I helped Mum preparing food for the quarterly visit to Dad’s communist prison (glossily named re-education camp) .
Six dozens boiled egg yolks were mashed and dried on an electric stove. Two sliced sandwich loaves were toasted and spread with butter mixed with sugar. Two kilos of diced pork fat were fried to render lard. Two kilos each of carrots, radishes, cauliflowers, peas, and green beans were sun-dried. Two kilos of sugar were mixed with lime juice and sun-dried. Five kilos of pork were boiled, pounded, shredded to make pork floss. Two kilos of salty dried fish were fragmented and fried with lard and sugar. Five kilos of brown rice…Bottles, tablet packs of vitamins, pain-killers, and medicines for dysentery, malaria, cough,…. were packed.
Prisoners’ daily small ration comprised of cassavas, sweet potatoes, rotten and mealworm-infested rice. They often suffered from oedema and died if not treated with vitamin B12. Prisoners with no visitors were more likely to die in the camp.
The International Red Cross tried but could not have access to the camp under the Geneva Convention relative to prisoners of war. It cost one tael (37.5g) of gold to visit Dad in the Northern mountain and 3/4 of that to visit him then in Ham Tan Z30D camp, 180kms from Saigon. We were lucky Mum got 200 taels of gold saved from her job as a children wear designer/producer/wholesaler before Saigon Fall. Fearful of confiscation by the communists, she hid her diamonds, jewellery and gold taels in the bathroom sewerage gully, pickled lemons, teapot cozy, water filter pot,…
On visiting day, in the small station wagon, my sister and I sat near a 40-something woman. The poorly clothed wretched-looking woman emitted a foul smell of an open wound. I squirmed in my seat. I held my nose. I leant away from her. I said to my sister: “What smells? So horrible!”.
The woman kept silent but looked more and more distraught. The four-hour trip seemed to last forever for us. When we got to the camp, a friend of the woman apologised on her behalf. She told me the woman had a very severe prolapsed uterus that she delayed treatment to save money to visit her husband in prison and now it had turned cancerous.
I was shocked and felt so guilty that I’d made the woman felt miserable. I wished I wasn’t on that trip.
The woman was the picture of altruism. There were many stories of the wives of political prisoners after 1975. When the communists wanted to forfeit a pre-Saigon-Fall high-ranking military officer’s house while he was in prison, his wife turned to a communist official for help and in return she became his lover. I felt bitter for her husband for he didn’t know that his wife was seeing a high-ranking communist official. I wondered how her children felt about her new relationship.
Another young, beautiful woman was invited to appear in a communist film. The work led her to fall in love with a member of the film crew even though she still loved her husband and visited him often in the ‘re-education camp’.
Tears in the night,
Flow for the plight,
Of the wives left to wait,
Lonely, contrite, dying, self-hate.