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The Boat People

October 1979

In October 1978, a 60-foot fishing-boat was sinking in the South China Sea. Aboard were 347 refugees from Communist Vietnam, including 156 children under the age of 15, a two-month old baby and a woman who was seven-months' pregnant. In fact, the fishing boat contained not only its own passengers but also those from two other similar boats that had already capsized. All those aboard the now grossly over-crowded vessel were convinced that they would drown.

They may or may not have known that this had been the fate of thousands of others before them. Many hundreds of thousands of other Vietnamese were to die in similar craft. Some were victims of pirates while others had been sold unseaworthy boats by fraudulent profiteers. But, one way or another, most drowned or died of exposure. All had invested huge sums, knowing they were gambling with the lives of their families, for the chance to escape the repressive Communist régime which had defeated and replaced the violent American occupation of South Vietnam.

Just when all hope had vanished, a British training ship, the Wellpark was sighted and the refugees fired their last distress rocket. Under very difficult circumstances a courageous crew from the Wellpark managed to rescue all the refugees and to transport them to Taiwan. From there they were offered sanctuary in Britain and were flown to London where preparations were already being made to convert the old Kensington Barracks, in Kensington Church Street, into a reception centre.

With my partner, Sarah Davidson, I was one of those who volunteered to help make the refugees' arrival a little easier. Apart from preparing the barracks for their arrival, and then caring for them, we were also able to arrange, for some of them, their first visit to an English family in the peace of the English countryside.

By Christopher Long

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DOCTOR'S TEA PARTY

Fifty Vietnamese enjoy their first country outing

Sevenoaks News, October 25 1978 — Fifty Vietnamese refugees, who were rescued from a sinking boat during a life and death struggle to escape from their Communist-controlled homeland, visited the Sevenoaks area on Sunday – their first outing since arriving in England last week.

The refugees were among 346 who fled from Vietnam in a 60-foot fishing boat, after two years of secret preparations to escape from the Communist regime.

They were taken from the Kensington Barracks where they are living temporarily to the Brasted home of Dr Aidan Long. It was the refugees' first chance to see the English countryside – where many of them hope to settle down.

Dr Aidan Long, his wife Helen, their son Christopher and the rector of Brasted, the Rev John Talbot, welcoming the Vietnamese refugees to a tea party in Brasted

Over a cup of English tea the refugees described their incredible escape from Vietnam which left them stranded in a sinking ship in the South China Sea.

They told how nearly 150 Vietnamese men, women and children – whose ages ranged from a lady of 88 to a four-month-old baby – set out in the boat in treacherous weather, praying they would not be spotted by patrol craft.

They took on another 200 people when they came across two other sinking boats, which increased the dangers on their already overcrowded fishing boat.

With the boat sinking, the weather worsening and the supplies running out fast, all hope vanished for the refugees until they were sighted by a cadet training ship.

In a nightmare two-hour rescue operation the crew took the Vietnamese on board and took them to Kaoshiung, Taiwan – where they were flown by the British Council for Refugees to London.

The refugees were treated to tea at Bridge Cottage, Church Road, Brasted – home of Dr Aidan and Mrs Helen Long. The trip was arranged by Dr Long's son, Christopher, who has been helping out at the Kensington Barracks.

"I arranged the trip and rang my mother in Brasted, telling her to expect 50 for tea," said Christopher Long.

Mr Ngugen-Quy Bao, aged 74, who was a City Counsellor in Saigon, made the journey with 11 of his relatives.

He said: "I was very scared on the boat because we could see nothing and we went three days without food and water. The crew on the rescue boat were the most courageous people I have ever met."

[For a good account of the Wellpark and her crew's actions in rescuing these 'Boat People' in the South China Sea, see the Ships Nostalgia site.]

Refugee Mr Bao said he liked England and hopes to study the language. "The people here have been marvellous. I prayed that we would make it and if I die now I will die happy, knowing that my family is safe."

Assistant hotel manager Ngugen Quang, aged 34, brought his 10-year-old son with him to England. He said: "On the boat I thought we would never make the trip. The water pump was broken and we only had one can to carry water from the bottom of the boat to bail out."

Mr Long said: "The health of the refugees is unbelievably good considering the ordeal they went through on the boat."

Mrs Joyce McAughty, chairman of Sevenoaks District Council's housing committee, said on Monday she would welcome the refugees in Sevenoaks if they wanted to move to the town and find work.

