Interviewee: Paul Wong (PW)
3:00PM, Saturday September 14 2013, Paul Wong’s restaurant in Hong Kong
I: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak with you as a Vietnamese boat person in Hong Kong.
PW: It’s my pleasure.
I: I’d like to ask you when you came to Hong Kong?
I: Did you come by yourself or with your family?
PW: With my family.
I: How many of you [were there]?
PW: Four people; my mother, father and one younger brother.
I: And how old were you at that time?
PW: About seven years old.
I: Could you please state your full name, your date of birth and where you were born?
PW: My name is Paul Wong, I was born in 1981. My parents are Chinese and were living in Vietnam. In 1979, my parents went back to China from Vietnam.
I: And where were you born?
PW: In Guangzhou.
I: And when you first came to Hong Kong in 1989, where did you end up?
PW: Tai A Chau.
I: How long did it take to get to Hong Kong?
PW: By boat, two weeks.
I: How many people were on your boat?
I: Was it a big or small boat?
PW: A big boat.
I: How was the journey? Was it dangerous or scary for you?
PW: Very dangerous. The boat was broken because there was a hole. All the men used to wake up at midnight to bail the water out.
I: Did anyone on your boat get hurt or die?
I: How many children were on the boat?
PW: 8 or 9.
I: Were you scared?
PW: Because the ship was very unstable, yes.
I: Did you know where you were going? Did your parents explain it to you?
PW: My father told me we were coming to Hong Kong.
I: Did you have any expectations of what it would be like when you came to Hong Kong?
PW: I didn’t really have any expectations or images, but my father told me that when we came to Hong Kong, everything would be better than China.
I: Was it better when you first came?
PW: The conditions were very bad [in Tai A Chau].
I: Were you surprised when you were in Tai A Chau?
PW: Disappointed, yes. They needed to make up their tents themselves and they actually lived on a farm where there were [crops] being grown, a chicken.
I: And how long were you in Tai A Chau?
PW: Only 15 days.
I: And during those 15 days, what did you do?
PW: Actually we were quite free to do anything we wanted to – we could go fishing and catch fish, and we would have to cook our own food.
I: After those 15 days, where were you moved?
PW: Green Island.
I: How was it like in Green Island?
PW: Like being in a prison. Just like being in a prison, we could go the playground but would need to be back by 5pm to be locked up in the hut.
I: So when you were outside from 8am – 5pm, what would you do?
PW: So most of the time, we mostly played basketball and football. And my father would give us private lessons under the trees. Just teaching us simple mathematics.
I: Did you get to learn English? Were there any other people coming from outside to teach the children?
PW: Later, there were some [English teachers]. [This occurred] in other camps.
I: What about the food?
PW: There would be food cooked in big quantities.
I: Did the refugees cook their own food or did the camp management do it?
PW: The refugees weren’t allowed to cook [their food] themselves, unlike in Whitehead [detention centre]. It was not good, [the food] as it was just boiled in water.
I: What do you remember most about Green Island?
PW: My father giving us lessons.
I: Were you scared in Green Island?
PW: On Green Island, because the people who had come weren’t staying so long, there wasn’t much conflict there. But at the new camp, Hai Ling Chau and Whitehead, hI could see that there was more fighting and this made me and my family scared.
I: How long were you at Hai Ling Chau?
PW: About half a year. When I asked people – because they knew some people working in the office at Hai Ling Chau – when I asked my friends why we needed to move on and off, we were told that the camp management didn’t want us to settle down, become friends and then perhaps form gangs and create a conflict of interest.
I: What was the difference between Green Island and Hai Ling Chau?
PW: There were more trees inside the camp, but at Green Island there were more trees outside the camp. At Hai Ling Chau, we could have green trees and gardens inside the camp.
I: How were you treated differently by the camp management?
PW: In fact, the management didn’t bother to control us or interfere with the refugees much. If someone were drunk, and made some chaos, the camp management wouldn’t tolerate that. For some people who were drunk, they would have made homemade wine inside the camp. For those who made the wine, they seldom drank it themselves but would sell it. My father wasn’t a drinker and he seldom drank.
I: And after that did you move to White Head?
PW: About 2 years in White Head. We stayed in Whitehead for around 2 years.
I: And was that the last camp?
PW: After 2 years, we moved to High Island again. For one year and then went back to Whitehead.
I: For how long?
