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Vietnamese boatpeople tell their stories for the first time to one of their rescuers, retired Hong Kong marine police officer Les Bird

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 4 days ago Kate Whitehead
  • Marine police officer Les Bird was first on the scene when a ship carrying 1,433 Vietnamese refugees ran aground on Hong Kong's Lantau Island in 1979
  • Via a contact, an ex-refugee, Bird reached others who told their stories for the first time; they appear alongside policemen's accounts in a book about the ship

For the 1,433 refugees fleeing Vietnam aboard rusty freighter the Sen On in May 1979, Les Bird was the first person they saw when the ship quite literally hit Hong Kong. The captain had abandoned the ship outside Macau and pointed the refugees in the general direction of Hong Kong.

None of the refugees steering the vessel had any experience with ships. Chased by the Marine Police, they decided their best bet was to ram the Sen On into a sandy beach on Lantau Island, thus forcing the Hong Kong authorities to take them in. In Hong Kong 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," says Bird, who snapped a quick Polaroid photo of the listing ship before helping rescue people.

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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. At six foot four (1.93 metres) and the only white person there, Bird would have been hard to miss, but they didn't speak then.

Les Bird, author of Along the Southern Boundary, published by Blacksmith Books. © Provided by South China Morning Post Les Bird, author of Along the Southern Boundary, published by Blacksmith Books.

"There were 10 things to do all at the same time. There were the guys who were ashore, who were able-bodied, people in the water, people hanging off the ladder, terrified and dropping in and couldn't swim," says Bird, a patrol boat commander who in 1981 was concurrently given operational responsibility for Marine South Division - the waters to the south of Hong Kong that include the southern territorial boundary.

"You had a choice - you stayed on the ship that was tilting and going to go under or you jumped, and you couldn't swim."

Why this former policeman is seeking a baby he saved in 1980

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 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 memoir - which his wife, May Anne, had suggested he write - but only two images were used, on the front and back covers. The photographs came out again when he gave a talk at the 2020 Hong Kong International Literary Festival and publisher Pete Spurrier suggested he tell the stories behind the photos.

The cover of Bird's new book. © Provided by South China Morning Post The cover of Bird's new book.

The project grew and grew. He contacted former colleagues to help fill the gaps in his memory and many times they, too, had old photographs to share. In the end, nine of them contributed images to his recently released Along the Southern Boundary, an important book documenting the terrifying journey of some of the tens of thousands of people as they fled Vietnam in the years that followed the end of the Vietnam war.

What makes the volume special is not just the hundreds of colour photographs, but also the fact that it's a story told from both sides - from those on the sea and on the land - with the support of Bird's narration and first-person accounts.

And for the children of those refugees who fled Vietnam, it offers a way into a conversation about their parents' past.

Skyluck: the ship that carried 2,600 people to Hong Kong in 1979

Bird wrote the book in a year, reaching out to former colleagues and those involved in the Vietnamese refugee crisis - aid agency workers, immigration officials and government officers. The refugees themselves were included only when, six months into the project, Bird realised with horror that he was missing their voices.

"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," says Bird.

For the 1,433 refugees who fled Vietnam aboard the Sen On in 1979, Les Bird was the first person they saw when the ship rammed into a beach on Lantau Island. © Provided by South China Morning Post For the 1,433 refugees who fled Vietnam aboard the Sen On in 1979, Les Bird was the first person they saw when the ship rammed into a beach on Lantau Island.

However, in reaching out to Dang, he 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," says Bird.

A little shyly, he leans across the table and shows me an email that arrived that morning from former refugee Steve Le in London, who had just received a copy of Along the Southern Boundary.

'A small motorised vessel arrives in Hong Kong waters from the southwest in 1988. Excitedly, and no doubt relieved to have made it, some of those on board wave and smile at the sight of the Hong Kong Marine Police Launch.' From Along the Southern Boundary, by Les Bird © Provided by South China Morning Post 'A small motorised vessel arrives in Hong Kong waters from the southwest in 1988. Excitedly, and no doubt relieved to have made it, some of those on board wave and smile at the sight of the Hong Kong Marine Police Launch.' From Along the Southern Boundary, by Les Bird

"In addition to being able to know more about your past career as a marine police officer, another benefit is my son and daughter can clearly understand their father's past," reads Le's email.

Bird smiles and says: "It's the first time he's been able to tell his kids about what happened."

Along the Southern Boundary is published by Blacksmith Books

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