The Vietnamese Boat People in British Hong Kong

Ever since the conclusion of the Vietnam War, an outpouring of excellent studies on how the fierce fighting originated, plus every tiny detail at home and abroad during its course, have been produced by American academics and popular writers alike. Unfortunately, their narratives pay scant attention events after the U.S. retreat, thus overlooking the enormous human consequences the Indochina conflicts entailed elsewhere. The global refugee crisis that followed is gravely understudied. Even in Hong Kong, where this became the worst humanitarian disaster in history — a legacy of some of the Cold War’s bloodiest episodes — is a forgotten story today. Talking about the 1970s and early ′80s, instead, routinely conjures up images of fabulous entertainment, rapid urbanization, and economic boom. This collective memory is only partial.

On May 5, 1975, merely five days subsequent to the dramatic Fall of Saigon, a ship carrying 3,743 fugitives from defeated South Vietnam arrived in Hong Kong. Although Britain was officially neutral in the Vietnam War, the territory had been indirectly involved for well over a decade, providing strategic facilities for the U.S. war effort and welcoming American servicemen on rest and recuperation. Already too densely populated, however, it wasn’t expecting to accept large numbers of civilian exiles who would come to be called boat people. But the colonial authorities — on the side of America as a reliable Cold War ally and sympathetic to the failed crusade to build a non-communist state in Vietnam — nevertheless agreed to welcome the first batch after much deliberation and thereby commencing a controversial quarter-century endeavor to rescue, by some estimates, up to 200,000 Vietnamese refugees.

Back in Vietnam, most individuals older than 35 had lived more than half of their lives almost incessantly in bloodshed. Those born after the Japanese occupation in 1940 during World War II didn’t know how it felt to be in lasting peace. Families were shattered. Still, the survivors never gave up their yearning for a better future and took a risky gamble to sail across the South China Sea. An untold number of them were hurt or dead. Others who made it to the shores of Hong Kong against all odds found themselves interned in closed camps where they waited, sometimes in vain, for acceptance into First World countries like Canada, Australia, France, or the largest recipient among them, the United States. The catastrophe continued throughout the Third Indochina War — between the communist regimes of China, Cambodia, and Vietnam chiefly as an escalation of the Sino-Soviet split — and reached its peak in 1979, when Hanoi’s inhumane Sinophobic decrees forced Han minorities, even those in former North Vietnam, to flee.

London’s response, like many things British, was full of contradictions. The Hong Kong Government was certainly experienced in handling defectors from communism: Many from China had flooded into the colony since 1949, and the famous Touch Base Policy was implemented in 1974 to authorize their immediate repatriation unless they could reach the city center — south of Boundary Street — without being caught, in which case they’d be eligible to remain legally and seek employment. Their Vietnamese counterparts were given no such option, as the British sought assistance instead from the Geneva-based U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Unlike neighboring countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, Hong Kong maintained its “first port of asylum” status and never turned a boat away (at least until the late 1980s), even though it seldom set the fugitives free so they could integrate into mainstream society, hoping instead to accelerate resettlement. The predicament nevertheless lingered on until after the end of British rule, when Hong Kong’s last detention facility was closed in May 2000 by the new Beijing-backed government.

This project will be completed as part of my Ph.D. dissertation for Georgetown University under the direction of James A. Millward. My interest began in October 2017 while mining the British National Archives, where I stumbled upon a wealth of recently declassified — and largely untapped — files that concern the topic. I expect more to be made available in accordance with the “thirty-year rule.” I’ve also conducted some preliminary research at the University of Toronto’s Richard Charles Lee Canada-Hong Kong Library, where I’m a visiting scholar in the 2017–18 academic year. In the years to come, I look forward to consulting more secondary sources, conducting original oral history interviews, as well as accessing archival materials in Hong Kong, Britain, the United States, Vietnam, and perhaps Switzerland, Canada, and France.