I am taking a break from Vietnamese Marianism to return to the ethnic press in the U.S. While looking at a Catholic periodical, I found a one-page report on Vietnamese refugees in Alaska. This issue is from 1977, and the article isn’t about Catholicism but labor in Alaska. It is valuable because there is a paucity of information about the refugees in Alaska.
Even today, the proliferation of the Internet hasn’t translated to a greater knowledge about Vietnamese in Alaska, who make up 0.1% of the general population. (Asian Americans make up 5.5% of Alaska’s population, with Filipino Americans the largest group by far.) Travelers may run into promotion or write-up about several phở restaurants in Anchorage. Vietnamese immigrants own and staff a number of nail salons in the state, which could be easily found online. Rarely are there noteworthy news items. They include a report on the murder of a Vietnamese man by another Vietnamese man in 2017. The killer believed that his wife was assaulted by the victim. He went to the apartment of the victim, shot him three times, and called the police to report the murder. Less dramatic are news items about a daughter of Vietnamese refugees who moved from Seattle to open a restaurant on one of the Aleutian Islands. She represented Unalaska in state pageant competitions, interned or worked as an aide for several politicians, and, most recently, won a grant to begin a startup.
The 1977 article sure notes the Seattle-to-Alaska connection. In addition to “about thirty families” of the refugees in the state, there were workers who came up from Washington to work at Dutch Harbor (also on the Aleutian Islands) from September to January. In fact, Vietnamese made up one-third of the laborers at Unisea, one of the processing companies at Dutch Harbor and Kodiak. Companies at Dutch Harbor provided housing for the seasonal workers. At Kodiak, however, workers had to find their own lodging.
The article states that the hourly wage for workers in Alaska was between $4.30 and $5.00. I looked up other sources and found that the federal minimum wage of approximately $2.50 at the time. The wage at the processing companies, however, was only between $3.00 and $3.30. Nonetheless, the appeal was great due to overtime pay beyond the regular forty hours each week. “The reason they wanted to work in Alaska,” states the article, “is money-saving.” Working between twelve and sixteen hours a day, the overtime earn was high for these workers.
The short article illustrates the need for survival among Vietnamese refugees. They wanted to make money, save money, and send money (or equivalents such as fabric and other permissible “gifts”) to help family members living under an impoverished economy in postwar Vietnam. There is a long history of Asian immigrants, especially Chinese then Filipinos, working in canneries along the West Coast and sending money to support families in their home countries. Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s were the latest wave (if smaller) to this history.
It also provide a small window into the refugees’ encounter with the global capitalist economy in a unique setting. When it comes to the subject of labor, the most attention was on Vietnamese refugees who worked in the fishing and shrimping industry in the Gulf Coast. There were many that worked in chicken processing factories in Arkansas and surrounding states. The example of seasonal labor in Alaska offers a variation of the experience.
In any event, seasonal labor among the refugees continued well into the 1980s, if not beyond. According to a recollection of a refugee who moved from Washington, DC to Alaska in 1984 to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage, there were about 300 Vietnamese at the time. They included a number of women married to U.S. military personnel that were stationed in the state. When the memoirist visited Dutch Harbor two years later, there were about 500 Vietnamese, Filipino, and Mexican workers. By then, there was a Vietnamese restaurant that was open around the clock to accommodate the seasonal workers who gathered to eat, socialize, and gamble. A small number of Vietnamese also engaged in fishing out at sea. Vietnamese also staffed “virtually all” of the taxi system, which costs $5.00 each trip. (I wish to know the factors leading them to taxi driving.)
The sudden end of the Vietnam War led to a sudden enlargement of the Vietnamese diaspora, and Alaska is a less known example of this enlargement.