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    Mississippi Delta Chinese

    Mississippi Delta Chinese | AAPI Histories of the South

    The Mississippi Delta has long attracted immigrants as a result of its potential in the realm of agriculture, and like many others, Cantonese families from China sought prosperity in this region. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Chinese immigrants were brought to the South to work fields. These immigrants then married, started families, and began forging their legacy. The Mississippi Delta Chinese established a diverse culture, succeeded as business owners, and cultivated dynamic narratives that deserve a place in our curriculums. The resources below provide detailed descriptions of the Mississippi Delta Chinese experience as well as oral histories, archive projects, and other information on Chinese-owned grocery stores in Arkansas. We have also compiled a reading list of key monographs for further research.

    Resource Highlights:

    The Mississippi Delta Chinese: An Audiovisual NarrativeMississippi Delta Chinese Taylor Pang

    Photographed and recorded by Emanuel Hahn and Andrew Kung, this compilation of images and oral testimony documents the faces, voices, and experiences of a uniquely underrepresented group of Chinese Americans, the Mississippi Delta Chinese. The earliest recorded Chinese migrants to the Mississippi Delta came as laborers during Reconstruction, but their community grew larger in the 1800s when many left their work as agricultural laborers and opened grocery stores that largely served the local Black community. 
    For more information.

    southern foodways yee

    Chinese Grocers | Southern Foodways Alliance

    The Southern Foodways Alliance site is home to a collection of oral histories recorded by Jung Min (Kevin) Kim centered around Chinese grocers in the South. Through interviewing grocery store owners in the Mississippi Delta, Kevin uncovers stories of Chinese immigrants, family legacies, and well-established Chinese-owned grocery stores that have served their communities for decades. Kevin Kim also wrote the "Chinese" entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas which can be referenced for further information on Chinese Arkansans. 

     

     

    Chinese-Owned Grocery Stores in Arkansas:

    chu building

    Chu Building in Forrest City

    The Chu Building was constructed around 1915 in Forrest City, the county seat of St. Francis County. In its prime, the store was owned by the Chu family who leased the west side of the building to another Chinese family, the Howe family. The Howe family lived on the top floor and operated a grocery store on the bottom floor. The Chu family also leased the east side of the building to the Harlem Theater, an African-American theater, during segregation. In the present day, the building has been named one of Arkansas's Most Endagered Places. 

    For more information on the Chu Building and its current state of preservation visit: Chu Building | Preserve Arkansas 

    For updates on the Chu Building restoration project check out: St. Francis County Historical Society | Facebook

     

    lee grocery store

    Lee Grocery Store in Elaine

    The Lee Grocery Store was constructed around 1915 in Elaine, a very small town in Phillips County. The building was bought in the early 1950s by W.J. Lee, a Chinese immigrant who had heard talk of economic opportunities in the South. W.J. opened and managed the grocery store and later passed it down to two of his sons, Seat N. Lee and Kam S. Lee. Seat and Kam operated the store until 2010 when it closed and since then there have been plans made to turn the building into a visitor's center. 

    For a summary of the Lee Grocery Store's history visit: Lee Grocery Store | Encyclopedia of Arkansas

    For general information on the Lee Grocery Store visit: Lee Grocery Store | National Register of Historic Places Registration Form

     

    yee food landYee's Food Land in Lake Village

    Yee's Food Land, owned by siblings Joe Dan Yee, Joe-Joe Yee, and Xing Yee has served the delta town of Lake Village for over seventy years. The first generation of the Yee family in Arkansas settled in the delta and opened the store in the early 1950s. The later generations of the Yee family continue to preserve their Chinese heritage by speaking Cantonese and eating traditional Chinese meals on the daily. To this day, Yee's Food Land still prides itself on its quality hometown service.

     

    Check out this oral history of Yee's Food Land featuring the Yee family: Yee’s Food Land | Southern Foodways Alliance

     

    Recommended Reading List:

    Archival Material

     This is an archival item on the subject of the Reconstruction written by Powell Clayton, the governor of Arkansas from 1868 to 1871. In the chapter titled “Immigration”, a quote from a newspaper insinuates that, in bringing in Chinese immigrants for labor, the South intended to “punish” black former slaves for wanting freedom. Yet, other quotes provided from the same newspaper make it clear that Chinese culture, language, and people outside the context of labor were not wanted nor accepted in southern society. Chinese laborers were expected to work without vying for rights or integration into society.

    Journal Articles

    Tsai organizes the groups of Chinese immigrants to Arkansas into three groups. The first group were primarily laborers who were brought to the south in the 1870s and 1880s and were used by white planters in an attempt to detract from black political power. The second group were small businessmen who settled in the Mississippi Delta between World War 1 and World War II. The third group were educated and more affluent immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong who settled in urban communities of Arkansas during the 1960s. The article does not discuss the third group much and focuses on the former two groups.

    Newspaper Articles

    This article states that Chinese immigrants arrived on the west coast before the Civil War and some reached Arkansas by 1869 during the Reconstruction. A group of planters organized the Arkansas River Valley Immigration Company  and had 189 Chinese laborers brought to the state. This article details the poor compensation, lack of financial mobility, and racism that the Chinese immigrants faced within Arkansas during the late 19th century. 

    Books

    chopsticksinthelandofcottonJung, John. Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton: Lives of Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocers. Yin & Yang Press, 2008.

    Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton discusses the Chinese immigrant families who relocated to the Mississippi Delta. These families labored in fields when they were first brought to the South, yet many opened small grocery stores. The grocery stores often serviced black communities and established solidarity between people of color in the area. Though they experienced racism and social inequality in the Mississippi Delta, these families sought to preserve their culture and ethnic identity and this resilience has lasted through the decades.  

     

     

    Loewen, James W. The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and Whitethemississippichinese. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1988.

    In The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White, Loewen discusses race relationships in the late 19th and early 20th century Mississippi Delta, specifically Chinese immigrants and their shift from being classed as “black” to being accepted as “white”. 

     

     

     

     

    Quan, Robert Seto. Lotus Among the Magnoliaslotusamongthemagnolias. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 1982.

    In Lotus Among the Magnolias, the author gives a detailed report on the Mississippi Delta Chinese, a subject with which he has individual experience. For this report, Robert Quan―a Chinese American scholar who speaks both Cantonese and English―collected information firsthand while he lived in the Chinese Delta community from 1975-1978. In Lotus Among the Magnolias Quan discusses multiple groups within the Mississippi Delta Chinese community and dedicates an entire chapter to each group: Lo Nen Ga The Old People, Sen Ga The Businessmen, Jen Ga The Professionals, Hok San The College Students, and Ching Nen The Young People.

     

     

    ethnic heritageWalton, Shana and Carpenter, Barbara. “Mississippi Delta Chinese.” Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi & Mississippi Humanities Council, 2012, pp. 145–171. 

    In this chapter of Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi, the author uses the personal stories and photographs of Frieda Quon (a member of the Mississippi Delta Chinese community) to describe Chinese heritage within Mississippi. Through a blend of historic facts and personal accounts, this chapter details the Mississippi Delta Chinese experience.

     

     

     

     

    As we expand our digital presence in 2021, we will be continually adding resources to this guide and others in our AAPI Histories of the South collection.

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