When I moved to Hong Kong in 1990, the territory was home to 55,000 Vietnamese refugees. The US and other western countries had stopped taking in the numbers of refugees they admitted in the last half of the 1970s and early 80s (even though the US caused the crisis in the first place). So Hong Kong absorbed as many refugees as it could, and settled them in camps around the territory while the mostly ethnic Chinese refugees awaited hearings for their cases.
When I saw a notice on my exchange student office bulletin board to volunteer at a camp, I was determined to sign up and was put in touch with International Social Services. After an informal interview at a basketball court in Wanchai, followed by lunch across the Harbour at a food court in Mongkok, I was hired.
My job was to teach English to adult refugees. They could speak Vietnamese and many spoke Cantonese, but I knew neither. I traveled to Argyle Street in Kowloon Tong every week, walking from the Mongkok KCR station, up Argyle Street, until I reached the overgrown brush that was the refugee camp.
I also attended a Christmas pageant at the camp in December that year. My mom was visiting and we struggled to find an open restaurant after the performance, which ended quite late. (The next day we’d pay for it when we flew separately to Tokyo and came down with either a nasty bout of food poisoning or a severe case of Norovirus. It’s amazing I ever made it to Yokohama in one piece.)
I took many photos from an end of the year party at the camp that spring, just before I left Hong Kong to travel halfway across the world before going home to the US.
Do’An is in the pink and was my best friend in the camp. She worked there and was a refugee herself. We kept in touch after I left Hong Kong and traveled to Vietnam, but sadly lost contact after I returned to the US. I have no idea if she was able to stay in Hong Kong, was repatriated to Vietnam, or was able to settle overseas in the US, Canada, Australia, or elsewhere.
I can’t remember the name of the Swedish volunteer above, but she was super nice. The Vietnamese man and woman below were refugees like Do’An and also staff at the camp because they knew English.
The camp was housed in old British military barracks that were later used as a POW camp when the Japanese took over Hong Kong during WWII. It’s difficult to see here, but these buildings were wooden Quonset huts with round roofs.
I’m not sure who these kids belonged to, but I’m guessing the volunteer or ISS staff who took some of these photos.
This is what the huts looked like inside. They were used for classrooms, offices, and dormitories.
When I moved back to Hong Kong a few years later, the Argyle camp was gone. Most of the Vietnamese refugees were gone from Hong Kong, too, although some stayed and integrated into Hong Kong society. The majority of the refugees in the camps in 1990 were forcibly repatriated to Vietnam in the early 90s. I walked around this area in the mid-to-late 90s when I was living in Hong Kong again, but didn’t pay much attention to where the camp had been.
In late 2015, I tried to find it and walked up and down Argyle Street starting in Kowloon City. The area is so calm and pristine now.
But there’s no mention of the camp anywhere. Not even a sign.
It’s like it never existed.