Introduction

Since the 1900s, the Mississippi Delta has been home to a large number of Chinese Americans. Many Chinese immigrants moved to the Delta in search of better economic opportunities and opened up family-run grocery stores that mainly targeted black communities in these regions. At its peak, there were hundreds of grocery stores and an estimated 2,500 Chinese people living in the Delta. As the community grew, they inherited a unique socio-economic position in a predominantly biracial society. The Chinese served as middlemen in a segregated society and developed characteristics that differentiated themselves even from Chinese/Asian communities in coastal regions. Despite being deeply rooted in Chinese culture, the Mississippi Delta Chinese assimilated and thrived the rural South, contributing immensely to the region.

In our photojournalism project, we interviewed and photographed 16 members of the Chinese American community who grew up in the Mississippi Delta. We interviewed both the young/old and covered topics like cultural identity, racial equality, regional identity, outlook on life, and perspectives on citizenship. All photos were taken on 35mm and medium-format film.

This project is produced entirely by Andrew Kung and Emanuel Hahn. Learn more about the project here.

 

 

 
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FRIEDA QUON

Greenville, Mississippi
retired librarian at Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum

The Chinese have been in the Delta for more than a hundred years. When we came initially, we didn’t have rights. We couldn’t go to the white schools, couldn’t even get a haircut, could not go to the hospitals. We were second class citizens. After the Civil Rights Era, we gained more rights. I think the communities realized, hey the Chinese are really making a contribution.
 
 

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People are just amazed that there are Chinese that live in Mississippi. Like, “Who taught you English?” I guess because they look at you and they think that you identify as foreigners because of our appearance.

After WWII, China was an ally to the United States and then the rules relaxed; I think it was in 1947 or 1948. After the war, Chinese kids were allowed to attend white public schools, so that was the year that I started first grade.
 
 
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TAYLOR PANG

Marks, Mississippi
Department of Agriculture

When I was young, a lot of people would say that I was a Chinese boy trapped in a white man’s body. When I got to Mississippi State, I was an Agriculture major but people my age had never seen an oriental in their program before. They were kind of shocked and thought I was from overseas.

Some people thought ‘he’s from over there’ so I can talk whatever I want and get away with it and he wouldn’t know what I’m saying, but here I am speaking English just like them.
 
 

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I’m a 4th generation farmer in my family and I want to continue the tradition. It’s kind of neat how we all immigrated and settled here…but I understand if you have to follow where the money is. The only reason why you’re still stuck in the Delta is because you’re a farmer, teacher, or someone in the medical field. There’s nothing really here anymore.
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GILROY & SALLY CHOW

Clarksdale, Mississippi
Retirees (Former NASA Scientist/Engineer and Teacher)

My daughter went to Ole Miss and my son went to Mississippi State. My son has brainwashed his family into becoming Mississippi State Bulldogs. He comes to Ole Miss games and I go to Mississippi State games. But when we play each other, the rival game, then we sit on opposite sides; we used to sit together and we thought this is not fun.

[Football’s] family time. For us, we’re fans but we’ve been fans long enough to know that there are good times and there are bad times but at the end of the day, it’s spending time with family, and that’s why we enjoy the games so much. So, whoever wins the rivalry game each year gets to put their flag on top.
 
 

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We grew up working in the store. When you were tall enough to see over the counter, and you could make change, then you had a job. As kids, we would get in the shopping carts and someone would be the driver and then push him around the house and ... somebody would be the traffic cop. And they’d pull out Juicy Fruit gum and that would be yellow, and then green would be Double Mint and then Dentyne was the red light. So you come racing around and all of a sudden, the traffic cops throw out the Dentyne - it’s a red light. So I guess that to me was a lot of fun.

The next generation, our kids, would visit one of the stores here and they’re more modernized ... they would have the floor sweeper - the automatic floor sweeper ... like a Zamboni on an ice rink that mopped the floors at Wong’s Foodland. So my son who is probably 5 or 6 gets on and gets to stand on the sweeper; they’re moving along and he’s holding on and riding around so that was really fun for him. Nobody gets to do that!
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STEVE YEE

East Memphis, Tennessee
Artist

I came here in 1952 and I couldn’t speak a single word of English. They put me in the same age group and it was tough. I couldn’t speak English, and talking or whatever they do, I don’t understand a thing. Because of that I stayed inside the classroom and did drawings. I did drawings everyday inside the classroom. So ... the art teacher ... came over. She came over and looked at all my drawings and she smiled and looked at me and said ‘come with me’. So I followed her to art class and saw all those paintings, drawings stuck on the wall. So I said, I feel at home.
 
