Ke Huy Quan’s Academy Awards triumph has turned a spotlight on his humble beginnings as a child in a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Quan was one of hundreds of thousands of “ boatpeople ” who fled Vietnam after the Communist north seized control of the south of the country in 1975 – many of them finding their first safe haven in Hong Kong. And he may well have been met by a former member of the marine section of what was then the Royal Hong Kong Police, who used his camera to capture dramatic scenes of refugee arrivals for posterity. “It’s brilliant that he made it,” Les Bird, who was on the front line of the refugee crisis, said. “It’s heartening to know what you did back then really helped somebody.” Bird, 72, in an interview with the Post on Thursday, said he witnessed tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees descending on the city in the 1970s and 80s in his capacity as a marine police officer and also captured the crisis through his camera lens. As an inspector, and later an operational commander, Bird and his team would sail out into the South China Sea to intercept and save “boatpeople” who arrived in Hong Kong waters on everything from thousand-tonne freighters to wooden rafts. The California-based Vietnam Heritage Museum said around 500,000 people fled Vietnam between 1975 and 1979 alone. Hong Kong was one of the most popular destinations, and a record 4,500 refugees arrived in a single day. Bird said he had vivid recollections of when the freighter Huey Fong arrived in Hong Kong on December 23, 1978, which, based on Quan’s description, is believed to be the boat he was on. “The conditions were so bad, it was terrible,” he said. When the marine police opened the cargo holds where the estimated 3,300 refugees had been put, he said they stank of vomit and urine. He added the refugees had made the trip in total darkness and that the children on board were hungry and covered in lice. A Post report from 1984 said Quan’s father had paid a small fortune to secure their passage to Hong Kong. Bird said that the adults on board reacted with joy when their rescuers arrived, but the children at first did not comprehend that they were safe. “At that age, you just don’t understand what’s going on,” Bird said. Bird spent most of the next 28 days alongside the Huey Fong as government officials delivered food and aid. The ship was at last granted permission to dock and for Bird, it was the beginning of a decade-long mission. Bird, who realised he had a grandstand seat as history unfolded, bought a Nikon camera and documented the refugee crisis over 10 years. Some of the hundreds of images he captured will be featured in the “Rescue Viet” exhibition at the Eastpro Gallery in Wan Chai from May 6. The 1984 Post story said Quan was born in Saigon in 1971 to ethnic Chinese parents and was one of nine children and was in the Kai Tak refugee camp in the city. Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar serves as inspiration He embarked on a career as a child film star after his family settled in the United States. Quan starred in two major roles as a child – as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Data in The Goonies – but later largely quit the profession because he believed there were too few roles for Asian actors. It was not until directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert recruited him for a role in 2022’s Everything Everywhere All at Once that he made a major return to the silver screen, which culminated in him winning the best supporting actor Oscar this week. His award was one of seven Oscars, including the best picture award, for the film, an eccentric sci-fi romp where a Chinese-American family gets swept up in a mix of alternative universes. Malaysian star Michelle Yeoh, 60, who first became a star in Hong Kong, made history by becoming the first Asian to win the best actress award for her role in the film. Quan, in an emotional acceptance speech, highlighted his early trials. “My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp, and somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage,” he told the star-studded ceremony. Some Vietnamese refugees who came to Hong Kong around the same time as Quan said they felt a rapport with the actor. Anton Pham, 45, the founder and CEO of Tekcent, a Hong Kong-Vietnamese software company, said Quan’s acknowledgement of his past had made a strong impact on him. “This line meant a lot to me personally because my journey also started on a boat and I was also raised in a refugee camp,” Pham said. Everything Everywhere sweeps almost all before it at Oscars 2023 He explained his mother was pregnant with him when she fled Vietnam and gave birth after his family arrived in a Hong Kong refugee camp in 1978 – around the same time Quan was in the city. He said the biggest impact of Quan’s Oscars triumph was the effect it would have on his two children. “I get the sense they will be proud to be Vietnamese and not hide that fact,” he said. ‘Improving slowly’: more Asians getting lead roles in US TV shows John Nguyen, the culinary director for Vietnamese cuisine for Black Sheep, a Hong Kong-based restaurant group, said he also felt a surge of pride watching Quan collect the famous golden statuette. Nguyen, born in Saigon in 1974, fled Vietnam with his family to a refugee camp in Malaysia when he was just a child, and was later resettled in the United States. “It just shows people in the community, if you have a dream, go for it,” he added.