
T: It was for over twenty hours, starting from 4 May until the 5 May. There were some casualties. And some staff sustained injuries. And some Vietnamese people sustained injuries as well. And it was the first time the Hong Kong disciplinary force had to use a large number of gas, weapons etc. to subdue the violence inside the camp.
I: Did anyone die?
T: No. It was fortunate, nobody died.
I: What about the women and children in the camp?
T: They were hiding inside their dormitories. And very few females were coming out to resist. Mostly it was male Vietnamese coming out to resist the security staff.
I: If they involved a thousand of them, you would think it would have taken them a while to organise themselves?
T: The situation was such that, in Whitehead there were ten different sections, or ten different camps. From number one to number ten. Each section contained the same group of Vietnamese, from Vietnam. So, say, section 1 came from Hai Phong. Section 3-4 might come from Quang Ninh. Section 9 might have come from [another province]. Section 10 would come from South Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City or something like that. So you can say that inside each section, they are all ‘nice’ [to each other]. Because they are all coming from the same province, the same origin. But I don’t think from all ten sections, they would be one single unity [they would be united].
I don’t think this situation happened at that time. But they shared the similar concern of being returned to Vietnam by force, they were definitely against the management and Immigration at that time. So they would choose to coordinate inside their own section and against the security staff at that time. Against the kind of organisation [unlikely that they were organised]. Not a single organisation over the whole of Whitehead camp, but different people in different sections.
I: So with that incident, would you say that people from all the sections came out to fight?
T: Mostly. The majority would come from Sections 1-8 because they were on one side of the camp. Whitehead was divided into two sides, separated by a small hill. On one side of the hill, there was Sections 1-8. So, this skirmish happened on that night on the [side of] Sections 1-8. And on the other side [of the hill] was Sections 9 and 10.
I: And from 1-8, were they predominantly North Vietnamese?
T: A lot of them were.
I: And 9 and 10 were South Vietnamese?
T: 10 was South Vietnamese.
I: But 9 and 10, the South Vietnamese were also there to be repatriated?
T: They had started to be repatriated. But on that night, they had no direct involvement in the riot. I can say that.
I: Is there anything else that comes to mind that you can remember, or anything particular you want to say about the whole experience you had with the Vietnamese boat people?
T: Maybe I could try to talk more about the welfare side. From 1997, ’98, I can see a lot of NGO workers working in the camps. They are not Hong Kong local people. They are coming from [other nations]. Some from the US, Australia, Canada or other places around the world. Some are actually English-speaking people. Some are Chinese. Some are Vietnamese people, in fact. They have been settled in other countries, and choose to return to Hong Kong to contribute. Or to provide their efforts. To help all these Vietnamese boat people in the camps. It was wonderful, and you can see what a human being should do. What mankind should do to help the poor people from Vietnam.
These NGO workers would normally [receive] very little in return for their salary. Some of them were professional workers. Some own their own businesses in their own countries. Some of them are religious leaders or people. And these people, all these people have one single goal to contribute their best efforts to help those poor Vietnamese inside the camp. To try to get them to develop their own growth. Or to help, in particular, those children to grow up as normal as possible, compared with others outside the community. So I can see that they always strive for their best. And this group of NGO workers, they should be given credit.
I: In your career life, before and after the time you spent with the Vietnamese boat people, how would you compare that experience?
T: It was a very memorable time when I was working in the camp for nine years. It was different to all [my other experiences]. I never imagined I would work in the camps, as my profession is a social worker in my department. To take care of those young offenders, before they are returned to society. So taking care of Vietnamese boat people in the camp is another side to the story. They are not offenders. They are not people that we need to … I can see that there are very basic welfare services or needs required to help these people in the camp. And in fact, I got a lot of memorable times in there. I can see many happy faces, in particular, those young children. When they had grown up in the camps, when they are really young – say 4 or 5 – when they return to Vietnam or when they settle in other Western countries, they have grown up to being teenagers already.
I: Thank you very much for your time and for sharing some of your experiences.