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Photos capture desperate Vietnamese families arriving in Hong Kong after fleeing Vietnam War fallout


Piled into an overcrowded, flimsy boat, these refugees have the look of uncertainty and fear on their faces.

The image features in a new book by Les Bird, 70, a former marine policeman in Hong Kong who served for more than two decades from 1976 until the territory was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

In that 20-year period, more than 200,000 refugees fled to the territory to escape the horrors of the Vietnam War, which had come to an end in 1975. Overall, more than two million fled the country between 1975 and 1992.

They survived what was often a 1,000-mile journey across the South China Sea, despite the flimsiness of their boats.  

Mr Bird’s book reveals hundreds of the photographs that he and other British police officers took to document the plight of the men, women and children who arrived.

Along the Southern Boundary: A Marine Police Officer’s Frontline Account of the Vietnamese Boatpeople and their Arrival in Hong Kong is published by Blacksmith Books and released on December 12.

Working from the small fishing town of Tai O, Mr Bird was involved in bringing in refugees along Hong Kong’s southern border. They were then held in reception areas until space in refugee camps could be found.

Another of his images shows Vietnamese children smiling brightly as they rest with their mother in a refugee camp in Hong Kong shortly after arriving from Vietnam.

A third, which was taken from behind barbed wire, shows a row of youngsters holding identical yellow cups as they queue to receive a ration of rice. 

The photos strikingly contrast with those showing Britain’s own migration crisis, in which dozens of people are arriving on the Kent coast every day after making the perilous journey from northern France.  

Piled into an overcrowded, flimsy boat, these refugees fleeing the Vietnam War have the look of uncertainty and fear on their faces. The image was taken by Les Bird, a former marine policeman in Hong Kong who served for more than two decades from 1976 until the territory was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997 

More than 200,000 refugees fled to Hong Kong to escape the horrors of the Vietnam War, which had come to an end in 1975. Overall, more than two million fled the country between 1975 and 1992. Above: The master of this small sailing vessel prepares to lower his sails after being intercepted off the Soko Islands, just inside Hong Kong waters. Although these photographs were taken several years later, this is a typical example of the Vietnamese coastal fishing vessels that were arriving in 1979 and 1980

More than 200,000 refugees fled to Hong Kong to escape the horrors of the Vietnam War, which had come to an end in 1975. Overall, more than two million fled the country between 1975 and 1992. Above: The master of this small sailing vessel prepares to lower his sails after being intercepted off the Soko Islands, just inside Hong Kong waters. Although these photographs were taken several years later, this is a typical example of the Vietnamese coastal fishing vessels that were arriving in 1979 and 1980

Hong Kong had declared itself a 'point of first asylum' for refugees fleeing the war in Vietnam, which had killed up to two million civilians and caused enormous political, economic and social upheaval

Hong Kong had declared itself a ‘point of first asylum’ for refugees fleeing the war in Vietnam, which had killed up to two million civilians and caused enormous political, economic and social upheaval

'I was a police officer in the Royal Hong Kong Police in the lead-up to the change of sovereignty,' Mr Bird said. 'I saw the harrowing sea journey to Hong Kong made by tens of thousands of refugees in the years that followed the end of the Vietnam War. Above: Refugees are seen crowded into a boat shortly after arriving in Hong Kong

‘I was a police officer in the Royal Hong Kong Police in the lead-up to the change of sovereignty,’ Mr Bird said. ‘I saw the harrowing sea journey to Hong Kong made by tens of thousands of refugees in the years that followed the end of the Vietnam War. Above: Refugees are seen crowded into a boat shortly after arriving in Hong Kong

Children are seen smiling and waving as the adults on this ship look more stressed. The image was taken in the early 1980s

Children are seen smiling and waving as the adults on this ship look more stressed. The image was taken in the early 1980s

Born in Staffordshire to a family with rich naval heritage, Mr Bird’s journey to the police service in Hong Kong began when he responded to a civil service job advert in a British newspaper.

The newly-formed Independent Commission Against Corruption – which had been set up by Hong Kong’s then-governor Sir Murray MacLehose – were looking for new recruits as they sought to battle wrongdoing in the territory’s institutions.