PW: Half a year, and then to Pillar Point. Also I was screened as a refugee so he could leave the detention centre and move to Pillar Point.
I: And how long were you at Pillar Point?
PW: For around two years.
I: And was that the last camp?
I: And when did you leave Pillar Point?
PW: Around 1996.
I: Could you describe your life to me in Whitehead and Pillar Point?
PW: The best thing was that we were allowed to cook for ourselves; there was a classroom so we could go to school. My father was one of the teachers at the school and he taught Chinese and mathematics.
I: What were the living conditions like at the camp?
PW: In Whitehead, we still needed to lock up during the night-time. But I remembered the best thing was that we were allowed to cook and we also had a lot of relatives who were granted refugee status who had been overseas for many years. We were frequently visited by our friends and relatives at that time in Whitehead. I still remembers they [the relatives] would come and bring us gifts. Metal wasn’t allowed, but he was allowed tiles, toothbrushes and pots and pans.
I: And did you witness any riots or fighting in White Head?
I: Could you describe that to me?
PW: Normally they would use metal they had cut from the fence, or the metal water pipe. They would even use a toothbrush, just like in a movie.
I: The Vietnamese boat people would use [these weapons] against whom?
PW: They were usually drunk; most of the time they were drunk and would fight.
I: And would they fight against themselves or the camp management?
PW: Normally when they fought [amongst themselves], staff weren’t involved [in the fight].
I: Did they [the refugees] ever fight with the [camp] staff?
I: So [fighting occurred] just amongst the Vietnamese people?
I: Did you or your family ever feel unsafe or in danger when they lived in the camp with violent people?
I: Did you ever get hurt?
PW: Mostly it was the young adults [fighting]. The boys my age didn’t fight.
I: I mean did you feel threatened by the adults or ‘big brothers’?
PW: My father was in his thirties but because he was one of the teachers, the other refugees respected teachers very much. So when people saw him, the others in the camp were also good to him and his family.
I: I heard the conditions at Pillar Point were very bad; did you feel the same?
PW: When I was in Pillar Point, there were some drug addicts and it wasn’t very good. Also, there were two groups of people – the Vietnamese and Chinese. And I was quite scared going through the main gate because some drug addicts would gather at the main gate. But after I had stayed for some time, it got better.
I: Were there any significant events that happened at any of these camps that you remember the most?
PW: When I was in Ghuangzhou, the environment where my family and I were living wasn’t bad. But when we came to Tai A Chau, we had to live in a place where there was a lot of rain and also there was thunder – it was very unforgettable.
I: After you left Pillar Point, where did you and your family go?
PW: We rented a home in Tuen Mun.
I: But you were given refugee status. Couldn’t you choose to go and live in another country, or did you choose to remain in Hong Kong?
PW: We had applied to other countries but we were not qualified so we had to stay in Hong Kong.
I: So when they left Pillar Point, were there still a lot of people left in the camps?
I: Because I heard that in 2000, the Hong Kong Government gave residence to all of those [refugees] remaining at Pillar Point. But he left in 1996 so I wonder why [he wasn’t given residency]?
PW: To my understanding, if you moved to Pillar Point, your basic living [needs] was provided. If you could support your basic living [needs] you could rent and leave at any time. So for our case, we had refugee status and my parents were working on construction sites for several years. After they could save [enough] money, we could go out to rent our own place.
I: So they were not forced to go back to Guangzhou because they had received refugee status?
PW: Yes [that’s correct].
I: What was the first major difference that you experienced after you left the camps?
PW: After I left Pillar Point, I felt free. What I meant by ‘free’ was that there was no more fence. Everywhere there was a fence, even at Pillar Point there was a fence. So when we came out, whatever unit we stayed in had no fence. That was the biggest difference. Also, when I left Pillar Point, I started to work in a restaurant as a waiter.
I: I’m very emotional because I understand that for most of your childhood, you were surrounded by a fence most of the time.
PW: In every camp, the fence was very tall so I couldn’t see the outside world. The only one time when I went to High Island and I saw the outside world through the gap between two metal panels of the hut. And [it was] my first time seeing a car – a vehicle.
I: So when you were inside looking out at the car, did you dream someday you would be out there driving the car?
I: And when did you become a chef?
