Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocery Stores

Mississippi Public Broadcasting aired several interviews in 2011 about the Delta Chinese grocery stores. 

Chinese in the Delta
     AIR DATE 09/19/11
   An isolated group of Chinese Americans managed to maintain a vital, albeit small community in the  Mississippi Delta for roughly a hundred years. Now largely forgotten, Chinese groceries once dotted small Delta towns, serving mostly the black community. They  also provided the essential ticket to survival for the Chinese immigrants in a society strictly segregated between black and white. MPB's Sandra Knispel spoke with California State University professor emeritus John Jung.  Jung is the author of four books about the life,

Magnolias and Chopsticks: The Mississippi Delta Chinese Experience Part 1
The Chinese of the Mississippi Delta are an often-overlooked part of the history of the Deep South. In part one of our two-part series, MPB’s Sandra Knispel tells the story of what made them come all the way to the small towns of the Delta.

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. According to data collected by the University of Mississippi's Center for Population Studies, in 1870 only 16 Chinese lived in the Magnolia state.

The Chinese of the Mississippi Delta are an often-overlooked mosaic in the history of the Deep South. In the second installment of our two-part series, MPB’s Sandra Knispel looks at their rapid economic and social ascent -- from grocery store owner to professional. She interviews three Chinese in the  MississippiDelta, Harold Lum, Luck Wing, and Frieda Quon whose families owned grocery stores .

Luck Wing
Kit Lum

Handbook of Chinese in America (1946)

          Published in 1946, the Handbook of Chinese in America, is an invaluable resource for examining the primary businesses and organizations of Chinese across the United States.  I could find no information about how the listings were gathered but I assume the businesses in the Handbook paid a fee to be included.  (My parents had a copy of this hardbound 646 page book, which as I recall had a red cover.)
         I was 'disappointed' to discover that our laundry was not listed. Since then I have discovered several other laundries that were not in the list. My assumption, perhaps speculative, is that many laundry owners did not see any advantage in being listed and did not bother being listed.  In contrast, restaurants and grocery stores, listed in large numbers across the country, would stand to benefit from having their businesses listed.)

         I had not thought about this book until I was at the Association of Asian American Studies in Chicago a few years ago.  Steve Dao, a dedicated collector and vendor of Chinese American history ephemera, had a table at the conference. As I was talking with him, a book on the table that looked strangely familiar caught my eye.  As it had been about 50 years since I last saw our copy, I was not certain at first. Upon closer examination, I was excited to realize that it was a copy of the very same Handbook I last saw half a century ago.  I immediately called it to the attention of a historian friend who eagerly shelled out $50 for it, which turns out to be a bargain as I found a copy online in Vermont recently that was going for $100!
          I must confess that I borrowed a copy from a library and shamelessly xeroxed it (at 646 pages, maybe I should have just bought the book).   At the time I wasn't sure I would ever find much use for it.  Although I had a sentimental feeling about the book, I wondered if was it worth $50 to me.  Today, in retrospect, it has proved to be a great resource for identifying the types of businesses Chinese were operating, where they were located, and in what number, across the entire country. Since the addresses are listed, one could use the information to map out where "Chinatowns" were located in many towns with Chinese communities.  Examination of the names chosen for businesses back then is also interesting since many of them reflect the times, e.g., New China Cafe, New Republic Cafe, Good Earth Cafe.
          To give you some sample listings, I uploaded the listings of the Chinese grocery stores in the Mississippi River Delta in Mississippi and Arkansas which have proved to be very helpful to my research on Chinese in these communities.

Update, March 18, 2019.
I just searched the National Central Library, a site in Taiwan with many online documents but mostly in Chinese, for information on another topic following a link provided by Chao Chen, a reference librarian at Tufts University. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a beautifully scanned copy of the 600+ pages of the Handbook available for free access online!


Americans As Seen By A Chinese Visitor

        Accounts of Chinese immigrants written by Americans often smugly dwell on the strangeness of their customs, behaviors, and beliefs. Rarely do we find accounts of how Americans might appear to the Chinese, but one exception is a book by Zongren Liu, Two Years in the Melting Pot (1984).

