Chinese Grocers

Yee Foodland building: Chinese Grocers

Chinese came to America in the late nineteenth century in search of the fabled Gam Sahn or Golden Mountain. When they arrived to the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta all they found was back-breaking 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 a 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.”

Collected 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.

Interviews

Frieda Quon - Chinese Grocers in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas

Frieda Quon

“Caught between the notch of a bamboo stick”. That’s how Juk Sing translates into English from the native Cantonese of the parents of Frieda Quon. It is how immigrants refer to those who are Chinese by appearances but American in nationality. They are seen as caught in the middle of two worlds, not quite “American” because of their looks, but not fully “Chinese” either, as they were born and educated in America.

Raymond Wong - Chinese Grocers in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta

How Joy Restaurant

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.

Luck Wing - Chinese Grocers in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta

Luck Wing

For Luck Wing, life in Jonestown, Mississippi, was good. He had friends to play with, parties to go to, and plenty of Chinese vegetables to eat. Though he grew up in a family of grocery store owners (both his father and most of his brothers were in the business), Luck knew that it wasn’t the life for him.

Wong's Foodland - Tony and Monica Li - Chinese Grocers in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta

Wong’s Foodland

For Tony and Monica Li the fabled Gam Sahn (Golden Mountain) of their ancestors may have been a myth, but the “American Dream” they read so much about in books still beckoned. Born and raised in Hong Kong, they left their comfortable office jobs (Monica was an employee of the Standard Chartered Bank and Tony was an industrial engineer) in the late 1980s for the Mississippi Delta to run a grocery store.

Yee Food Land - Joe Yee and Joe Dan Yee - Chinese Grocers in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta

Yee’s Food Land

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, Arkansas, to take over the store his father built with his brother, Joe-Joe. He as never looked back.