Decades After Clashing With The Klan, A Thriving Vietnamese Community In Texas

Nov 25, 2018
Originally published on November 30, 2018 10:02 am

When Vietnamese refugees first settled in the coastal town of Seadrift, Texas, they encountered prejudice and resentment from some of the locals. It culminated on Nov. 25, 1979, when the Ku Klux Klan came to the fishing village. They menaced the Vietnamese fishermen who were competing with native white fishermen and told them to get off the water and get out of town. This was part of the hostile reception given to some of the 130,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon.

Four decades later, the Vietnamese are now a fixture along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The arc of the Vietnamese resettlement experience is instructive history, and it offers a lens through which to view current attitudes toward immigrants.

The Trump Administration wants to slow the rate of legal immigration to this country, essentially turning down the burner on America's melting pot. The president believes too many immigrants are not assimilating into American society and they are expanding the underclass.

Trump wants to admit newcomers based on skills and education rather than through family-based immigration, which is how many Vietnamese got here after the early wave of refugees at the end of the Vietnam War.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of those later refugees made their way to the Gulf Coast, drawn by balmy weather and fishing, a trade they knew well.

"Really [the KKK] don't like us. Seem like discrimination and they wanted to try to push us out. But we not give up easy," says The Nguyen, in heavily accented English. At 61, he's one of the few Vietnamese crabbers around town who remembers the bad old days.

Nguyen joined the exodus from Vietnam and arrived in Seadrift in 1978 as a skinny, bewildered 21-year-old. He launched a crab boat in San Antonio Bay, whose placid waters are patrolled by pelicans and plied by sea trout and black drum.

Bad blood

From the beginning, there was bad blood between the Vietnamese fishermen and Texans, complicated by the language barrier. People were angry that the newcomers were getting help from Washington and the Catholic Church, which sponsored them. What's more, Vietnamese worked around the clock, and put out too many crab traps.

"When I was crabbing you would put a crab trap here. You would go maybe 40 feet down, you'd put another crab trap. You'd space 'em," says Diane Wilson, a self-described fourth generation fisherwoman in Seadrift. "When the Vietnamese came and first started doing it, they would put ten [crab traps] where there had been one. So they didn't know and nobody told them."

Then tensions escalated. A local white crabber was shot and killed in a dispute with Vietnamese fishermen over fishing territory. Two Vietnamese men were charged with murder, and acquitted on the grounds of self defense. That's when the Ku Klux Klan showed up and things got ugly.

"After the shooting it was like pow," Wilson says, making an exploding motion with her hands. "Several houses got burned. Several boats were set fire to. And I think a large number of Vietnamese left because they were afraid."

Nguyen says he didn't know anything about the KKK before the shooting. "When that guy got killed, they show up. They burn 2, 3 crab boats. I left after that."

Nguyen and other Vietnamese crabbers fled to Louisiana for their safety. Two years later, Klan intimidation of the Vietnamese had expanded to Galveston Bay. Klansmen burned crosses in the yards of Vietnamese shrimpers and rode around the bay in a shrimp boat with a shrimper hanging in effigy. Ultimately, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Vietnamese Fisherman's Association filed a federal lawsuit that successfully stopped the Klan's activities and disbanded their paramilitary militia.

"A lot of what people were saying at the KKK rallies is almost word for word what we hear nowadays from the alt right, such as 'Put America First'," says Tim Tsai, an Austin filmmaker who is producing a documentary on the shooting incident.

"This anti-immigrant sentiment has shifted toward Latino immigrants. But at the time, Vietnamese newcomers were the target," he adds. "A lot of it was spurred by economic uncertainty, the idea that immigrants are taking away our jobs and livelihoods."

A few years later, when things had calmed down in Seadrift, Nguyen and other Vietnamese crabbers came back. Nguyen started a family and opened a bait shop on the town docks, which he still runs. He has four boats that bring in crates of blue crabs every afternoon.

Forty years later, Seadrift is more a mosaic than a melting pot.

