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Documentary looks at 1970s racial tension between Vietnamese, whites in Texas town

Archival footage of Klan rallies and anti-refugee speeches got the filmmaker to ask himself: How far has our society moved since then?

On Aug. 3, 1979, tensions that had been building for years between Vietnamese refugees and white local fishermen in a coastal Texas town called Seadrift erupted in a fatal shooting.

It's a little-known episode in history that filmmaker Tim Tsai shed light on in his 2019 documentary, “Seadrift.”

Vietnamese refugees had begun migrating to the United States after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. But they weren't welcomed with open arms.

For some local residents, the refugees served as an unwanted reminder of the war and the divisions it had sown. Their presence also increased competition for crab fishing in the small town.

“Seadrift” will have its broadcast premiere on PBS on Monday night: times vary according to individual PBS stations. It is also streaming free on PBS until June 3.

Tsai was a student at the University of Texas, Austin, in 2010 when he first learned about the incident in a book, “Asian Texans: Our Histories and Our Lives.” He said he was drawn to the story because stories of Asian Americans in the South are rare.

"Seadrift" Director/Producer Tim Tsai.Courtesy Title 8 Productions

“The fact that a resurgence of the KKK was due to an Asian American group just totally blew my mind,” he said.

Local white fishermen interviewed in the film note that the Vietnamese didn't observe fishing customs, including times of the day locals would stop fishing, and that they sold seafood at cheaper prices.

Tensions between the two groups grew until Sau Van Nguyen, a Vietnamese fisherman, fatally shot a white fisherman, Billy Joe Aplin.

Nguyen was charged with murder but acquitted on grounds of self-defense. The Ku Klux Klan subsequently became involved, holding demonstrations and burning Vietnamese boats.

“Seadrift” was a seven-year project that Tsai said he felt fortunate to see to fruition. He said he initially wasn't sure he'd be able to tell the story on film, but decided to move forward once he found enough archival footage and gained access to residents of Seadrift who were there at the time of the shooting.

As a Taiwanese American who lived in cities for most of his life, he was an outsider to both sides of the story, he said. So he enlisted the help of the father of Thao Ha, who wrote the chapter about Seadrift in “Asian Texans.” Ha's father, who was in the military during the Vietnam War, was a crucial connection that helped Tsai land interviews with two Vietnamese crabbers who were featured in the film, he said.

Crab fisherman Bang Nguyen rebaits a crab trap on Trinity Bay.Courtesy Title 8 Productions

When he came closer to filming interviews about the shooting, Tsai struggled to secure interviews with white residents. It was in his third year of production that he connected with Beth Aplin-Martin, Aplin's daughter.

Even that came with its own set of challenges.

It took some convincing before Aplin-Martin agreed to talk to Tsai on camera, but the interview was so emotionally detached, he wasn't able to use it, and she repeatedly declined subsequent requests for another interview, he said. He nearly decided to produce the documentary without her voice.

But six to nine months later, Aplin-Martin agreed to Tsai's request to scan family photos at her home. It was there that he unexpectedly managed to get a second interview that he was able to use and during which she revealed that she had kept the shirt her father was wearing when he was fatally shot.

While gaining access was difficult, funding was the biggest production hurdle, Tsai said. Yet it was that obstacle that allowed him to obtain the interview he needed with Aplin-Martin.

“If I had full funding and we were pushing forward, I would’ve had to go without Beth's interview, I think,” he said. “The fact that I had that time to be able to keep pursuing her story, that’s what allowed us to present her side of the story as part of this film.”

More than 40 years after the shooting, Seadrift residents appear to have learned to coexist and work with one another, Tsai said. Toward the end of the film, the Seadrift community is shown celebrating the Vietnamese New Year. He said he noticed that the Vietnamese community remains somewhat segregated in the town, but there no longer appears to be the day-to-day tension that used to exist.

Even though the incident took place decades ago, Tsai said it remains relevant today. He noted that most of the documentary was filmed before the 2016 election, after which the United States saw a rise in anti-immigrant and white nationalist rhetoric.

“As I was working on finishing the film, it was really surreal to see archival footage of the Klan rallies where their anti-Vietnamese refugee speech reflected a lot of what's being said today,” he said. “It’s just against different groups. So it really got me to question: How far has our society moved since the '70s?”

The way residents of the Texas town managed to overcome their differences and move forward, however, gives him hope.

One Seadrift resident interviewed in the film, Butch Hodges, is a Vietnam War veteran who said he did not want to see Vietnamese in his hometown. Yet at the end of the film, he says, “it took me a long time to realize that these were the people we were fighting for and not the people we were fighting against.”

For Tsai, the most striking individual transformation in the film is in Aplin-Martin, who, despite her father being killed by a refugee, doesn't blame the Vietnamese and has come to a place of reconciliation.

Tsai noted that stories of the Vietnam War that include Vietnamese refugees usually portray them as victims or promote them for having successfully integrated in the U.S.

“I see this film as providing something beyond that, that looks at a situation where the integration was not smooth,” he said. “And hopefully we can learn from that experience.”