Winston Ho 何嶸.
University of New Orleans,
Department of History 紐奧良大學歷史學系.
2016 July 1 (rewritten on 2018 March 19).
The Louisiana Saltwater Marshland is one of the most productive but harshest environments in the world. Saltwater kills the cypress trees that live in the adjacent swamps, so there is no shade from the relentless summer sun. Only tall grass grows on the many low-lying islands of the marsh. The air is hot and humid and filled with mosquitoes. Alligators lurk in the waters below. Tropical storms from the Gulf threaten to destroy homes and entire communities.
However, the marsh is also filled with seafood and wild game, and salt deposits and oil fields can be found far beneath the surface. Despite the hazards, people have survived and flourished in the Louisiana Marsh since pre-history, as evidenced by the ancient middens, artificial islands of discarded bones and shells, left behind over the centuries by Native Americans. European fishermen and trappers have settled here since French and Spanish Colonial rule. Croatians introduced oyster farming to the marshland, and Sicilians introduced their boat-building skills. Germans, Isleños, Cajuns, and many others have called the Louisiana Marsh home.
And in the 1800s, the Chinese and Filipinos settled in the Louisiana Marshland. Filipino fishermen may have introduced their shrimp fishing and preservation techniques to Louisiana, and in the early 1800s, they may have built the first platform villages — built on submerged pilings and connected by walkways over the islands of the marsh. And while the Filipinos were probably subsistence fishermen, catching shrimp to feed their own families, the Chinese merchants may have commercialized Louisiana shrimp fishing in the 1870s, building the first great drying platforms to preserve seafood on an industrial scale, for export to markets around the world. Dried shrimp 蝦米 is a traditional form of preserved seafood, a food source that would otherwise spoil quickly. The primary market for Louisiana dried shrimp are the Chinatowns of the Americas and the cities of East Asia, where the shrimp is cooked in rice dishes, stir-fries, and many other dishes.
By twentieth-century, dozens of platform villages had been established throughout Southeast Louisiana, each built around its own dedicated seafood drying platform. The earliest known drying platform was Bayou Defond, built by a former rice grower named Lee Yat as early as 1869. But the largest of the platform villages was Manila Village 馬尼拉村, probably founded in the 1880s by a Filipino fisherman and immigrant named Quintin De La Cruz.
Located on a collection of small islands in the northern marshes of Barataria Bay in Jefferson Parish, Manila Village commanded an enviable position near a series of bayous that led to the Harvey Canal, the Mississippi River, and the Chinese merchants in New Orleans. At the turn of the century, its giant drying platform may have been as large as two football fields in size, nearly twice the size of the other great platforms. Manila Village had a seasonal population of over 200 people during the shrimp season. Manila Village itself was surrounded by several nearby satellite communities, including Cabanash, Clark Cheniere, Camp Dewey, and Bassa Bassa, each with its own population of up to 100 people.
Little is known about the early history of Manila Village, beyond the oral traditions of the Filipino descendants themselves, and a few vague rumors from historic newspaper articles. But in the summer of 1911, at the height of the shrimp season, a famous artist named Frank Schoonover from Harper’s Monthly magazine became one of the first journalists to visit Manila Village. Schoonover created some of the earliest illustrations of this community, and he wrote a detailed description of his visit. His article was published under the title “In the Haunts of Jean Lafitte” on 1911 Dec. in Harper’s Monthly (p. 80-91). The complete article can be found at either HathiTrust or the Internet Archive.
Pages 80-81 describes Schoonover’s journey to the remote settlement on one of the earliest gasoline-driven powerboats. Pages 82-83 describes how the people lived. Entire families, mostly Filipino fishermen with their wives and children, lived in their own private homes. Bachelors lived in another part of the village in communal dormitories. Page 85 describes Schoonover’s brief encounter with a Chinese fishing boat from the Chinese village of Bassa Bassa.
Schoonover was describing life on the platform villages in the late 1800s, in an age before electricity, mechanization, and refrigeration. This life was already changing at the time he was there. Over the next few decades, sailboats were replaced by motor boats, teams of fishermen with a seine nets were replaced by shrimp boats with trawl nets, and even the “shrimp dance” was replaced by mechanical separators. Manila Village adapted to all these changes, until it was destroyed by Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Today, only pilings survive from this once prosperous community.