"We have not yet been officially approached about housing the refugees but when we are we shall discuss it as a council. I think they would want to make sure of employment before moving to Sevenoaks," she said.

Mr Christopher Long, who arranged Sunday's visit to Sevenoaks, said the problem now facing the refugees was re-housing.

He said: "We desperately need local authorities to provide housing for groups of the Vietnamese. They came over here in families and we need to keep them together."

Mrs McAughty added: "We have a problem of housing already in Sevenoaks so we would need to consider the possibility of re-housing the refugees carefully."

The Mayor of Peterborough has already offered 10 houses to the refugees, but they need many articles including clothing, books and magazines.



JOBS AND HOMES FOR REFUGEES?

Engineering firm can offer help

Sevenoaks Chronicle, October 28 1978 — Vietnamese refugees who arrived in England last weekend after they fled from their homeland have been welcomed with open arms in Sevenoaks with the possibility of houses and employment.

This follows a plea for help by Mr Christopher Long on behalf of the refugees, some of whom he entertained at his home in Brasted on Sunday.

Left: Dr Aidan Long talks to three of the refugee doctors on Sunday who hope to continue their medical profession in England. See also page 11
Far left: Mr Keith House

He said: "The problem now facing the refugees is accommodation. They desperately need local authorities to provide housing for groups of the Vietnamese. They came over here in families and we need to keep them together."

Mrs Joyce McAughty, chairman of Sevenoaks District Council's housing committee said on Monday she would welcome the refugees in Sevenoaks if they wanted to move to the town and find work.

Mrs McAughty said: "We have a problem of housing already in Sevenoaks so we would need to consider the possibility of rehousing the refugees carefully.

"We have not yet been officially approached about housing the refugees but when we are we shall discuss it as a council. I think they would want to make sure there was work available before moving into the area."

An offer to help the refugees start a new life came this week from Bintcliffe Turner Ltd Aerospace and Commercial Fastener Manufacturers, an established Sevenoaks industry.

The firm, situated at 2 Cramptons Road, Bat and Ball, say they will cooperate and provide jobs if Sevenoaks is to consider housing the Vietnamese.

Managing Director, Mr Keith House, said on Thursday: "We have many vacancies and could provide several jobs for people if they could do the work. This would include general engineering, store work, milling and drilling.

"We have our own training scheme which the refugees would come under. There is a shortage of skilled labour in the area so if something could be worked out it would benefit everybody.

"I personally have no objections to them coming to the area. They have to be located and housed somewhere. It would ease many people's minds if the refugees could become self sufficient and support themselves."

Christopher Long's father Dr Aidan [sic] has been offering help and advice to the three doctors in the group of refugees in an effort to help them establish themselves in practice in their new homeland.



TEA PARTY FOR THE BOAT PEOPLE

Sevenoaks Chronicle, October 28 1978 — More than fifty Vietnamese refugees, who were rescued from a sinking boat during a life and death struggle to escape from their Communist-controlled homeland, visited Sevenoaks on Sunday – their first outing since arriving in England last week.

The refugees were among 346 who fled from Vietnam in a 60-foot fishing boat, after two years of secret preparations to escape from the Communist regime.

They were taken from the Kensington Barracks, where they are living temporarily, to the Brasted home of Dr Aidan Long. It was the refugees' first chance to see the English countryside – where many of them hope to settle down.

Over a cup of English tea, the refugees described their incredible escape from Vietam which left them stranded in a sinking ship in the South China Sea.

Nearly 150 Vietnamese men, women and children – whose ages ranged from a woman of 88 to a four-month-old baby – set out in the boat in treacherous weather, praying they would not be spotted by patrol craft.

Dr Aidan Long and his wife Helen sit among some of the refugees after giving them tea at their country home in Brasted on Sunday.

[Standing at the back are the Rev. John Talbot of Brasted, Christopher Long and Sarah Davidson (who organised the trip) and the coach driver who generously offered transport from London.]

They took on another 200 people when they came across two other sinking boats, which increased the dangers on their already overcrowded fishing boat.

With the boat sinking, the weather worsening and the supplies running out fast, all hope vanished for the refugees until they were sighted by a cadet training ship.

In a nightmare two-hour rescue operation the crew took the Vietnamese on board and then steamed with them to Kaoshiung, Taiwan – where they were flown by the British Council for Refugees to London.

