SINGAPORE — More than 30 years after she first met them around 1985, educator and entrepreneur Alvina Khoo, 56, often wonders what became of the Vietnamese children she taught at Singapore’s first and only refugee camp, located at 25 Hawkins Road in Sembawang.
“I would go to the camp once a week after work with my cassette player, stationery, clothes, food and books,” recalled the mother of three fondly. “As you walked through the camp, you would see paintings by the adults of the vessels that had rescued them. I was so impressed by their artistic flair.”
Back then, the camp didn’t have a proper classroom, so she would find an open space to sit down and conduct classes. She would use Teochew and English to communicate with the children, some of whom spoke Cantonese.
Sometimes, Khoo would ask friends with cars to come along and take them out for picnics.
“The kids would hug me and call me Mommy,” she said wistfully.
From 1975 to 1996, the Republic was a temporary transit point for more than 30,000 Vietnamese boat people before they were resettled in third countries. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, many fled economic hardship. Others had been persecuted because they fought on the American side during the war.
The Hawkins Road refugee camp was a former British military barracks that was left unused until it was repurposed in 1978 to host the incoming boat people. The camp was managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with refugees living in more than 10 old houses at the 5.5ha site. They were also given a small daily stipend of about $2.50.
‘Like entering heaven’
Former refugees and volunteers alike told Yahoo News Singapore that it was a well-organised camp. Cristal Lim, aged 12 at the time, and her family of six left Saigon in early 1981, together with about 100 people on a boat made for 50. They spent seven days at sea before being rescued by a Dutch commercial vessel.
“It was so traumatising. About five people on my boat died, they were thrown in the sea. We had no food, no water,” said Lim, now a 50-year-old businesswoman.
But the mother of three has “very happy memories” of her five-month stay at the camp, which was equipped with a minimart, clinic, church, temple and more. There were also many volunteers who brought gifts of toys and took them on outings to church and attractions like Sentosa.
“It was like entering heaven. People told me that the Singapore camp is the best in Asia, and we were very welcomed by the people in Singapore,”added Lim, who was eventually resettled in France with her family. She later married a Singaporean and is now co-owner of the Five Bar chain.
One of the camp volunteers was freelance trainer Rina Tay, 61, a long-time Singapore Red Cross (SRC) volunteer who helped out at the camp occasionally from 1979, alongside peers like James Loo, 62. On some weekends, a busload of about 40 volunteers would head to the camp to provide entertainment for the refugees with activities like song-and-dance, dress up and even stilt-walking.
Tay said, “To us, it was kind of a holiday camp, like Changi chalet. What I remember is the children clamouring for sweets. I remember hearing so much of the roaring of laughter.” She added that she saw her role as being to cheer them up with her “youth(ful) exuberance”.
Asked what he knew of the Vietnam War and refugees before he went to the camp, Loo, a civil engineer, replied, “We are young. We know nothing. To us, communist country, they are bad people. US is the good guy, so those people who run away are good people. We know that they are lucky to survive.”
He added, “I wonder what happened to them. I want to see how they are getting on.”
Hoping to reconnect
“Vietnamese Boat People Refugee Camp, 25 Hawkins Road, Sembawang, Singapore”, a Facebook group connecting former refugees who passed through the camp, remains active, with many posting photos of their time at the camp. The area is now mostly covered in jungle vegetation.
One of the group members is Heather Stenseng née Nguyen Le Hong Hanh, 50, who is based in Orange County, California. Now a mother of two, she was placed in a boat with her mother’s relatives and was eventually picked up by German humanitarian workers. “We were lucky because there were other people who were at sea much longer and experienced more hardship. We heard about people being raped by Thai pirates.”
Stenseng spent about three months at the camp back in 1980. “Life at the camp was pretty easy. The living conditions were comfortable. We could roam the grounds, get passes to go out and come back. There were rolling hills, so you would be rolling down the hill and playing.”
Back then, at the age of 11, she considered the experience more as fun than hardship, but it was harder for the older generation, she said.
Currently an academic advisor in a high school, Stenseng speaks Spanish and often works with recently arrived immigrants to the US to help them settle in. She returned to Singapore in the summer for the first time since leaving.
“It brought up a lot of emotions, knowing that I went through all these experiences at a young age. Knowing that my parents let me leave to have a better education, retracing my journey to America - it was not something I have really talked about.”
Stenseng, who hopes to make another trip to the Republic with her sons, said those refugees who had lived at Hawkins would always look for the camp whenever they return to Singapore as it was a special place for them.
“The other thing that made me sad is that there is no indication that there was a camp there. Considering that it was there for 18 years, you would expect some kind of indication, maybe a board just saying there was a refugee camp.”
Time to leave
Tang Chun Tuck, 66, who helped coordinate the activities of SRC volunteers at the camp, would take leave to send off refugee families at the airport. “It was very touching,” recalled the retired civil servant. “They would say that they don’t know when they will see us again. Maybe one day, they will reconnect with us.”
Asked if she ever thinks of the camp volunteers, Lim said that she does, especially a man she only knew as Mr Bernard. “He was really nice to me and even brought me out to buy me new clothes to wear, so I could leave the camp with new clothes.”
Khoo took pains to stay in touch with the children who had moved on, and gave everybody her address. But she later lost touch with her former students as she had moved house several times.
“I would ask a lot of questions about where they were being resettled and who they were with, and I asked them to write and tell me. They have already gone through a terrible experience, they should not have to go through a second round.”
The camp was eventually closed in 1996, with the final group of about 100 refugees repatriated to Vietnam. The premises were then demolished and the road name removed.
Khoo remains haunted by the stories both children and adults at the camp told her. Thousands of them fled in very small boats, and they had to face the treacherous waves and storms of the South China Sea.
“They had to pay the captain with gold bars. Many of the parents could not afford it, so they put the kids in the boats and stayed behind. Some were pregnant, others were fighting, they were hungry for days. Some would die on the boat and be thrown overboard,” she recounted.
Much of Khoo’s time at the camp was spent listening to the children and counselling them. “I remember a young girl told me, ‘I cannot forgive my mom. I hate her because she put me on the boat and I cannot see my family.’ I would listen and try and console them.”
Asked what she would say to her former charges if she could meet them, Khoo replied with tears in her eyes, “I want to hug them. I would tell them I love them.”