No one at home but sadness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 August, 1997, 12:00am

On a sunny Sunday morning, an inescapable layer of gloom lies like a dense fog over the pleasant headland at Wu Kai Sha. Flame trees in flower and a choir of birds fail to bring any cheer. There is nothing uplifting about an internment camp, even an abandoned one. The rusting remains are signs of a lamentable job complete, the human tides so unhappily deposited here, now washed away.

Once remote and virtually inaccessible except by boat, the pleasant sheltered beach and low tidal coastline that stretch south of Ma On Shan were known only to local villagers cut off from the outside world, children ferried to a summer camp and marine biologists doing research.

When the Government was suddenly confronted with tens of thousands of unwanted Vietnamese, this area proved an ideal place to house them. The only objection could come from a comparative handful of villagers, and nobody seemed to have bothered asking their opinion.

So, in 1989, at a cost of $240 million, Whitehead Detention Centre was thrown up. At one stage it held more than 25,000 Vietnamese men, women and children. Conditions were as good as could be expected where so many were packed in so closely for so long. It was not a place, though, in which we could take pride.

The Vietnamese came here uninvited and knew they would, most of them, be eventually returned. Many were criminals. Most were decent people seeking a better life. No detention camp can be a happy, carefree place and, although Hong Kong spent a fortune on housing, feeding, clothing, educating and caring for the inmates at Whitehead, it was always a place of sadness.

It still is. The birds were singing and the sun was shining as I pedalled around the camp. The school where Vietnamese children learned English was closed. No rice was bubbling in the camp kitchens where 50,000 meals a day were once cooked for inmates and the 770 Correctional Services staff, interpreters, police and others who ran the camp.

Whitehead was closed in January. The last few inmates caught a flight back to Hanoi, no matter how reluctantly, or were shifted to other camps. There are no more riots, no more wild demonstrations, no more whiffs of tear-gas as there were last year when police were forced to storm violent mobs of spear-wielding protesters.

I sat and pondered on that bright and cheerful morning what a sad place it was, a prison camp, a detention centre, a holding ground for illegal immigrants. Call them what you will, they have the same architectural logic. Barracks inside hold as many as possible in conditions as humane as they can be made. Tall watchtowers rise outside above the twin fences of barbed and razored wires.

About three metres off the ground, a child's football was caught between the jagged steel. Where was he now, the boy who had kicked the ball inside the camp's playground, to see in despair his precious toy trapped so cruelly, never to be recovered? Was he back on some farm in the Red River Delta or was he one of the lucky ones in California? One human inhabitant was left in Whitehead that day, a middle-aged Correctional Services NCO, alone on a Sunday morning except for a pack of semi-wild dogs. Apart from their yelps as they attacked what they took to be a harmless passing cyclist, Whitehead was quiet.

Not for long.

That guard has no humans to watch any longer but the site is valuable. Those tonnes of steel wire and the superstructure of those stout fences will soon be torn down. The Architectural Services Department is about to demolish Whitehead.

It is a prime site, worth billions on the open commercial market and ideal for yet another new town. From high-rise blocks that will soar where the old camp's watchtowers now stand, future inhabitants will get splendid views up Tolo Harbour to Tai Po, down the waterway over Mirs Bay, or back towards the brooding bulk of Ma On Shan. In a few years' time Whitehead will be forgotten. There will be plazas and fountains and supermarkets and malls, making it just like another of the new communities that have arisen between Lion Rock and Castle Peak in the past two decades.

But someone will always remember Whitehead and the community of desperate souls that once called those cramped hectares behind the barbed wire home.

As for me, I wonder what happened to the little boy who unluckily kicked his football into the steel fence that was the borderline of the only world he knew.