The Asian Issue

Life in the Chinese Delta

Imagine a century ago, a young Chinese couple aboard a freighter in the North Pacific, Guangdong Province far astern, steaming east in search of Gam Sahn, or “golden mountain,” a mythical place most of us would recognize as the American dream. A sheet of paper in the man’s pocket bears the address of an uncle in the Mississippi Delta; in the woman’s sits a photograph of parents she’ll never see again, while far away in Greenville, a man eagerly waits for the favorite nephew he last saw as a boy, ready to teach him the life of a crossroads grocer in this land of unfamiliar language and custom.

Thus the cycle of migration unfolded for the Chinese whose grocery stores once flourished in the Delta. The first of their kind appeared in the 1870s, a time when many plantations began closing their commissaries, creating an opportunity for small stores to serve the needs of the region’s black majority. By the 1920s, groceries had become the only occupation of the Delta’s Chinese, with family members joining their kin in the Delta and taking advantage of hui, or the pooled capital of relatives, to open their own nearby stores.

Blood ties renewed the Chinese community in the Delta throughout much of the 20th century, at first in the teens and ’20s, and again after World War II, when the U.S. finally eased immigration restrictions. Raymond Wong’s parents arrived in 1948, drawn by family members who had come to the region a generation before. A young veteran, Wong opened a grocery store in Drew with his wife. Frieda Quon, a retired librarian at Delta State University in Cleveland, was born in the Delta and grew up in the modest living quarters in back of the Min Sang Company grocery that her parents ran in Greenville. She remembered hearing how her then 18-year-old mother, who had grown up in New York, came with her Chinese-born father to the Delta in 1941 to join uncles in the grocery business.

The American-born children of Chinese families fondly remember growing up in a parallel universe, socializing almost exclusively amongst themselves. The adults would gather together at night to play “marathon” mahjong games while they played with other Chinese children. “We called everybody uncles and aunts,” remembered Luck Wing of his boyhood in a Jonestown grocery. “It took me a long time to find out that they were not really uncles and aunts.” When not in school, the children worked in their parents’ stores yet, like Wing, they were seldom encouraged to follow into the family business. Instead, most went on to college and careers that took them far from home.

Because of this self-isolation, the non-Chinese residents of the Delta remained mostly unaware of the thriving food culture on display at Chinese family gatherings after closing time at the grocery. “When the Asians got together,” recalled Raymond Wong, “they always had something to bring.” Most kept coops, producing the key ingredient for pak cham kai, a poached chicken dish served at Chinese New Year. Gardens yielded green stalks of bok choy and the dong gua, or “winter melon,” a fruit native to Southern China that grew well in the Delta’s warm climate and was prized for making into winter melon soup.

This changed in 1968, when Raymond Wong’s father opened the first Chinese restaurant in Greenville, naming it How Joy, which translates loosely to “good luck.” And luck was important: There was no guarantee that the town was ready for moo goo gai pan, shrimp in lobster sauce and green pepper steak. Wong, who had first considered moving to Atlanta before deciding to make a go of things at home in Mississippi, soon learned that Greenville was “starved for something different.”

The number of Chinese living in the Delta peaked in the early 1970s, when a downward pivot in the local economy motivated many to seek their fortunes elsewhere. With adult children moved away and the growing economic challenges, a generation of aging Chinese grocers began closing the stores that had once sustained their communities. Today, one is hard-pressed to find any left, with long-time holdouts Min Sang in Greenville and Wong’s Foodland in Clarksdale both closing in 2018.

The landscape may look different today, but the imprint of the Delta Chinese has not been forgotten. As early as 1987, Raymond Wong recognized how much had changed, motivating him to host a reunion of his countrymen at How Joy. “I told them..let’s have a party that is separate from a wedding and a funeral…where everybody gets together, just people that want to come home.” Many replied, “Oh, I’ve been to Mississippi; I grew up in Mississippi. I’ll never come back.” But Wong’s appeal proved persuasive, and the event drew over 600 attendees back to the Delta from homes in Houston or Los Angeles.

More recently, a colleague of Frieda Quon at Delta State, archivist Emily Jones, helped to start a foodways collection project called Delta Wok that is gathering family recipes from Chinese people with roots in the Delta. In 2017, the university hosted a reunion that attracted over 400 people who shared stories and photographs from their time in the region. The response reflects the deep affection the Chinese harbor for the memory of their Delta upbringing and the place where their grandparents once came in search of the Golden Mountain.