 

 
 
 
 
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Because I’m from China and can’t speak English, all those football players — those big guys — they don’t like me at all. They spit on my back, called me names. I don’t particularly like it but I did know when they said to me ‘Ching Ching Chong Chong’. I mean, they really spit on my back.

Finally, I learned enough English - I went to the principal’s office and told him what happened. You know what he tell me? He says, Steve, you have to stand up and fight ‘em. Holy cow, those guys weigh 250 pounds, I weight only 109 pounds. I think he wanted me to get beat up too.

By the time when I finished school, they all came up to me and congratulated me because I won all the scholarships.
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RYAN + SHAWN KWAN

Brothers in Greenville, Mississippi
Ryan: Student at Delta State University; Shawn : Mechanic

I remember going to my teacher about being bullied and picked on and they would never help me because they didn’t see it as a problem. They would just call me a whiny baby but it shaped how I perceived things in the future…I was isolated and didn’t have a lot of friends and when I did make friends, I wasn’t who I really was and had to blend in to be accepted. In a sense, I lost part of my heritage that I’m trying to regain again”

“When I was 10, I was at a dinner at a white friend’s home...one of the young kids asked at the dinner table if I knew how to use a fork. I thought ‘are you serious’ and laughed it off until he then said ‘we don’t have any chopsticks here in this household, sorry’. None of the adults said anything and that’s what scared me because it was not only the teachers…and I thought: if they did this to me, so will other people.
— Ryan Kwan
 
 

 
 
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I joined the fraternity Kappa Sigma and was the first minority to join; two thirds of the guys didn’t embrace me and one of them even questioned if I even understood English...I thought - ‘how ignorant are you?’ But the other third saw me as a person and acknowledged that me being Chinese should not be a barrier because I bleed just like they do.
— Ryan Kwan
The younger generation of Asians don’t want to associate with me because they want to keep their lifestyle comfortable and don’t want to deal with all of that ‘drama’. But I see a lot of them get pushed around...I’d rather be alone and happy than be miserable and picked on. — Ryan Kwan
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My personal view is that the Chinese community around here; they’re pretty strong. They like to put themselves out there and they excel. Like in Washington school, I knew a guy named Kenneth Fong, he was like the top student until he moved somewhere else. But as for my view — on how I view myself as a Chinese — I’m Chinese but I don’t press the matter anymore. I don’t like to put it out there that I’m Chinese. I let my actions speak for myself on what I do. A lot of times, there’s always the common talk of, ‘oh he can do it because he’s Chinese’. I don’t care; I’m gonna do it because I can do it. There are a lot of people that didn’t like the Chinese too much around here. Luckily that’s whittled down.
One of the favorite things I have — if it’s okay for me to say — is the freedom of gun control. In LA, they have some strict gun laws. In Mississippi, we have an open carry law. We can openly carry the firearm in public and we do have a concealed carry - like keep it under your shirt. You can’t really do that in any other state. That’s another reason why I’m kinda anchored down to the South.
— Shawn Kwan
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I feel rooted here but do I want to move away from here? Oh yeah, of course. I would like my family to move away because there’s just too much going on - the Chinese are an easy target because we don’t fight back and they know that. I had a grandfather who died from a robbery - he was shot point blank in the head even after handing over the money...the boy said he would spare his life.
— Ryan Kwan
 

 
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Jerome Seu

Greenville, Mississippi
Grocery Store Owner

I got robbed and shot here…I didn’t know I was bleeding and was sliding down to the floor…and he hit Harry on the head so he had too much blood in his face to open the cash register. The guy got frustrated and threw it on the ground and left.
 
 

The guys got caught because the people in the neighborhood told off on them and they got put in jail. This neighborhood is good; they look out for us.
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Kids call us Chinese Black because we get along with them so well.
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Raymond Wong

Greenville, MISSISSIPPI
TEACHER

We grew up and as soon as we could, we worked in the grocery store. If the store’s not open, you should be studying. It’s typical for Asian kids here - but I was a deviant because I didn’t like to study.

As you grow up, everybody’s friends until you get to junior high. Then you start having class structures. I was fairly independent and didn’t worry about getting invited to things because I had to go straight to the grocery store anyway.
 
 

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I never worried about prejudice because if they didn’t want me to be around, I’d go somewhere else. I never had any bitterness towards those situations.
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When the whites found out that Chinese were going to move into their neighborhood, they started throwing glass and bottles on driveways. My parents decided not to move because they were worried we might get hurt.
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