Vietnamese live culturally distinct from the native Texan population — they speak Vietnamese and celebrate the Lunar New Year. But the men who make a living on the bay are no longer sabotaging crab traps. They've united against common foes: heavy regulations, ocean pollution, and cheap imported shrimp.

"We work together now," says Nguyen, sitting on the dock as brown pelicans swoop in to filch leftover bait fish. "If they got something, we get together. Fundraise, church, all that. We good friends together."

Houston's Little Saigon

A hundred and fifty miles up the coast from Seadrift, Houston is home to more than 80,000 Vietnamese — the largest population outside of California. Like the Astros, the NASA space center and flooding bayous, the Vietnamese are now part of what makes Houston...Houston.

You can drive down Bellaire Boulevard — the main street of the district known as Little Saigon — and read street signs in Vietnamese, see the South Vietnamese flag fluttering outside of Pho noodle houses, listen to Radio Saigon, and visit the Vietnam War Memorial.

"Now you see Don's Café, a very popular banh mi shop. You start to see more and more Vietnamese-named businesses as we go along," says Thao Ha, from behind the wheel of a jumbo SUV. She came to Houston with her parents in 1975 and is now a sociologist at MiraCosta College in California.

According to Ha, the flinty fishing towns along the coast were not the only places unwelcoming to Vietnamese back then.

"There was some racism, some bullying from the neighborhood kids that told us to go back to our country, called us gooks and things like that," she says.

Even though the refugees encountered racism, they knew they had the full support of the federal government, which had brought them from Indochina to the United States.

"And it's the complete opposite now where [the current Administration] is doing everything they can to turn away immigrants," Ha says, "to turn away asylum seekers, to push out those who are already here. So if the Vietnamese were coming right now en masse then we would not be having the same opportunity."

Make them citizens

After the triumph of communist forces under Ho Chi Minh, escaping Vietnamese refugees carried with them a fiery anti-communism. Like the Cubans before them, many Vietnamese became staunch Republicans. That political fidelity continues today. Steven Le, a conservative family doctor, represents Little Saigon on the Houston City Council, and supports much of the president's aggressive immigration agenda.

"Obviously I think all countries should have borders and make sure there's not a lot of illegal immigration happening," he says from his office in city hall. "But on the legal side, we should keep that process going."

"We made that mistake as a country back in early 1900s with the Chinese Exclusion Act," Le continues. "We find later on these are good, law-abiding citizens contributing a lot to the country. There should not be a process to deter legal immigration."

Dr. Le believes there's a way to make sure the foreign-born integrate with the larger community.

"I find the easiest way to assimilate and to be proud that you are an American is to actually make them a citizen," he says. "Plain and simple."

According to a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute, the Vietnamese in America are thriving.

Compared to other immigrants, Vietnamese have higher incomes, are less likely to live in poverty or lack health insurance, and are more likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens, though they lag in English proficiency.

A thriving Asian-southern fusion

Mike Trinh is proud to be part of the prosperous Vietnamese-American business community of Houston's Little Saigon. After becoming a champion kick-boxer, Trinh opened Mike's Seafood.

"All I can say is, the immigrant mentality, we work our butt off for everything. We carve a niche out of nothing," he says.

Mike specializes in Vietnamese-Cajun seafood, an Asian-Southern fusion that has taken Houston by storm. Trinh leads us into the kitchen, with bubbling vats of shrimp and the air pleasantly piquant.

"We spice, we season everything," Trinh says, "Onions, garlic, everything. Vietnamese community we like a lot of flavor. Some people put ginger, some people put lemongrass. Everybody has their own twists of how to do things."

Across town, in an historically Vietnamese apartment complex named Thai Xuan Village, My Linh Tran is just getting home from school. She's a 22-year-old math and science teacher who's also navigating two cultures. Tran stands outside her parents' apartment, that looks onto an elaborate Buddhist shrine in the courtyard.

"I know among a lot of my American friends there is a shock because I'm still living with my parents. But they don't understand," she says, smiling. "It's a choice. And if I can, and if my boyfriend is okay with it, if we get married I want to continue to stay with my parents. And he seems okay with it."

