NEW ORLEANS - Editor’s note: A little-known story about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath involves the Vietnamese community of New Orleans. They came as refugees after the Vietnam War, and settled in Versailles, in east New Orleans. A quiet community on the edge of the city, the people of Versailles unexpectedly found their voice after Katrina, even taking on New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. In his documentary, A Village Called Versailles (http://avillagecalledversailles.com/), filmmaker Leo Chiang tells the story of how a hurricane became a catalyst for change. Here, he speaks with NAM editor Sandip Roy.
How did the Vietnamese come to be settled all the way out in New Orleans?
It has to do with Catholic charities. A large percentage of the Vietnamese refugees in the ’70s and ’80s were channeled to whatever Catholic communities invited them. As one of the most Catholic cities in the U.S., New Orleans brought in a large number. Also, the weather pattern is similar to Southeast Asia, and shrimping and fishing are primary industries in the home country. So the Gulf Coast was a logical place for them
What was the community of Versailles like before Katrina?
They basically re-created a little bit of Vietnam right there in the middle of the Gulf Coast. Even today, because the neighborhood is so isolated, you hear roosters, you see old ladies wearing conical hats planting Vietnamese vegetables by the bayou. Everyone is literally related to everybody else. Walking the streets, folks point out one house after the next—my cousin’s house, uncle, sister, grandfather. It’s not like any other community I know of in the U.S.
So what happened to them when Katrina struck?
Like the rest of the city, they were asked to evacuate. But something like 300 to 400 people stayed behind. When the levees broke, the neighborhood [which is part of the infamous Ninth Ward] was flooded. They were stuck there for two or three days. Father Vien Nguyen, the pastor of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic church, which was the center of the community, rallied them and told them to stay in the church till the rescuers came.
Were rescuers such as FEMA prepared for Vietnamese refugees?
Definitely not. That became really apparent once folks were transferred to places like Houston and Dallas. There were a lot of Spanish translators [but not Vietnamese].
It must have been strange for these people who had been uprooted once because of war, to be uprooted again because of a hurricane. Was the second time more traumatic or did it make them more resilient?
A little bit of both. Because they had gone through this before, unlike much of the Gulf Coast, they had the skill set to know, “If we can get through this, we can rebuild.” At the same time, these are people who had already been traumatized not once but twice. Some of the elders had to move from North to South Vietnam when the Communist government took over in the ’50s. Imagine losing everything you own three times.
Why did the Vietnamese feel that in the plans for rebuilding after Katrina, they were not on the map?
They were literally not on the map. It couldn’t be a better metaphor. When the city released a version of the rebuilding plan, the neighborhood was not included on the plan itself. Yet they were the largest group of folks in New Orleans East. So they all gathered at this City Council meeting, some 200 to 300 of them, and said, “It’s not OK.”
Did the city not want them back? Or had it forgotten about them?
Probably the latter. That particular plan was controversial because it basically wanted to exclude all the parts below sea level that might flood again. That’s 40 percent of the city. The Vietnamese were part of that area.
It didn’t end there. The city was deciding where to put the debris from Katrina cleanup, and they chose the Vietnamese area. Why?
I think there is definitely some environmental racism. New Orleans is working-class and poor communities of color. The Vietnamese community [was not] outspoken or engaged politically. If I was a city official, I’d think this was an ideal place to plop down [a landfill] without people making a lot of noise.
How did they end up making noise? How difficult was it to mobilize people who have never done this before?
As far as I can tell, people always had the motivation. They were passionate about where they live. They wanted to preserve what they had built. But they didn’t have the know-how to organize against the landfill. Because of Katrina, a lot of activists, mostly Asian-American, came to New Orleans to help out with rebuilding. They helped organize the passionate residents.
But your film also shows younger people, the sons and daughters of immigrants, suddenly taking a leading role—piling old ladies into the bus and taking them to hearings.
Like any immigrant community, the youth feel a little disenfranchised. The elders hold the power. Because of Katrina, the elders recognized that the youth needed to be engaged because they are the future. The youth were given the opportunity, and they jumped at the chance.
Do you think Katrina made this quiet community more American?
I believe so. It’s one of those neighborhoods where they call themselves Vietnamese and other people American. They never called themselves American. I think there is an ownership of their American identity that was not there before.
But did standing up for themselves also insert themselves into the racial tensions of New Orleans, in the politics of who gets to come back?
Lets face it, Vietnamese Americans and African Americans in New Orleans East didn’t always get along. In many communities where refugees settled, there was a perceived competition for resources and xenophobia and racism from both sides. But Katrina became the catalyst for folks who said we had better stand together and build coalitions or else we can’t come back. That’s not to say there is no more animosity or prejudice. But it feels like a big step in the right direction.
These folk are fishermen. How has the oil spill affected them?
Thirty-five to 40 percent of the fishing industry on the Gulf Coast is Southeast Asian. There’s a huge impact. This time around, the response has been more timely. It certainly helps that the U.S. congressman for New Orleans is a Vietnamese American from Versailles.
What are the main issues they are facing all these months after the spill?
The Vietnamese-American fishermen are still facing a lot of language-access issues. BP does not have enough Vietnamese translators. The fishermen are struggling to understand different rules and procedures to apply for compensation, which is an echo of Katrina. Also—these are proud people, and sometimes they feel like getting the claim money is like getting handouts. So organizations like Mary Queen of Vietnam: Community Development Corporation are trying to explain to them this is money that is owed, not handouts. [These groups] are also working on mental health issues. Folks are out of work, and it’s the only thing they know how to do. They are stressed, but because of cultural issues, they don’t seek help.
What does Versailles look like now? Can you see the impact of the oil spill?
You can’t see an obvious impact. But several Vietnamese-American–owned seafood restaurants and takeouts are heavily impacted. Supplies are expensive, and people just don’t want to eat Gulf Coast seafood. There is a lot of talk about job training, but these people are used to being their own boss. They have a hard time adapting to the fact they might have to take another job and work for someone else.