Camp a place of fond memories

Vietnamese refugees holding centre at Hawkins Road off Admiralty Road in 1978.
Vietnamese refugees holding centre at Hawkins Road off Admiralty Road in 1978. PHOTO: ST FILE
The empty camp in 1996 after the last of the boat people left to go home to Vietnam.
The empty camp in 1996 after the last of the boat people left to go home to Vietnam. PHOTO: ST FILE

Singapore's first and only refugee camp at 25, Hawkins Road in Sembawang is long gone, but sepia-toned photographs and scans of faded identity documents issued to refugees are now being shared on a Facebook group - virtual reminders of a common past almost 40 years ago.

A few of the more than 30,000 Vietnamese refugees temporarily hosted here, like Ms Yen Siow, are trying to use the few clues that they have to reconnect with the people in their past through social media.

Software engineer Susan Ngo, who now lives in the United States, is hoping to look up her long-lost friends at the camp. After she posted a few photos of them on the Facebook group last year, two people got in touch with her earlier last week to help her out with information on their whereabouts.

"It is important to reconnect at this point because I have the time and technology to find them. This piece of history makes me the person I am today," said the 52-year-old, who spent nine weeks in Singapore from September to November 1980 after being rescued from an overcrowded boat.

She said that while the camp housed more than 1,000 people at times, it was "not overly crowded". They received a stipend of about $2.50 a day, given by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which they used to buy food and cook their meals.

Groups of refugees slept on mats in more than 10 old houses at the 5.5ha site, set up by the UNHCR in 1978 as a temporary transit point for Vietnamese refugees. The camp eventually closed in 1996 after all refugees were resettled or repatriated.

Businessman Michael Bui, 55, has fond memories of the 90 days that he spent in the Singapore camp in 1979. The refugees were allowed to work outside the camp, and he found a job as a labourer.

"We went shopping, ate out and watched movies in Sembawang and Marsiling. It represented some of the best days in my youth which I never want to let go," said the US citizen, who returned to Singapore for a visit in July.

Mr Bui hopes that something can be built in memory of the camp. He said: "She opened her arms to us... tired, poor and huddled masses yearning for freedom. Singapore is small but her heart is so big."

Yuen Sin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline 'Camp a place of fond memories'. Print Edition | Subscribe