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Newsletter No. 1, January 2021

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Hello! I was hoping to be able to start 2021 by announcing a date for the trip and guided tour to the Soko island of Tai Ah Chau. I was involved there with the Hong Kong Marine Police in June 1989 when we were directed to bring in Vietnamese refugees who were coming in along the Southern Boundary. The 13 detention camps were full and the government wanted us to temporarily keep the refugees in the vessels in which they came. However, that wasn’t feasible. And by the end of my week there, there were 3,000 Vietnamese and at the start no resources whatsoever. What I’m proposing is a junk trip and walk around on the island in a couple of months from now, which will be a chance to hear about the Vietnamese refugees who came to Hong Kong in their tens of thousands in 1989, and also how my colleagues and I handled all of this with so few resources. I had the chance to return to the now-deserted island recently.

Tai Ah Chau (Photo: Gary Stokes)

It was the first time I’d been back since helping to organize the three thousand refugees who arrived on Hong Kong’s territorial boundary in their ramshackle boats on that first week of June in 1989. So, it was quite thought-provoking for me to go back. We found that the footprint of the camp is still there, and it was interesting to walk along the same beaches where the Vietnamese landed and set up their camps over 30 years ago. I took along large-scale copies of the photographs I took of island life in 1989, so it was doubly interesting to compare the ‘then and now’.

Tai Ah Chau – June 1989


As you probably know, Tai Ah Chau is a part of the Soko Islands and it takes about 1.5 hours to get there from Lantau by junk. So, this proposed tour would consist of me providing a photo show with info on the junk as we travel to the island. So my talk would be backed up by my photographs from that era – a few of which you saw in November. Then I’ll guide you around as we walk to the various parts of Tai Ah Chau. If you are interested to join I’ll be in touch once local conditions permit. I’m also keen to get a regular newsletter started, so if you don’t wish to be on that email, just let me know. In addition to this, I am currently designing a website for “A Small Band of Men” and this will include details of future projects, talks and tours. So, more details on those later. Following on from my book, and as mentioned at Tai Kwun, I’ve had more contact with some of the Vietnamese I met who came to Hong Kong on the Sen On – the freighter that beached on South Lantau in 1979. So, I plan to explore that communication more and hear more of their stories of how their lives have developed since we met on that beach all those years ago. And then there’s Hong Kong’s last daai fei – the “big flyer” speedboats that were such a menace in the 1990s, smuggling luxury cars and electronic goods out of Hong Kong and drugs and arms in. This very last daai fei is currently in use as a training vessel by Hong Kong’s Marine Police. It was seized in an anti-smuggling operation in 2001 and will be decommissioned in the first quarter of this year. So, since it really is the LAST one I’d love to see it saved and put on display somewhere like the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, together with the back story of how the lives of two police officers were lost in combating this deadly game.

Daai Fei with stolen Mercedes Benz

I think it’s an era that everyone who was in Hong Kong at that time connects with. Would be great to have it exhibited with an old Merc in the back. A bit of realism! Here’s wishing you a great start to the year. Thanks again for your support and I’ll be back with more news once the website is up and running.


Les Bird


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