Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Vietnamese Connection to Hong Kong

Five years ago today, the last refugee camp housing Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong was closed. After over a quarter century, Hong Kong's experience with resettling Vietnamese boat people had come to an end. What started as a very altruistic endeavor in the midst of the Cold War had, by 2000, become to the Hong Kong government an inconvenience and economic cost that it was no longer interested in bearing.

On our Tsim Sha Tsui walk, as we stroll down Haiphong Road, we ponder the once strong connections between Hong Kong and Vietnam. Vietnam once had many ethnic Chinese residents, only a fraction of which live there today. Most of them were merchants, captains of industry as well as importers that served as important conduits of trade between China and Vietnam. Hong Kong was also sometimes used as a base by Vietnamese revolutionaries, to the great discomfiture of the Colonial Government. Ho Chi Minh, for one, was once imprisoned in Victoria Prison - yes, the same Victoria Prison that the government is auctioning to the private sector for redevelopment.

During the Vietnam War, what many remember were the GIs here in town for R&R. But also during that period, many wealthy Chinese saw the writing on the wall for South Vietnam and emigrated to Hong Kong and often from here to the West. Ethnic Vietnamese also fled here, trying to start a new life after years of war and chaos. Hong Kong initially welcomed them, particularly the wealthier ones, as they did the Chinese that had come just decades before from Shanghai and other places in Mainland China. However, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the steady trickle of refugees turned into a flood, and public opinion in Hong Kong began to shift against taking the immigrants, particularly as immigrants from China were regularly being caught and turned back at Lo Wu.

However, due to the political situation in Vietnam, the government was bound by its agreements on the status of refugees with regard to the UN, and continued to accept boat people that had made the dangerous, pirate-infested journey from Vietnam to Hong Kong. As the 1980s drew on, however, the tolerance of the government in Hong Kong was further stretched, and active efforts were made to discourage new arrivals. The camps were crime-ridden slum settlements, many of the boat people were refused permission to work, and no schools were set up for the children that had come along, to the protests of local human rights groups. In 1988, Hong Kong announced that it would eventually repatriate Vietnamese refugees that had come for economic rather than political asylum.

The crack of Hong Kong's open doorframe was successively reduced until it was finally closed in the 1990s. By the end of 2000, most of the remaining boat people were convinced to leave. Some made it through and have integrated into Hong Kong society, but many more have not. It goes to show that even in a city of immigrants like Hong Kong, tolerance for newcomers has its limits.

No comments: