The Untold Story Of America's Southern Chinese [in the Delta]
By Charles Reagan Wilson
A small group of Chinese immigrants came to Mississippi after the American Civil War.
In their new environment, they sought ways to earn money and to adapt to the predominant culture of the state while preserving their ethnic identity. They came into a society dominated by Mississippians of British or African ancestry, and the Chinese carved out a distinctive place within this society.
Coming to Mississippi
The Chinese first arrived during the Reconstruction period (1865-1877). The period was a time of considerable turmoil in Mississippi as the state adjusted after the Civil War to the end of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy. Tensions were high between the black freedmen and whites. Because the labor system was unsettled, planters recruited the Chinese as a possible replacement for the freed African American laborers.
The United States census of 1880 listed 51 Chinese in Mississippi, mostly in Washington County. Like most Chinese immigrants to the United States, those coming to Mississippi were mainly from the Sze Yap, a district in south China.
Sze Yap was a more commercially sophisticated area than many parts of China at the time, with a history of contacts with foreign traders. Immigrants were likely from peasant and artisan families. Traditionally, young males from the area traveled far for work to supplement the family income. The initial immigrants to Mississippi came not to settle here, but to earn money to send home as savings to be used when they returned to China. Once they were here, though, others soon arrived, often with more financial resources than the first immigrants. Few women came in this period and the men remained socially isolated.
Furthermore, the state’s preoccupation with racial issues resulted in the Chinese being classified as non-white in a predominantly biracial Mississippi social system. These early immigrants to the state sought, however, economic success rather than social recognition, since they did not intend to stay long.
The Chinese soon realized that working on a plantation did not produce economic success. They then turned to another activity — opening and running grocery stores. The first Chinese grocery store in Mississippi likely appeared in the early 1870s. Tax records in the early 1880s list Chinese as landowners in Rosedale, in Boliver County. Wong On, a prominent early Chinese settler in the Delta, illustrates the way immigrants became merchants. He had been born near Canton, China, in 1844. He emigrated to California in 1860, worked on the transcontinental railroad, and then came south for another railroad job. Little is known of Wong On’s early days in Mississippi, but he probably picked cotton, became a tenant farmer on a plantation near Leland, married a black woman, and opened a store in Stoneville. His first grocery was probably like those of other Chinese groceries in this period — small, one-room shacks which carried only a few basics, such as meat, corn meal, and molasses. The people who shopped at his store were mostly poor blacks working on plantations, relatively well-off laborers who had cash from their work draining swamps and cutting timber in the Delta in the late 19th century, or poorly paid manual laborers in town.
In those days, stores were not self-service and customers had to ask for what they wanted. Merely buying a sack of corn meal was a complicated matter — the Chinese storeowners at first did not speak English and their customers did not know Chinese. Thus, pointing at merchandise was how transactions were handled. Other businessmen sometimes took advantage of the Chinese, and their lack of understanding English and the Southern legal system left them vulnerable to exploitation. At best, storeowners were dependent on customers with few economic resources themselves.
Chinese grocers, nonetheless, carved out a successful, distinctive role. One reason for their success was a cohesive family system. After they established their small businesses, these early Chinese merchants would send back home for a young male from their family to come and help the business succeed and to learn how to run a business. That young relative would later perhaps use his savings, loans from relatives, and credit from wholesale suppliers to set up his own grocery. Hard work, experience in business operations, and a reputation for financial integrity soon led to good credit ratings for the Chinese merchants. For generations, grocery stores would be passed down from father to son, and as late as the 1970s, six family names accounted for 80 percent of the Delta Chinese population.
