Tragedy, tension and violence erupted when the local fishing and Vietnamese communities collided in Seadrift following the murder of local crabber, Billy Joe Aplin on Aug. 3, 1979.
The incident spread about 126 miles away three months later into the Seguin community when the murder trial was moved to the Guadalupe County Courthouse.
Now, almost 40 years later, Aplin’s daughter Beth Aplin Martin, who is now a Seguin resident, and the rest of the Seadrift community is reliving what happened on the Gulf Coast in a new documentary named “Seadrift” by the director Tim Tsai.
Following the fall of Saigon, the capital of Vietnam, in 1975, the Gulf Coast saw an influx of Vietnamese refugees, which led to tension in the fishing communities, including Seadrift. The Vietnamese took up jobs as fishermen on the coast something the native fishermen saw as a threat, Tsai said.
The tension between the two communities grew rapidly, ultimately resulting in the Aug. 3, 1979 murder of one of the fishermen.
It was reported that 34-year-old Billy Joe Aplin was shot in the back by then 21-year-old Sau Van Nguyen and his brother then 20-year-old Chihn Van Nguyen.
Tsai first heard of the incident from Irwin Tang’s book “Asian Texans: Our Histories and Our Lives” when he was living in Austin attending the University of Texas.
“It sort of chronicles the different immigration waves through Texas and one of the chapters was on the Vietnamese refugees,” Tsai said. “It sort of outlined what happened in Seadrift and subsequent hostilities against the Vietnamese. It really surprised me that I had never heard about it in history classes.”
The Van Nguyen brothers were acquitted by District Judge Clarence Stevenson of Victoria after the jury believe them to be acting on self-defense, according to a Nov. 4, 1979, Seguin Gazette-Enterprise article.
In the articles covering the trial, several Vietnamese crabbers reportedly received threats by Aplin.
After the decision, there was an uproar of hostilities toward the Vietnamese community.
The Ku Klux Klan came “out in force, held cross-burning rallies, destroyed Vietnamese boats, and threatened further violence.”
“In 1981, this conflict came to a boiling point in Seabrook, Texas, where hooded Klansmen patrolled the waters brandishing semi-automatic weapons and showcasing a person hung in effigy,” the “Seadrift” website said.
This led to a lawsuit against the KKK by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tsai said.
“That sort of marked the significance within this nation’s civil rights history,” Tsai said. “We don’t often think about Asian Americans’ experiences being part of that history and so when I learned about it, it really intrigued me and I really felt like, you know, it’s a story that needs to be told and needs to be available for students.”
In 2012, Tsai and his crew began working on the film by visiting the Gulf Coast and speaking to both communities.
However, it didn’t come easy.
“You know access to the story was challenging on both sides of this conflict. With Beth Aplin Martin, you know, it took us a while to convince her to talk to us,” Tsai said. “She’s very much a part of the story. Her story is I think pretty inspirational in terms of how she’s come to terms with what happened with her father.”
Tsai interviewed Martin —who was 14 years old when her father was killed — a first time, but she wasn’t too open about her personal experiences, he said.
“She actually declined a second time. I told her well can I come to just scan some family photos and she agreed,” Tsai said. “When I showed up I happened to bring my camera just in case she was willing to talk and she finally opened up.”
Martin said she felt it was time the whole story was told.
“I was aware of the Vietnam War and I was aware of refugees — they called them ‘boat people.’ But I wasn’t really aware of there being tensions,” Martin said. “About a month before my dad was killed, we were out on the bay and there were some problems, a confrontation. About five boats surrounded us all, a lot of Vietnamese, and they were trying to get on our boat. They had weapons.”
As she grew up Martin never talked much about what happened on the boat a month before her father’s death and the aftermath that occurred afterward.
“At that point, I thought if it was going to be talked about again that maybe I should go ahead and speak to him,” Martin said. “I think he did a very fair job. He essentially just allowed everyone who was willing to participate to speak.”
Martin also respected Tsai reason for wanting to make the documentary, she said.
“It was important to him for the Asian community to be able to look back at their history and know what all happened and what it was like to be a refugee,” she said.
For Tsai, getting the Vietnamese side also was a challenge.
“I’m Taiwanese American, so I’m not from that community and their experience as war refugees is very different than my family’s experience as immigrants,” Tsai said. “We decided to come to this country and settle here whereas the Vietnamese community, most of them grew up in a war-torn country. They didn’t plan to come to the United States, but sort of randomly ended up here, you know.”
Tsai worked with a Vietnamese translator who helped him connect with the community.
“He (the translator) went through the war and is from that generation and through him, I was able to get the access to the couple main Vietnamese characters that are in that film,” Tsai said.
Through her participation in the film, Martin said she has been able to come to terms with what happened.
“My participation in this film has helped me remember the hero my dad was and forgive him for the hero that he wasn’t,” she said. “I think that is a journey we all travel, regarding our parents and their flaws, if we are to understand our own. I miss my dad.”
Martin added that she hopes people that watch the documentary take away something from it.
“I hope this film informs our hearts and minds to seek solutions, rather than confrontations because so long as there are wars, there will always be refugees who need help and communities who need to help them,” she said.
People can catch a screening of “Seadrift” at the Austin Asian American Film Festival on June 14 in Austin. There also will be several other screenings around the state including the Lost River Film Festival on Oct. 20 in San Marcos.
“We’re excited to share the film especially throughout the Gulf Coast where this story affected a ton of smaller towns up and down the Gulf Coast,” Tsai said. “… We’ve done a few film festival screenings, and we’re working on preparing all the materials necessary so that organizations around the country can host their own community screenings.”