Boat People

The precarious position of Vietnamese from the Gulf Coast.

By Eric Tang Mar 21, 2006

Maybe it was a window of just a day or two, but as the very first news reports of broken levees and massive flooding came in, there was a moment when it was yet unclear who, exactly, the overwhelming victims of Katrina were to be.

But within this brief moment, there were those who could perhaps anticipate what was to come—those who knew a thing or two about New Orleans, and could glimpse the fast approaching horizon. Perhaps they went online and Googled the words “race” and “Katrina,” just to see if their worst predictions were being confirmed on the Web.

At the time, they would have found exactly zero news links that placed race front and center in the discussion of the disaster. By August 31, almost 48-hours after Katrina hit New Orleans, even the centrist-punditry of the highly-trafficked online Slate questioned why their colleagues “demurred from mentioning two topics that must have occurred to every sentient viewer: race and class.” But in the first few hours of the event, an impromptu Internet search yielded an unexpected report—that of hundreds of Vietnamese Americans, most of them elderly, who were stranded in a church in the Versailles section of New Orleans. The area is home to approximately 10,000 Vietnamese residents, virtually all of them once refugees of war who were abandoned by U.S. forces in the wake of the North Vietnamese victory of 1975. Now, they were holed up in Lavang church, finding themselves again seeking refuge—this time from a different sort of abandonment. Although the flood waters had risen to over 10 feet, Father Vien Thi Nguyen discovered that a phone line in a neighboring residential house was working. Several calls were placed to state emergency services, but no firm commitment was made for the group’s rescue. With the health of survivors deteriorating, and many feeling as if they could not hold on, Father Nguyen then contacted anyone and everyone he knew who could possibly send for help, including concerned community members who were quick to post the story online. The priest’s message: “We’re stuck. We can’t hold out much longer. Get us out.”

Model Minority Resurfacing?

Before long, Katrina would take its place as one of the worst ecological and racial catastrophes in U.S. history. Under the most tragic circumstances, the Black poor—who at the time comprised 67 percent of New Orleans—took center stage in the national media. And here the corporate media pulled no punches, working feverishly to promulgate all of the core “underclass” tropes: Poor Blacks, unable to do anything for themselves, laying blame on a government rescue (read: hand-out) that never arrived; Armed and dangerous thugs looting and preying on their very own.

Yet, as the facts surrounding FEMA’s astounding failure began to surface, it took more than “tales from the underclass” to deflect sole blame from the powerful. So the spinmeisters began to “go positive” by telling stories of the people who did get out—and who did so without the least bit of government assistance.

It took three very long days, but all those stranded at Lavang Church were eventually rescued. As the entire city was evacuated by the National Guard, and as the corpses were slowly recovered, it seemed that the Vietnamese community had suffered relatively few fatalities. To date, the number of Vietnamese confirmed fatalities remains a mystery, with unofficial reports ranging from one to dozens. (Recovery officials have yet to offer a race and ethnic breakdown of the body count). 

Local and national presses were thus quick to enlist the Vietnamese as symbols of survival amid despair, running stories of the peculiar virtues of the Vietnamese—their uncanny ability to “get out” by drawing upon a combination of ethnic solidarity, war-tested survival skills and their trusted shrimping boats. Such reporting soon eclipsed that of the abandonment experienced by those in Versailles. The headlines and articles insisted on more optimistic themes: “We will rebuild;” “We never expected anything from government;” “We’ve been through worse.” Thus, from Katrina’s toxic flood waters resurfaced the model minority, a much-needed elixir for those unable to stomach the hard truths coming from the regions’ hardest hit Black communities.

A Precarious Living

But the truth about the over 35,000 Vietnamese residents who live in the impacted areas is that they will most likely never return to the communities they once knew. Beyond New Orleans and its surrounding communities, the Vietnamese have also been uprooted from Gulf Port, Louisiana; Bayou Labatre, Alabama; and Biloxi, Mississippi. Fifteen thousand of these displaced residents had relocated to Houston alone, a city that is home to one of the largest Vietnamese ethnic enclaves in the United States. They leave behind, perhaps forever, the shrimping industry that has been an economic backbone for the community for nearly three decades, employing up to 15 percent of the adult Vietnamese working population. Now, shrimping has all but vanished, literally overnight, due to the ecological and infrastructural devastation wrought by Katrina.

An additional 45 percent of the Vietnamese population in the New Orleans area was employed by the area’s hotels and casinos. With redevelopment plans for the tourism industry still uncertain, there’s little to suggest that the Vietnamese will return seamlessly to their previous positions.

