25 March 2019
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and capital of South Vietnam, is shown in this file photo. Relations between Hong Kong and South Vietnam date back to the early 1950s. Photo: HKEJ
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and capital of South Vietnam, is shown in this file photo. Relations between Hong Kong and South Vietnam date back to the early 1950s. Photo: HKEJ

How ties developed between Hong Kong and South Vietnam

Hong Kong once had unique relations with a number of countries, among them the short-lived South Vietnam, officially known as the Republic of Vietnam, which existed from 1955 to 1975.

Relations between Hong Kong and South Vietnam date back to the early 1950s, when our city was the main stage for the activities of the so-called Third Force, which refers to an anti-communist united front sponsored by the United States and formed mainly by former Kuomintang (KMT) generals who refused to surrender to the Communist Party of China (CPC), but who also refused to pledge allegiance to the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Taiwan.

Among these defiant KMT generals was former warlord Zhang Fakui, who also fought in the Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945. Zhang fled to Hong Kong and became a leading figure in the Third Force after the CPC had taken power in 1949.

In 1952, Zhang founded in Hong Kong an anti-communist alliance which aimed to facilitate a united front among the pro-US and anti-Soviet regimes in Southeast Asia in order to resist communist China and Soviet expansion in the region.

At one point, the alliance worked aggressively to seek a partnership with President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. Zhang even approached the South Korean ambassador to Saigon and proposed that South Korea, South Vietnam and South China form a “triple entente”, under which they would connect their three Cold War theaters and coordinate a joint effort to halt the aggression of Beijing and Moscow.

(Editor’s note: after the CPC took power in 1949, several former KMT generals who refused to retreat to Taiwan mounted a sustained, US-funded insurgency against Beijing in the southwestern provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan, which continued right into the mid-1950s.)

The “triple entente” would probably have come true if Washington had been more keen on the idea. Unfortunately, without the support of the US, Zhang’s ambitious plan to achieve “the victory of the free world” never materialized in his lifetime.

On the other hand, as one of the three largest “spy capitals” during the Cold War period in 1950s and 1960s, Hong Kong also saw a lot of activities of South Vietnamese secret agents. Among them was Tran Kim Tuyen, former intelligence chief of South Vietnam and once a trusted man of President Ngo.

For years Tran was in charge of liaison between the South Vietnamese intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station in Saigon. At the height of his power, he had over 500 agents at his command.

However, things came to a head in early 1963 when he antagonized then first lady Tran Le Xuan, after which he immediately fled to Hong Kong, where he plotted the overthrow of President Diem’s government, and sought political asylum from the British government.

(Editor’s note: Tran Le Xuan was actually the wife of Ngo Dinh Nhu, President Diem’s younger brother and chief adviser. Since Diem was not married, Tran served as de facto first lady.)

After the assassination of President Diem plotted by the US, and the toppling of the Diem’s regime, Tran Kim Tuyen returned to Saigon, only to be apprehended and put under house arrest by the newly formed military regime.

It wasn’t until 1975, shortly before the fall of Saigon, that Tran was finally released and, once again, with the help of British intelligence, took the last flight from Saigon and eventually arrived in Britain, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Apart from political and spy activities, Hong Kong also saw a lot of academic exchanges with South Vietnam during the 1950s and 1960s.

For example, Taiwanese Professor Chen Chingho, a world-renowned authority on Southeast Asian history who had taught in Saigon University, took a job in relation to Southeast Asian studies at New Asia College of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His experience in South Vietnam became an important resource to Hong Kong’s academics.

On the other hand, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, many South Vietnamese, particulary affluent ethnic Chinese, fled the country and sought refuge in Hong Kong. One of them is seasoned Cantopop singer Jackson Wan Kwong.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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