On the day I left Sungei Besi transit camp for Australia, I wore a yellow T-shirt bought from the camp’s only grocery and sundry shop, which was run by a Chinese Malaysian couple. My shoes, jeans and travel bag all were bought with my money by ‘Papa’.
Papa was a Cantonese-speaking, Chinese-Malaysian man in his 60s who was thin, bald, agile, vivacious and quick-tongued, and insisted that the Vietnamese people called him ‘Papa’. He looked after the camp’s general store that contained goods for the refugees’ daily use: small food and drink buckets, sheets, blankets,…
I happened to know Papa when one day, on his regular walk around the camp, he visited our ‘shipping-container’ residence. All the girls and women crowded around the ‘Asian Santa Claus’. He gave each of us a packet of Nasi Lemak (Malaysian rice dish) wrapped in banana leaf. I could never forget the fragrant and rich coconut rice as well as the crispy fried anchovies, the sweet-and-sour garlic chilli sauce and the big sunny-side-up egg. Decades later, after many trips to Malaysia I could never find any Nasi Lemak that tasted so nice as the one Papa gave me that day. Maybe the pale Malaysian milk tea, the instant noodles, half-cooked soggy fried chicken, insipid and tainted steamed salted fish and other lacklustre meals that I invariably received day after day in the camp had accentuated the flavour of that dish?
Papa was too nice to be true! He would ask people if they wanted him to buy them anything from outside the camp. I gave him $50 USD leftover from $100 Mum gave me when I left Vietnam, and asked him to buy me a pair of jeans and a travel bag. I was so surprised when he even bought me a pair of shoes and candies! Papa had a gifted talent that no other men did, he bought me well-fitted jeans and shoes!
He would get easily upset when people cut him off or when people hustled one another in order to get him to buy things such as make-up kits, bras, hair clips,…When that happened it was like a comedy theatre, where girls and women would try to appease him by fanning him, smiling at him, trying to look regretful,….
There were others who were critical of Papa! They said he was a lustful old man who stayed past his working hours late into the night so he could have a love affair with the refugee girl whom he recruited to assist him in his work. He was married with children, and his wife was still very much alive!
One night around 8pm, joining other inquisitive children, I curiously looked through the gapss of the store’s folding door and saw Papa’s Cantonese-speaking Chinese refugee assistant was massaging his back. When she finished, he made her sit on his laps then put his hands underneath her shirt and groped her breasts. All this happened with no resistance nor enjoyment from the girl.
I was shocked and livid. It changed my belief that a man of his age could no longer be sexually interested in girls. How did the non-English speaking twenty-something girl get into a relationship with this disgusting grandpa? Did he lure her through his ‘Santa tour’ in the camp? (Refugees could volunteer or be asked to help in running the camp). Did he promise her money to take with her to help when she settles? (Some refugees continued to earn money in the camp by cutting hair, sewing clothes and providing similar services for other refugees). Did he threaten that through his connections with Malaysians in UNHCR, Task Force and Red Crescent, he could have her black marked as having TB, or calling her character into question, stalling her resettlement indefinitely?
I gave away the jeans the dirty old man bought me, as the thought of him preying on young women hung over my head when I was reminded of him.
A lecherous old man who pretends to be good Santa,
The sexual abuse of young girls is on his agenda.