Fighting Until the End: Hong Kong’s Vietnamese Refugees

If you visit Whitehead today, you’ll find a cook-it-yourself barbecue restaurant, a velodrome, a golf driving range and, in the near distance, the looming towers of new housing estates. What you won’t find is any trace of the enormous refugee camp that once stood here.

Between 1975 and 2000, a total of 223,302 Vietnamese asylum seekers passed through Hong Kong. And yet, unlike the many other migrants that have left their mark on the city—Portuguese, Russian and Mexican, to name a few—it can be hard to find traces of this enormous wave of people. People may be aware of its history, but their awareness is usually dim. It’s a history that is complex, difficult and astonishingly overlooked. 

“Some people are confronted by information that contradicts what they were told,” says Carina Hoang, a refugee who now runs an oral history project on the Vietnamese exodus. “They did not know the statistics, they didn’t know there were so many Vietnamese boat people that came in. It’s massive. It’s complicated. And it went on for 25 years.”

Vietnamese refugees

Refugees from Vietnam in Victoria Harbour, November 1979. Photo by William Albert Allard

The first wave of refugees came soon after the Fall of Saigon, which marked a North Vietnamese victory over US-allied South Vietnam. Vietnamese opposed to Communist rule fled the country in fear of reprisals, and on 4 May 1975, a group of 3,743 asylum seekers landed in Hong Kong aboard the Danish freighter Clara Mærsk. Although they were initially dismissed by the government as “illegal immigrants,” they were eventually given permission to stay until they were resettled elsewhere. The government pressed the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to speed up their resettlement, and a year later, the entire group had been given new homes in France, the United States, Germany and Australia, with a handful allowed to stay in Hong Kong. 

That turned out to be just the beginning. In 1978, the Vietnamese government began a campaign of repression against ethnic Chinese, forcing many of them to flee the country however they could. Some left by land, but most crowded onto fishing boats, earning them the moniker “boat people.” Few countries would accept them. Thailand turned them away, and so did Singapore and Malaysia. 

Hong Kong initially rejected them, too, forcing them to live in squalor aboard decrepit vessels moored offshore, but with a thousand people arriving in Hong Kong’s waters every day, the government soon capitulated and allowed them to land. Civil servants were urgently requisitioned to deal with the newcomers, including Peter Lai, an administrative officer who was given 24 hours notice to report to the Security Branch for a new position on the front lines. “First priority – make sure that they have a roof over their heads and food in their belly,” he later said. “And if they’re sick, being attended to by proper doctors and nurses.” Lai eventually became Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security between 1995 and 1998.

In 1979 alone, 68,748 Vietnamese people arrived in Hong Kong. At first, things went relatively smoothly. As researcher Priscilla Koh notes in an article for Refuge, an academic journal on refugees, boat people were escorted by the Royal Hong Kong Marine Police to a dock where they were quarantined for a week. That was followed by another week in prison while their paperwork was being processed. Finally, they were released to one of several makeshift camps. 

Vietnames refugees

Refugees from Vietnam in a dockyard quarantine, November 1979. Photo by William Albert Allard

Koh gives the example of two teenage sisters, Le Chi and Le Mai, who were initially placed in Jubliee camp. After a month, they were transferred to the Kai Tak camp, where they were able to obtain day passes that allowed them to work. But it was still a tough life. “Coming from a sheltered upbringing in Vietnam, camp life shocked Chi and Mai,” writes Koh. “Robberies, rapes, and murders were not uncommon. For Mai, however, the hardest thing for her was seeing people live out most of their lives at the camp: getting married and raising a family there, playing what seemed like an eternal waiting game to be accepted for resettlement.”

The Le sisters were lucky; they were resettled in Canada after four months. Many other refugees endured a much longer wait. In the early 1980s, many countries stopped accepting boat people as refugees. Their change in policy was due in part to a phenomenon called “compassion fatigue,” in which public opinion towards a group of people in need sours after a period of initial generosity. But it also came thanks to an agreement with Vietnam that allowed people to leave the country directly, rather than sneaking out on boats. 

Refugees on an overcrowded freighter off the shores of Hong Kong, November 1979. Photo by William Albert Allard

And yet the boat people kept coming. With fewer countries accepting them as refugees, the Hong Kong government adopted a policy it called “humane deterrence.” Starting in the summer of 1982, all new arrivals were placed in one of three closed camps. Ringed by barbed wire and patrolled by guards from Hong Kong’s prison service, these were essentially maximum-security penitentiaries, only their inmates were not convicted criminals, they were ordinary people, including families and children. It was a grim situation. “There is no reprieve from these camps,” reported The New York Times in 1986, “except by resettlement abroad or death.”

“It was really hard for the Vietnamese refugees to be locked up like that,” says Hoang. Some people were held up in the camps for more than a decade, with little sense of when—if ever—they would be released. Conflicts erupted between detainees, who were divided between North and South, or ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese. Family members bickered and fought. In all but one of the camps, there was no entertainment, no chance to study – nothing to do but wait for meal times. And in some cases, even that wasn’t enough to offer any hope.

“Eventually they even got bored of going to eat,”
says Hoang.

