Chopsticks in the Delta

Rex Nelson, Arkansas Democrat Gazette Editorial, p. 15   2/12/2011

Following a recent column that mentioned Lake Village grocer Joe Dan Yee and discussed the history of Chinese immigration into the Delta regions of Arkansas and Mississippi, I was contacted by a writer named John Jung. 

 “Until recently, I had never even been to the Delta,” Jung writes at a blog that focuses on the Delta Chinese. “So why my sudden involvement? As a Chinese who was born and raised until age 15 in Georgia, I suppose you might consider me a cousin of sorts of Mississippi Chinese. However, almost every Mississippi Delta Chinese I know or have heard about from the last century comes from a grocery store family, whereas I grew up in a Chinese laundry. My hometown had only one Chinese family, namely ours, and so I had never even heard of a Chinese grocer or a Chinese restaurant.” 

    In 2005, Jung wrote a memoir, “Southern Fried Rice: Life in a Chinese Laundry in the Deep South.” He was speaking about the book during a 2007 meeting of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California when a member of the audience stood up. His name was Roland Chow, and he had grown up in a Delta Chinese grocery. He said that Jung should write a history of Chinese in the Delta. 

“I was rather hesitant to take on such a task since I knew nothing about grocery store life or even Delta life,” Jung says. “But over time, as I studied previous research and read oral histories, I became fascinated with the unique situation that Chinese in the Delta faced and how they managed to survive and eventually prosper under difficult circumstances.” 

 The result was the 2008 book, “Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton: Lives of Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocers.” 

 “In the course of this undertaking, I had the opportunity to meet many Delta Chinese, some living there still, as well as others living elsewhere, mostly California and Texas,” Jung writes. “Currently there is growing enthusiasm and recognition of the necessity and value of expanding these efforts to record the Delta Chinese history before it is too late.”

 Efforts have begun to create a museum in Cleveland, Miss. It’s a joint project by Delta State University, the city of Cleveland and Delta Chinese organizations to present a history of the Delta Chinese through interpretive objects, photographs and more. 

“By the time the Chinese began to come to the Delta in the 1870s, white superiority was already a deeply rooted aspect of Southern society,” Jung writes in his 2008 book. “Chinese were regarded as non-white and therefore ‘colored.’ As they were not fluent in the English language and American values, they were also foreigners and relegated to a low social status.     

“Race relations presented a delicate situation for the Chinese. They were economically dependent on the blacks who were the primary customers in most of their stores, but the Chinese wanted whites to accord them more favorable treatment than that given to blacks. In other words, Chinese had to walk along a thin line between the black and white segments of society. 

 “During the battle over school desegregation that arose in the 1960s, some Chinese hedged their bets, making private contributions to both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the white segregationist Citizens Councils. To be acceptable to whites, they had to distance themselves from blacks. But being economically dependent on blacks, as well as living in black neighborhoods, they had to treat blacks better than whites did.” 

One interview subject told Jung, “In the community where we lived, we were quite accepted. But the blacks considered us as whites. The whites considered us as non-black, but we were kind of stuck in the middle there.” 

Jung was perfectly trained to delve into the often ambiguous social standing of the Delta Chinese. After moving to California, he majored in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and went on to earn a doctorate from Northwestern University. He’s a professor of psychology emeritus at California State University at Long Beach and was the author of several textbooks. 

 “After a 40-year career in academia as a professor of psychology entering retirement and with more time to reflect,” he says, “I returned to a question that I had avoided many times during my life, namely how do I as a second-generation Chinese American fit in a predominantly black and white society . . . We were the only Chinese in town, so it was difficult for me to understand who I was, ethnically speaking.” 

 Unlike the Chinese immigrant populations of large cities such as San Francisco and New York, little had been written about the Chinese immigrants in the Delta until Jung came along. Their story deserved to be examined. While a number of the Delta Chinese moved elsewhere, others such as Yee remain behind, contributing to their communities. 

 “By the 1950s, Chinese and whites generally got along in school, but there was one area where racial mixing was frowned upon,” Jung writes. “When members of the opposite sex became romantically involved, negative reactions of both white and Chinese communities were prevalent in the 1950s and earlier in the Delta. White and Chinese parents felt that interracial dating and marriages were not viable.” 

It wasn’t always an easy road for the Chinese to travel in rural Arkansas and Mississippi. 


 Free-lance columnist Rex Nelson is the president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities