"The Vietnamese shrimper is one tough competitor. He's rugged. He don't listen to the weatherman or go by any work schedule. He's out there day and night, dragging the bay.
"And the SOB, he can live on practically nothing."
Emery Waite, shrimp wholesaler, popped open another late-afternoon light beer and motioned toward the shrimp boats docked outside his office window.
"There are 150 boats in the harbor," he said. "Maybe 25 are still owned by Americans. Same way with the shrimp houses. We got 11 in Seabrook. Eight are owned by Vietnamese, three by Americans."
"And," he added, "mine's up for sale."
Seabrook is a small shrimping village on Galveston Bay, 25 miles south of Houston. Before 1979, no one here had ever seen a Vietnamese, except on television. Today many of them have taken up residence in Seabrook and other fishing villages along the Texas gulf coast.
"Let's face it, they've wiped us out," said Waite, 48, who's run a family shrimping business here for 25 years. "I doubt that in five years there will be any Americans left in bay shrimping," agreed Don Reynolds, who heads a local association of shallow-water shrimpers, even though he got out of shrimping three years ago. "There's not enough money in it."
The story of the Vietnamese takeover of shrimping here is in many ways the classic American immigrant saga. They came, they toiled, they sacrificed, they overcame hostility and violence, they prevailed.
But it has a poignant edge, for the saga has been played out in a series of small, insular villages, populated by fiercely independent, small-time fishermen who don't make much money even when times are good. The economic ascendance of so alien a people in so short a time in so small a place has not only robbed the natives of their ancestral livelihood but has, in a way they can only barely bring themselves to articulate, wounded their pride.
As Waite held forth that late afternoon, his friend and crony, oyster dealer Kenneth Muecke, broke in to voice concern about having their story told to an out-of-town reporter. "The only thing bad about him writing this," he said, "is that we're confessing those sumbitches are beating us."
"They ain't beating us with brains," Waite shot back. "They're beating us with a lifestyle. They live eight or 10 in a trailer and eat only what they catch. How do you compete with that?"
Had United States resettlement policy for the Vietnamese worked out as planned, Waite and his friends never would have had to face such competition. Officials were concerned -- correctly, as it turned out -- that refugees would have a hard time being absorbed into villages as small and insular as Seabrook.
But they came here in a secondary migration pattern -- after first having been placed elsewhere in the United States. "We like the weather, we like the shrimping, we like a chance to start our own businesses," said Nguyen Van Nam, head of a local association of Vietnamese shrimpers. There are about 50,000 Vietnamese in Houston and another 10,000 in the villages up and down the gulf coast.
Predictably, when they arrived, there was trouble.
Several of the Vietnamese boats were burned, and there were one or two instances of gunplay out on the water as the Vietnamese fishermen kept breaking all the "rules of the road" that govern how long shrimpers are supposed to stay on the bay and who gets priority to fish in which sections. (They broke them, of course, because they were ignorant of them.)
The Ku Klux Klan became active in the area. "I promise them a lot better fight here then they got from the Viet Cong," vowed Louis Beam, the Texas Grand Dragon, in 1981.
The hostilities resulted in the shooting of an American fisherman by two Vietnamese shrimpers in Seadrift, a community 50 miles down the bay. The two claimed self-defense and were acquitted. (The incident is the basis for a Louis Malle movie, "Alamo Bay," due out next year.)
In time, peace was restored with the help of a U.S. District Court restraining order against Klan activity. But the violence and the harassment took a toll. "We know we are not wanted here," Nam, a former colonel in the Vietnamese army, said in 1981. He and 51 of the 58 Vietnamese shrimpers in Seabrook that year announced that they were willing to move out of the area under one condition: that they be able to sell their shrimp boats for what they paid for them.
"They got hustled pretty good when they bought those boats from the Americans, and by 1981 I think they realized it," said Reynolds. "So I really don't think the offer to leave was completely sincere."
There were no buyers, and the Vietnamese stayed. For most, it has worked out. "We get along much better now," said Nam. "No tensions anymore."
Khanh Nguyen, who moved here in 1981 from San Jose, where he had spent seven years as an electrical technician, is a typical success story. "I paid $80,000 for my boat, maybe $30,000 too much," he said in near fluent English. "But it has been good here. People are willing to work with me. I don't know if it is my race or my money, but they take it."
He owns a dock, manages a shrimp house and says the business grosses $500,000 a year. The Vietnamese fishermen's only gripe is that the American shrimpers won't let them work in the Houston Ship Channel, where catches are usually plentiful. "A Vietnamese tries to go in there," Khanh said, "and he'll get his boat sunk."
