Vietnamese refugees fleeing the post-war chaos of their homeland were searching for some semblance of peace when they settled in a small fishing village in Texas in the late 1970s.
Instead, disputes with locals spiraled out of control, coalescing in the killing of a white fisherman that sent the community into a blinding rage and brought the Ku Klux Klan to town.
The story unfolds in the documentary, “Seadrift,” which will be shown on Oct. 13 at the Viet Film Fest in Orange.
Director Tim Tsai said the story was one that is relatively unknown, but significant in providing a full picture of the Vietnamese refugee experience following America’s most controversial war.
“It really surprised me that I had never learned about what happened in school,” Tsai, who is Taiwanese American, said. “What struck me was that it was an Asian American story in the South, which we rarely hear about. Also, its significant in our nation’s civil rights history.”
The documentary recounts the prejudice that Vietnamese refugees faced when arriving in Seadrift, Texas, a small town on the Gulf Coast.
The town was known for crab fishing when they arrived in the 1970s, and local white fishermen immediately felt threatened by the increased competition. The refugees also had to contend with the general xenophobic animosity Americans felt towards the Vietnamese after the war.
“It was a very controversial war, and most of the public wanted to put it behind them,” Tsai said. “The refugees were here as a reminder of what happened.”
Tensions increased until Vietnamese fisherman Sau Van Nguyen shot and killed white fisherman Billy Joe Aplin in 1979 after a heated dispute. Sau was charged with murder, but was acquitted for shooting Aplin in self-defense after Aplin had allegedly beaten him.
The Ku Klux Klan got involved after the incident, attempting to frighten the Vietnamese community with threats. The KKK patrolled the waters and held rallies, where it burned boats with the words “USS Vietcong” painted on the side.
Seadrift’s residents and city council rose up against the Klan, and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit to end the organization’s intimidation tactics. A judge issued an injunction in 1981 that ended the Klan’s campaign against the Vietnamese fishermen in Seadrift.
“This was one of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s first high-profile cases,” Tsai said. “When they won, it started the easing of tensions.”
Tsai, 38, discovered the story in a book by Irwin Tang, “Asian Texans: Our Histories and Our Lives,” while finishing up his master’s in film in 2010 at the University of Texas at Austin.
For him, the story was powerful and served as a microcosm for the post-war struggle of Vietnamese refugees settling in the U.S.
“I am drawn to stories of groups that are underrepresented,” Tsai said. “The whole reason I went to film school was because I realized how important media is and representation is. Film has a unique ability to connect with people on an emotional level and to really change perspective. That’s what I hope to do with my work.”
Tsai and his small crew started making trips down to Seadrift in 2012. It took about seven years to finish the film.
Tsai said the independent project was slow-going due to lack of funding. Another major challenge was landing interviews for such a divisive story. The shooting is a scar on the small community.
“With most documentaries, access is key,” Tsai said. “Gaining access was challenging. The closer I got to the shooting, the less people were willing to share.”
As an outsider, Tsai faced difficulty in getting Vietnamese fishermen to agree to interviews. He also had to be persistent in getting Aplin’s daughter, Beth Aplin-Martin, to agree to be interviewed about her father’s killing. The interview Tsai eventually captured is central to the documentary and provides an emotional backing to the shooting.
At the end of the film, the gravity of the incident is felt when Aplin-Martin folds the bloody shirt her father was wearing when he was shot and places it back into a box of his old things.
“How long should you hold onto something like that?” she says.
The viewer is left wondering if the community has fully moved on from the shooting.
Tsai said the white and Vietnamese communities have found a way to live together in Seadrift. Time, four decades of it, was a major force in the healing process.
And with time, even some of the most stubborn skeptics of the Vietnamese American community started to see their fellow fisherman with compassion.
In the film, Vietnam veteran Butch Hodges recognized his misplaced anger.
“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,” he said.
If You Go
What: “Seadrift” screening at Viet Film Fest
When: 3:30 p.m. Oct. 13
Where: AMC Orange 30, 20 City Blvd. West Suite E., Orange