The big picture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am

Fourteen years after the Vietnam war ended, Thanh Tam Vu's parents exchanged gold for two places aboard a boat illegally bound for Hong Kong, for her and her sister. Their brothers and parents stayed behind.

The girls clambered onto a small wooden fishing boat near their hometown of Haiphong, on Vietnam's northern coast. The vessel soon hit rough seas and lost its bearings. It took a month for the human cargo to reach Hong Kong's shores.

The 40 refugees were among nearly a quarter of a million so-called boatpeople from North and South Vietnam who fled to Hong Kong, only to end up in resettlement camps. It's a chapter of the city's history some people think is best forgotten.

The discovery of artworks created in the camps by Vu and her fellow refugees, however, has sparked a move to find a permanent home for the collection, to remind the public of their plight.

'People don't understand what it was like to be inside [the camps]. It was like a prison,' says Vu, adding that she is amazed she survived.

Saigon fell to the communist North on April 30, 1975. The first Vietnamese refugees reached Hong Kong four days later. A Danish cargo ship had plucked nearly 4,000 of them from their sinking boat in the South China Sea. Soon after, Hong Kong, then a British colony, became the port of first asylum for people fleeing Vietnam. The influx would last 15 years.

In the beginning, the refugees were mostly educated, middle-class Vietnamese, predominantly ethnic Chinese, escaping political persecution and economic hardship. Resettlement, mainly in Australia, Canada and the United States, went smoothly at first. During these early years, no more than a few thousand boatpeople were living in Hong Kong, which served as a pit stop on the way to a new life, at any given time.

But, as news spread across Vietnam that a blanket amnesty, which allowed anyone reaching Hong Kong to be automatically classified as a refugee, would end on June 16, 1988, more Vietnamese chose to flee their homeland. By late 1989, the number of boatpeople in the city had swelled to nearly 60,000.

About 20 camps and detention centres cropped up across Hong Kong, located in densely populated neighbourhoods such as Yau Ma Tei and Kowloon City as well as in the then more remote districts of Ma On Shan and Tuen Mun. Some were set up on outlying islands, including Hei Ling Chau and Lantau, at Chi Ma Wan.

Vu cannot remember exactly where she landed in 1989, at the age of 16, but she does recall seeing Ocean Park, a glimpse of a better life. During her first decade in Hong Kong, she lived in five camps and married a fellow refugee. Their son was born in a camp in 1998.

Around the time Vu arrived in Hong Kong, Evelyna Liang Yee-woo, a local artist and art therapist, began visiting the resettlement camps as part of a group of 15 artists and art teachers. They hoped to help the inmates cope with trauma of life in the camps by using art as an outlet.

A few days every week, Liang and her team would visit various camps to teach art to mostly women and children. The refugees were also encouraged to express themselves through dance, song and creative writing.

'We talked about the idea of self-expression,' says Liang, now 61. 'What I wanted to show was that no matter how desperate they were, they still had a beautiful soul.'

Riots and violence among the boatpeople frequently made the local television news. Families of the art teachers criticised their efforts as a reckless, not to mention dangerous, undertaking. But the group persisted, backed by a grant from the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organisation based in New York.

'These were people who really needed us,' Liang says. 'They had nothing' and nobody else.

Nearly four years ago, while cleaning out her studio in Wong Chuk Hang, Liang rediscovered the collection she had saved from the camps. Among the 800 drawings and paintings are scenes of life behind the barbed-wire fences: inmates fighting with batons, resting on triple bunk beds in huts, shooting hoops on concrete basketball courts.

Many of the boatpeople fled Vietnam hoping to be resettled in the US or another Western country. The word tu do, which means 'freedom' in Vietnamese, features prominently in the artworks, as does the Statue of Liberty. There are also photographs, poems, letters and other artefacts in Liang's collection. In 1992, many of the inmates were granted permission to work outside the camps and the art programme was replaced with courses aimed at training the refugees for jobs on the outside. Liang suspected, though, the reason had more to do with politics than practicalities: 'Maybe we spread the idea of freedom too much.'

As soon as Liang stumbled across the collection in early 2007, she was determined to display it. She wrote to the Vietnamese consulate in Hong Kong outlining her plans to exhibit the works in a venue managed by the city's Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) - and was shocked by the response. Vietnam's Consul General Pham Cao Phong lobbied the government to block the exhibition. Phong says he believed such an exhibition would reignite fears among resident Vietnamese of being ostracised.

'They're afraid of prejudice from Hongkongers,' Phong says. 'We should shelve the past.'

Ultimately, Liang's plans to hold the exhibition at an LCSD facility fell through. A department spokeswoman declined to say whether it had even considered her request - but she refused to let these hurdles stop her and the exhibition eventually opened at Lingnan University in April 2008, and at the Hong Kong Institute of Education the following January. The two exhibitions drew more than 1,000 people.

Many of the artists couldn't be contacted; others chose not to come. Only Vu, now 39, and fellow refugee Truong Quoc Hung attended.

'I'm doing an art exhibition without the artists,' Liang said at the time. 'Life is hard: they have to find jobs. They don't want to be too exposed because they're concerned about how Hong Kong people might look at them.'

Some of the refugees say that, particularly in the late 1990s, just before the camps closed, they were made to feel inferior in Hong Kong.

'I was worried at first' about participating in the exhibition, says Truong, who took art lessons in the camps as a teenager. But he soon overcame his reluctance. 'We should express ourselves to society.'

Truong threw himself into helping with the exhibition, which included some of his own works. He volunteered as a greeter at the gallery during the show's two-week run at Lingnan University. He even created a new exhibit: a poster-size watercolour of canary-yellow sunflowers, inspired by similar blooms he remembers from the camps.

Like Vu, Truong, now 35, came to Hong Kong during the peak influx of the late 80s. But he was soon subject to the policy of forced repatriation, adopted in 1991, as authorities attempted to clear the camps ahead of the 1997 handover, and was sent back to Vietnam. He would not return until 2007, when his visa application, to allow him to marry a fellow former campmate who had obtained permanent residency in Hong Kong, was approved.

'This part of Hong Kong's history is still not settled,' Liang says.

She has faced an uphill battle to find a permanent home for the collection. The city's humidity, Liang fears, might damage the fragile paintings. Last month, as a stopgap measure, the collection was shipped to the International Institute of Social History, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where it will be treated and archived. Liang has agreed to let the collection remain there for the next 10 years, while she searches for a permanent place for it either in Hong Kong or Vietnam.

In the meantime, Vu and her husband are still trying to find their place in Hong Kong society. Both speak Cantonese, but with a heavy accent, and they cannot read Chinese. Still, like many former Vietnamese refugees who have settled here, they try to pass as locals.

The couple were among the last Vietnamese to leave the camps. They were living at the Pillar Point facility in Tuen Mun when it closed in 2000. Last year, Vu's husband was finally granted permanent residency in Hong Kong; Vu hopes to get hers soon. Her sister also has resettled in Hong Kong. They are among 2,000 to 3,000 former boatpeople who remained in the city, representing the largest such resettlement in Asia, according to government data and Caritas, a charity that assisted in the camps.

'For many years, I was buoyed by the hope that I'd get resettled in a third country,' such as North America or somewhere in Europe, says Vu, flipping through a thin album of photographs taken during her time in the camps. She was denied refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the early 90s, but, she says, she doesn't remember why.

'I was simply told I wasn't eligible.'