On his first U.S. job as a welder, Quang Tran was laid off because he worked too hard, he said. Someone at the union had complained that this young Vietnamese refugee was so productive that his ironworker shop had stopped hiring more men.
Seven years later, the slim, boyish, hyperactive Tran is famous here for becoming a Vietnamese refugee tycoon.
In the midst of a flood of 600,000 Indochinese refugees into the United States, straining welfare rolls and raising unemployment figures, Tran's story shows how many of the earliest refugees have lifted themselves and pulled up some of their American neighbors with them.
A month shy of his 30th birthday, Tran has established his own shipbuilding and repair company on 22 acres of what was barren Seattle waterfront. He grossed about $8 million last year.
Employes like Sonny Parker, a forklift operator from Texas, call him "a crazy man," devoted to working seven days a week. Workmen on the dock describe their initial shock at seeing Tran, president of his Eagle Marine Construction Co., staying on the work site every day in his overalls and reserving the most dangerous welding chores for himself.
The Seattle port authorities wish Tran would restrain his impulse to put up new buildings first and seek permission later. Some port workers wish he would relax some of his exacting hiring standards.
But Tran is setting such an example of energy and excellence, businessmen here said, that he has given many people in Seattle a different impression of the huge refugee community, which often has been criticized for its drain on the city's resources.
According to a survey in late 1981, commissioned by the U.S. office of refugee settlement, only 55 percent of refugees had entered the labor force and 13 percent of those had actually found work.
The remaining 45 percent included young adults struggling with English, women caring for children, the sick and the bewildered. Most of them were receiving some kind of public assistance.
But Linda Gordon, the office's chief data analyst, noted that many of those surveyed had only recently arrived in the United States. Her office's statistics showed that after a readjustment period, refugees like Tran who had arrived in the first wave after the communist victory in Indochina in 1975 have settled into productive jobs and are beginning to contribute to their commmunities.
"He doesn't party and he doesn't drink and he doesn't do any of the other things that most people do to reward themselves," said Bob Gallaway, sales manager for Tran's company.
Tran displays some signs of his new prosperity; he drives a Delorean and pilots a cruiser he converted from a fishing boat. But most of his time is spent around his small dockside office, decorated with pictures of the little landing craft he has lovingly designed and built.
He keeps a sleeping bag in the office, and in busy periods prefers to sleep overnight on the floor.
Gallaway calls Tran "the little general" because he is often "yelling and screaming and running around." But when he arrived in the United States in April, 1975, he was little more than a former lieutenant with seven years experience in the navy of a defeated country, some knowledge of how to repair damaged ships and little more than a high school education.
Tran was born in Haiphong, North Vietnam. In 1954 his father, a Sino-Vietnamese engineer, fled the communist takeover of the north and resettled in the Cholan district of Saigon. His father died when Tran was 7, and his elder brother supported the family by managing a toothpick factory.
Tran was drafted in 1968. Assigned to a dock facility in the southern delta, he often had to go into disputed territory and try to raise and recover river boats knocked out by Vietcong mortars. U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Robert L. Havner, who worked with Tran then, remembers him as "one in a thousand. Even then he was working 24 hours a day."
His energy won him a chance at further training in the United States, at Governor's Island in New York and later San Diego and San Francisco.
Tran's roommate at Governor's Island took him home to New Jersey for a brief visit, and Tran remembers the splendid summer home of his roommate's wealthy realtor father. To him it was a monument to the American way.
When he had to return to Vietnam, Tran said, "I had the idea that I was going to come back. This was the land of opportunity. If you work for it, you get it."
On April 28, 1975, with desperate Vietnamese pounding on the gate of the American Embassy, Tran and most of his family managed to get on a C150 refugee flight because of their connections with the U.S. military and U.S. businesses.
He headed for Seattle, where a refugee employment service center found him a job teaching welding.
"I like to teach," he told himself, "but if I teach like this, I got no future."
He became a welder for a local ironworking factory, but was laid off. Disgruntled with life as an employe, he started to contract with local fishing companies to manage the conversion of surplus Navy ships into fishing boats.
His reputation for careful workmanship and meeting deadlines spread. A steel supplier, who later befriended Tran and helped him get a line of credit, heard of this unusual refugee suddenly getting into the business. Then, at a shop, "I kept hearing this guy yelling 'Give me my . . . stuff.' I had to meet him."
Having saved his money and found a bank willing to gamble on his unusual blend of talents, Tran founded the Eagle Marine Construction Co. in 1979. He soon won contracts to build 1,500 cargo flaps, design and build two special landing craft for fishing and supply work in two Alaskan towns, and refit a huge barge.
Workers applying for the projects had to take a test supervised by Tran and only about 10 percent passed. When dangerous jobs like overhead welding were required, Tran often did them.
"I feel I am more responsible than they," he said. "And if I get hurt it's okay, because I'm still single."
Faced with a recession particularly dangerous to young companies like his, Tran has added a small parts and tool-making facility and has begun to advertise and try to take advantage of government contracts which cater to minority-owned firms. Tran said he has not taken a vacation since he arrived in 1975.
He said he has no marriage prospects. "Who would want to get involved with someone who works all the time?" he said.