Interviewee: Lam Yu Lai (LL)
12:00pm, Wednesday 9 January, 2013, Officer of Correctional Services Department, Hong Kong
I: May I please have your full name?
LL: My name is Lam Yu Lai. You may call me Larry. I am now the Superintendent of the Human Resources Section of the Correctional Services Department.
I: Where were you born?
LL: I was born in Hong Kong.
I: What year were you born?
I: When did you start to involve yourself with the Vietnamese boat people?
LL: Actually, I joined the service in 1983. Since then, I worked in the prison and during my encounter in the prison; of course I encountered people of different nationalities including Vietnamese. But in 1992, I was posted from the prison to a unit which was called ‘Escort Unit’. This changed its name to be ‘Emergency Support Group’. The duty of that group was mainly escorting prisoners from penal institutions to various places such as Court, such as Hospital and attending visits or transfers etc. And the other duty of the group is to handle emergency situations of the department. And it happens that the group was assigned with the duty to handle emergency situations in any place. Of course that included the detention centre, which detained the Vietnamese refugee boat people. Starting from 1992, I began to get involved in the emergency operations in the detention camp, handling Vietnamese boat people.
I: What was your position at that time?
LL: I was then a Principal Officer. Who was essentially performing the duty of Platoon Commander. A platoon of about 30 staff members [I was in charge of].
I: And how long were you in that position?
LL: I was in the Emergency Support Group for more than 6 years.
I: When you finished, was it at the end of the Vietnamese situation? Or were you transferred to a different post?
LL: Yes, I was transferred out of the Emergency Support Group in around 1998. I was then posted to Victoria prison. I took up the post as the Security Officer of the Victoria prison. Coincidentally, Victoria prison is a – I can say – it was the final station for Vietnamese detainees. Because that was the place where Vietnamese prisoners were finishing their sentence and would be transferred to Victoria prison, pending their repatriation back to Vietnam.
I: What were some of the crimes they committed?
LL: Drugs, fighting, robbery etc.
I: Were there high numbers of the Vietnamese refugees in prison?
LL: I don’t have the exact figures on how many Vietnamese prisoners were in the penal institution, but usually not the majority of course.
I: In your career life, before your posting to the Emergency Relief, and after that, how would you compare your job?
LL: It was different of course. Because in prison, I would perform the duty as a Custodial Officer who was responsible for running the routines of the prison. But when I was posted to Emergency Support Group, I would be in charge of a platoon to deal with the emergency situations, initially in the detention camps. That was the difference. Because I think my responsibilities were [heavier]. When I was in charge of a platoon, I had to take care of the members placed under me. Their safety [and] their psychological conditions. Because usually in our operations, we have a start[ing] time to work. But we don’t have a time to finish our work. It may last for twenty or more hours. Of course we have a short break during that time [to compensate] for the long working hours. But under those working conditions, during [an incident] that happened unexpectedly, suddenly, I had to take care of [my staff] both physically and psychologically. I considered myself to have a very heavy responsibility.
I: Would you say that during that time it was more eventful? More emergencies?
LL: We had emergency situations to handle, but I may say that it was definitely not an easy time. The time was hard. In terms of the long working hours. In terms of the situation we faced, in terms of the possible violence we faced, in terms of the possible legal responsibilities. If anything went wrong. In terms of my duty, my responsibility on the client, on my staff, that kind of pressure, of course you can imagine I did have a lot of pressure. But it gave me a very, very good experience and memories. That kind of experience and those memories, I will never forget. Even today when I am together with my staff, we talk [a lot], we recall much on the experiences and encounters we had. That was a memorable experience I can say.
I: What were some of the experiences you can remember right now?
LL: I remember I took part in many, many emergency operations. I remember once, it was around 1994. It was the 7th April. This was the first repatriation operation in Whitehead detention centre. It was a joint operation with Correctional Services Department and assistance from Police. We encountered resistance from the Vietnamese boat people. That operation was for the extraction of the target for ordered repatriation. We encountered resistance and at that time, we were receiving force and resistance from the Vietnamese boat people. And eventually, more than hundreds of tear gas and grenades was fired from Correctional Services Department Officers and Police. Eventually after that operation, there was demand from the public. And the Government appointed an independent inquiry on that. Then, we would enquire every Commander, including the High Commander and the Platoon Commander.
We were summoned to an independent enquiry. And we were questioned. We gave all the details on what had happened, and how we had carried out our duties. And this made me have a very unforgettable experience. That is a kind of a pleasure on us, on how we carried out our duties. And so that gave me an experience that we have to be responsible for everything we have done, how we planned the operation and that made me to think about – as a public officer – we are responsible to the public for what we have done. The use of force. And there was only a thin line as to how you can use force. The level of force was it appropriate, excessive or non-necessary. All of these things came up to my mind.
I: Where did the incident take place?
LL: It was in Whitehead detention centre.
I: About what time, do you recall?
LL: The operation started in the morning. It lasted the whole day.
I: Could you describe to me some of the scenes or how it broke out?
LL: I was a Commander of a platoon. Then I, as planned, I had to control certain hubs. And just when we went in to the position, then we encountered resistance from the Vietnamese boat people. We had stones thrown at us. But everything just stopped at that time. Then we didn’t fire any tear gas at first. Until I received [the] command from my superior that we needed to go in to get people out. And I remembered the situation dragged on the whole morning.
I: So the resistance came from the people in the camp in general, not necessarily the ones being taken out?
LL: Yes. Because we can’t even go in to get the ‘so-called’ target[s]. We were not supposed to identify the target. But we had to assist the staff of the camp to go in and get the target they wanted. That was our job.
I: And then in the end, were you able to bring out all the targets?
LL: I remember that we were.
I: And the operation took a few hours?
