Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In the Camps, Chimawan and Kai Tak, 1990-91

"I always thought they were fabulous monsters!" said the Unicorn. "Is it alive?" Alice could not help her lips curling up in a smile as she began: "Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too! I never saw one alive before!"

"Well, now that we have seen each other," said the Unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?"
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

In the school at the Kai Tak Open Camp, the children learned English by singing popular American songs. A volunteer worker from the Philippines played a guitar and the children sang. The school was not air conditioned. It had once been an army barracks for British servicewomen. The temperature, in the spring, was often over 100 degrees. The noise of jets taking off from nearby Kai Tak airport, many of the planes journeying west to the United States, constantly roared in the background of the school. But the children sang each day. And when visitors came to the school they were serenaded by the chorus of school children, with faces scrubbed clean and washed, wearing white blouses and shirts and blue pants provided by local Catholic relief agencies. Some of them studied art and created murals, guided by the volunteer artists of another Christian organization in the British Crown Colony, Garden Streams Art in the Camps Project.
At that time -- two years ago -- Kai Tak was a booming community within the larger community of Hong Kong. A community of Vietnamese refugees. It was a teeming, hot and crowded city of rickety shack city of more than 10,000 boat people-- one part of the scattered camp system were at one time more than 55,000 Vietnamese crowded into an already crowded Hong Kong, seeking asylum and a new life in the West.
For a time there was sympathy in the West. Prominent political figures and film stars visited the camps to be photographed. But, in time, as other crisis arose, and as the sting of the communist victory in Vietnam was deadened, compassion exhaustion appeared in the West. Interest in the boat people was dissipated and newspapers covered their desperate plight less and less. The rule of the West has usually been in matters like this, out of sight out of mind. And once television and the press turned away, and the west became saturation point with this story, the fate of these people was sealed. Most of them were screened out and not granted asylum. They were defined as illegal immigrants and informed that they had to return to Vietnam, and surrender their dreams. Dreams, of course, were all that they had left when they left Vietnam in tiny boats, often with their children, and took their chances on the South China Sea rather than in their homeland.
Some westerners took advantage of these people. Some of the schemes hatched in their name were can be described merely as despicable. Especially cool towards them were leaders of the Vietnamese communities reestablished in America and other western countries. At best the boat people in the refugee camps were a political or fiscal opportunity for their fellow countrymen. At worst, an embarrassment. While "charitable organizations" to help the boat people sprang up like mushrooms in America--and financial operations resulted in booths during the Tet Festival, none of these organizations appeared in the camps in Hong Kong. Established organizations such as Catholic Relief and Save the Children and various other religious-related organizations, of course, came to the rescue of these people along with dozens of charitable organizations in Hong Kong. But missing in the camps was any evidence at all of the fact that "charitable" Vietnamese organizations in the US or any other western country cared at all for them. One of the more bizarre episodes in the Kai Tak Camp, in fact, occurred in the summer of 1989, when two touring buses loaded with 60 to 70 Vietnamese Americans arrived at the camp. Among the visitors were four "Miss Vietnam" winners from large American cities. The beauty queens wore their gowns and tiaras for what many expected to be a camp tour. But, in fact, these visitors wanted no camp tour. Instead they posed at length for their own video cameramen outside the camp. Then they asked for several children from the camp to pose with them. When they were finished they gave each of the children $10HK, or about $1.15 each. Then they left, no doubt, to tell their stories at home of their tours of the refugee camps. And in 1990, a wealthy Vietnamese from San Diego was arrested in Hong Kong for attempted to arrange for inmates of the camps to be sold as indentured servants to work on the island of Vanuatu. In fact, he had even collected money from the camps inhabitants so they could help finance their own way into semi-slavery in the South Pacific. At his trial, this Vietnamese entrepreneur claimed to be a distant relative of the last Nguyen Emperor of Vietnam -- and thus earned in the press the sobriquet of the "weeping prince." He told the judge that he wept because of the sad fate of his countrymen -- ironically missing the point that he himself had conspired to worse their already unfortunate fate.
