The Long Haul

Immigrant shrimpers survived Vietnam and the wrath of Texas rednecks. Can they do the same with new fishing restrictions?

At 13 years old, Thuy Vu accompanied her father to City State bank to help him apply for a loan. Tu Viet Vu, known as Big Tu, didn't know much English then, but the Palacios bay shrimper had a vision. Big Tu had ventured into the Gulf of Mexico one night in his little bay trawler and caught more shrimp than he had ever seen. Waves crashed over the side of his boat, but Big Tu pressed on, and in two drags he had filled all his baskets and had to turn back; his deck had no more room. Now he needed $60,000 to build a midsize boat that could withstand the rough waters of the gulf. But he didn't know how to say this in the choppy, harsh tones of English. And language was not his only problem; Big Tu didn't have any credit history.

Thuy hardly qualified as proficient in English -- her classmates laughed at her pronunciation -- but she translated for her father. Big Tu's eldest child implored the bank officials, telling them that her father was a hard worker; he held three jobs. Just give us a chance, she said. If he could build such a boat, he would work nearly 24 hours a day, chasing after white shrimp in the bay during the day and netting brown shrimp in the gulf at night. "If we don't start here, how can we go further?" she asked them.

Maybe the sight of a young girl begging on her father's behalf warmed the bank president's heart. Maybe Big Tu's reputation as an industrious worker preceded him. (At his previous job at the South Texas Nuclear Project plant he had been promoted to foreman in just a year.) Whatever the reason, the bank granted the construction loan.

Captain Tom - Big Tu - built a shrimping empire in Palacios.
Deron Neblett
Captain Tom - Big Tu - built a shrimping empire in Palacios.

Two decades later the Vu family owns eight gulf boats, a fish dock and an ice-and-fuel house. Most of Big Tu's seven children work in the shrimping business. Thuy runs her father's dock, Captain Tom's Seafood (Tom being Big Tu's American name). Eldest son Tom shrimps on his own gulf trawler. Nikki married a shrimper and helps at the fish house. Tuam works in another fish house. Only Julie moved away to Houston. Jane and Thanh still live at home and attend school. In the chamber of commerce booklet "Shrimping Families of Palacios," the Vus are the only Vietnamese-American family included. They arrived in Texas impoverished and lived with two other families in a two-bedroom trailer, and now they own a mini-empire -- a classic tale of the American dream.

Fleeing the strife in their war-ravaged homeland, the Vus survived a more subtle conflict for acceptance among the Anglos along the Texas coast. Now these refugees face their newest threat from a vastly different force: the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Proposed regulations would immensely restrict the allowable catch for shrimpers. The agency characterizes the limits as moderate -- and necessary to avoid eventual collapse of the shrimp fishery.

But the Vus believe the fishery remains healthy and that the new regulations would cut their profits in half. And for those who aren't as well-off as this family, the effects could be more devastating; they could lose their businesses. For the first time, shrimpers, a notoriously independent and stubborn bunch, are overcoming their grudges and uniting against the proposals. In an industry long dominated by white males, one of the leaders in this fight is the former child who led her father through the loan process years ago, 34-year-old Thuy Vu.

After the Vu family fled Vietnam, they spent seven months of 1976 at a Pennsylvania refugee camp before a Baptist church in West Liberty, Ohio, sponsored them. The church helped Big Tu find work as a janitor at a car dealership where he earned $2.50 an hour. But Big Tu had been a fisherman, and the snow felt too foreign to the family. Through the Red Cross, Big Tu found his brother, Little Tu, working on the Texas coast. (Their full names are spelled the same in English, though pronounced differently in Vietnamese.) That July his family joined Little Tu in the hamlet of Palacios southwest of Houston. The town is so small that "if you drive too fast, you'll pass the town," Thuy warns.

Big Tu went to work mending nets, then built a crab boat that lasted only three days. "The boat was too old," he says with a grin. The father worked construction for the nuclear plant during the day, headed shrimp in the early evening, then worked at night in a crab company. As the power plant project neared completion in 1980, relatives and friends pitched in money and labor to help him build a 32-foot bay trawler. Big Tu became Captain Tom. His wife, Hue, worked as his deckhand while Thuy watched over her brothers and sisters at home. At 5 a.m. the older children rose to work at the Collins Crab company before school. After school they headed shrimp at a processing plant.

One day Captain Tom followed other boats into the gulf and discovered the plentiful brown shrimp harvest. "It's so exciting," Thuy recalls. "It's like we found a pot of gold -- when you come from a small country and here you have the chance to make something." That same chance was taken by many of Big Tu's Vietnamese neighbors. As they were laid off from their jobs at the nearly completed power plant, they began to construct trawlers.

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