When Mr Bird made it through training, he immediately opted to join the marine police, where a big part of the job was search and rescue.

Hong Kong had declared itself a ‘point of first asylum’ for refugees fleeing the war in Vietnam, which had killed up to two million civilians and caused enormous political, economic and social upheaval.

Bird was put in charge of Tai O and later headed up the SBU, a waterborne unit of elite officers who dealt with terrorism and serious crime, including drug smuggling.

The major routes which refugees took to Hong Kong were from the ports of Hai Phong in Hanoi, northern Vietnam, and Da Nang in the east, along with Ho Chi Minh city in the south.

The migration crisis hit its peak 1978 and 1979 but continued until the early 1990s. Along with Hong Kong, refugees also fled to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

‘I was a police officer in the Royal Hong Kong Police in the lead-up to the change of sovereignty,’ Mr Bird said. 

‘I saw the harrowing sea journey to Hong Kong made by tens of thousands of refugees in the years that followed the end of the Vietnam War. 

Mr Bird is seen above in 1980 with police colleague Laurence Knox

He has recounted his experiences in a book which reveals hundreds of the photographs he and other British police officers took to document the plight of the men, women and children who arrived

Now, Mr Bird (pictured left in 1980 with police colleague Laurence Knox), has recounted his experiences in a book which reveals hundreds of the photographs he and other British police officers took to document the plight of the men, women and children who arrived

The major routes which refugees took to Hong Kong were from the ports of Hai Phong in Hanoi, northern Vietnam, and Da Nang in the east, along with Ho Chi Minh city in the south

The major routes which refugees took to Hong Kong were from the ports of Hai Phong in Hanoi, northern Vietnam, and Da Nang in the east, along with Ho Chi Minh city in the south

‘I patrolled the southern maritime boundary of Hong Kong, and photographed their makeshift boats and later the people-smuggling vessels coming in–including the Sen On, a freighter ship that was abandoned by its crew and ran aground on Lantau Island. 

‘In this book, I have a previously unpublished collection of personal photographs. 

‘I have shared the stories of these boat people–the young children, the father who just bought a boat to embark on a one-thousand-mile journey, and the disillusioned North Vietnamese battle-hardened veterans–all searching for a new life.’

Revealing the moment one of his colleagues first encountered boatload of arrivals Tai O, he tells how the officer was ‘confronted’ by a middle-aged man in well-worn clothes who told him: ‘We have come from Vietnam.’

He is said to have then pointed at a small wooden boat which was tied up at Tai O’s pier before saying, ‘There are 20 of us’.

When the officer, inspector Ross Mitchell, asked the man what made them come to Hong Kong, he pointed at the British flag flying above the police station and said: ‘That. When we saw that flag, we knew we were safe’.

As well as intercepting many flimsy or makeshift boats, Mr Bird was also involved in stopping larger people-smuggling vessels.

One, the freighter ship the Sen On, ran aground with 1,433 refugees on board in April 1979. They had spent a month travelling on the ship before it was abandoned by its crew when they were still on board.

This image, which was taken from behind barbed wire, shows a row of youngsters holding identical yellow cups as they queue to receive a ration of rice

This image, which was taken from behind barbed wire, shows a row of youngsters holding identical yellow cups as they queue to receive a ration of rice

When the numbers of refugees arriving overwhelmed the capacity of existing camps, a new one which was capable of housing 10,000 people was erected on the island of Tai Ah Chau (pictured). The above image was taken in 1989. Two men can be seen wearing their army-issue shirts after they having been demobilised from the Vietnamese military

When the numbers of refugees arriving overwhelmed the capacity of existing camps, a new one which was capable of housing 10,000 people was erected on the island of Tai Ah Chau (pictured). The above image was taken in 1989. Two men can be seen wearing their army-issue shirts after they having been demobilised from the Vietnamese military

Happy to be safe: These children are seen smiling as they pose for a photo inside a camp in Hong Kong. The migration crisis hit its peak 1978 and 1979 but continued until the early 1990s