PW: When I came out from Pillar Point, I still went to school and worked part-time in the restaurant. But I liked cooking very much. So around ten years ago, I finished his Form 5 [education] and the results were very good. But one of my teachers knew he liked cooking very much, so he introduced me to the restaurant school, and I took a cooking class to start my career. So I went to the chef training school for two years, and then I graduated and had a chance to work in a restaurant in a big hotel. And that hotel was called the Excelsior.
I: And why did he like to cook so much?
PW: It is in my genes. My father also liked cooking very much and he ran a restaurant in Guangzhou in China. I also have very high standards about food. So I thinks I got the genes from my father.
I: Do you mean that after living in the camps with the horrible food, you still have a high standard in food?
PW: I don’t think it was because of the bad quality of the camp food. When I as very young, I thought I would be a chef one day. So when I was in Pillar Point, I had a chance to go camping one day. And I volunteered to be the cook [during the camping experience].
I: You were born to be a chef…
PW: So when we went camping, the other guys would go hiking [and other activities]. But I would have to look after the fire and prepare congee early in the morning and for dinner. So every time I would be looking after the cooking and I also caught fish and crabs.
I: When you were in the camp, did you ever picture what life would be like outside the camp?
PW: The only thing I thought about was freedom, and not being inside the camp anymore.
I: You said the first time he saw the car was in High Island. So when you were living outside, how different was it?
PW: When I went to Pillar Point, there was a special ID – special identification. That ID wasn’t a ‘real’ Hong Kong ID, so when they used that ID to find a school for me, it wasn’t easy. But luckily, they found school for me run by a Christian church. And I was very happy there.
I: Are you still in touch with some of the friends you made in the camp?
PW: Most of my friends were from Pillar Point. I didn’t have many friends in the detention centres; none of those friends kept in touch.
I: So when they got together, do they sometimes talk about the past?
PW: In the first few years we did talk about the camps, but in recent times the main topic [of conversation] is about our kids because a lot of us got married and having kids. I have two children; my eldest daughter is three years old and my son is six months.
I: Congratulations, so you now have a new kind of meaning in life. So now when you look back to the time when you were a refugee in the camps, what did that [experience] mean to you?
PW: I think that those few years in the camp – it doesn’t matter whether it was in the detention centre or in the open camps at Pillar Point – it was a positive [experience]. Because if my father didn’t bring us to Hong Kong, survive the dangers in the sea and in the camp, we would still be in Guangzhou like everyone else. I overcame a lot in my life and is much more mature. When I was in Secondary School, my teachers always thought that I was ten years older than all the other students. I believes this experience has given me very good training in facing challenges in life. The best thing is that every problem has a solution.
I: That’s a very great way of looking at life. What do you think you would be doing now if you were in Guangzhou?
PW: Maybe I would have adopted his father’s business and would be running it in Guangzhou. But it would not be as challenging as my restaurant here. For this restaurant, I am one of the shareholders and my dream is to one day run my own restaurant which will be much bigger [than this current one].
I: I wish you a lot of success and wish for you to achieve your dream soon.
PW: Thank you.
I: Did you do any drawing or artwork when you were in the camps?
PW: I drew and played in the band.
I: Are you still playing in a band?
PW: I met my wife in 2002, and I remembered at that time until now I hadn’t played the drums. I met my wife in Hong Kong.
I: How are your parents?
PW: Before I was married, I lived with my parents. My parents are now living in Tuen Mun.
I: What about your brother?
PW: My brother got married and moved out.
I: What does he do?
PW: [He works] in home decoration.
I: Thank you, I am very inspired by you [and your story].
PW: I went back to my old Secondary School to give a talk to the boys and encourage the young people to face their difficulties with a positive mind.
I: I left Vietnam by boat when I was 16 and my journey was very dangerous as well. Four people died and we ended up in a jungle in Indonesia. I was there for ten months before I went to America.
PW: Any further questions?
I: Is there anything you want to share with me?
PW: In fact, the living environment now – the space for living – [can be a] problem but it’s not something big [in the scheme of things]. If you have difficulties, you have courage to deal with it. And every difficulty is a chance to move up. For example, with a restaurant, I have a good team in the kitchens and the waiters etc. to help me. I am lucky to have found the right person to do the right job [at the restaurant]. Even when it is very stressful [working in the restaurant] I feel lucky to have the help of my brother and he sets aside time to plan for the future i.e. how to upgrade. I also told my wife that even though the restaurant isn’t very big at the moment, they can expect more [growth] in the future. And when I was with his family in difficult times, we lived simply, and it wasn’t a big deal.