Tran's parents want her to retain as much of her Vietnamese identity as possible.

"They don't really like it that I have an American accent when I speak Vietnamese," she says, "but they don't understand the fact that I have a Vietnamese accent speaking English as well."

The Trump Administration has recently removed the phrase "a nation of immigrants" from official terminology. Yet, in Houston, city officials boast their city has become the most diverse in America. And the Vietnamese are deep in the heart of it.

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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The Trump administration wants to turn down the heat on America's melting pot by creating policies that would slow the rate of even legal immigration. The president believes many foreign-born people are not assimilating to American society and are expanding the underclass. But what exactly does it mean to assimilate? NPR's John Burnett looks back to the 1970s, when large numbers of Vietnamese refugees settled on the Texas Gulf Coast. And he tells us how they've fared since then.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: On this day 39 years ago, the Ku Klux Klan came to the fishing village of Seadrift, Texas. KPRC-TV in Houston covered the story and interviewed Louis Beam, the Texas grand dragon of the KKK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In Texas, the Klan is mobilizing against these Vietnamese fishermen.

LOUIS BEAM: If they are to have this state, they will get it one way and one way only, just like the Mexicans got the Alamo - by storm.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Klan says it'll hold a rally soon at which it'll set fire to a shrimp boat meant to represent all those owned by Vietnamese.

BURNETT: After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the US government helped 130,000 South Vietnamese resettle in America as political refugees. They were U.S. allies during the Vietnam War. But most Americans didn't want them in their backyard. Many Vietnamese made their way to the Texas Gulf Coast, drawn by balmy weather and fishing - a trade they knew well - only to be met by hooded Klansmen who told them America for Americans.

THE NGUYEN: Really, they don't like us - seems like discrimination. And they want to try to push us out. But we not give up easy.

BURNETT: The Nguyen joined the exodus from Vietnam and arrived in Seadrift in 1978 as a skinny, bewildered 21-year-old. He launched a crab boat in San Antonio Bay, whose placid waters are patrolled by pelicans and plied by sea trout and black drum. There was bad blood between the Vietnamese fishermen and longtime residents from the beginning, complicated by the language barrier. People were resentful. The newcomers were getting help from the government. Also, they put out too many crab traps, according to Diane Wilson. She's a fourth-generation fisherwoman in Seadrift.

DIANE WILSON: When the Vietnamese came and first started doing it, they would put 10 where there had been one. So they didn't know, and nobody told them.

BURNETT: Then tensions escalated. A local white crabber was shot and killed in a dispute with Vietnamese fishermen over fishing territory. Two Vietnamese were charged with murder and acquitted on grounds of self-defense. That's when the Ku Klux Klan showed up, and things got ugly.

WILSON: After the shooting, it was like (mimicking explosion). I know several houses got burned. Several boats were set fire to. And I think a large number of Vietnamese left because they were afraid.

NGUYEN: See, really, before, I didn't know about KKK or nothing. But it end up when you get killed - the guy get killed, they show up. You know, they burn two, three boats over here - crab boats. We left after that.

BURNETT: The Nguyen and other Vietnamese crabbers fled to Louisiana for their safety. But many came back to Seadrift over time, including Nguyen, who started a family there and opened a bait shop on the town docks. He still traps blue crab. In his packing shed, workers dump a chest of ice onto a table. The cold quiets down the crustaceans.

The Vietnamese fisherman have blended in. Forty years later, Seadrift is more a mosaic than a melting pot. Vietnamese is still spoken around town. And they celebrate the Lunar New Year. Vietnamese kids attend Seadrift School, home of the Fighting Pirates, alongside Anglo and Hispanic students. And everyone who makes a living on the bay is united against common foes - heavy regulations, ocean pollution and cheap, imported shrimp.

NGUYEN: Really, I say everything right now - we work together. We fundraise - all that. Like, church and all that - we together - the work. After hurricanes, we helped, all that. Yeah, we're good friends together.

