After the fall of Saigon, millions of refugees fled Vietnam. In 1979 alone, more than 68,700 people arrived at Hong Kong’s sea boundary. In 1989, when all the 13 Vietnamese camps in Hong Kong had reached full capacity, the Hong Kong government sought locations to accommodate the new arrivals, facing a desperate need for suitable space.
During the time Les Bird was a commander of the Hong Kong Marine Police, he received instructions to cease escorting Vietnamese boats and people into Hong Kong's inner harbour. Instead, he was directed to transport them to the deserted island of Tai Ah Chau, a small 1.4 sq km island southwest of Lantau Island.
Les spent the first week on the island, overseeing the well-being of over 3,000 people. The challenging conditions included a lack of fresh water, food, electricity and sanitation. The island was plunged into complete darkness at night, with minimal shelter provided by a few derelict broken buildings. The absence of a means to segregate the arriving individuals, including people from both North and South Vietnam, heightened the difficulties. Les diligently documented the situation, capturing over 100 photos during that initial week.
Eventually, in 1992, the government built a 10,000-capacity Vietnamese camp on the island. The camp was closed down in 1996 and was demolished.
On this field trip, Les guides us to the, once again, deserted Tai Ah Chau. The group revisits the site where the camp once stood, and explores the island, where small shrines and graves of the Vietnamese refugees that died on the island still exist. Tai Ah Chau is, once again, a beautiful island, though the island has a dark past.
On the boat ride to Tai Ah Chau, Les showcases the photographs that feature in his book" Along the Southern Boundary" and tells the story of what happened on the island over 30 years ago.
10.30 am Meet up at Cheung Chau Pier, via ferry from Central or elsewhere
10.45 am Boat pick up at Cheung Chau to Tai Ah Chau with Les photo presentation
12.00 pm Guided walk by Les
3.00 pm Boat back to Cheung Chau
4.30 pm Dismiss at Cheung Chau Pier
$780 for Members and $880 for members' guests, including the boat trip from Cheung Chau to Tai Ah Chau. In the event of over-subscription, priority is going to be given to Members.
Participants who travel from Central are recommended to take the 9:00 am fast ferry or the 9:30 am ordinary ferry from Central Pier 5 to reach Cheung Chau at 10:30 am.
Les Bird, originally from Staffordshire, United Kingdom, joined the Royal Hong Kong Police in 1976 after extensive travels through Africa and Australia. His 21-year tenure in the Marine Police included diverse roles, from rural inspector of West Lantau to overseeing sea duties during the influx of Vietnamese refugees. Post-retirement in 1997, Les ventured into the security industry across Asia and became an accomplished endurance athlete, representing Great Britain at the 2009 Ironman World Championship. He achieved notable feats like swimming the English Channel in 2011 and summiting Mont Blanc in 2012. Les is also the author of two books: “A Small Band of Men” and “Along the Southern Boundary: A Marine Police Officer's Frontline Account of the Vietnamese Boatpeople and their Arrival in Hong Kong".
The opinions expressed in this talk are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal Geographical Society - Hong Kong.