A manager of AM-SOUTH's Bayou La Batre branch once asked me how he could attract more Vietnamese customers to make loans--"We really do want to loan you money," he said. I suggested that he not charge interest and he would have as many Vietnamese customers as he could handle. That certainly was not the answer he wanted to hear, but it is the truth.
The Vietnamese have their own financing system called Hui. Cambodians have a similar one called Liang Tong Tien. Korean-Americans call it Keh. An enterprising individual, often a woman, with good business sense will organize a Hui association. Certain families who are known to be relatively affluent are invited to contribute a fixed sum of money every month to a financial pool. The leader collects her agreed upon percentage and manages a lottery plan which distributes the remainder to a different person each month. There is some flexibility built into the rotation system. If, for instance, a participating family needs the lump payout before its turn, that family, if it can afford it, can usually buy a place closer to the top of the list. Once each member receives a payout, the Hui dissolves. All in all, it's a handy mechanism for those who have no capital and no credit, little or no familiarity with the American banking system, and almost no English.
In my town, families use the Hui to finance businesses, purchase or repair shrimp boats and equipment, and, sometimes, to provide for marriage prices. Since mutual trust and loyalty are essential, the practice of Hui is closed to all but the invited. It's also closed to the IRS, to the hated tax collector. In the countries of origin, the tax collector took money and gave it to regimes hated by the people. In the Louisiana Bayou, taxation is appreciated as much as a mosquito in the air on a hot summer's eve. But the real key to the success of the Hui is mutual trust. However, in the United States the Hui does not always work as it did in the old country. It depends on a delicately balanced societal infrastructure which does not take root easily in American soil. Sometimes unscrupulous organizers abscond with the bank, and in the U.S. refugees are much more distrustful of their refugee neighbors. Families from North, Central, and South Vietnam and throughout Cambodia all find themselves living in the same neighborhoods. Political, religious [Catholic, Buddhist, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Baptist, etc.), linguistic, and social class differences all contribute to the suspicions found in these communities.
Nonetheless, the Hui system is alive and working fairly well in Bayou La Batre. It is a transitional mechanism which allows members of these cultures to achieve rapidly levels of opportunity that all immigrants to this country seek. In due time, my banker friend will get his wish. Of course, if he were really smart he would create a way to integrate the Hui system into the standard system.
Excerpted from a column in The Harbinger, by Stephen Cottrell, Coordinator, Office of International Services, University of South Florida, Mobile, AL 36688-0002. Cottrell worked for ten years in refugee resettlement. Five of those years were under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Mobile in Bayou La Batre where he still resides with his Cambodian wife and three children.