Hong Kong's last remaining Vietnamese refugee camp is being torn down at Kai Tak, but the memories survive

As Choi Hung’s New Horizons building reaches its last days, Christian Action’s Cheung-Ang Siew Mei reflects on happy times working with those escaping unhappy situations

Kelly Fung |

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The New Horizons building in Choi Hung was the site of the Kai Tak North Refugee Camp in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, a new phrase entered the vocabulary of Hongkongers: bat lau dung laai. It’s the Cantonese pronunciation of a Vietnamese phrase meaning “from now on” – but it quickly became a negative term for Vietnamese people and culture.

Its use can be traced back to the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong in the 1980s. Pushed to the edges of society, many of these refugees found shelter in the Kai Tak North Refugee Camp, in the New Horizons building in Choi Hung.

New Horizons Building was originally named Gray Block in honour of Hector Gray, a war martyr during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. It was used by the British Royal Air Force stationed in Kai Tak.

In 1978, to accommodate the Vietnamese refugees, Gray Block and its surrounding areas were turned into Kai Tak North Refugee Camp. 

Now, this building is being pulled down, and the history of the struggles of Hong Kong’s Vietnamese community may be lost with it.

By the mid-1970s, the war in Vietnam had already been going on for many years. But as the violence grew worse, many Vietnamese had no choice but to flee their country. They began arriving in Hong Kong on boats, and refugee camps were quickly set up around the city to house them - more than 213,000 came to the city between 1975 and 2000. The Kai Tak camp was one of them.

Cheung-Ang Siew Mei, Executive Director of Christian Action, has spent more of her career working with Vietnamese refugees.
Photo: Kelly Fung/SCMP

However, as more and more numbers of refugees arrived, tensions began to grow between the local and Vietnamese communities.

In 1988, the Hong Kong government introduced a new law, called the Comprehensive Plan of Action, to try to cut down the number of people entering the city.

It stated that those who arrived in Hong Kong for political protection would be considered refugees, but everyone else would be considered “boatpeople”: illegal immigrants without a refugee status.

To spread awareness about this new rule, a radio announcement was made once an hour. It always began with the same phrase: bat lau dung laai.

“At first, refugees could live in open camps when they arrived in the city. Later, when the number of people kept increasing, they were housed in closed camps or sent to detention centres as a form of deterrent,” says Cheung-Ang Siew Mei, Executive Director of Christian Action, the charity organisation which managed the camp. Its headquarters were also at the New Horizons building, but it will now move to a new location.

Cheung-Ang has spent her entire career working with refugees from Vietnam. She serves as a translator, English teacher and counsellor for many of them. Back in the 1980s, her role was to help young people living at Kai Tak camp to find work.

During that time, many young people either worked in factories, carried heavy goods through the streets, or became pickpockets.

“My job was to prevent them from going astray,” says Cheung-Ang.

Once, she managed to convince workers at tech company Apple to volunteer at the camp.

“At that time, computers were very bulky and heavy, but they brought them to the centre and would teach the refugees about their new software,” Cheung-Ang explains. “I wanted to give them dignity and let them know that they could do things just like anyone else in society.”

Although conditions at the camp were poor, Cheung-Ang has happy memories of her time working there.

“I would work until midnight, and then go and have Vietnamese pho with the refugees in the camp. I was very well treated by the people in the camp; the whole camp was like a village, with a strong community spirit.”

While some of the New Horizons building has already been turned to rubble, traces of its former life remain. There is still a pharmacy with a Vietnamese sign and posters on the walls.

A poster written in Vietnamese teaches camp residents about hygiene.
Photo: Kelly Fung/SCMP

“This is the last of the 1980s refugee camps. We had hoped to keep this building, but I understand that there is a need for public housing. We compromised and we are moving on.”

The building’s days may be numbered, but Cheung-Ang hopes its message of love and acceptance will live on.

“It’s about how we treat ‘strangers’. As God is good to us, we should also be kind to others.”

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

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