Still Shrimping: Vietnamese American shrimpers 25 years after the second wave

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Sau Van Nguyen, 21, located a policeman and surrendered to him, saying, “I am a murderer. I killed a man.”

It was August 1979, and he was in Port Arthur, Texas, a shrimping and oil refining city on the northern Texas coast, not far from Louisiana. The city was at that time best known for giving birth to soulfully cathartic singer Janis Joplin.

Sau Van Nguyen told the Port Arthur police that he had shot and killed 35-year-old Billy Joe Aplin. Both Nguyen and Aplin had worked as crabbers in tiny Seadrift (population 1250) on the southern Texas coast. Both had held bitter feelings in an ongoing feud over crabbing grounds at the mouth of the Guadalupe River.

The 6-foot-1 Aplin was known for fighting, making violent threats and carrying a firearm in his truck. For two years before the shooting, Vietnamese Americans had complained Aplin and other white fishermen threatened them, assaulted them, stole their crab traps and damaged their boats. Some claimed that Aplin was the ringleader. The police made no arrests in response to complaints.

Meanwhile, whites complained that the Vietnamese Americans encroached on their crabbing grounds and that on one occasion Vietnamese American shrimpers, including Nguyen, intimidated Billy Joe Aplin and his wife.

On Aug. 3, 1979, as Sau Van Nguyen attempted to pull a new boat from the water, Billy Joe Aplin showed up and stood on Nguyen’s hand, pinning it to the trailer hitch. Aplin told Sau, “If you Vietnamese don’t move out of Seadrift, we’re going to cut your throats.” Aplin then chased the shirtless Sau and cut him with a jackknife twice across the chest.

Sau and his brother Chinh went to a friend’s home and obtained a gun. They then returned to the dock to finish pulling the boat out of the water. Aplin, still there, attacked Sau again, punching him and “pitching” him to the ground. Sau pulled the gun out of his pants and shot Aplin, who had lifted his left hand in the air and said, “No, man.”

Today, Khang T. Bui sits behind the counter of his shrimp boat repair shop and recalls what was told to him about the Aplin shooting: that Aplin was shot in the chest twice, once while he was on land, and once upon falling into the bay waters.

Such incidents of Vietnamese retaliation, according to Bui, equalized the balance of power between Vietnamese American and white shrimpers, forcing them to “work together.”

Having repaired shrimp trawlers on the Gulf Coast since 1975, Bui has heard many “real stories, nothing more or less” about Vietnamese American struggles on the Gulf Coast. As he speaks he sometimes taps a metal bolt against the counter, as if to assure himself of the solidity of his world. For the Vietnamese Americans in the Gulf and Atlantic fishing industries, life has seemed like a literal American dream, by turns violent, surreal and wonderful.

Of the first wave of Vietnamese war refugees, some settled along the Texas and Louisiana coasts and worked in seafood processing plants or as struggling shrimpers, sometimes launching out to sea in boats so small that white shrimpers marveled at them.

But with the second wave of Vietnamese refugees beginning around 1978, the Vietnamese American community grew tremendously and their boats got bigger. Tens of thousands eventually settled along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts to shrimp, crab, fish and work in seafood processing and wholesaling. Most of the refugee shrimpers came from a coastal region in Vietnam called Phuoc Tinh, where they had also lived as shrimpers and fishermen.

The Vietnamese brought traditional business mores. Extended families pooled their labor and their money, and whole families sometimes spent months at sea. Between seasickness and long hours, life was often tough. Nevertheless, extended families often saved enough for each nuclear family to buy their own boat.

“We work real hard. Ten times more than Americans,” Bui says. “You see, American in the morning they drink coffee, relax, drink coffee, then they shrimping. Vietnamese, they wake up about 4 o’clock then they shrimp already.”

It was precisely the Vietnamese work ethic that irked many white shrimpers. They claimed that by working so hard and by shrimping seven days a week rather than the traditional five, the Vietnamese American shrimpers threatened to deplete the Gulf of shrimp.

Some whites opposed the Vietnamese because they were Vietnamese. Khang T. Bui first moved to New Orleans in 1975, having escaped Communist Vietnam and the threat of imprisonment. Bui had been a soldier in the South Vietnamese army. Upon working in the shrimping industry in New Orleans, Bui discovered that “The Americans don’t want the Vietnamese got the [shrimping] boats. They want it for themselves.”

Non-Vietnamese docks refused to allow Vietnamese American boats to dock. Furthermore, wholesalers refused to buy shrimp from Vietnamese Americans. “They kick them out,” Bui says. “They say, ‘Hey, we don’t want you.’ We have to bring it back to the market and sell the shrimp ourselves.” In Palacios, Texas, a white wholesaler willing to buy from Vietnamese Americans was ostracized.

