Mississippi Gulf Coast — Prior to Hurricane Katrina, East Biloxi had a thriving business community serving Vietnamese and other Asians who lived in the area, most of whom worked in the seafood industry or the casinos. The storm surge from Katrina destroyed not only their homes but, in many cases, their livelihoods. The hurricane also took the grocery stores, beauty parlors, video outlets and other businesses that catered to the Asian community.
For a while, the Asians who stayed were traveling to other states to get food and other supplies.
“That is the reason we opened here,” says Vy Nguyen, manager of the T.D. Oriental Market located on U.S. 90 between Ocean Springs and Gautier next to the LaLa Land convenience store. “People were having to travel to Alabama, Florida, Houston and the West Bank of New Orleans to get food.”
Nguyen, who was raised in Biloxi, said many of the Vietnamese have left to get jobs and homes elsewhere. But as jobs come back and homes are rebuilt, many are expected to return.
“Some people moved away because they no longer have a job,” said Nguyen, who grew up in the area. “Lots of people who worked at the casinos moved to North Mississippi, Las Vegas or other places with casinos. The customers we have here are spread out everywhere. Some are waiting to get FEMA trailers.”
How many will come back when Biloxi is rebuilt depends, Nguyen said, on how comfortable they are in their new homes and jobs.
Nearly 90% of the Oriental Market’s customers are Asian. They are primarily Vietnamese, but there also customers from the Philippians and Thailand. For the 10% of non-Asians who frequent the Oriental Market, many are looking for healthy food and some variety in their diet.
Unlike American convenience stores, the Asian markets carry a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. Some like mint, mangos, basil, eggplant and carrots are familiar to Americans, but most are not. For example, there is durian, which looks like a large coconut with lots of warts on it.
Despite its looks, Nguyen said this is known as “the king of fruit. It is unique, a special food. It is very different.”
Some of the vegetables look familiar but you won’t find them in an American grocery store. For example, there is Chinese broccoli and yuchoy, a green similar to mustard that is sweet in flavor.
In addition to fresh produce, the store carries a large line of dishes and cookware, a huge selection of different kinds of noodles, a large variety of condiments and seasonings, convenience foods like Vietnamese po’ boys and pork vegetable buns, rice paper for spring rolls, canned goods, sandals, duck eggs, frozen duck, fish and beef and — at this time of year — a selection of special treats for the Chinese New Year’s celebration on January 29. There are also a number of different types of rice, and not just in the small bags you find in American stores. Fifty-pound bags of rice are the more popular staple at the store.
The location next to LaLa Land is more convenient than going out of state. But Nguyen said they hope to move the Oriental Market to Biloxi or D’Iberville once those areas are more recovered from Katrina in order to be closer to the Asian community.
A second Asian grocery store to serve the local community that has opened in Ocean Springs plans to stay there. Cho Vietnam Asian Market opened about five weeks ago on U.S. 90 a little east of the Highway 609 intersection. The store is owned by Nga Tran and her husband, Le Sang.
“We opened the store to try to help our community,” Nga Sang said. “Before we opened, we had to run to Mobile to get groceries. I enjoy helping my people.”
Nga Sang’s family has a similar store in Houston. The couple plans to keep the store in Ocean Springs.
“My home is in Ocean Springs,” she said.
As with the Oriental Market, the Asian Market primarily caters to the Asian community. But she is always happy to give cooking advice to non-Asians who come in.
“People like our food because it is more healthy,” she said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.