Oxford, MS –
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," said John Jung, a California State University professor emeritus of psychology and author of Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton and Southern Fried Rice, which describes the Chinese experience in the Deep South.
"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," Jung said.
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 1920s.
"The children grew up helping in the store but then as they went away to college they learned 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," Quon said.
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 African-American James Meredith, who arrived in 1962. It also came without a night of rioting and subsequent daily taunts that black students had to endure. Luck Wing was the first Chinese to graduate from the University of Mississippi in 1950, predating Meredith by exactly 12 years.
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 [were] no Chinese voting for me," Wing said.
African-Americans were not allowed to run in the election.
"So, I was running against Caucasians," Wing said.
Delta State archivist Emily Jones and others are working now on setting up the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum.
"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," Jones said.
Grocer Harold Lum is one of only a handful who remember how different those days were. "All the old folks are dying out. And I realize now--the old folks are dying. I says, Hey, I'm old folks now," Lum said.