Southern drawls, tractors and fierce football rivalries may not sound like the trinity of Asian-American life, but they’re all important aspects of this strong Chinese community’s experience in the U.S.
The Mississippi River Delta is home to a small yet tight-knit group of Chinese-Americans who’ve held on to their Asian heritage while also embodying Southern culture. Many families established successful grocery stores more than a century ago, becoming solid forces in their local economy and a fixture in their towns ― all while enduring discrimination and racism since first settling in the region.
The community’s unique story is the subject of a new audiovisual project by Brooklyn-based photographers Andrew Kung and Emanuel Hahn. Over the course of nine months, the pair captured the landscapes of the Mississippi Delta along with local Chinese-Americans’ deeply personal stories, which they often told in a distinct, honey-coated Southern dialect.
Kung and Hahn hope viewers and listeners can get a glimpse of this unique slice of the Asian-American experience while also acknowledging the very real bigotry the community has faced.
“Our goal was for people to appreciate the history and [learn about] what Chinese people had to go through in this country. The history of Chinese discrimination isn’t discussed very openly, even though the Chinese Exclusion Act was one of the most discriminatory practices ... and people tend to gloss over that,” Hahn told HuffPost. “I’ve never really heard people talk about discrimination against Asian-American people to the degree it should be discussed.”
Chinese-Americans of the Mississippi Delta region have roots that stretch back to the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, according to the Mississippi Historical Society. Landowners recruited immigrants, primarily from Southern China, to replace slaves who had been freed. The immigrants eventually moved off the plantations and opened grocery stores, passing down their businesses through several generations.
Many ran shops in predominantly black neighborhoods that became welcome places for people of color, particularly because Chinese-Americans were also classified as “non-whites.”
“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,” Frieda Quon, a retired librarian at the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, told the photographers.
"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." Frieda Quon, a retired librarian at the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum
Social dynamics shifted during World War II, Quon explained.
“After WWII, China was an ally to the United States and then the rules relaxed; I think it was in 1947 or 1948,” Quon said. “After the war, Chinese kids were allowed to attend white public schools, so that was the year that I started first grade.”
Though many Chinese-Americans were able to attend white schools during segregation, they still often lived and worked in black neighborhoods. Those racial dynamics persisted for some time, and Chinese-Americans’ attempts to settle in white areas weren’t always met with open arms.
“When the whites found out that Chinese were going to move into their neighborhood, they started throwing glass and bottles on driveways,” Raymond Wong, a teacher in Greenville, Mississippi, recalled during his interview for the project. “My parents decided not to move [to a white neighborhood] because they were worried we might get hurt.”
My parents decided not to move [to a white neighborhood] because they were worried we might get hurt. Raymond Wong, a teacher in Greenville, Mississippi
Today, different generations recall varying degrees of discrimination, ranging from violence and bullying to microaggressions. While some Chinese residents of the delta held firm to their ethnic pride in the face of racism, others sought to conceal their culture. And some, particularly members of older generations, felt it was better to shake off or ignore bigoted comments to ensure their survival and create a proper foundation for their families.
For the photographers, the project was a glimpse into a different side of the Asian-American story. Growing up in urban areas with larger Asian-American populations, Kung and Hahn said they were both interested in looking into a small, intimate ethnic community.
Through their travels, they said they found a narrative counter to the “model minority myth” attached to Asian-Americans that the media so often perpetuates. Many community members’ very definition of success, Kung said, ran counter to the image of the Ivy League-educated, well-paid white collar professionals.
“There are different types of Asian-Americans in the U.S., making enormous contributions not necessarily in forms that we hear about, but more in micro-communities,” Kung said.
The diversity of their experiences ― including childhoods in grocery stores and a deep passion for agriculture ― shows that the minority group is far from monolithic.
Check out some of the photos and audio from the project below.
FRIEDA QUON, 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.”
TAYLOR PANG, 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.”
JEROME SEU, GROCERY STORE OWNER
“Kids call us Chinese Black because we get along with them so well.”
GILROY & SALLY CHOW, RETIREES (FORMER NASA SCIENTIST/ENGINEER AND TEACHER)
Sally Chow: “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.”
STEVE YEE, ARTIST
EAST MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE
“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.”
RAYMOND WONG, 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.”
RYAN KWAN, STUDENT AT DELTA STATE UNIVERSITY
“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.”
SHAWN KWAN, MECHANIC
“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.”
Check out more photos from “The Mississippi Delta Chinese: An Audiovisual Narrative.”
Nicholas Offenberg contributed to this report.