Of course, exploitation of the unfortunate was never difficult to find in Vietnam itself. A prominent Vietnamese physician placed in charge of feeding, housing and resettling Vietnamese displaced by the war in the late 1960s and early 1970s, emerged from his job as one of the five wealthiest people in the country, and when the country fell, of course, most of his charges were left behind and he was flown, along with fellow government officials, to a new start in the United States.
Once the darlings of the free world, the Vietnamese boat people have been abandoned -- first by their own countrymen and now, again, by the US and the rest of the world. They have been told to go home. One American member of the Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong announced, in all seriousness, that he thought the solution to the boat people problem was to open a MacDonald's restaurant in Hanoi. He believed, apparently, that working behind the counter at McDonalds would solve all of Vietnam's problems. And prominent Vietnamese businessmen in the US who never did care for their less fortunate countrymen, have now brought a real estate boom to both the north and southern parts of Vietnam, driving the price of real estate higher and higher, prepared to make a financial killing once the US recognizes Vietnam again and American business enterprise returns to the country. Many of these individuals, having once already made a financial killing on an American entry into Vietnam, are up to their old tricks again. And, unfortunately, it's working. Many Americans would feel a lot better about recognizing Vietnam and going back to improve the country if many of the same old faces were the same ones who beckoned us there in 1965-- "Field Marshall" Nguyen Cao Ky being the latest outspoken convert to opening trade with Vietnam again.
And so the saga of the boat people is about to come to an end. They are going to be taken home by jet plane after arriving by boat. Airlines have been vying for the right to transport the remaining 45,000 people back to Vietnam, a virtual financial bonanza to be paid for by the UN, for whatever airline can get it.
The last time I was in the Kai Tak Camp, the children sang their favorite American song for me. I tape recorded it and today it can be heard in the background during a refugee camp scene in the musical "Miss Saigon." Because they did not quite understand the words to the American songs they were singing, sometimes the children and their music teachers came up with awkward lines. And those awkward lines were, in one case, heartbreaking. When I entered the school for the first time, the 7th and 8th grade children serenaded me with a beautiful rendition of "500 Miles Away from Home." But they got the words wrong without knowing it, and they sang "500 Smiles Away From Home." The mistake was fitting, perhaps more appropriate than the original words. that the lyricist penned for the song. I could not help but feel the deepest compassion and sadness for these children who would some day not make it to America and to freedom, but who now merely waited for the inevitable to happen--and to be transported back to Vietnam. They sang "Lord I'm 500 Smiles Away from home. Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name, Lord I can't go back home this a way. 500 Smiles, 500 Smiles, 500 Smiles, 500 Smiles, Lord I'm 500 Smiles Away from home."
Lost in the legal maneuvering to get these remaining people to the west or to get them home -- in the numbers -- is the human face of them. Who are they? Why did they leave? Why did they want to come to America? Why didn't they make it? Why did nobody in the west notice them any longer.
For me, one young woman summed up the should of the remaining boat people. She was once inmate 1594 in Chimawan Camp, a large camp on Lantau Island. During my visits to the camp, she told me her chilling and touching story. I recorded the story in Vietnamese and with the help of Tran Thi My-Ngoc, my translator, translated it into English. Here is the story of one of the young women who today finds herself 500 Smiles away from home.
When I first saw Thua, here appearance horrified me. From head to foot she was badly burned -- her skin was streaked, discolored and scarred. Her chin was fused to her neck and her fingers were fused together. Her eyes constantly cried. I asked her what had happened, how she had come to this cold island off the coast of Hong Kong. This is what she told me:

