Oxford, MS – China is a long way from the United States. Yet many made the voyage, hoping for a better life. In the late 1860s, the first Chinese reached the Mississippi Delta. The 1870 census counts just 16 Chinese in the Magnolia state.
"The Chinese were attracted to the Delta by plantation owners who were looking for cheap labor to replace many of the slaves who were no longer working on the plantations," John Jung said. Jung is a California State University professor emeritus of psychology and author of Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton and Southern Fried Rice, which describes the Chinese experience in the Deep South.
The plantation owners' plans failed quickly when the new immigrants left sharecropping pretty much immediately.
"That's partly because the Chinese were able to find a more lucrative way of earning a living," Jung said.
That lucrative way came as small-scale grocers. Chinese immigration to the Deep South really began to pick up in the early 20th century, "For a better life, you know," retired Delta pharmacist Luck Wing said. Wing's parents left China in the 1920s.
The Chinese word for the United States back then was Gam Saan, that's Cantonese for "Gold Mountain."
Frieda Quon, a retired librarian at Delta State, like Wing, is a second-generation Chinese-American. Both were born and raised in the Mississippi Delta.
"My father came at the age of 14 from a small village in China, Canton," Quon said. "And he came to Chicago to join his older brother who was already there in a laundry business."
At some point in the late 1930s, her father moved 600 miles south, from Illinois to the Magnolia state.
"My uncle heard about Mississippi and the better opportunities for [making] a living in Mississippi. So, he left my father, probably with a cousin or uncle or others, to run the laundry while he journeyed to Mississippi to investigate," Quon continues, "So, yes, this was better than the laundry and so then eventually my father came to Mississippi as well."
In the Delta, nearly all Chinese were small grocery owners, filling a void left by white plantation owners who had stopped the commissary business of selling goods to their black sharecroppers, often at rather unfavorable terms. Quon's dad, too, had by then become a Delta grocer, but there was something else he wanted...
"In '39 or 1940, he went back to China to be married," Quon says. "And the custom then was to have a matchmaker. It was just willingly accepted. You know, my mom never saw dad before she married him. I think maybe they stayed for a brief time but then eventually both came on a ship and came to Mississippi."
They quickly learned that in order to survive one had to tread carefully and keep mum. Public neutrality in the emerging civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s became second nature to most Delta Chinese. At some point, Quon's family even owned two groceries in Greenville.
"The way the stores were arranged -- they were diagonally," Quon said. "But one focused more on the trade for the black customers, and then the other one for the white customers. Two separate stores."
The grocery stores proved to be the ticket to survival in the Deep South. And even today, scattered among the many shuttered business facades of the Delta, there are still some small surviving Chinese groceries long past their heyday, often with old, sun-bleached neon signs, but nevertheless part of the Delta's storied history.