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Keeping the China Sea Restaurant Alive

"My future is in the hands of a man-made disaster bigger than Katrina."

At the China Sea restaurant, a clean, festive establishment perched on a strip of marshy land that winds toward the Gulf of Mexico, waitresses set out condiments, silverware and napkins in preparation for the lunch rush—though these days, “rush” is not really the right word.

Built by Vietnamese immigrants Tao and Bich-Ngoc Nguyen with their life savings, destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, then rebuilt from scratch, China Sea is in big trouble again.

Many of the Nguyens’ usual customers—fishermen, industrial workers and charter boat operators—are now working for BP to salvage some part of the income they lost to the oil giant’s spill. What’s good for them is bad for the restaurant. They get free food while they work, says Nguyen, a lean man in a baseball cap and plaid shirt tucked into jeans. He speaks softly and resolutely in a thick accent. “My business is down 25 percent, at least.”

For Nguyen, 62, this hardship is the latest in a life shaped by struggle.

A native of Long An Province near Saigon, Nguyen was a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese navy when the city fell to communist forces in 1975. He was later arrested and thrown into a labor camp. “I was in jail for 62 months because I was a navy official,” he says. “They called it re-education camp.”

Escape from Vietnam

In May 1983, he escaped from Vietnam on a 30-foot boat that his uncle managed to navigate across the South China Sea to Indonesia. From there he went on to the United States, settling in New Orleans, where his older brother, Chanh, now 67, was already employed offshore as a cook on an oil rig. “I worked with him,” Nguyen recalls. “I was a kitchen helper.”

He married his wife in 1987, and several years later the couple moved south to the small waterside town of Buras and opened the restaurant in 1992. Nguyen was drawn to the marshy region’s geography. “The Mississippi River delta, it looks like the Mekong delta, where I am from,” he says.

Things went well until Aug. 29, 2005, when the winds and waters of Hurricane Katrina wiped out the restaurant. The Nguyens relocated to Dallas, then left after deciding that big-city life was not for them.

At age 59, Nguyen took a job in a New Orleans shipyard. His heart, however, remained in Buras. Friends and neighbors in the community encouraged the family to return and rebuild their restaurant. Eventually they decided to give it a try.

Any construction that did not require a licensed contractor was done by Nguyen himself. The restaurant, staffed by the couple and their daughter An, finally reopened on March 6 this year, four and a half years after Katrina—and six weeks before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig.

New challenges

Since then, the homecoming has been bittersweet. The family now has to deal with fewer customers and reduced staff—some of them have gone to work for BP as well, at wages Nguyen can’t compete with. Seafood wholesale prices have gone up as well. He and his wife live in a camper nearby.

“I took all my money, all my love, to rebuild this restaurant,” he says. “These are the things I think of when I wake up in the middle of the night. … My future is not in my hands anymore. It’s in the hands of a man-made disaster bigger than Katrina.”

Nguyen has submitted a compensation claim to BP and is waiting to hear what the company might give him. Despite his fears, he and the family intend to stay in Buras and keep the restaurant open “to the last minute ... until I cannot.”

Nguyen, who became a U.S. citizen in 1996, points to a sign that hangs above the door to the restaurant. Written in a neat cursive, it is a love letter to his adopted home. It reads:

“Thank you. With all of our love we rebuilt the China Sea to show our gratitude to this country. The country that took us in. Please make it like a part of our community, the community that inspired us to rebuild the China Sea. —The Nguyen Family”

Molly Reid is an arts, culture and environment reporter based in New Orleans. Her work appears regularly in the Times-Picayune.

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