I: And how were the targets being taken out?
LL: I remember after the situation was under control, the camp staff came in and they got the targets.
I: And eventually, was that group transferred to Vietnam?
LL: I remember yes.
I: And then, that operation stopped for a while for everybody to recover?
I: That’s a big learning curve I suppose.
I: Was there any moment when it was harmful or risky to you?
LL: Many. I remember… I don’t remember the year… It was in another operation in High Island detention centre. Which was around the Chinese Lunar Mid-Autumn Festival, I remember. At the time, we had around 200 staff members of our group, divided into several platoons. I was one of the commanders of one platoon. I remember at that operation, we had around 51 staff members – of the 200 staff – being injured. Because of the operation.
I remember the scenario when I let my platoon go into a hut to disperse the people staying inside the hut. I was hit by an orphan with burning charcoals. Yeah. Luckily, it was brought by the edge of the door and not directly on my head. And the object just went through and slipped on my body. Luckily we had some protective gear, the uniform which was fire retardant. I just got burned on my hand. That was of course not the only one time I was injured, but that was a very unforgettable memory to me.
I: What happened? Can you describe to me the scene of that incident? How long did it take to contain [the situation]?
LL: It was only for a few seconds when we were about to enter the hut to get the people out. And somebody ambushed us [from the rooftop].
I: But the operation was carried out anyway?
LL: Of course.
I: How many of those operations were you involved in, approximately?
LL: I think more than 20.
I: Did you ever feel like you don’t want to go to one of these again?
LL: No, no. First of all, this was our job. This was our duty. We had to do it. As I said, it was hard times. It was not an easy job to do. It was not an easy duty, but we still felt honoured to have taken part in that duty. Because even today, we stayed and gathered together on a few occasions every year with the staff I worked with at that time to recall the experience. It is enjoyable.
I: Any pleasant experiences during those years?
LL: We had a group of good colleagues. They are creative, starting from the training and those going to the field and those carrying out emergency operations. We have created a ‘team spirit’.
I: So that was what kept you going?
LL: We had friendship and brotherhood together. Because we had the experience of facing hard time together, like working long working hours. I can say that the time I stayed with my colleagues was even longer than the time I spent with my family. That was the game. The working experience.
I: How did that kind of work affect you and your colleagues psychologically?
LL: I don’t think there would be any negative psychological effect on us. Instead, that experience built up our confidence, our skills and technique in handling violent people and emergency situations.
I: In regards to the Vietnamese people, what do you think of the people when you carry out those duties?
LL: We treat them as people, because they deserve respect from us of course. Just because our position is different…
I: Did you feel sorry for them when you had to return them?
LL: I sympathise with them. That’s what I can say. Because that is the situation at that time. The Hong Kong Government can’t keep them indefinitely in that place. After the screening process, some of them will have to return.
LL: Because of the different position, to me they are the same, they are people.
I: Do you make any friends with the Vietnamese people?
LL: No I did not.
I: Was that because of the nature of your job, you can’t establish long-term friendships with the people?
LL: Yes of course. We have regulations on that.
I: Is there anything else that you might want to share?
LL: I think that’s it for the time being.
I: Would you say that the experiences that you had working with the Vietnamese people then was useful in your career and working in other jobs [you have had since]?
LL: As I said, it was a very, very good experience for me. Especially in handling emergency situation and build up our confidence and experience.
I: But I’m sure none of you would ever wish to have to do this again?
LL: Of course.
I: When you hear the term ‘Vietnamese refugees’ or ‘boat people’, what came to your mind?
LL: They are unfortunate people. Because of something happening in their homeland. I don’t think anyone would like to leave their homeland, even for political or economic reasons. No one wants to leave their homeland. We have a saying in Chinese that, ‘people leaving their homeland would become cheap’. That is definitely true.
I: What does ‘cheap’ mean?
LL: It means ‘valued less’.
I: Was that the only time you were majorly injured?
LL: Actually, it was not comparatively serious, not a serious injury. We had protective gear. Luckily, none of my staff were seriously hurt.
I: That’s good, I’m glad to hear that. Because I read through records and research that there were casualties.
LL: It was very low [numbers]. Even on the Vietnamese people’s side, there were no serious injuries. Except those who caused self-harm. I witnessed once that the Vietnamese people just jumped from the [top] of the hut. I saw it. I encountered one. He had multiple fractures.
I: Did he die?
LL: No, just fractures.
I: And about how old was he?
I: Did he talk about it, did he say why [he jumped]?
LL: No. Just as a gesture or protest against something. At that time, nobody was going to do anything [for him]. He just jumped from that height.
I: What time of day did that take place?
LL: It was daytime, in the afternoon.
I: Did he do it purposely, so the Officers could see him?
LL: We were just around, doing our operations.
I: This was one of your operations?
LL: An emergency operation procedure.
I: Was that what you would call an ‘emergency operation’, every time you would go in to escort the detainees?
LL: We don’t usually call it an ‘emergency operation’; we usually call it an operation depending on the nature [of the operation]. Sometimes we would just do an extraction to just get people out. For repatriation, if we were just doing ‘repatriation’ we would just call it a ‘repatriation operation’ or ‘repatriation exercise’. Because for some of the targets we would escort them to the airport. Just to the aeroplane. And then back to Vietnam.
I: And also to prison, or Court?
LL: And sometimes we were summoned to the detention camp because of disturbances occurring in the detention camp. And at that time, we would just handle the disturbance. It all depends on the nature of the incident.
I: Were you shocked when you saw that man jump off the roof?
LL: Yes, actually. But luckily we had medical staff just [nearby] for immediate medical attention.
I: That was really sad. So he just stood on the roof… did he yell out or scream or try to get anybody’s attention?
LL: No. He just jumped down.