Catholic Church Intervention

The discrimination the Vietnamese suffered in Louisiana was alleviated by the work of the archbishop of New Orleans, Philip Hannan. Hannan had orchestrated the re-settlement of thousands of Vietnamese refugees along the Louisiana coast, and according to Bui, Hannan excommunicated one shrimping kingpin who would not allow Vietnamese Americans’ boats to dock. Archbishop Hannan’s all-around support encouraged whites to accept the newcomers.

In Texas, though, things worsened immediately after the killing of Billy Joe Aplin. Four shrimp boats owned by Vietnamese Americans were set aflame, and one trailer home was firebombed. Billy Joe’s brother, Daniel Aplin, called Seadrift a “powderkeg.” The city imposed a 9 p.m. curfew. Soon after, almost all of the hundred Vietnamese Americans living in Seadrift (23 of 25 families) fled to Houston, Louisiana and other places. For lack of workers, the local crab-packing plant closed its doors. Because police had not responded to past complaints, Vietnamese Americans feared a violent war with white shrimpers.

Later in the same week, three white men were arrested in a motel for possession of explosives intended for use against Vietnamese Americans. The man who informed police of the terrorists was B.T. Aplin, another of Billy Joe’s brothers. The fact that Aplin’s brother turned in the bomb-makers may have eased apprehension among the Vietnamese American community, and by the week’s end, most of the them had returned to their trailer park next to the crab-packing plant.

A communications specialist from the Department of Justice arrived in Seadrift and determined that one of the biggest problems on the coast was the lack of a Vietnamese language interpreter, which the Catholic Church then quickly provided. The Catholic Church eventually assigned a priest and a layman to live in Seadrift and mediate between whites and Vietnamese. Throughout the early struggles of the Gulf Coast Vietnamese Americans it was these two entities — the federal government and the Catholic Church — that facilitated Vietnamese integration into local communities.

On Nov. 2, 1979, Sau Van Nguyen was acquitted of murder charges, on the grounds that he acted in self-defense. His brother Chinh was acquitted of being an accomplice, and both moved far away from Seadrift, Texas.

Burning Crosses and Burning Boats

By the end of November 1979, the Seadrift City Council met to discuss the Ku Klux Klan’s plan to come to the small town. Incredibly, 600 people, or about half of the entire Seadrift population, attended the meeting, and many cheered when one man said the town should oppose the KKK. The City Council unanimously passed a resolution against the Klan’s entry.

Billy Joe Aplin’s father said that he had not asked the Klan to come to Seadrift, but that he’d be “proud if it was us because we want it stopped.” This time, many of the crabbing plant’s Mexican American workers joined some Vietnamese American workers in evacuating Seadrift.

About 18 months later, in February 1981, the KKK succeeded in visibly infiltrating the Texas coast. The Klan held its Valentine’s Day anti-Asian rally in the all-white town of Santa Fe, Texas. Grand Dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Louis Beam told the crowd of about 150 supporters, including some women and children dressed in white robes and hoods, that it was “time to reclaim this country for white people.” Continuing, he said, “If you want it, you’re going to have to get it the way the founding fathers got it — blood, blood, blood.”

Beam played off the concerns of white fishermen when he said that the Klan would give the government 90 days to enforce fishing laws against Vietnamese American violators, or the Klan and white shrimpers, numbering about 150 at the rally, would enforce the laws themselves. Beam offered to train white shrimpers at his Anahuac, Texas paramilitary training camp. “This is the right way to burn a shrimp boat” Beam shouted as he torched a boat the Klan had labeled “USS Vietcong.” Ironically, many Vietnamese American shrimpers had fought against the Vietcong.

Over the following weeks, the Klan distributed racist propaganda along the coast. Crosses were burned in the yards of Vietnamese Americans and their supporters, and two of their boats were set afire in nearby Seabrook. On March 15, armed Klansmen riding a shrimp boat along the Texas coast displayed a hanging effigy resembling an Asian.

“They Cannot Mess with Vietnamese …”

According to Khang T. Bui, the Vietnamese American during these times did not sit on their hands and let the Klan take over. KKK members from Vidor, Texas arrived in Port Arthur to burn Vietnamese shrimp boats, says Bui. They discussed their plans at a restaurant at which a Vietnamese American woman worked in the kitchen. The woman told her husband, who then informed the rest of the Vietnamese American community. The community prepared to defend itself, with guns.

Then, according to Bui, a Klansman who was also a Vietnam veteran told the Klan leader, “Hey, man. Back out. If you mess with that people, they shoot you, they kill you.” So the Klan retreated.

Bui speaks of an incident in Palacios, four hours south of Port Arthur. He says that armed Klansmen intimidated the Vietnamese American community by surrounding their trailer park.

“After that,” says Bui, “we defend. We got guns inside [the trailers]. Defend. That’s it. And they know it. They cannot mess with Vietnamese, so they disappear.”

One Texas scholar writes of a white shrimper who had encouraged the burning of Vietnamese American boats at a Kema, Texas rally. Upon being paid an intimidating visit by a Vietnamese American shrimper whose boat had been subsequently burned, the fearful white shrimper moved to another town.