Happy to be safe: These children are seen smiling as they pose for a photo inside a camp in Hong Kong. The migration crisis hit its peak 1978 and 1979 but continued until the early 1990s

Children are seen smiling with their mother inside the Stonecutters temporary camp which was used to house people until room in a permanent camp could be found. The blankets were used as bedding at night and sunshades in the day

Children are seen smiling with their mother inside the Stonecutters temporary camp which was used to house people until room in a permanent camp could be found. The blankets were used as bedding at night and sunshades in the day

As well as intercepting many flimsy or makeshift boats, Mr Bird was also involved in stopping larger people-smuggling vessels. One, the freighter ship the Sen On, ran aground with 1,433 refugees on board in April 1979. They had spent a month travelling on the ship before it was abandoned by its crew when they were still on board

As well as intercepting many flimsy or makeshift boats, Mr Bird was also involved in stopping larger people-smuggling vessels. One, the freighter ship the Sen On, ran aground with 1,433 refugees on board in April 1979. They had spent a month travelling on the ship before it was abandoned by its crew when they were still on board 

‘It was difficult to know which way to turn, or who to try and help first. One man was up to his waist in the surf dragging another semi-conscious man out of the water,’ he writes.

‘He dropped him on the wet sand and went back into the sea to help another. I was surrounded by a group of about 50 young men, all shouting at me at the same time.’

Mr Bird adds that he boarded the precarious ship by standing on top of a police motor boat and then clambering onto the larger vessel’s stern.

‘From down in the hold in the middle of the deck, hundreds of faces looked back up at us, many of them women and young children. And we would spend the next four hours evacuating them,’ he writes.

He says in his book that many refugee vessels were already sinking when they arrived in Hong Kong.

Newly-arrived refugees are seen on the island of Tai Ah Chau as they wait to be registered in Hong Kong. Mr Bird says in his book: 'Each newly arrived group of boatpeople was required to come forward, each to give their name, age, place of birth and on which vessel they had arrived. We then tried, as best we could, to keep each group more or less together. But with no infrastructure on the island, and the small workforce we had available at the time, that initiative didn't really work'

Newly-arrived refugees are seen on the island of Tai Ah Chau as they wait to be registered in Hong Kong. Mr Bird says in his book: ‘Each newly arrived group of boatpeople was required to come forward, each to give their name, age, place of birth and on which vessel they had arrived. We then tried, as best we could, to keep each group more or less together. But with no infrastructure on the island, and the small workforce we had available at the time, that initiative didn’t really work’

A grandfather and his two grandchildren are seen looking up at the police vessel on which officers are standing. Mr Bird said the boat was one of four vessels which were all powered by identical small outboard engines

A grandfather and his two grandchildren are seen looking up at the police vessel on which officers are standing. Mr Bird said the boat was one of four vessels which were all powered by identical small outboard engines

‘A rescue could take one, sometimes two, police launches a number of hours to complete. During a rescue the Marine officers involved were not free to look out for other incoming vessels,’ he adds.

‘Then there was the immediate medical care needs to address for mothers and children.

If two or three Vietnamese vessels arrived within a couple of hours of each other, it wasn’t uncommon for most, sometimes all, of the sea boundary to the south of Hong Kong to have no Marine Police vessels actually on patrol.

‘All would be busy tending to vessels that had already arrived.’

When the numbers of refugees arriving overwhelmed the capacity of existing camps, a new one which was capable of housing 10,000 people was erected on the island of Tai Ah Chau.

Some resettled abroad as part of the United Nations’ Orderly Departure Program in countries including the United States, France, Australia and Canada, whilst others were repatriated.

Authorities in Hong Kong were criticised for housing arrivals in what were known as ‘closed camps’, where conditions were poor and barbed wire lined their boundaries.

Along the Southern Boundary: A Marine Police Officer's Frontline Account of the Vietnamese Boatpeople and their Arrival in Hong Kong is published by Blacksmith Books and released on December 12

Along the Southern Boundary: A Marine Police Officer’s Frontline Account of the Vietnamese Boatpeople and their Arrival in Hong Kong is published by Blacksmith Books and released on December 12



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