Boatpeople posed greatest challenge for top officer

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2005, 12:00am

After a career in the Immigration Department stretching back three decades, one incident stands out in the mind of Henry Siu Chung-kit - the day the first batch of Vietnamese boatpeople sailed into Hong Kong.

The 57-year-old assistant immigration director will retire on Wednesday after 32 years of service, 12 of which have been spent with a branch overseeing border checkpoints.

In May 1975, the first 3,743 Vietnamese boatpeople arrived at a time when few people had anticipated the scale of the refugee problem. Mr Siu was among the young officers assigned to deal with them.

'All these people who managed to flee the country at that time were supposedly rich, even though they may have looked otherwise after spending so long at sea. And when they opened their bags, inside it was all US dollars and gold,' he said.

After that first influx, Mr Siu was assigned to various related tasks, including spending time with the British navy and air force to identify incoming vessels, and vetting applications over refugee status for the Vietnamese.

'When you interviewed them, they would keep telling you the same stories for weeks,' he recalled. 'Even if a story was false, they would still claim it was true if someone else had been given refugee status by telling that particular story.'

Looking back on his long career, Mr Siu recalls that his first day did not go according to plan.

'My first day was July 16, 1973, and I can remember it as if it was yesterday,' he said.

'The working day only lasted until the afternoon as a typhoon struck - and it stayed for the following day. I couldn't help but think that life with the government was going to be good.'

There are now 2,834 immigration officers under Mr Siu's command - or about 45 per cent of the department's total manpower.

He said one of the most difficult challenges his successor will face is an ever-increasing number of both cross-border and overseas travellers.

The way ahead includes outsourcing non-essential work so that more officers can be freed up, Mr Siu said.

'But the most important thing is technology. With workload up but manpower stable, the use of technology ... would increase efficiency,' he added.

'We probably could not survive without computers nowadays.'

Mr Siu also believes the department's control branch should streamline its chain of command as it undergoes expansion with the opening of several new border checkpoints in the coming years, such as the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Corridor.

Looking ahead, he said his retirement would be split between pottery making - his pieces have exhibited in various competitions - university study in public administration and golf.