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Magnolias and Chopsticks: The Chinese Experience in the Mississippi Delta Part 2

By Sandra Knispel | Published 22 Sep 2011 08:55am | comments
Kit Lum talks to a customer. Her son Robert now owns Lem King Grocery in Pace, Mississippi, which Robert Lum's grandparents founded.

Magnolias and Chopsticks: The Chinese Experience in the Mississippi Delta Part 2

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.

“My parents had it and then I took it over in ’55. And after that, for the last five years or so, I think, I let my son have everything.”

Harold Lum is the now retired owner of Lem King Grocery in Pace, a small dot in the rural landscape of the Mississippi Delta, nestled amidst cotton fields. Nowadays, most of the few storefronts are boarded up. But the 79-year old remembers another time:

“Like Cleveland. They must have had close to a dozen Chinese groceries. Everybody was mostly in the grocery business. Matter of fact, all around the Delta that’s what they all went in to.” 

The Chinese grocery store in the Delta became a widespread phenomenon in the first half of the 20th century after the plantation owners stopped the commissary business of selling supplies to their own sharecroppers.

The Chinese immigrants who came, being very oriented in terms of being merchants seized upon this opportunity to open their small mom-and-pop type groceries in predominantly black neighborhoods and that gave them a better alternative than working out in the fields.

John Jung is a California State University professor emeritus of psychology and author of Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton and Southern Fried Rice, which both describe the Chinese experience in the Deep South.

“It’s a very interesting phenomenon. In fact, when I first started exploring this I was surprised that it was virtually 100 percent groceries, no laundries,  and it was too early for restaurants to have been popular… Chinese restaurants that is.”

Also referred to as the “third race” the Chinese started off low on the socio-economic totem pole. But as they became successful grocers their social standing rose. Frieda Quon, a retired librarian at Delta State, is a second-generation Chinese-American whose parents came to the Delta in the 1940s.

“The children grew up helping in the store but then as they went away to college they learnt a profession and the families did not expect the children to go to college and come back to the store. They would go away to wherever their profession led them.”

But in order to get there, it meant breaking the race barrier in higher education. For the Chinese, that happened at Ole Miss much earlier than James Meredith who arrived in 1962. It also came without a night of rioting and subsequent daily taunts that the African-American Meredith had to endure. Luck Wing was the first Chinese to graduate from the University of Mississippi in 1950, predating Meredith by exactly 12 years.

“James Meredith should be the Luck Wing. Instead of Luck Wing being the James Meredith because I was about 20 years before him.”

With a pharmacy degree in his pocket, Luck Wing headed back to the Delta town of Sledge and opened his own pharmacy, the first Chinese to do so in Mississippi. He also served as the small town’s major several times. But another first makes the now 82-year-old widower particularly proud:

“When I was elected as president of the Mississippi State Pharmacists Association because I was the only Chinese, so I wasn’t elected by Chinese. There was no Chinese voting for me. It was the same way when I was mayor. People said, “was it Black [who] voted you in?’  I said, ‘No, they weren’t voting then.’  So, I was running against Caucasians, you know.“

Delta State archivist Emily Jones and others are working now on setting up the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum.

“To have a permanent space where we can talk about the Mississippi Delta Chinese experience, their immigration and how the Chinese have gone out from the Delta. Because there is a lack of the Chinese population here in the Delta you don’t realize that at one point there were a lot, that there was a good community of Chinese.”

Again 79-year-old grocer Harold Lum.

“All the old folks are dying out. And I realize now – the old folks are dying. I says, ‘Hey, I’m old folks now.’ [starts laughing]

Time to preserve the story of the small Delta Chinese community that lasted for about 150 years and is now rapidly fading into history.

Sandra Knispel, MPB News. 

 

Images

Kit Lum talks to a customer. Her son Robert now owns Lem King Grocery in Pace, Mississippi, which Robert Lum's grandparents founded.


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