Boat people stories recorded for posterity
A new book tells the compelling stories of a group of Vietnamese boat people through the memoir of one of their rescuers.
Hong Kong policeman Les Bird was first on the scene when a ship carrying 1,433 Vietnamese refugees ran aground on Lantau Island in 1979.
Les reached out to the former refugees and their stories appear alongside his in ‘Along the Southern Boundary’, a book about the ship.
For those fleeing Vietnam aboard rusty freighter the Sen On, Les Bird was the first person they saw when the ship ran aground. The captain had abandoned the ship outside Macau and pointed the refugees in the direction of Hong Kong.
None of the refugees steering the vessel had any experience with ships. Chased by the Marine Police, they decided to ground the ship on a sandy beach on Lantau Island, forcing the Hong Kong authorities to take them in.
Les Bird, now retired, was the police inspector in charge of West Lantau at the time and the first on the scene.
“I was driving along South Lantau Road and got a radio call. I stopped, climbed over the hill and ran down to the beach. The ship had started to capsize and was tilting to one side,” Mr Bird said.
Cang Dang, a former soldier in the South Vietnam Army, had helped steer the ship onto Lo Kei Wan Beach and remembers seeing Bird that day.
Dang, who had married just a week before leaving Vietnam, was placed in a camp in Kai Tak, East Kowloon. After six months, he and his wife, Yen Dang, were accepted as refugees by the Americans and were resettled in Santa Monica, California, where they have lived since.
He read Bird’s earlier memoir, A Small Band of Men, soon after its publication, in 2019, and emailed him, beginning a pen-pal correspondence.
Bird used old photographs to help jog his memory for his first memoir but only two images were used, on the front and back covers.
The photographs came out again when he gave a talk at a literary festival.
From there the project grew and grew. Les contacted former colleagues to help fill the gaps in his memory and acquired more old photos.
The result is Along the Southern Boundary, a book that documents the terrifying journey of some of the tens of thousands of people who fled in the years following the end of the Vietnam War.
It’s a story told from both sides – from those on land and those arriving by sea.
Les says: “We had no jurisdiction outside of Hong Kong waters. But we could see their vessels sinking in heavy seas. It was life or death, right there. We just went”.
The Sen On was just one vessel that Les and colleagues rescued refugees from.
“When we were on the launches out on the sea saving people and intercepting people, we didn’t have more than half an hour with a boat load of 100 people. I couldn’t sit down and say, ‘Can you tell me your story?’ It was a case of ‘there’s a boat of another 100 people’.
“We gave them the basic medical attention that we could, made sure they were not in danger and handed them over to the department that was going to take them in, and then it was back again. I never got to know one single person,” Les said.
In compiling the book, Les was connected with other former refugees and within a month, he was writing to about 50 people.
“For a lot of them it was their first time to tell their story. You don’t want to push people, especially if they find it difficult. But often a couple of weeks after the initial contact they’d message me with their story,” he said.
Along the Southern Boundary, by Les Bird, Blacksmith Books. RRP $52.99.