I love history. And when I’ve lived it, even better!
In 1990, I saw a notice at my university in Hong Kong for volunteer English teachers at a Vietnamese refugee camp. Actually, it was called a detention centre.
I wanted the job. Ever since my mom took me to a low-key, Unicef pot-luck fundraiser in 1979, at the tender age of 9, I’d been mesmerized by the plight of the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees.
So I called the number on the ad and a week later met with a young Canadian from International Social Services. (Incidentally, we ate lunch at an Asian food court a stone’s thrown from the former Sun Ya Hotel, where my mom had stayed 28 years earlier.)
I got the job even though I had never taught English. I guess being a native speaker was good enough. It often was in Hong Kong.
The camp was set back amidst overrun brush and wild grass. It looked like the grounds hadn’t been tended to in years. The buildings were shabby bunkers with corrugated metal roofs.
The Argyle Street camp opened in 1979, but three years later, all camps were on lock down so the refugees couldn’t leave the camp grounds.
My conversation class was a group of 20 adults, many of whom could say “hello”, “thank you”, and “good bye”, but not much else. So that was 300% better than my Vietnamese.
One of my first lessons involved Christmas. The Canadian gave me cardboard Santa, snowmen, and reindeer decorations to use as props. Piece of cake, right?
When I started to explain Santa, the students stared at me with blank expressions. So I went on to the reindeer. Flying in the sky, pulling a sleigh. Again, blank stares. The snowmen were more straightforward, so our lesson turned into one about winter.
After the Christmas lesson, our conversations flowed better. We spoke of Tet later that winter. And they asked about America, where many wished to settle. I was sad my volunteer job came to an end at the end of the spring semester (I was leaving Hong Kong at the end of the spring to travel around Asia and then return to the US. But I’d be back!). The camp was closed the following year.
All these years, I’ve wondered about the origins of the camp and how such a place was found in Kowloon, where real estate is costly and land overcrowded.
I first came across the Argyle Street Prisoner of War Camp a couple years ago when reading Emily Hahn’s memoir, China to Me (mentioned in an earlier post). I also read about it last year in Philip Snow’s The Fall of Hong Kong (also mentioned in an earlier post). I then wrote to Tony Banham, a WWII/Hong Kong scholar. He confirmed the Japanese POW camp was the same venue as the Vietnamese refugee camp. It was originally built as British barracks, but hardly used before the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in 1941.
On Gwulo.com, I learned that after the war, the camp returned to its intended use as British barracks. After the Vietnamese left in 1992, the Hong Kong Medical and Health Department took control of the site before it was sold to developers.
When I returned to Hong Kong in 1994, the site was littered with new high-rise condos (photo on right).