In a dandelion-laden plot of ground just off South Main Street rest the remnants of a dying culture.
The headstones in this tiny cemetery share the usual story of the beginning and ending of life. Scan the granite blocks and you see the usual James, Patsy, and Jack, but the eye also catches the resting place of Yue and Shong. This is the Chinese cemetery. Here lies a part of Greenville that is disappearing quickly.
With its ornate entrance arch and Chinese lettering, the cemetery is lovingly maintained, a sign that in this place for the dead, there is life.
Nonetheless, Greenville’s once vibrant Chinese community has seen better days. The young no longer stay. The old are dying off. Chinese grocery stores that once dotted every part of town – the late author Shelby Foote once counted more than 40 — are now reduced to no more than half a dozen, an endangered species.
But still the little plot of ground is taken care of. This is a culture that respects the past, yet heeds the future. And for the majority of young Chinese graduating from Ivy league and Mississippi universities, Greenville is not the future.
It is little wonder that the Chinese blossomed here, in a town known for welcoming different cultures. And the Chinese reciprocated.
An hour into an interview with Raymond Wong, a journalist is politely recruited to dinner. And what a dinner. An Argentine, an Arabian, an Asian, and more meet every Tuesday night at a local Mexican restaurant, yet the only accent present is a Southern drawl.
It may be unusual in other cities in Mississippi, but not here.
The Chinese who remain blame the slow erosion of their once-thriving community on troubled school systems, crime, lack of jobs, and the never-ending list of depression-like ills that all dwindling Delta towns endure.
Yet none are apologetic. They see this as the second migration. Their ancestors left China in search of success. And now their young leave the Delta for that as well. It’s not a problem for them. It’s a tradition. A tradition of wanting what’s best for your flesh and blood.
As Luck Wing of Oxford, once the mayor of Sledge, explained, “Americans want their children to be a chip off the old block. Chinese, we want the children to be better than the block, better than their parents.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE
“Even Asia has contributed to and drawn from the Delta. Small Chinese storekeepers are almost as ubiquitous as in the South Seas.” – William Alexander Percy, lanterns on the Levee.
Today, Greenville’s small Asian community could be the best-kept secret for Washington County besides Doe’s hot tamale recipe.
Many native Mississippians are unaware of this tiny pocket of culture in what was once cotton country. But it is business as usual in this melting pot of a town.
Rev. Tommy Shepherd, a local baptist preacher who long ministered to the Chinese community, wrote that in the frontier atmosphere after the Civil War the addition of Chinese to the complex racial mix of the population went “almost unnoticed.”
According to Shepherd’s The Chinese of Greenville, Mississippi, they trickled up the Mississippi River by steamboat from New Orleans. Opportunity was in the air, the soil, the water, and the Chinese heeded the call. Gone were their families and the comfort of home. They came to America to do better, be better, and live better.
They were recruited during Reconstruction when planters were looking for alternatives to black labor. but the Chinese quickly decided that chopping and picking cotton was not their cup of tea.
Joe Gow Nue opened the first grocery store in 1910. One hundred years later, Chinese are still serving and feeding the Queen City.
It is much the same elsewhere in the Delta. Almost every little town had at least one Chinese grocery. Usually, the first storekeeper would establish a beachhead, build up clientele, then send for relatives, who would often live in cramped quarters upstairs at the store before eventually striking out on their own.
It was not long before they were being assimilated. But they still stood out in school for their hard work and strong study habits. Many a Delta high school has seen any number of Chinese valedictorians and salutatorians. Sometimes, they shared their culture with non-Chinese. In Marks, people would come from all over the Delta to an annual lavish fireworks display sponsored by a Chinese family to celebrate the Chinese New year.
Most Greenville Chinese can trace their roots back to the province of Canton in southern China. The older Chinese can still speak their native Cantonese tongue, but most mainly speak English with a side of Southern. Sometimes, their Chinese comes out in a drawl as well.
But the Chinese of Greenville, as elsewhere in the Delta, have not always been seen as equals. Chinese children were not allowed into the public school system until 1945.
Just as African-Americans fought a weary fight for equality, so did the Chinese. But in the traditional ways. They did it quietly, unassumingly. Until then, they had to attend the Chinese school, which resembled something straight out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. One room, a schoolmarm, and couple of desks.
Today, most Chinese children attend nearly all-white private schools — Washington School and Greenville Christian School – or the integrated Catholic school, St. Joseph.
They are going to MIT, Ivy league colleges, Ole Miss, Mississippi State. They are receiving diplomas, masters, and doctorates. They are surgeons, pharmacists, and dentists.
But they live in Houston, California, or Washington.
Gone are the days when the children stayed behind, taking on new grocery stores and family businesses.
Bobby Ju is a grocer. Born in Vicksburg, he moved to Greenville and then Hollandale for the grocery business. These days, he says, things are different.
“Our kids don’t want to work 85 hours a week,” he says.
Can you blame them? The typical small Chinese grocery will stay open ‘til 3 in the morning on Saturdays and then open bright and early for the Sunday church rush. Add long hours with the constant late night risk of being robbed at gunpoint and possibly murdered, and you have the daily life of a Chinese grocer.
Yet, don’t be fooled. The Chinese can have a good time. Before being interviewed, Bobby Ju had just left a Mah Jong game. Most Southern ladies and gents play a game of rummy or bridge. These Southern ladies and gents do, too. Just a different kind.
In the days of dresses and gloves, the Chinese would host dances and balls that could compare with the likes of any Junior Auxiliary or debutante function. Many a husband and wife met at these soirees up and down the Delta.
Luck Wing met his wife at one in Marianna, Ark. Fannie Wong of Greenville met her husband at a dance as well. She claims she “wasn’t pretty enough to be on the dance floor.” So she stayed in the kitchen to help. But that didn’t stop Fannie from catching the eye of Jack Wong.
Being Southerners, the Chinese are full of stories about their people and their ways. And these are their stories.
Bobby Ju doesn’t want to brag on himself. He has a laidback, reserved manner. He would rather talk about his people, his brother, his children.
But Bobby Ju had the top grocery store in nearby Hollandale, Bob’s food land. The family-owned store survived competition from the Sunflower chain. He had 15 employees. A self-service meat-market. Shopping carts. A big deal, considering most Chinese grocery stores are more like a convenience store.
For Ju, prosperity came after he and his wife bought a second store.
Prosperity and good times were not always in the air for the Asian man who grew up during the civil rights era.
“Well, let me tell you. It was tense. Even in the small town of Hollandale.
“There are Democrats and Republicans and independents in America. The Chinese in America are the independents. We could not offend either side. You would create problems for your kids. They had to go to school,” he said.
So Bobby Ju served both races. A minority among minorities, Ju and the other grocers could not comprehend not serving other minorities and not serving the majority. They were simply the bridge. “We are not white. We are not black. Ware in between. We are neutral.”
Ju has experienced slurs just like any other minority. He has been taunted. Called names. Even now, he hesitates to speak them.
His brother was the first Chinese student to attend Hollandale High. In college, he noticed that he was always seated with other Chinese in the classroom.
“It bothered you, but you just absorb it. You don’t hold a grudge. It’s just a sign of the times,” he said.
Having survived 37 years in the grocery business, Bobby Ju now tries to survive the ongoing demise of the Chinese presence in the Delta.
There used to be 50 Chinese in Hollandale, and six or seven Chinese grocers. Now there are two — Bobby and his wife.
Bobby has four children, none of whom live in Greenville — a place where welfare is the single biggest source of personal income. “Unless we get education better, we cannot bring in factories and have a dependable workforce and when only seventy-something percent graduates…” His voice trails off and he shakes his head. There is no quick solution.
But the man with graying hair, a quiet voice and even quieter smile doesn’t think his home is completely gone.
“There’s always hope. Where there is a will, there is a way.”
If nothing else, he said, “I think we left a legacy.”
- Marianna Breland, What Ever Happened to Main Street?, Fall 2011