The Woman in the Boat: The Story of No. 1594
(Nguyen Thi Thua)

I look like this because I was burned during the war. In 1968, when I was just four years old, an airplane dropped fire on my village of Phu Diep, which is near the city of Hue . The fire burned my face, eyes, arms, hands and legs. I was so small that I don't know exactly how it happened. I just know that it was dark and then there was a big explosion and then fire covered my body. From that terrible night until today I have been in pain and my life has been difficult. Others were burned, too, but not as badly as me.
The next day American soldiers came into the village and they saw me. They took me to two American doctors and the doctors operated on me many times. They treated me kindly. Then they did not operate any more because all the Americans went away.
Ever since that night my young life has been at the bottom of a deep pit in an unfair society. Because my body is burned by fire in the war, my education is unfinished, and I am self-conscious about my appearance. This has caused me great pains.
Every day, life was very difficult for me in Vietnam. Because of my appearance I was mistreated by people. Children were afraid of me and ran away and some adults wanted me to go away and not be seen. As a result, I became a burden for my family.
Then the communists came to my village and they saw me. They took me with them and they showed me to journalists in some towns and told them this is what the Americans had done to the Vietnamese people during the war. They treated me kindly but at the same time, they did nothing to help me. I was self-conscious then about myself and wanted a doctor to fix me, but the communists didn't care about that. They wanted me to stay the way that I was from the fire. They treated me kindly only for a very short time, only as long as they could show my burned body to foreign journalists and to other visitors.
Then someone told them that during the war my father had worked with the Americans. They took me back to my village and questioned my father and then they arrested my father and put him in a reeducation camp for several years. Our family was poor then.
The communists decided now not to use me any more but to mistreat me instead. I was not allowed to go to school and I was not allowed to have a job. They tried to make me go away and live in a New Economic Zone where I would work until I died at a young age. They wanted me to go far away so they would not have to look at me any more.
There was no hope for me any more in Vietnam. My burns hurt me still. And my eyes were hurt by the fire. You can see in them. My eyes always cry. Even when I am asleep at night my eyes cry. Even if I am happy, my eyes cried.
I hope that with your kindness, I can overcome my self consciousness because of my physical appearance. This is the reason I sought to escape from my native country. I attempted my escape three times. But the first two times I was unsuccessful and I was put in prison. Those months in prison were such agony for me. After I was released from prison I found that my mother had passed away from grief and worry about me. My hatred for the communists of Vietnam increased more because they prevented me from seeing my mother's kind and beautiful face one last time before she died. My mother loved me.
Now my family consists of my aging and broken father and two younger brothers and a younger sister. My 21 year old brother fled from Vietnam in 1984. Now he is in the San Yick camp in Hong Kong. In the tradition of my native country, with my aging father, deceased mother and younger brothers and sister, I should be the head of the family. However, when I stayed with my family in my village and tried to become the head of the family the Communists would not leave me alone and in peace and they would never let me work except, as they said, in a New Economic Zone far away from my home.
The Communists said that my family had a record as traitors and that they cooperated with the Americans. And so they punished us all for that. Life was difficult every day. Furthermore, with my appearance, I can never hope to have an ordinary life and have a husband and children, which I dream about sometimes.
But I have no love in my life outside my family. People see my burned body and they are afraid of me and they do not like to come close.
My hope now is you with your human kindness. I hope that you will help me overcome the great difficulties in my life.
On October 4, 1989, I received very distressing news in a letter of rejection from the refugee screening committee. They did not believe my life story. And now they will send me back to Vietnam.
I pray and hope that you now will intervene with them in my behalf.
I have no relatives anywhere in this world who can help me now. I was very glad when I met you and could tell you this story. My life so far has been full of pains, sufferings and agonies. I have no will to live anymore since I have received the rejection letter from the screening committee.
I look at my friends and then look at myself in the mirror and I can see in my face that life has been cruel and heartless to me.
Now I will not let them take me back to Vietnam to suffer more under the communists. I want to go to America and find the American doctors who operated on me in Vietnam when I was still a little girl. I want the American doctors to fix my hands and my body and my face so I can live a real life and have a husband and children of my own to love. I believe the American doctors can do that. After they fix me I can have a real life.
I want to ask you one question. People in Vietnam told me a story before I left. They said that most Americans are the Christian religion. And they said then that the Americans are helpful to the refugees because their God, named Jesus Christ, was a refugee when his parents fled to escape a massacre by an evil government. Is this true that the people in the United States treat the boat people nicely because of this religious basis?
They told me before I left Vietnam that the Americans would accept me as a refugee for sure. But something went wrong.
Now that I have been screened out I have little hope left to get to America and to find doctors to fix me. But I will never go back to Vietnam. I will not let them take me back there again. I will die here instead. My heart inside now cries like my eyes. Now I am losing all hope for my life.
I bid you goodbye. Thank you for listening to me and for touching my hands. You are kind.
Remember me some time. Pray for me, please. Pray for us.

[In January, 1991, an appeal by No. 1594 was rejected by the British government in Hong Kong and Nguyen Thi Thua remained classified as an "economic migrant" rather than as a refugee. She is scheduled now to be returned to Vietnam, forcibly if that is required.]


Who will listen to my feelings?
Who will listen to a useless land?
After the war, my skin has been damaged.
There are craters in my body.

Although I was sad, sorrow and suffering,
Who will listen to my feeling?
I am sad, sorrow and suffering.
Who will know my feeling?

I am not sad about my harmed body.
I am sorrow because of the people who can't use me rightly.
Who will know my feeling?

Sindy Leung. (Vietnamese Refugee) Class 12A. Kai Tak New Horizons School, Kai Tak Open Camp, Hong Kong.