Bui explains what whites and Klansmen often failed to realize about the Vietnamese war refugees: “Vietnamese, we in a war. We know how to use the gun, all that. Shot the KKK.” After the KKK realized that intimidating Vietnamese Americans was useless, things were “quiet . . . no more whites messing with me.”

Vietnamese Sue KKK

In April 1981, the Vietnamese Fisherman’s Association and the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala., filed suit against the Ku Klux Klan, charging them with unfair practices against economic competitors. Because of continued threats, some Vietnamese community leaders considered withdrawing the lawsuit, but SPLC co-founder and anti-Klan lawyer Morris Dees convinced the leaders to continue with the suit.

In May, federal judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, Texas’s first African American federal judge, ruled in favor of the Vietnamese Americans. The Klan was ordered to cease its coastal activities and to shut down their military training camps and armed organizations.

Allowed to shrimp in peace, many Vietnamese Americans prospered. Some saved over the years and moved directly from trailer homes to huge houses. One former janitor eventually became a major seafood wholesaler in Palacios. Some shrimpers bought luxury cars with cash. During the good years, a brisk business was done in diamond rings for the wives of shrimpers. Of course, some Vietnamese were not so lucky or smart: Many went out of business or wasted their money.

The successful ones, though, expanded their businesses, buying or building 90-foot trawlers, complete with freezer compartments capable of holding tens of thousands of pounds of shrimp.

Today, Vietnamese Americans own many docks and wholesale businesses, institutions which in the past discriminated against them. Khang T. Bui now owns his own dock. In Port Arthur, according to Father Sinclair Obre of the Diocese Ship of the Sea, 95 percent of the shrimpers are now Vietnamese Americans.

Bigger Fish to Fry

Although racial tensions and segregation still exist in the Gulf and in the bays, APA and white shrimpers now have bigger fish to fry. Coalesced into shrimper organizations, the two groups fight their common enemies: low shrimp prices, rising costs, environmental regulations, shrinking shrimp stocks and inexpensive imported shrimp.

Asian-white cooperation actually began around 1980, when “gentlemen’s agreements” were made to limit the number of new Vietnamese shrimpers entering the industry. Everyone needed to catch their share of the shrimp, and shrimpers hoped to pre-empt state regulations designed to prevent overshrimping.

Those regulations eventually came, against the loud protests of shrimpers. Texas shrimping licenses were capped at 1995 levels, and over the past eight years, the state has bought back a thousand shrimping licenses. The number of Texas shrimp boats is now half of the 1980 level.

And although the American demand for shrimp has increased, shrimp imported from Asian and Latin American shrimp farms has more than met that demand. The cheaper imported shrimp has slashed the prices received by American shrimpers by as much as 50 percent. Imported shrimp now accounts for about 80 percent of the American market. Ironically, some of the imported shrimp comes from Vietnam.

Khang T. Bui sees some of his Vietnamese American customers losing their boats to the banks, and describes an economic crisis for the tens of thousands of Vietnamese Americans involved in the seafood industry stretching from the Carolinas to the southern tip of Texas. To raise shrimp prices, the Louisiana Shrimpers Association and the Southern Shrimp Alliance — which now has two Vietnamese American members on its board — this month filed separate lawsuits with the federal government calling for anti-dumping tariffs to be imposed on imported shrimp. American shrimpers say that foreign shrimp farmers are selling to the American market at below-cost prices.

Because of high diesel prices, some Vietnamese American shrimpers actually lose money by shrimping. Environmental regulations raise the costs of each pound of shrimp. Limitations on shrimping seasons, shrimping hours, and shrimping methods force those shrimpers who “clock,” or shrimp 24 hours a day, to shorten their work week.

In the most visible show of political strength by Vietnamese Texan shrimpers, about 200 marched on the state capital in 2000 to protest state shrimping regulations. The political activity of the Vietnamese Americans earned the praise of white shrimpers, one white spokesman going so far as to say that the Vietnamese were saving the shrimping industry from the Texas government.

Was the Texas protest a last, loud gasp for a dying industry and a dying subculture of rugged Vietnamese American families? Yes or no, it seems the Vietnamese will soon phase themselves out of the shrimping industry. Very few of the Vietnamese shrimpers’ children wish to shrimp for a living. Many go to college. Others learn a different trade. Perhaps the most famous child of Vietnamese shrimpers, Dat Nguyen, plays football for the Dallas Cowboys.

Khang T. Bui and his wife have three children, two sons and a daughter. Daughter Maria, now attending University of Texas, Austin, was elected homecoming queen of Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur. When Bui speaks about her, his face softens up and he smiles real big. “She makes me very happy.” He holds up a framed photograph of his daughter. After considering for a moment his good fortune, Bui places the picture down on his shop desk. He’s got work to do out on his dock.

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