        Liu came as a visiting scholar to study English in Chicago and in this book he describes his mostly depressing stay there and in other parts of the country.  Among his observations,  he described some American behaviors that we might not think of as out of the ordinary but which he found to be perplexing, if not downright irrational.
        Here is one charming example that shows that the Chinese do not have the corner on irrational behaviors.


An "Undercount" of Mississippi Delta Chinese

        Historian Charles Bolton published The Hardest Deal of All in 2005, an analysis of school desegregation from1870-1980 in Mississippi. While it is quite understandable that the struggle between blacks and whites would receive the preponderance of the book's coverage, it unjustifiably fails to make any mention of the contest that the Delta Chinese fought in an attempt to gain admittance to the state's white schools.  
        Since the late 1800s Mississippi maintained that white schools were for caucasians only, and that since Chinese were not caucasian, it was ruled that they could not attend white schools. Chinese fought this situation in court, a generation before the landmark 1954 decision (Brown vs. Board of Education) that overturned school desegregation nationwide.  The Chinese lost their case, and the ruling was upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court, Gong Lum v. Rice, 1927.  Chinese had to establish their own schools to provide better education for their children with the assistance of local churches until  white schools finally began to admit them during the late 1940s in a few small Delta towns.
       A computer search of the book for "Chinese" and "Gong Lum" found "0 results" for both terms.  Like the denial of their access to schooling for almost half of the past century,  this historical account of Mississippi schools also short-changed the Chinese in Mississippi by ignoring their struggles.


"Over Count" of Chinese in the 1940 Census?

The U. S. Census is an invaluable resource for historical and genealogical research. I was excited when the 1940 U. S. Census was released earlier this year, but frustrated because it was released without a name index, which made it virtually impossible to use and maintain sanity. Fortunately, it is now much more functional with the addition of a name index generated with the help of hundreds of volunteers who transcribed information from the original handwritten record sheets collected in the field to create a searchable online digitized database.

I gave it a test run by first trying to locate the record of our family in Macon, Georgia.

That test was not a difficult search since we were the only Chinese in the entire city at the time. This initial success led me to make several additional searches which, much to my surprise, suggested that the U. S. Census may have over counted the number of Chinese in many states. Before I explain why I reached this conclusion, I first need to retrace the process to show how I discovered the errors. So, be patient!

How to Use Ancestry.com to Search the Census Database

On the initial search screen shown below, you enter as many of the listed fields as possible: first and last name, birth year, exact or within a range, location (where they were born and location and approximate year of “any event” (marriage, divorce, for example).

Choose “match all terms exactly” to prevent finding too many cases, but if that fails, you can then widen the yield by removing that constraint.

Depending on how unique your target is, you might locate that person by entering only part of the requested information.


On lines 42-47 of the census record shown below, our family is listed for 1940 at 519 Mulberry Street. I highlighted in bright green how our race was coded, "C 4."

Failure Locating My Uncle

I also wanted to find my uncle who came to Atlanta in 1937, but I had no success finding him. Possibly, he was not in his laundry on the days when the census taker came. Or, I used the wrong spelling of his name or the census taker, or transcriber, entered it differently from the way I spelled it.

If you examine a sample of original record sheets, you can easily understand why these errors occur because some of the handwriting is poor or the record sheet did not scan clearly.

An alternative approach is to use Advanced Search, which allows you to specify several filters such as GENDER, and more importantly for my purpose, Race/Ethnicity. By adding CHINESE to the Race/Ethnicity field (see bright green field) I was able to retrieve only the Chinese cases for a specific Location (you can specific a City, State, or Both). I specified Georgia (See bright green field).

 Since there were very few Chinese in Atlanta in 1940, my thought was that my uncle’s name would come up even if they misspelled his name. Then since I knew the street address where he lived, I should have been able to locate him even if his name were misspelled. Of course, this method would not work easily for cities where there were hundreds of Chinese.
(My brother George was listed as "Georgia" and my sister Eugenia as "Eugennia," and Joe Yip in Mississippi was listed as "Qck Zip")

However, even this approach failed to locate my uncle in Atlanta in the 1940 census. He must have been out of his laundry when the census taker came.