Unlike Chinatowns, Koreatowns, or even the “Little Saigons” of Southern California and Houston, the Vietnamese communities of the impacted gulf areas, particularly in the more rural Bayou Labatre and Biloxi, do not conform to the spectacle of ethnic entrepreneurship expected from an Asian immigrant enclave. Thus, hope-filled assurances of Vietnamese residents rebuilding anew are cut short by the fact that much of the business property was never theirs to begin with.

Finally, there is a large segment of the affected Vietnamese population that consist of the working-poor and property-less, those whose poverty and welfare participation rates in places such as Biloxi and Bayou Labatre have rivaled that of any other race or ethnic group in the region. Over 19 percent of the population of Mississippi lives in poverty, making it the poorest state in the nation. And Biloxi—home to approximately 2,000 Vietnamese—is among the poorest of the poor. Katrina was something of a final death blow for the community. “There are very few options [left] for the residents of East Biloxi,” said Alejandro Rosales of Oxfam America who was sent to the region to assess the damage. “They are in limbo. They don’t know what to expect, or what to plan for.” With hundreds of Vietnamese families from East Biloxi having relocated to Houston, the chances of their return home seem slim. “All the evacuees who are now in Houston want to go back home. They all want to rebuild. But everyone’s return is just not realistic,” remarks Huy Bui whose group, the National Association of Vietnamese American Services Agencies (NAVASA), is leading a national effort to resettle or return displaced Vietnamese families. “They’re not all going back. But people haven’t accepted this reality yet.”

 An L.A. Retrospective

Given these circumstances, model minority talk is irrelevant. But, as the Korean American community learned 13 years ago during the civil unrest in Los Angeles, the economic and political reality of an Asian community is less important than the ideological representations that community can be enlisted to serve. Back in 1992, after Los Angeles burned following the acquittal of four white officers who were caught on tape savagely beating a black man, the elder President Bush tried to argue that the devastation was not about the “great cause of racial equality,” but merely the opportunism of desperate looters. But for such a depoliticizing move to effectively take hold, Bush and his fellow conservative leaders needed to support their claims with counter narratives and images—representations of hard-working people protecting private property, thus overshadowing the case against white supremacy.

And none served so impressively as the image of the well-armed Korean merchant who was protecting his store from looting and destruction at the hands of ultra-violent Black youth. In what seemed like countless media images, the Korean merchant was portrayed as upholding the spirit of entrepreneurship amid chaos and lawlessness.

It would take the courageous efforts of those in the Korean-American community, particularly its activists and its artists, to counter these representations, and to call for a more complex reading of the situation. Indeed, what the Korean-American community sorrowfully refers to as its Sai-I-Gu was not only about the destruction and loss of property, but of the deep racial segregation of Los Angeles, of purposeful neglect on the part of the National Guard to prevent the destruction, and most importantly, of an attempt to bridge future unity between Blacks and Korean Americans.

Shifting Winds

Stories of Vietnamese up-by-the-boot straps self-sufficiency in the wake of Katrina could easily have served to ease the pressure on FEMA, bolstering the agency’s rationale that the role of the federal government is merely supplemental to that of the states. And that, in turn, the states’ role is supplemental to that of individual responsibility. Considering the intractable conservative line that has dominated Vietnamese-American politics for the past 30 years, the community was poised to serve such a role. Since 1975, as the first wave of Vietnamese refugees arrived to the United States, consisting primarily of the erstwhile “elites”—those who worked alongside the U.S. command in Saigon and were selected for immediate evacuation—Vietnamese-American politics has been characterized by an abiding loyalty to U.S. government, a no-nonsense anti-communism and a deep distrust for those who seek to shift the community toward socially progressive trends. Though first-wavers arrived penniless and struggled to overcome the heartbreaking resettlement process, and even as second and third waves of refugees from the more impoverished and rural areas of Vietnam began to outnumber them during the late ’80s and ’90s, the political conservativism of the first arrivals has rarely been tested.

But then on September 29, 2005, only a month into the Katrina aftermath, a surprising thing occurred. Several community leaders came together for a Congressional briefing on the hurricane’s impact on Vietnamese Americans of the gulf. In the process, they sent a clear message to U.S. lawmakers that the community would not so easily march in lock-step with the Bush administration or any other political power broker promoting personal responsibility over government accountability. In an article appearing in the October 2005 issue of Pacific Citizen, Tram Nguyen of Boat People SOS—a Houston-based Vietnamese service agency that co-convened the Congressional briefing along with NAVASA—stated: “Because there wasn’t the initial outcry for help, the government thinks that we can handle it from here out. The first two to three weeks [after Katrina], we handled everything on our own, but to be honest, without the proper funding our annex office will close at the end of October.” Recognizing that federal government has no long-term plan in place for the displaced, NAVASA, Boat People SOS and the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans have issued a three-phase plan for returning the displaced to their hometowns. According to Bui, the first two phases include immediate relief over the next year, requiring government assistance for housing, income, food and employment. The last phase calls for government to take responsibility in rebuilding people’s homes or permanently relocating families.

