Fluid Land: Vietnamese Refugee Camps and Hong Kong | Juliana Kei, Daniel M. Cooper
Where are the Vietnamese refugee camps in Hong Kong? Between the 1970s and 1990s, more than 230,000 Vietnamese arrived in Hong Kong seeking asylum. The asylum seekers were kept in overcrowded and poorly managed camps, sometimes for as long as a de-cade. Many first- person and family accounts of the Vietnamese refugee crisis exist, but in Hong Kong only the faintest traces of the camps that thousands called home survive. Commonly, the only memory that Cantonese people in Hong Kong have of the decades- long crisis is the phrase “bat-lau-dung-laai”— the first words of a warning played over the radio deterring Vietnamese refugees from entering Hong Kong. Few people know about the Vietnamese refugee camps established in dense urban areas around Hong Kong such as Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po, or in ordinary industrial buildings in Tuen Mun, one of Hong Kong’s new towns. Many of these sites have been demolished and redeveloped, some several times over, as shopping malls or housing estates, part of a university campus, and a golf course. The Vietnamese refugee camps have been so neatly folded into Hong Kong’s current urban fabric that, were it not for a few extent records, they would be truly invisible. There are no plaques, no memorials, no signs at all that give any clue to the his-tory of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong.
Many of the campsites examined in this paper are similar to what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben describes as “apparently innocuous space” where “the normal order is de facto suspended.” In Homo Sacer, Agamben also warns against the camp’s “metamorphoses into the zone d’attentes of our airports and certain outskirts of our cities.” Through illustrating that camps are seemingly ubiquitous in contemporary urbanscapes, Agamben points at the indistinction between the normal order and state of exception. He reasons that the camps challenge the structure of the nation- state, which has been defined by three elements: land, order, birth. The camps have become the fourth inseparable element of the modern political system. He also argues that the camp, as an inseparable element of the modern political system, also reveals that the “state of expectation”— where rights are suspended— has become the dominant paradigm of government in con temporary politics. In this paper, we build on Agamben’s formulation of the indistinction between bare life (refugees) and political existence (citizens). We show that the distinction and indistinction between bare life and political existence has unraveled in various ways in and around the Vietnamese refugee camps in Hong Kong. These discussions, we hope, offer an alternative lens to look at the difficulties in addressing the legacy of occupation and detention in Hong Kong. They also draw out broader questions about the destabilization of land, order, and birth in Hong Kong.
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