On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the Viet Cong troops, ending the Vietnam War. As a result, over the next two decades more than 3 million people fled Vietnam, Lao, and Cambodia. While tens of thousands would die at sea, over 2.5 million refugees would relocate all over the world, including over 1 million in the United States alone. However, these boat people, as they became to be known as, weren’t immediately welcomed, or recognized as refugees, by most of the countries they arrived at. No nations in Southeast Asia signed on to the UN’s Refugee Convention, and many were openly hostile to the incoming refugees, believing that they threatened to overwhelm their already limited resources. Some would make their way into the several emergency relocation centers in the United States: Camp Pendleton (California), Camp Chafee (Arkansas), Elgin Air Force Base (Florida), and Fort Indiantown Gap (Pennsylvania). From there, those at Camp Chafee and Elgin Air Force Base would be visited by Archbishop Philip Hannan, then head of the New Orleans archdiocese, who was intrigued by the story of the devout Catholic refugees who had sojourned together since 1954. The Archbishop extended an open invitation to the refugees to resettle in New Orleans, which seemed to be a perfect fit as a Catholic city and a tropical climate with seafaring opportunities for which the Vietnamese were familiar with. In the decades following resettlement, the refugees would indeed find steady work as gulf coast shrimpers. They took well to the region’s climate, with many commenting that it often felt like home.
A few weeks after the Archbishop’s invitation, the first 200 families made their way to New Orleans, half going to the Versailles Arms Apartments in the Village de l’Est in New Orleans East and the other half going to the Kingston Marrero Apartments. New Orleans East was a historically Black neighborhood. Due to urban renewal efforts that pushed Black residents out of the downtown and uptown parts of the city and the construction of new and relatively affordable housing during the 1960s and 1970s, drawing many first time Black homeowners to the area, the demographic makeup of New Orleans East was about 90% Black residents. When the Vietnamese came in, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, a predominately Black group that focused on equal rights, criticized the Associated Catholic Charities, a largely White organization dedicated to helping the poor, for disregarding the economic impact that the large influx of Vietnamese refugees would have on the city’s predominantly poor Black population. The sentiment that the Vietnamese were being used by the White population to frustrate and disrupt the ambitions of Black residents for improved economic and social equity. Like other ethnic minority groups, it seemed that they were being pitted against Black people, creating a crab mentality for people of color in the nation. Both groups were victims of imperialism, yet are fighting over a limited pool of resources available to them.
Despite the sentiment, the communities continued to live alongside each other for decades to come. They have banded together on multiple occasions, including Katrina relief efforts and the closing of the Chef Menteur Landfill, a major win for grassroots organizing. In the aftermath of Katrina were perhaps the most visible instances of racial solidarity, where community organizers and residents of New Orleans East banded together, supporting their fellow neighbors and fighting for economic, class, and social justice that was made dramatically apparent in the wake of Katrina.
This complex history between Black and Asian communities inspires this dish. Taking the Vietnamese yogurt, da ua, and making a parfait with familiar flavors of both New Orleans and of Southeast Asian desserts, we took the common and beloved white chocolate bourbon bread pudding and layered it with different toppings you might find in a chè dessert or shaved ice, including sweetened red beans, a variety of jellies, condensed milk, and coconut. We hope to end this crab mentality pushed onto us as minorities of color and come together to make something both new and familiar, and most importantly delicious. Like the activists that continue to lead post-Katrina relief efforts, we aim for racial solidarity and mutual aid amongst our communities.
Photograph by Mischelle Moy