Searching For Trends or Totals

Instead of trying to find a specific person by name, one might be interested in seeing patterns or trends in the number of Chinese over decades. Thus, I looked at changes in the total number of Chinese in Georgia for each decennial census.

Results for Chinese Living in Georgia

When I searched for CHINESE in Georgia for all decennial Censuses, I found a gradual increase from 203 in 1900 to 445 in 1940.

I then restricted my search to Chinese in Georgia who were born in China. The percentage declined with successive decades. Only about half, or 222, of the Chinese living in Georgia in 1940 were born in China. In contrast, a decade earlier in 1930, around 80% or 206 of the 253 Chinese in Georgia were born in China and in 1900, 100% of the 203 Chinese in Georgia were born in China.

Some Strange Findings

When I examined some of the cases classified as Chinese on the index lists, many of their surnames, e.g., ADAMS, did not seem to be Chinese. Nor were their occupations typical of Chinese immigrants such as laundryman, restaurant cook. or waiter.

I therefore examined images of the original census record sheets for these suspicious cases.

Below is a 1940 census record for one Adams family in Missouri that was indexed as Chinese.

The original handwritten census record appeared with the searched name highlighted in yellow, and family members in green. Beneath this info shows how it was entered in the searchable database.

On the original sheet for the Adams family, RACE had a code of “C 2“ but they were recorded in the Index as “Chinese.”[See the Column I highlighted in bright lime green] In other words, in the 1940 Census many “C 2” cases that should have been recorded as Colored or Black were counted as Chinese.

The same error occurred in other states I sampled including Missouri, Mississippi, Delaware, North Carolina, Nebraska, and Alabama. This error did not show up in Minnesota, at least for the the cases I sampled!

Other support for this conclusion is that the RACE code on the original sheet (See the first image on this post) for my own family was not "C 2," but "C 4." [Actually, it seems to have been “Chi” but that was lightly crossed out and replaced with ”C 4.”

As a type of 'reverse' check, for RACE/ETHNICITY I searched for COLORED (the term in 1940 for Blacks). When I examined the original record sheet for cases retrieved in this search, the code was usually “C 2.” [In one state it was “Col” and in another, “Neg.”]

Birth Rates for Chinese in Georgia

The misclassification error also occurred for birth data.
I did a a search for Chinese births in 1939 in Georgia on the 1940 census.

Given that the majority of Chinese in Georgia, as elsewhere, were single men, or men with wives in China, one would not expect them to have had many babies born in Georgia.

[Therefore to get a fair-sized sample, I used a range of years from 1929-1939] In this decade, there were 56 Chinese females born (and roughly the same number of males).

[Note: the point of this analysis is not to determine the number of Chinese babies but to examine the accuracy of the coding.]

A look at the Table below shows many of the surnames of the babies did not "look like" Chinese surnames.

You get definitive evidence of errors if you examine a sample of the original record sheets for births with a non-Chinese looking surname. The RACE column for these cases shows a code of “C-2” or Colored (the prevalent term for Blacks in that era) as in the record shown below for Bessie Butler and her relatives. In other words, these babies got misclassified in the index as Chinese, for whom the correct code is “C-4.”

While one hopes for, but does not expect 100 percent accuracy for such a complicated undertaking as taking a national census, egregious errors such as the ones described above simply should not have happened and could have been caught with minimal review.


A Bite of China, CCTV Chinese Food Documentary Series

China Central Television, CCTV, China's state-run television, produced "A Bite of China," a series of 7 hour-long documentaries about the culture and history of Chinese food.  Here is episode 6, "Flavors of the Harmonic." It has a Chinese sound track, but some YouTube uploads like this one, has English subtitles. The episodes are exquisite feasts of visual presentation.

