Mississippi Delta Chinese

Life in Chinese Grocery Stores


MS Delta Chinese Heritage Reunion, Oct. 24-25, 2014

Posted by John Jung on July 20, 2014 at 8:25 PM

Chinese Americans who grew in the Mississippi Delta but now live elsewhere came by the dozens from points far and wide including New York, California, Virginia, Florida, Washington, New Mexico, Texas, District of Columbia, Illinois, and even from Hong Kong to participate in an historic event for the Delta Chinese  at the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum (MDCHM) at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi on Oct. 24-25, 2014.

Many decades earlier, their immigrant parents had left the adversity of famine, floods, and banditry in rural Guangdong villages in China to come to the Mississippi Delta where they had hoped to make a better life. However, as foreigners they were confronted by adversity of other kinds such as racism. Almost all Chinese from the late 1890s to 1950s discovered that small grocery stores, often in black neighborhoods, provided a way to earn a living in the segregated South where they were caught between black-and-white in a divided society.

Unfamiliar with American culture and the English language, they still figured out how to survive, and eventually prosper. They overcome these obstacles with determination, resourcefulness, and hard work. They supported and encouraged their children to excel academically to gain entry to professions where they made substantial success in many fields.

The Delta Chinese grocery stores made important contributions to many small communities across the Delta for decades, but today, they have all but vanished from the landscape. Attendees observed a ribbon-cutting ceremony before visiting  the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum on campus, created to display artifacts from grocery stores and other items illustrating Chinese family life, including photographs and cultural articles.

Carolyn Chan, Emerald Dunn, Tony Chan, Raymond Wong, Frieda Quon, Cleveland Mayor Billy Nowell (obscured)

A replica of the interioir of a Delta Chinese grocery store at the Museum


The weekend event was an occasion for the over 200 participants to reflect on the history of the Chinese experience in the Delta and to recognize and honor the achievements of their parents and in some cases, grandparents. Susie Toneyman and Ted Gong described their own family history and how difficult the process of immigration had been for their parents.  Gong also talked about the 1882 Project which explored the long-lasting deep harm that Chinese suffered from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Martin Gold, a legal authority in Washington, D. C. discussed the legal and political issues that led to passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, its long-delayed repeal in 1943, and the belated expression of regret by Congress in 2013. Gwendolyn Gong, a professor of English, came to her native Mississippi from Hong Kong t odescribe her research interviews of Delta Chinese-Americans who served in the military.  John Jung, a retired professor, illustrated the complex migration patterns of Chinese who came to the Delta from other parts of the country and discussed how the use of modern technology such as websites and social media like Facebook can create a virtual community of Delta Chinese to help discover and preserve the history of this community even as the number of Chinese grocers in the Delta continues to decline rapidly. Adrienne Berard, a journalist and writer, described her forthcoming book detailing the historic Supreme Court ruling, Gong Lum v. Rice (1927), involving the exclusion of Chinese from white schools.


Many of these Chinese were coming back to the Delta for the first time since leaving. For others, it had been decades since they had grown up and left for schooling and work in other parts of the country.

This occasion gave them an opportunity to renew acquaintances with their Delta friends and relatives as well as to make new friends. Some brought members of the next generation to the Delta so that they could better understand and appreciate their family origins in the Delta.

The emotional experience was both sobering and exhilarating for many. Some came to realize, for the first time, the rich legacy that the pioneer Chinese created in the Delta. It was a rich, inspiring experience, one  of which they were proud to embrace.  

Links to Photos by Barbara Moon



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