The Spring Festival tradition has spread worldwide. And nowadays, almost every major city in the United States has a Chinatown. But what isn’t well known, is the Chinese diaspora to Dixie: that’s a historic nickname for the U.S. Deep South.
From the state of Mississippi, CGTN’s Sean Callebs reports on efforts to preserve this story through oral history.
The Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum displays some retail relics – simple items, from a simple time. But it’s also a chapter in large part missing from pages of history books of the U.S. Deep south.
“These are some of the grocery store that were around the Mississippi delta,” Emily Jones, an employee of the museum introduced to us.
The store names and the old black-and-white photos are proof of a deep connection with china, in the Mississippi delta.
In the late 1800’s and early part of the 20th century, hundreds of Chinese men came to the deep south – lured by promises of riches, by replacing slave labor, and picking cotton on plantations.
“They never really intended to stay,” Jones says. “It became the buffer between black and white and that significant story has followed Chinese families the time they have been in the delta.”
It’s about hundreds of Chinese family members, in just a few decades, and dozens of grocery stores. Jones says the Chinese work ethic led these U.S. immigrants to leave the cotton fields and open small grocery stores all over Mississippi.
For the past several years, Emily Jones has been preserving the oral history through the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum.
“We are interviewing Mrs. Lee. Do you understand this will be stored in the Mississippi Delta Archives? Yes, I do.” This is from an archived sound clip.
Harry and Jerome Seu worked in the family store as little more than toddlers. Today, 74-year-old Harry and 79-year-old Jerome, still run the Min Sang Grocery Store.
“It was bad. It was bad.” Jerome remembers racism. That came with being non-white in the deep U.S. South.
But he says the children found a way to cope. “We got to play with the black kids. We didn’t think about races. We’d get together and play games together.”
At the height, there were more than 50 small Chinese-American grocery stores in Greenville, Mississippi. But that was a long time ago. Today, there are just a couple. And with the owners of Min Sang Grocery thinking about retiring soon, it will be a big loss to the community. It is also a graphic example of why it is so important to preserve the oral history of the rich heritage in this region.
Lucille Joe’s parents ran a grocery store in Marks, Mississippi. Then, in a small house connected to back of the store, she raised her two sons: Stephen – now a dentist, and Raymond – an IT specialist.
“I loved working in the grocery store, and it was fun to me,” Stephen Joe says. “I loved all aspects of it. I loved stocking shelves. I liked cutting meat. I was probably a professional butcher by the time I was 13-years-old.”
Stephen and his wife Helen have three young successful daughters. The Joe’s say the reason there are no more Chinese grocers is simple – their parents wanted them to have better lives, and leave the Mississippi delta.
“My parents instilled in us, that we had to have a great education,” Helen says. “Go to school, do well in school.”
It wasn’t easy for the older generations. But they overcame racism and poverty. One thing the Joe’s are keeping is that Mississippi accent, as thick as molasses.
“It’s the funniest thing when sometimes they are not looking at you and they hear someone speaking in a southern accent. They turn around and ask who said that. Then they realize it came from me or Stephen, and they are just shocked – an oriental with a southern accent.”
And, at the end of the day, preserving their story in their voice is what it is all about.
“If you don’t tell your story, somebody else will and they may not tell it the right way,” Helen says. “Without the nucleus of stories, we would not be able to tell what is happening in all these pictures.”