A Hand’s Off Approach

Driving through Biloxi, Chuong Bui paused to stare at a concrete staircase that once led up to an apartment building that no longer stands. The image of stairs leading nowhere stays etched in his mind, reminding him of the hurricane’s sheer devastating power. Bui 26, is part of the Viet Bay Area Katrina Relief fund, a group of mostly young Vietnamese American activists from California’s Bay Area who have organized relief efforts, including two relief contingents to the gulf. For Bui and his fellow travelers, the disaster simply “strikes too close to home,” echoing the hardships and isolation that his own family felt upon their original refugee resettlement in the United States over 25 years ago. Having just returned from a relief contingent, Bui’s main concern is for the poorer and more rural areas of Mississippi and Alabama. What’s more, according to Bui, FEMA and the Red Cross are only now delivering direct relief. “Nobody’s thinking about the long-term. Our goal was to go down there so we could do some assessment that nobody else was doing.”

Picking up the slack while at the same time calling for greater long-term public accountability is also a theme being sounded among the Vietnamese community leaders of Houston, some of whom have shouldered the bulk of the initial resettlement work with minimal help from the Feds. “The first month [of resettlement] was terrible. The federal government’s response was not positive,” says Anh-Lan Nguyen, chair of Houston’s Vietnamese Culture and Science Association, one of the community groups delivering front-line support to the evacuees. “Most of the people who needed the most help in the beginning from FEMA didn’t get it, especially those with LEP [limited English proficiency]. We had to fight for more assistance.” The looming fear is that the government will continue to assume a hands-off approach toward Vietnamese evacuees, leaving to Houston’s Vietnamese leaders the challenge of integrating the displaced. 

“We’re maxed out,” says Nguyen, who these days is working with local officials to resettle displaced Vietnamese children into the Houston-area public schools. “We’re doing the best we can. But we can’t sustain it. Eventually [the federal government] has got to do more.”

Yet few signs point towards a comprehensive, long-term federal support plan for the Vietnamese, or any other racial or ethnic group for that matter. Moreover, an initial government count suggested that 99 percent of the evacuees sent to the Houston area were Blacks. That the 15,000 Vietnamese who wound up in the same city were not included in this count suggests that the feds may consider the Vietnamese migration a matter of personal networks and private sponsorship, residing outside the jurisdiction of government accountability. Nguyen even recalls how during the first days of the resettlement, several Vietnamese were turned away from Houston shelters: “You [Vietnamese] can take care of your people fine,” she recalls a stressed-out shelter director telling her.

“Yes, we’re very good at taking care of our own,” remarks Nguyen. “That’s our strength. And it’s now become our weakness.”

Getting Out

Still, the fact remains that many Vietnamese escaped when others did not. This alone, it seems, should reinforce some claims that the model minority is more than just myth. Take, for instance, the family of Nick Luong, a 13-year-old who along with his parents lost his home in Biloxi but saved their boat, using it to ride out Katrina and then as temporary shelter in the days following the storm. Nick’s story, reported by the Associated Press, represents that ineluctable spirit of survival so attractive to those seeking something to redeem from the disaster. At the same time, it can serve as an indirect shot against those who did not get out—those who, according to ex-FEMA chief Michael Brown, are responsible for their own deaths and losses because they simply “did not heed the evacuation warnings.” He added snidely, “When evacuation warnings go out, people should realize it’s for their own good.” But a closer look at the fate of those who escaped—particularly the vaunted shrimpers who apparently drew upon their seamanship to evade Katrina’s path—reveals that “getting out” is not all that it seems.

Anh Hoang, a shrimper from Louisiana, had spent over a month in a Broussard shelter when in October a UC Berkeley student film crew arrived to the gulf region to document the plight of Vietnamese survivors. During an interview, Hoang described to the filmmakers his life since Katrina: “Many people have homes to come back to because theirs are not badly damaged. I could not come back because mine was totally flooded, twice, not once. My boat was wrecked, my home was flooded. My property was gone, but I am still alive.”

Hoang’s home was damaged once during Katrina and again during Rita. He was a shrimper because when he came to the United States in 1981, there were no other opportunities available to him. Racism had locked him and other Vietnamese out of the formal labor market. Racial violence also followed him into the trade, as white shimpers, at times with the support of groups such as the Klan, terrorized Vietnamese competitors. But shrimping was all he could turn to. “I came to the U.S. alone,” says Hoang. “I started empty handed, and now I am empty handed again.”