Chinese grocers of the Delta

I attended a meeting of the Arkansas Lottery Commission today. While reading the minutes of the commisson’s December session, I found a reference to a memo from Joe Dan Yee, the chairman of the lottery’s retail advisory board.

Seeing that name made me think about the Chinese grocers of the Arkansas Delta and the Mississippi Delta.

During the four years I worked as one of the president’s appointees to the Delta Regional Authority, I found it fascinating how many Chinese groceries still exist in the region.

Our headquarters was in Clarksdale, Miss., and I occasionally visited Wong’s there.

On the Arkansas side of the river, there was a Fong’s in Marianna and also in Hughes.

The Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, which does such a marvelous job of documenting the food cultures of the South with oral histories and much more, has transcribed a series of interviews with Chinese-Americans in the Delta.

Those interviews can be found at the SFA website at www.southernfoodways.com.

Joe Dan Yee of Yee’s Food Land in Lake Village is among those who were interviewed last summer.

“Chinese came to America in the late 19th century in search of the fabled Gam Sahn or Golden Mountain,” the SFA wrote. “When they arrived at the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta, all they found was backbreaking agricultural work. First introduced to the region as indentured servants by planters during Reconstruction, these early Chinese sojourners (mostly from the Guangdong or Canton province) soon became disenchanted with working the fields. They moved off the plantations.

“Some left to go back home to China, but others stayed and opened small neighborhood grocery stores. Serving as an alternative to plantation commissaries and catering to the predominately African-American clientele, the Chinese-American grocer was a mainstay in many Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century.

“Life in the grocery business was by no means an easy living. Early mornings and late nights were normal, as were the stresses of competition from large supermarket chains. Added to that were the stresses that they endured as immigrants navigating the complex socio-political structure of a region that historian James C. Cobb has called the most Southern place on earth. … Though the numbers of Chinese grocers diminish year by year, family stories tell an important history of immigration. They also speak to the formation of a unique food culture in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas.”

Joe Dan Yee is described as someone who “bucked the trend of many second- and third-generation Delta Chinese by staying home, after his parents retired, to take over the family market.”

Yee’s Food Land at 605 Main St. in Lake Village is now a southeast Arkansas institution.

The SFA described it this way: “Hanging above the checkout lanes of Yee’s Food Land, you can find an aging photograph of three generations of the Yee family. There is the father and mother who started the store back in the early ’50s and the children who run it today. For more than 50 years, the Yees have owned and operated a grocery store in the Arkansas Delta town of Lake Village. The town may have changed around them, but the Yees still pride themselves on the same hometown service that has kept them in business for so many years.

“What has also remained unchanged is the family commitment to preserving their Chinese heritage. Both Joe Dan and his siblings can speak Cantonese, something his parents insisted they learn growing up. And twice a day you can find them all eating a hot, multicourse Chinese meal (all prepared by his sister, Xing) in the back of their store.”

I love this quote from Joe Dan Yee: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in New York and San Francisco, and everywhere I go they would tell my sister: ‘Bring your brother back in here. We love the Arkansas accent that he has on a Chinese accent.’ So I get a big kick out of that.”

He talked about how Chinese restaurant owners often will come out to his table in New York and San Francisco to hear him speak, noting that “we never heard a Chinese with a Southern accent.”

The SFA noted: “After graduating with a degree in marketing at the University of Arkansas, Joe Dan Yee could have gone to Dallas, maybe gotten a job with a big department store there. He had already interviewed for a job and been accepted, but in the end he gave all that up to go back home to Lake Village to take over the store his father built with his brother, Joe-Joe. He has never looked back.”

Joe Dan was interviewed in August by Kevin Kim. He talked about how his father found his way to Dumas in the 1940s and began working in a grocery store there for a man named Eugene Lee. Eventually, the father found his way to Lake Village.

“Back in the early ’60s there were at least eight to 10 (Chinese) families that were in Lake Village, and there were probably six Chinese stores on Main Street back then,” Joe Dan told the interviewer.

He said that for many years, the store would open at 4 a.m. and sometimes remain open until midnight.

“The city of Lake Village was so busy you couldn’t even walk down Main Street,” Joe Dan said, remembering the hundreds of sharecroppers and tenant farmers who would come into town to shop.

He remembers how the Chinese families in Lake Village would have cases of Chinese food shipped all the way from San Francisco.

“You would split it up between the families and then you would divide the costs between the families,” he said. “That’s how they did it.”

The store hours are now from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 8 a.m. until noon on Sundays.