Schoonover, Frank Earle. “In the Haunts of Jean Lafitte.” Harper’s Monthly, vol. 124 (1911 Dec.): p. 80-91. Illustrated by Schoonover, Frank Earle. [Accessed from HathiTrust, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924054824291;view=1up;seq=98] [Also accessed from the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/stream/harpersnew0124various#page/n101/mode/2up/search/lafaitte] [Illustrations can be found at the Norman Rockwell Museum official website, https://www.frankschoonover.org/?s=lafitte]
Norman Rockwell Museum. “Frank E. Schoonover — A Long Life in Art,” part 3. 2016. [Accessed from https://youtu.be/oW1iwGteJaY?t=3m43] [This documentary briefly describes how Schoonover’s article on Manila Village was written.]
WPA Writers’ Project. New Orleans City Guide, p. 44, 392-393. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1938. [Accessed from HathiTrust, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015007194577;view=1up;seq=7]
Saxon, Lyle. “Their Faces Tell the Story.” 1940 Jefferson Parish Yearly Review, p. 32-56. [Accessed from the Jefferson Parish Historical Society’s official website, http://www.jeffersonhistoricalsociety.com/VirtualArchives/1940sJYR.htm]
WPA Writers’ Project. Louisiana State Guide, p. 89, 418, 421, 484-485. 1941. New York, New York: Hastings House, 1941. [Accessed from HathiTrust, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uva.x000329305;view=1up;seq=7]
Manila, Estela. “Manila Bayou: Filipinos in Louisiana.” 2004. [DVD documentary. Accessed from the Historic New Orleans Collection.]
Kenny, Jim. “Dancing the Shrimp.” Louisiana Public Broadcasting, 1992. [VHS documentary. Accessed from the Historic New Orleans Collection.]
Other Platform Villages.
Hearn, Lafcadio. “St. Malo, A Lacustrine Village in Louisiana.” Harper’s Weekly, vol. 27 no. 1371 (1883 Mar. 31), p. 196-199. Original sketches by J.O. Davidson and engravings by Charles Graham. [Accessed from HathiTrust, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pst.000020243272] [St. Malo, St. Bernard Parish.]
“A Colony of Shrimpers.” Lewiston Evening Journal (1898 Dec. 16): p. 4. [https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1913&dat=18981216&id=FtEoAAAAIBAJ&sjid=A2sFAAAAIBAJ&pg=3462,2976688&hl=en]
“Savory Shrimps: Great Growth of the Canning and Drying Business.” Times-Democrat (1899 Sep. 1): p. 14.
“New Orleans’ Chinese Captains of Industry.” Times-Picayune (1911 Jul. 2): p. 31. [Describes Lee Yuen, the son of Lee Yat, and the owner of Bayou Defond in Jefferson Parish and the Quong Sun Shrimp Drying Company.]
Adkins, Gerald. “Shrimp with a Chinese Flavor.” Louisiana Conservationist, vol. 25 no. 7 (1973.09): p. 20-26. [ Accessed from the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/stream/louisianaconserv25910depa#page/20/mode/2up]
Swanson, Betsy. Historic Jefferson Parish: From Shore to Shore, p. 136-138. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 1975. [Cites WPA Louisiana State Guide and the drawings of Frank Schoonover.]
Espina, Marina. Filipinos of Louisiana, p. 1-12, 41-47. New Orleans, Louisiana: A.F. Laboard & Sons, 1988. [Accessed from the Historic New Orleans Collection.]
Kenny, Jim. “Dancing the Shrimp.” Louisiana Cultural Vistas, vol. 3, no. 3 (1992 Fall): p. 42-46. [http://www.nxtbook.com/leh/lcvfall92/lcvfall92/index.php#/42] [This article was re-published in 1994, without photographs by Ateneo de Manila University.]
Kenny, Jim. “Dancing the Shrimp.” Philippine Studies, vol. 42, no. 3 (1994 Third Quarter), p. 385-390.
Astilla, Carmelo. “Life on the Bayou.” Filipinas Magazine (1998 Oct.). [http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/life-on-the-bayou]
Davis, Don. “Transient Settlements.” Washed Away: The Invisible People of Louisiana’s Wetlands, p. 303-320. Lafayette, Louisiana: University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2010. [http://www.ulpress.org/item_1/Washed-Away.php]