Mr Ngugen-Quy Bao, aged 74, who was a City Counsellor in Saigon and one of the leaders of the refugees, made the journey with 11 of his relatives.

He said: "I was very scared on the boat because we could see nothing and had to go three days without food and water. The crew on the rescue boat were some of the most courageous I have ever met."

"The people here are marvellous. I prayed that we would make it – if I die now I will die happy knowing that my family are safe."

The refugees were treated to tea at Bridge Cottage, Church Road, Brasted – the home of Dr Aidan and Mrs Helen Long. The trip was arranged by Dr Long's son, Christopher, who has been helping out at Kensington Barracks.

Christopher said: "When I first heard they were coming to England a friend [Sarah Davidson] and I decided to offer our services because we both had been teaching English. Now we find ourselves getting increasingly wrapped up in their situation.

"I thought a welcome into this country would be appropriate so I rang my mother and told her to expect quite a few for tea.

"Their general health is unbelievable considering what they went through on the boat, but I think this is due to the doctors they had with them."

Assistant hotel manager Ngugen Quang, aged 34, brought his 10-year-old son with him to England. He said: "On the boat I thought we would never make the trip. The water pump was broken and we only had one can to carry water from the bottom of the boat to bail out."

"When I saw the Wellpark my feelings were very complicated. When you know you are going to die and you see something to save your life it is like being reborn.

"I don't think I can carry on my profession here because England is new to me but I have some schemes in my head.

"Like Saigon the countryside is very beautiful but I don't think it would suit me to live in it because there is only my son and I."

At the end of the day Mr Bao made a short informal speech in gratitude for the Long family's kindness.

He said: "There have been four wonderful days in our lives. The first was the day we left Vietnam, the second was when we were picked up by the Wellpark, the third was when we arrived at Kensington Barracks and the fourth was coming to the Long's house.

"We are delighted to come to this, the most civilised country in the world." Before they left Dr Aidan presented all the women in the party with a sprig of heather from his garden which he explained was for good luck.


Left is an article by Helen Long for the 'Forum – Last Word' column in Pulse Magazine. It contains a sketchy account some of the reactions of refugees on their visit to Brasted and a few details on their medical/psychological condition during the escape from Vietnam, as recounted by young doctors she met in London at a dinner party arranged by Christopher Long and Sarah Davidson at Napier Place, Kensington, in November 1978.


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If any of the "Wellpark" refugees discover this page,
I would be delighted to hear from you —
Christopher Long.

For a good account of the Wellpark and her crew's actions in rescuing these 'Boat People' in the South China Sea, see the Ships Nostalgia site.

On 16-01-2006 a young woman kindly wrote to CAL: "Dear Christopher Long, I happen to stumble upon your website. Google is just amazing! I'm so happy today to read a piece of my history that October 1978! I was a little four year-old at that time, rescued by the Wellpark. My family, was one of the ten that relocated to Peterborough [England]. I later came to the US to get my undergraduate and have stayed ever since. I am currently living in Orange county. Thank you for what you do! Without your journalism, this would not have been possible! Much much gratitude! Kind regards, [name witheld]."

About 30 years after these dramatic events, around a dozen other survivors made contact with the author. In every case they had been young children at the time of the Wellpark rescue. I remember those children very well – though not as individuals. Their happy innocence, racing around the barracks in Kensington Church Street, helped all concerned to cope with the considerable tensions and conflicts which their parents were facing.

On 04-09-2012 Shaun wrote as follows: "Hi, I've just been to a beauty salon in Kings X, London, called Pure Essentials. One of the staff there told me a story of her flight from communist Vietnam. She couldn't remember the name of the boat but remembered it was 1978, a British rescue ship and being taken to Taiwan. She also mentioned being taken into Kensington Church St. I googled the details and found your page. A wonderful story. Shaun."


It should be noted that our Vietnamese visitors found it hard to hear themselves described as 'refugees'. They were all professional people with great dignity and self-worth who found the description offensive. They were, they insisted, people who were escaping intolerable circumstances and were asking for no favours and no charity.

Many years later, as a war reporter, I was to hear the same from innumerable Bosnian and Kosovar refugees from the Balkan wars (1991-99). They also found themselves categorised as 'refugees' when, as they always pointed out, they did not regard themselves as such and found the word humiliating.

© (1979) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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