Joe Dan said his family never has had strong relationships with the Chinese families on the Mississippi side of the river.

“A different culture, you know,” he said. “It’s just like they did their thing and we did our thing. … We never got together and partied that much or associated that much with the Chinese people in Mississippi.”

His favorite Southern meal?

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and cornbread.

His favorite Chinese meal?

Pepper steak or the Peking duck his mother makes.

Those interviewed in Mississippi included Frieda Quon of Greenville, who grew up in the back of the Min Sang store on Alexander Street, and Raymond Wong of the excellent How Joy restaurant in Greenville, which closed in 2008.

“Today’s consumer of Chinese cuisine may have a refined knowledge of the regional specialties of the country, but back in the early 1960s, a time when even chopsticks were seen as new and exciting, what Americans knew of Chinese food mainly consisted of chop suey and chow mein,” the SFA writes. “Though you could have ordered a plate of either of those dishes at How Joy Restaurant in Greenville, Raymond Wong and his family were proud to serve you other, lesser-known dishes of their Catonese heritage. Opened in 1968 by his parents, Henry and Pon Wong, How Joy was one of the first Chinese restaurants to open in the Mississippi Delta.”

Also interviewed last summer was Luck Wing, who grew up in the Mississippi community of Jonestown, became one of the first Chinese men to attend Ole Miss and went on to open the state’s only Chinese-run pharmacy in Sledge, eventually serving as the town’s mayor. He’s now retired in Oxford.

Finally, there’s an interview with Tony and Monica Li, the owner of Wong’s Foodland in Clarksdale. Their story is an amazing one.

“Born and raised in Hong Kong, they left their comfortable office jobs (Monica was a bank employee and Tony was an industrial engineer) in the late 1980s for the Mississippi Delta to run a grocery store,” according to the SFA. “For about 12 hours a day, seven days a week, you can find them running Wong’s Foodland in Clarksdale, where they have tended shop since 1995. Monica usually keeps the books and helps stock items, while Tony can be found cutting up steaks, chops and roasts in the meat department. This life may not be the American Dream of their youth, but for the Lis it’s all worth it. Operating a grocery story has allowed them to send their children to college.

“Tony and Monica Li are the face of the third wave of Chinese immigration to the Delta that occurred during the 1960s and ’70s and continues through today. Mainly consisting of the educated middle and upper-middle class of Hong Kong and Taiwan, they arrived in this country not on steamers but on shiny new jumbo jets. For the Li family and many others, they left comfortable lives in their homeland in the hopes of giving their children a better life in the United States. Though they may not have faced the same kind of hardships as those who came before them, life for this middle generation is difficult as they try to maintain the ties with their homeland while forging new ones in America.”

The Chinese of the Delta — a fascinating piece of Southern culture that lives on.

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10 Responses to “Chinese grocers of the Delta”

  1. EastArk18 says:

    Always stopped at one during work one summer in Hughes. Good service in a small town. I think there’s also one in Des Arc, so small. Good post.

  2. kayb says:

    And there’s Young’s in Earle — a mainstay!

  3. Leanne says:

    I fondly remember the families/store in Holly Grove

  4. bkn says:

    The store in Hughes mentioned by EastArk18 must be Lock’s Grocery. It is owned by the family of one of my roommates at Ouachita Baptist University.

  5. Doug Wilhite says:

    Great piece Rex. I grew up in Marianna and my Dad and I frequented Fongs. Back when I was about 6 years old we had been hunting and we went into the store and Dad still had his sidearm strapped to his side. When Mr. Fong saw it he threw his hands up and yelled “No Shoot! You take money!”. My Dad just laughed and told him we had been hunting. Mr. Fong replied…”Ohhh Hunting? You catch Turkey?”.

    Good times…and great lunchmeat!

  6. John Jung says:

    A wonderful essay, and one that would be highly relevant for my website. Could I have permission to link to your article on it?
    I’ll also share it with my Delta Chinese contacts, several of whom you mentioned in the piece.

  7. rexnelson says:

    Yes, John, please feel free to link. I am fascinated by the history of the Delta Chinese — Rex

  8. John Jung says:

    Many thanks, Rex. I am certain that it will be well received not only by the Delta Chinese, many who knew them, and a younger generation that will benefit from this glimpse into the regional history.

  9. EastArk18 says:

    bkn, I went to OBU. I am surprised that I was unaware that Locks had that connection.

  10. LuAnne says:

    I remember Wong’s in Jonestown. My uncle owned the gas station, & my grandparents owned the general store. Those where great times!!!

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