The Americans say the Vietnamese don't work the channel because they lack the skills. It is crowded and treacherous -- a mine field of sunken wrecks, enormous oil tankers and tug boat operators who don't think twice about ramming little 35-foot shrimp boats that get in their way. "If they ever tried working the channel, they'd rip their nets in about five minutes," said Derek Stout, 38, a lifelong shrimper.
The Americans, for their part, grudgingly concede that the Vietnamese work hard, but they consider them rotten competitors. "At the dock, they think nothing of pulling up alongside your boats and unloading their catch right across your deck," said Reynolds.
"Out on the water, if you see a shrimp boat circling around, you pretty well know it's because he's found something he wants to go back and get. It's always been considered bad form to help yourself to what he's discovered. But once the Vietnamese came onto the bay, you'd have a dozen boats right on top of that poor guy in no time.
"It is a collection of small irritants, but they add up. It's not so much racial prejudice that makes people here resent the Vietnamese, it's more like a culture clash."
Perhaps more importantly, the natives also resent the Vietnamese for overworking the bay. Catches have been down by 50 percent or more in the past several years. "There are only so many shrimp out there," said Stout. "You bring more boats in, each one gets less. Plus the overall harvest goes down, because the constant dragging doesn't leave the shrimp with any chance to grow."
These are bad times for the Texas shrimping industry. It accounts for roughly half the U.S. shrimp catch, but rising imports (which now provide roughly two-thirds of the domestic consumption) and costs have driven many shrimpers out of business.
Waite employed 29 people at his shrimp house and four docks before the Vietnamese arrived; now he is down to four employes. "When they first came, I thought there was no way they could beat me. I'd streamline. I'd cut costs. I knew all the angles. I had all the relationships. Hah! That lasted about five minutes.
"They put all their children and aunts and uncles on the boats, and if they make $10 in profit a day, they're ahead," he continued. "I run a family business, too -- but the difference is that each member of my family has a house and a television and a pickup truck . . . ."
Chris Reece, a shrimp peddler from Houston who's been buying shrimp wholesale here for a decade, has little sympathy for Waite and his compatriots. "The Americans are real lazy. The Vietnamese came along and said, 'Hey, we can buy for a dollar and sell for $1.10 and still make a living.' That's what all the tension is about. The days of easy living were over."
In the past several years, as the shrimping industry has declined here, pressures have increased from sport fishermen to close Galveston Bay off to all forms of commercial fishing.
The sport fishermen will push for such a bill in the legislature and will be supported by the deep-gulf fishermen, who have more clout than the bay fishermen and would profit if more shrimp were able to migrate out of the bays and into the gulf. In short, the industry the Vietnamese are in the process of taking over faces a threat of extinction.
"One way or another, the Vietnamese are going to be put out of business," predicted Stout, "either by their own overharvesting or by the sport fishermen. Once the Vietnamese take over shrimping here, they won't have the political pull to keep the industry alive."
Stout, who grew up here deck-handing for his father, takes little comfort from potential travails of his conquerors. He has more pressing concerns -- selling his house and finding a new line of work. "I'm 38 years old and looking for another job, and I don't known how to do a damn thing but shrimp."
Stout blames the government more than the Vietnamese for his dilemma. "How would you like it if they decided to let a whole bunch of refugees into the country, and they were all reporters?" he asked a journalist. "The government thinks of us as third-rate citizens. They come in here and subsidize our competitors."
Officials say welfare utilization among Vietnamese refugees here is low -- well under 10 percent. However, the belief persists among natives that the Vietnamese -- many of whom were able to take large sums of money out of their country -- are sponging on Uncle Sam. "It has been an unshakeable rumor ever since they came," said Lee Russell, who works on refugee resettlement for the Texas Department of Human Resources.
On top of all these festering resentments, there is one last irritant. To some here, the refugees represent an unwelcome reminder of the only war this country has lost. "I have no doubt that this whole situation is exacerbated by the fact that these refugees came from a country that America lost a lot of lives trying to defend," says Efraim Martinez, a human relations officer for the U.S. Department of Justice, who has helped keep the peace in Seabrook.
Some here think the native fishermen of the Gulf Coast have been conscripted into a second war against the Vietnamese, this one economic, and they're losing it for the same reason American soldiers lost the first.
"It's the same damn thing that happened to us in Vietnam," said Ben Blackledge, mayor of Kemah, a tiny town near Seabrook. "They're beating us with a lifestyle. Persistent, relentless . . . . You just can't beat 'em."