After the Fall of Saigon, my father was ill-treated in communist hard-labour camps, where many of his colleagues died, because he was a Signal Corps Lieutenant Colonel. Many former military officers’ houses were forfeited, and their families were forced to relocate to the new economic zones.
The local government told Mum they wanted to take two storeys of our four-storey house and turn it into an administration office. Mum realised that their next step would be stripping us of our house completely and forcing us to move. At the time Mum had approximately 7kg of gold – earned from years working as children’s wear producer/wholesaler – stockpiled and hidden, so she took some and bribed the local officials to leave our house alone. Then, together with her sister, Mum opened a ‘co-operative clothing factory’ at our house. Regardless, the fear of losing the house never left our minds. But wait there’s more!
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? But wait there’s more!
Arriving from Terengganu, I spent three months on Pulau Bidong Island before moving to Sungei Besi Transit Camp, Kuala Lumpur.
On the island, survivors of traumatic sea journeys were pointed out to me on two occasions. But wait there’s more!
My friends were lost at sea,
While in their lively years,
On their fateful journey. But wait there’s more!
The Communists relax patrolling during monsoon as the sea’s rough, but there’s a two-week window in November when the sea’s calm so we set sail then. It was 1983.
On day two, we’re adrift for half a day due to mechanical failure. But wait there’s more!