BURNETT: A hundred and fifty miles up the coast from tiny Seadrift, Houston is home to more than 80,000 Vietnamese - the largest population outside of California. Like the Astros, the NASA space center and flooding bayous, the Vietnamese are now part of what makes Houston Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is Radio Saigon - KREH 900 AM - Pecan Grove, Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: In addition to Vietnamese radio, street signs are in the native language. And the South Vietnamese flag - red stripes on a yellow field - flutters outside of pho noodle houses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Vietnamese).

BURNETT: Thao Ha is driving us down Bellaire Boulevard, the main street of a sprawling district they call Little Saigon.

THAO HA: OK. So now you start to see, like, Tan Hoy (ph) Sandwich Shop. It's got Vietnamese language and English. And then Don's Cafe is a very popular banh mi shop.

BURNETT: Thao Ha came to Houston with her parents in 1975. She's a sociologist at MiraCosta College in California. According to her, the flinty fishing towns were not the only places hostile to Vietnamese back then.

HA: There was some racism, some bullying from the neighborhood kids. They told us to go back to our country and called us gooks and things like that.

BURNETT: Houston's Vietnamese community, like the one in Seadrift, offers a lens through which to view the current climate toward immigrants. Some immigration hardliners consider these enclaves too foreign. And the Trump administration wants to admit newcomers based on skills and education, not family-based immigration, which is how most Vietnamese got here.

HA: When Vietnamese came in '75 and '80, there was a governmental support. There were government programs to bring us here. And that's the complete opposite now, where it's doing everything that they can to turn away immigrants, to turn away asylum-seekers, to push out those who are already here.

BURNETT: After the war ended, Vietnamese refugees carried with them a fiery anti-communism. Like the Cubans before them, many became staunch Republicans. That political fidelity continues today. Steven Le, a conservative family doctor, represents Little Saigon on the Houston City Council. He supports Trump's aggressive border security.

STEVEN LE: You know, obviously, I think all countries should have borders and making sure that there's not a lot of illegal immigration, you know, happening.

BURNETT: But he doesn't think the president should slow down legal immigration. In fact, Le believes there's a way to make sure immigrants become part of the larger community.

LE: I find the easiest way to assimilate and to be proud that you are an American is actually make them a citizen - plain and simple.

BURNETT: According to a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute, Vietnamese in America are thriving. Compared to other immigrants, Vietnamese have higher incomes, are less likely to live in poverty and more likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens, though they lag behind in English proficiency.

Mike Trinh is proud to be part of the prosperous Vietnamese business community of Little Saigon. After becoming a champion kickboxer, Trinh opened Mike's Seafood.

MIKE TRINH: I can say it's the immigrant mentality. We work our butt off for everything. We carve a niche out of - from nothing.

BURNETT: Mike's specializes in Vietnamese-Cajun seafood and Asian-Southern fusion that's all the rage in Houston. Trinh leads us into the kitchen with bubbling vats of shrimp and the air pleasantly piquant.

TRINH: We spice. We season everything - onions, garlic, everything. Vietnamese community - we like a lot of flavor. And some people put ginger. Some people put - everybody has their own twist of how they do things.

BURNETT: Across town, we visit an historically Vietnamese apartment complex, where we meet My Linh Tran. She's a 22-year-old math and science teacher who's also navigating two cultures. Tran stands outside of her parents' apartment that looks onto a Buddhist shrine in the courtyard.

MY LINH TRAN: I know a lot of my friends - my American friends - there is shock because I'm still living with my parents. But they don't understand. It's a choice. And if I can and if my boyfriend - I have an American boyfriend - is OK with it if we get married, like, I want to continue to stay with my parents. And he seems OK with it.

BURNETT: Her parents want her to retain as much of her Vietnamese identity as possible.

TRAN: They don't really like it that I have an American accent when I speak Vietnamese. But they don't understand the fact that I have a Vietnamese accent speaking English, as well.

BURNETT: The administration has removed the phrase a nation of immigrants from official terminology. Meanwhile in Houston, city officials boast it has become the most diverse city in America. And the Vietnamese are deep in the heart of it. John Burnett, NPR News, Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.