The Chinese also carved out a distinctive spot as a third element in a predominantly biracial society. White Mississippians originally classified the Chinese in the Delta on a low social par with African Americans. They were outsiders in a racially aware state. They sold their goods mostly to black customers, and they lived in black neighborhoods. Blacks and whites did not, however, see Chinese as precisely equivalent to blacks. Chinese were culturally and linguistically quite different from Mississippi African Americans, and their merchant status was above that of most blacks. The Chinese grocery was, however, a welcoming place for African Americans in the Delta: a place to sit and talk, pass the time, and even find work from landowners who would check there for available day laborers. The Chinese were middlemen between blacks and whites, often providing a needed contact point in a segregated society. Chinese in the Delta attempted to maintain a certain distance from others in society, hoping to insulate themselves from problems and concentrate on their economic success. They experienced considerable distance from Delta whites through their exclusion from social organizations, country clubs, fraternal groups, recreational activities, and most importantly, white public schools. Several Delta cities maintained not only separate schools for blacks and whites, but also small classes for Chinese students as well. In the mid-1940s, Cleveland, for example, had two classrooms for Chinese students, enrolling thirty-six students who were taught by three teachers, including one Chinese. The Chinese worked over the years to affiliate with the white community as much as possible because whites held the highest social status in the Jim Crow South. Naming patterns came to reflect this change. Chinese parents might pick first names for their children like “Coleman” and “Patricia” to suggest identification with whites.
Mississippi Chinese society
The desire to become identified with white society shaped the institutions that anchored Chinese society in Mississippi. The “tong” was a social organization that structured much Delta Chinese social activity in the early days of settlement. But by the 1930s, the Baptist church became important for the Delta Chinese, particularly the Chinese Baptist Church in Cleveland, and served as a center for wedding banquets, community service projects, fundraising activities, funerals, and other occasions that brought the extended Chinese community together. The mission school attached to the church provided education for the Chinese, preparing them for identification with white society. In addition, the Chinese community in the mid-20th century sponsored dances for college and high school students, held summer schools, and promoted social clubs.
The Chinese in towns like Greenville kept Chinese cemeteries separate from those of whites and blacks. Typically the cemeteries had small, well-tended plots with high fences around them.
By the post-World War II years, the Chinese in Mississippi were consciously seeking acculturation into American society, within a Southern regional context. Their numbers, however, remained small and their settlement was concentrated in the Delta. Fourteen Delta counties accounted for over ninety percent of the Mississippi Chinese population in 1960.
The Delta had a larger Chinese concentration than any other area of the South. At this time though, acculturation was not complete. One college coed in this era complained, for example, that, despite being Mississippi born and bred, her white friends called her the Delta lotus, evoking an image of an Asian flower. “I’m a Delta Southerner,” she said, “but still a lotus and not a magnolia.”
Since the 1960s the Chinese in Mississippi have faced the decline of their economic base as distinctive Delta groceries serving a black clientele. Blacks now have more choices of grocery stores, including large chain stores. Children of Chinese families often go away to school now and often do not seek to inherit and run old businesses. Chinese cluster more than ever in towns and move to nearby mid-south cities, such as Jackson or Memphis.
The Chinese who remain, and newcomers who still arrive seeking economic opportunity, run Chinese restaurants, which may serve barbecue as well as Cantonese fare. Families often grow their gardens to have traditional Chinese cuisine at home, using fresh bok choy, bitter melon, mustard, or other ingredients of Chinese cooking. Families celebrate traditional Chinese holidays, out of sight of most Mississippians, to honor their ancestors.
The Delta was settled by other ethnic groups as well as the Chinese. Lebanese, Syrians, Jews, Mexicans, and Italians were all notable for their roles there, but the Chinese had perhaps the most challenging adjustment because they came from a culture that seemed unusual to most other Mississippians. Moreover, the Chinese sought economic opportunites in Mississippi at a time that seemed unlikely to bring them success, but they filled a distinctive economic role as merchants. They won the friendship of the blacks they served and the whites who came to trust their honesty in business dealings. They were small in number and never had the support for ethnic identity that large Chinese communities in America had, such as access to Chinese genealogical organizations, Chinese literature and media, Chinese theaters or markets, or Buddhist temples. Still, the Chinese made new lives as Southerners and became a notable feature of Delta society.
In 1960, the United States Census listed 1,244 Chinese in Mississippi and reported that the Delta had more Chinese than any other part of the South.
By 1970 the Chinese population in the state had grown to 1,441. The 2000 Census reported 3,099 Chinese lived in Mississippi, out of an Asian population of 18,626 in the state.
Charles Reagan Wilson, Ph.D., is director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and professor of history and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi.
Posted November 2002
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O’Brien, Robert W. “Status of the Chinese in the Mississippi Delta.” Social Forces (March 1941), pp. 386-390.
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