Although the number of boat people arriving in Hong Kong tapered off in the middle of the 1980s, there was another surge in 1988, and the government decided to clamp down even further. From then on, any new arrivals would not be eligible for automatic resettlement. Instead, they would be screened by the Hong Kong government, which would determine if they were genuine refugees or “illegal immigrants” that should be repatriated back to Vietnam. 

The screening process was extremely slow. Between June 1988 and August 1989, only 1,500 cases were dealt with, and of those cases, only 170 were accepted as refugees. Bit by bit, Hong Kong began sending people back to Vietnam. In one case, in December 1989, 51 people were pulled from their beds at night, packed into caged trucks and driven to the airport, where 200 armed riot police guarded them as they boarded a flight to Hanoi. 

Hong Kong deported more Vietnamese refugees than all other countries combined. Between 1975 and 1995, about 800,000 people left Vietnam by boat, and of that total, 100,000 were repatriated to Vietnam. 67,000 came from Hong Kong – more than two thirds. 

Meanwhile, conditions in the camps continued to deteriorate. The most notorious of them was Whitehead, which held up to 28,000 people on the shores of Tolo Harbour. Vietnamese-American journalist Andrew Lam worked there as a translator. “Journalists were, by and large, barred from entry to this place known for riots and gang fights and mass protests and a handful of self-immolations,” he wrote in his 2005 book Perfume Dreams. “There were 11 people, mostly women, who disemboweled themselves in protest of being forced back. The place, divided into sections, is built like a maximum security prison. Barbed wire on top of five-metre-high chicken wire fences.”

“We lived in constant fear,” refugee Carol Xuan, who spent her childhood in Whitehead, told journalist Raquel Carvalho in 2015. Reporters from the Hong Kong Standard discovered that, in the 1990s, guards outsourced control of the camps to Vietnamese gangs, who terrorised asylum seekers in exchange for extra food, toothpaste and new clothes from camp authorities. Some women and girls were forced into prostitution by the gangs as officials turned a blind eye. 

Refugees protest for better treatment at the Whitehead detention camp. Image: International Institute of Social History via

And yet they endured. With some outside help, asylum seekers published a monthly magazine, Freedom, that gave voice to camp residents and helped keep them informed about what was happening around the world. Others depicted camp life in artworks that were exhibited at a San Francisco gallery in 1991; Carina Hoang has compiled many of the works on her website.

All of this was invisible to most people in Hong Kong. “The camps were outside of the city, and if people don’t see them, they don’t talk about them,” says Hoang. It was a situation that scholar Joe Thomas described as “ethnocide” in 1993. “Vietnamese asylum-seekers have been legally, socially and institutionally segregated and separated from the Hong Kong population,” he wrote in Refuge. The result was “a community losing all its internal cohesion,” leading its members to become demoralised and prone to self-destruction.

The Vietnamese people in Hong Kong’s camps were eventually pushed to the brink. On several occasions in the mid-1990s, they rioted when authorities attempted to move them between camps. “In clouds of tear gas, the police and guards battled Vietnamese,” reported The New York Times in 1996. “Wielding clubs and makeshift spears, the Vietnamese fought squads of officers wearing helmets and protective vests and carrying plastic shields.” As many as 200 asylum seekers escaped into the hills. Others climbed onto the roof of the camp and wrote a message in English: “Fighting until the end.” 

Carol Xuan was 16 years old when the first riot occurred. “I did not know what tear gas was,” she said. “I just knew that when [the authorities] shot that into the camp it was very difficult for us to breathe, so we had to wet our towels with orange vinegar.”

The Hong Kong public was anything but sympathetic. Despite the fact that many Hongkongers were themselves refugees from China, and many were eager to migrate overseas before the 1997 handover, newspapers were filled with angry denunciations of the Vietnamese boat people. 

By the end of the 1990s, Vietnam had agreed to take back most of the asylum seekers remaining in Hong Kong’s camps. That left a final group of 1,400 people. Most of them were refugees whose claims had been accepted but who were unable to find willing host countries. A smaller group were people whose repatriation had been rejected by Vietnam on account of criminal convictions or drug addiction. All of them were finally given Hong Kong identity cards in early 2000. 

An artwork painted by a refugee held in one of Hong Kong’s camps. Image: International Institute of Social History via

Some of them have found success, like Carol Xuan, who taught herself English and Cantonese in the camps and now works for Daly and Associates, Hong Kong’s leading human rights law firm. But others have struggled since their release from the camps. “Many became drug addicts when they were in the camps,” says Hoang. “They couldn’t get jobs, they couldn’t get rid of their drug habits. Now they live off government social welfare.” Many live in a homeless camp under a flyover in Sham Shui Po.

Hoang sees it as her mission to bring their stories to light. After finding shelter at a refugee camp in Indonesia, Hoang and her family were resettled in Australia, where she completed a PhD on the Vietnamese refugee experience at Curtin University. 

“It was such a dark period of our lives that a lot of the time people just want to move on, get on with life and they don’t want to look back,” she says. “However, there is a group that will always remember, that will always keep that history alive. I’m one of them. Once we start to talk about it, it’s painful. But it’s healing.”

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