Asian shrimpers on Alabama bayou

Sunday, September 1, 2002

BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala. -- Among the rugged and scraped boats that drowsily rumble down the bayou that gives this seafaring town its name are vessels with names many folks here can't pronounce: Mui Ten, To Giay Bac, Bo Duc.

Multicolored, writhing dragons adorn the prows of some, but most of these boats are as sullen and unassuming as the other vessels here. It's as if they're politely requesting anonymity.

"If you didn't see their boats and the signs of their stores written in their language, somebody visiting might not know," said Cindy Johnson, a Bayou La Batre resident and wife of shrimper Doug Johnson. "They're quiet people. They don't bother anybody."

Every third person in this town is Asian-American, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Most were part of an exodus of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians who fled to safety all along the Gulf Coast in the 1970s, fleeing war and revolution to a place where they hoped to continue their families' shrimping tradition in peace.

But shrimp prices bottomed out this year, largely because of the flood of mostly Chinese imports. The resulting economic calamity hit the "Seafood Capital of Alabama" like a hurricane, and Asian-Americans were notably absent from the public eye.

It's not that shrimpers like Chau Dinh fail to recognize the crisis.

"China gave guns and training to the Viet Cong. Now they send a bunch of shrimp here to mess things up," said Dinh, a Pensacola shrimper who was in Bayou La Batre with his crew to outfit his new boat, the Enterprise, which had just rolled off a local shipyard. Dinh said his family fled South Vietnam in 1975, when his country surrendered to communist North Vietnam. Despite such passion, Asian-Americans have not flocked to join the efforts of other shrimpers to push for the interests of their livelihood.

Across the Gulf Coast, shrimpers have called for financial relief and restrictions on competing imports. In Bayou La Batre, Asian-Americans have not been part of the protests, the political controversy or the efforts to create a new Alabama fishermen's association that have grown out of the sudden price crisis of shrimp, the dominant source of this town's income. Only a few Asian-Americans stood in line to get free groceries at a state-funded distribution of food earlier this month.

Many Asian-American residents here say that, though many of this city's Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian residents have lived here for 20 years or more, a language and cultural divide has kept them out of city politics and out of touch with current events. No Asian-American has ever run for City Council.

"I try to get the word out, but I can't talk to everyone," said Van Pham, 50, owner for seven years of First Oriental Market.

Pham said he tries to use his skills in reading and writing English to inform other Vietnamese about news and city politics. He even posted fliers about the Aug. 6 food distribution at his store.

"They are shy to go outside the Asian community, though. A lot, their English is not too good, so they think they can't get help. Other ones, they're afraid of change," Pham said. "It's hard to get anything organized."

"It's true in Irvington, Grand Bay, Bayou La Batre -- Asians are hard to get out to get help. I have no idea why," said Jimmy Knight, executive director of Mobile Community Action, the agency in charge of the Aug. 6 state-funded food distribution at the Bayou La Batre Civic Center. "We've even tried to use interpreters, but they still don't come. I don't know if they're suffering less than others, whether they're proud, or what." Asian-Americans also have been largely absent in the recent efforts to create a new seafood organization to promote the political and commercial interests of Alabama fishermen.

Only one Asian-American was present at the organization's initial meeting Aug. 1, and he left early after saying nothing.

"I've been making calls to all the people I can around here trying to get the Asians involved in this," said Ernie Anderson, the present head of the association, temporarily named the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama. "We need them in our organization, and they need to be part of it to protect their own interests. But I haven't had a whole lot of luck. It's been hard to get anything in the way of a commitment out of them."

After steady declines since March, shrimpers are now getting $1 to $6.70 per pound from processors for common sizes of shrimp, the lowest price since the early 1970s, and down from around $2.50 to $8 per pound as recently as last fall, according to records from Bayou La Batre seafood processor Jubilee Foods, Inc.

Like other shrimpers here, Asian-American shrimpers have passed down their fishing know-how for generations. But many fear the market won't allow the next generation to throw out its nets.

"My father shrimper in Vietnam, I am shrimper. But I don't know about my son," said Son Vo, 34, watching his 10-year-old son play nearby as workers at Graham Fisheries hefted and weighed the red-netted bags of shrimp from the 95-foot boat he captains for his uncle. "It was good when I came 15 years ago. But now too hard for living, too hard to let my son do it, too."

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