The Chinese “boat people” of Vietnam

Authored by Melissa Aaronberg

Newspaper article on ethnic Chinese refugees fleeing Vietnam. January 15, 1979

The object pictured above is an article written by Edward Schumacher for The Philadelphia Inquirer on January 15, 1979 entitled “A glimpse of refugees in China.” This article focuses on the three-quarters of refugees from Vietnam who were ethnically Chinese and that settled in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s status as a possession of the United Kingdom in the 1970’s influenced its refugee and immigration policies. Ultimately, this artifact contributes to the Vincentian ideal of social justice.

Hong Kong’s immigration policy was based on British law, and stipulated that “ a person may not land in Hong Kong without permission from an immigration officer unless that person had the right of abode in Hong Kong or had the right to land by virtue of being a British citizen” (Whitney, 1998). It was not until 1981 that the policy was amended to state that ethnically Chinese refugees may settle in Hong Kong pending resettlement to another country (Whitney, 1998). In 1975, the first influx of what came to be called “boat people” (which referred to the small crowded boats that transported many refugees) numbered 3,743 (Carvalho, 2015). By 1978, China accepted 263,000 ethnically Chinese refugees (Kamm, 1981).

According to Schumacher, by 1979 China wanted to stop admitting refugees from Vietnam entirely after the invasion of Cambodia and the overthrow of a Chinese-backed government in the capitol of Phnom Penh. Schumacher added that Chinese authorities feared many of the refugees were capitalist. This was true in the case of Yen Cam Mau, who was born in northern Vietnam but ethnically Chinese (Kam, 1981). Yen had no intention of permanently residing in China, telling a reporter “We no longer want to live in a Communist country. We want to live in a free country; that is why we left (Vietnam)” (Kam, 1981).

The experiences of the ethnically Chinese in Vietnam were varied. French author Marguerite Duras wrote a semi-autobiographical novel of her affair with a wealthy, Paris educated Chinese man in Cholon (Vietnam’s “Chinatown”) entitled The Lover. In her biography of Duras, Laure Adler wrote that the Chinese often “stood apart from the Vietnamese” economically and culturally (55). This echoes the experience of Yen Cam Mau, who was discriminated against for his ethnicity: ”If a Chinese goes to a hospital, there is no room for him. If something is stolen from me and I complain, they make believe they don’t hear me. The Vietnamese who work with me get raises, I don’t” (Kam, 1981). Many Chinese refugees from Vietnam reported that they always felt more Chinese than Vietnamese (Mydans, 1984).

The refugee crisis in Hong Kong in the 1970s mirrors the current refugee crisis facing Europe and the United States. This artifact contributes to the Vincentian ideal of social justice by highlighting issues of ethnicity and serving as a learning tool for future generations. Preserving the stories of Chinese refugees is crucial in ensuring that their voices do not get lost in the cacophony of history.


Adler, Laure. Marguerite Duras: A life. Translated by Anne-Marie Glasbeen. London: Orion Books, Ltd, 1998.

Carvalho, Raquel. How Europe can learn from the hard lessons of Hong Kong’s Vietnamese refugee crisis. South

China Morning Post. September 14, 2015. Retrieved from

Kamm, Henry. For refugees from Vietnam, a catch-22 in Macao. New York Times. August 17, 1981. Retrieved from

Mydans, Seth. Chinese refugees from Vietnam thrive in Chinatown. New York Times. February 11, 1984. Retrieved from

Schumacher, Edward. A glimpse of refugees in China. The Philadelphia Inquirer. January 15, 1979.

Whitney, Kathleen Marie. There is no future for refuges in Chinese Hong Kong. Boston College Third World Law Journal, 18, no.1 (1998): 1-45. Retrieved from