Featured Oral History: Chinese-American Grocers in the Delta

Wong's Foodland - Tony and Monica Li - Chinese Grocers in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta
Tony and Monica Li of Wong’s Foodland in Clarksdale, MS. Photo by Kevin Kim.

This week’s featured oral history introduces you to Chinese-American grocers in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants to the Mississippi Delta (mostly from the Guangdong or Canton province) labored as indentured servants on plantations during Reconstruction. But they quickly became disenchanted with working the fields. 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 a predominately African American clientele, the Chinese-owned grocery was a mainstay in many Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century.

Members of the Yee family eat a home-cooked lunch every day  in the back of their Lake Village, AR, grocery store. The menu consists of Chinese favorites with an occasional Southern twist (note the butter beans in the foreground). Photo by Kevin Kim.
Members of the Yee family eat a home-cooked lunch every day in the back of their Lake Village, AR, grocery store. They prepare Chinese favorites with an occasional Southern twist (note the butter beans in the foreground). Photo by Kevin Kim.

Here are some of their stories. Meet Joe Dan Yee of Yee’s Food Land in Lake Village, AR, 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. Listen to Tony and Monica Li, who arrived from Hong Kong in a later wave of immigration, talk about quitting comfortable office jobs in pursuit of the American Dream.

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.