Use this LINK to find a listing of the other 6 episodes with English subtitles on YouTube. Be aware that there has been an allegation in the video below that the documentaries are fraudulent government managed propaganda! (CCTV, a government-controlled resource, has had previous problems of credibility, especially in the realm of political and social issues, censorship,etc.)
A problem with this critique, however, is that it is produced by the Shen Yun Performing Arts, which itself has been criticized as a thinly veiled propaganda tool to fight China's persecution of the religious organization, Falun Gong. While some parts of the CCTV narrative seems a bit overstated and self-congratulatory, I didn't feel that the whole series could be dismissed as propaganda for the state.


What Was Chinatown Like Before It Became "Chinatown"?

San Francisco's Ross Alley, "Street of the Gamblers"by Arnold Genthe
     Chinatown, originally, was an area in many cities where its Chinese population lived. In undesirable sections of towns, Chinatown provided shops and housing for their daily needs as well as some safety in numbers against societal hostility toward them. Before the early 1900s, non-Chinese visitors and tourists were infrequent and the Chinese did not try to market curios and other Orientalia to them. Once Chinatown was reinvented to exploit commercial opportunities, it took on a different appearance aimed at attracting non-Chinese to visit, shop, and dine in an exotic space. Its streets soon teemed with non-Chinese visitors while Chinese residents receded into the background.
     But what did Chinatown look like before there were busloads of gawking tourists, many who had never seen a Chinese before? The most influential photographer of San Francisco's Chinatown was a German immigrant, Arnold Genthe, who took numerous street photographs of the public activities of Chinese in San Francisco's Old Chinatown at the turn of the twentieth century prior to the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed much of the original Chinatown. His photographs are a valuable visual portrait of this 'exotic' community. When I first saw them many years ago, I was fascinated by his images and thought how fortunate it was that he made these photographs so that later generations could see what street life of the early Chinese was like.
      A few years later, however, I had second thoughts after reading historian John Kuo Wei Tchen's critical analysis in his introduction to a 1984 book of a selection of Genthe's photographs. Tchen pointed out some of the selective editing, manipulating, and cropping that Genthe performed on many of his photographs. Genthe's Eurocentric vision of the Oriental soul guided his photographic evidence.  In his photographs, he 'saw' what he imagined. His work, more artistic than ethnographic in its goals, emphasized the notion that the Chinese were exotic, and different, from Anglos. Genthe's photographs portrayed Chinese in isolation from the larger community, and strengthened the view that Chinese were unassimilable or forever foreign. Art historian Anthony Lee in his book, Picturing Chinatown, also examined the social and political context of Genthe's photographs and their lasting impact that to this day blocks acceptance of revised views of Chinatown and its residents.
        The noted novelist, Maxine Hong Kingston, also raised questions earlier in 1978 about the subjective biases of Genthe's portrait of Chinatown.   She noted, "What is missing from Genthe’s Chinatown photographs are white people, whose presence would have broken the spell of a self-contained, mythical Cathay." She pointed out that this absence of white people was not because they did not frequent Chinatown in those days because, "Chinatown depends on a vigorous, aggressive relationship with white America to survive. Surely, white businessmen, tourists, gamblers, customers could be seen dealing with the Chinese inhabitants." 
          Genthe believed that Chinese did not like having their pictures taken because of primitive superstitions so he always hid his camera, which on the positive side, enabled him to capture more unposed photographs.  However, Kingston suggested that his conclusion about the reticence of Chinese to being photographed was naive.  A more plausible reason was, "They refused to let Genthe take their pictures, not because of exotic beliefs but because they were afraid of incurring trouble from the white authorities with their Exclusion Acts and deportation laws." 
       Kingston also noted and questioned the reality suggested by the many pictures that contained children, which "gives the impression that Chinatown was a healthy community of flourishing families when exactly the opposite was the actual, lonely situation… It was not until the second half of this century that the American immigration laws allowed Chinese women to enter the U.S. on the same basis as men—whose own immigration was restricted by the Chinese Exclusion Acts.”

        Genthe's photographs are of value, but have to be examined critically.  Cameras may never lie or distort, but photographers can.

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