The Geneva Accords of 1954 brought an end to the First Indochina War. As is well known, these accords called for the temporary division of the country at the 17th parallel. In the first 300 days of that period, the forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam were to regroup to the north of the 17th parallel and the forces of the French Union, to the south.
Article 15.d of the Geneva Accords then stated the following: “From the date of entry into force of the present agreement until the movement of troops is completed, any civilians residing in a district controlled by one party who wish to go and live in the zone assigned to the other party shall be permitted and helped to do so by the authorities in that district.”
As is also well known, somewhere around 800,000 civilians took migrated from northern Vietnam to the south at this time, transported on French and American ships.
In the midst of this process, a French fishing contractor contacted US officials on 20 November 1954 to seek assistance in moving around 1,000 Chinese fishermen from a place called Apowan in Hạ Long Bay to the south.
A US naval official was sent to investigate, and he reported that:
“The area is inhabited by Chinese civilians who hesitate to commit themselves on moving without positive guarantees of assistance for fear of reprisals if assistance is not forthcoming. There are approximately 178 fishing boats at Apowan, of which, according to the French Naval Officer stationed there, about 100 are large enough and otherwise capable of sailing south.”
US officials contacted the Chinese consul at Saigon and learned that several hundred Chinese fishermen had already traveled from North Vietnam to the South by that point, so in the end it was decided that the Chinese should sail on their own to the South, but that a French naval escort would provide security for them to do so.
Finally, the US naval official also noted the following detail:
“The French fishing contractor stated he desired to establish a private fishing enterprise at Tourane [Đà Nẵng], to supply the needs of the increased military and civilian population in that area. It is believed not unlikely that he may have sought U.S. assistance for mass evacuation of the fishermen and vessels with a view of preventing disruption of his complex contractual relations with the fishermen, such as would be likely in the case of their independent travel to the south.”
Although this is a minor footnote to the larger events that were happening at that time, I nonetheless find it interesting in the way that it shows an effort by certain people to navigate through the transition from colonial to post-colonial rule.
The end of colonial rule made it difficult for some French business people to continue to work in Vietnam. It also started to create challenges for ethnic Chinese, who would now have to figure out how to become “citizens” of a nation, whereas before they had been “subjects” of an empire, a change that did not necessarily bring benefits, depending on which nation one decided to join.
And then there was the new presence of the Americans. . . As such, although a minor event, this request by a Frenchman, supposedly on behalf of ethnic Chinese, for American assistance, nonetheless reflects a lot of the bigger issues that were at stake at that moment in time.
Finally, I’m curious to know where the name “Apowan” comes from. It’s not Vietnamese. It looks to be like it might be a Chinese name for some local place. This document says it was on “Cac-ba” island, which I’m assuming is Cát Bà.” Could “Apowan” come from something like “A-Bà-wan” (阿Bà灣) [“A-Bà Bay”]?