Vivian Wu Wong


There is this shot in the opening scene of the movie, Mississippi Burning, where you see two water fountains. One is broken, and chipped, and water is dripping from it. The other is modern, and shining. A white guy goes up to the nice one, and the black kid goes up to the old one. I remember saying to myself, “If I was in the scene, where would I drink?”

As a kid, I remember going to the theater and not knowing where I was supposed to sit. Blacks were segregated then. Colored people had to sit upstairs, and white people sat downstairs. . . . I guess I was always considered marginal with whites and blacks (1).

Reared in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Chinese American Sam Sue has bitter memories about growing up not knowing how or where to fit in. Since their arrival in the American South over three hundred years ago, Asians have encountered an invisible racial barrier. Neither white nor black, Americans of Asian descent were somewhere in between with no fixed “place in society.”

Finding a Place
The majority of the Chinese who settled in the Mississippi Delta arrived between the years 1910 and 1930. However, questions concerning the social, economic, and political future of the Chinese in Mississippi began much earlier, starting in the mid-1800s when a number of Chinese “coolies” (indentured laborers) from Cuba were brought to the American South as a substitute for black labor.

A vast social and economic gulf yawns between the dominant white and subordinate black. Yet one group in Mississippi, a “third race,” the Chinese, has managed to leap that chasm. Negroes do not consider them exactly white; Caucasians do not consider them black. They are privileged and burdened with an ambiguous racial identity (2).

This unique situation gave the Chinese in Mississippi the opportunity to “switch” from one racial group to another, while at the same time, remaining “in-between” the white and black communities.

Creating a Community
By comparing the immigration, settlement, and working experiences of the Chinese in California with those in Mississippi one can see the unique position of the Chinese in Mississippi. The most significant differences between the Chinese in Mississippi and the Chinese in California can be seen in terms of social mobility, with respect to class and racial affiliation, and ethnic identity, with respect to the establishment of Chinatowns. The public image of the Chinese who immigrated to the American West differed dramatically with that of the Chinese who immigrated to the American South, although both groups had a profound social impact upon the communities they entered. Since the Chinese workers from Cuba could speak Spanish, they were somewhat respected (3). However, the Chinese laborers in California had to deal with intense anti-immigrant sentiment. Elmer C. Sandmeyer believes that economic forces were most important in fostering anti-immigrant feeling, “because Chinese laborers became unwitting pawns in American labor-management disputes” (4). In Mississippi, the Chinese entered a racial system in which there already existed an “inferior” race. However, in California, the Chinese worked in industries which were the lowest paying and had to face the harshest working conditions. In the eyes of the white community, the Chinese were the “inferior” class.The main difference in community development was the absence of Chinatowns in the Mississippi Delta (5). San Francisco Chinatown is an example of a community which was created in order to defend the Chinese people socially, economically, and politically. With the Exclusion Act of 1882 and the disenfranchisement of Chinese from the political process, the Chinese communities were left utterly defenseless. They therefore established their own temples and secret societies. In Mississippi, on the other hand, the development of the Chinese Baptist Church, the presence of women in the Chinese community, and the absence of clans made the Chinese more acceptable to the white community. Without traditional Chinese American institutions in the community, the Mississippi Chinese needed alternatives. They created what Loewen calls “parallel institutions,” social organizations which were structured to replicate their white counterparts. These institutions, such as Chinese Christian churches, showed the white community that the Chinese “was already perhaps beginning to believe that American ways are better” (6). The Chinese in Mississippi appeared to Whites to be less hostile and more willing to assimilate than the Chinese in California.
A Politicized Economy
Central to this development of the Chinese community in Mississippi was the social and economic relationship which grew between the Chinese and blacks. Many among the southern elite attempted to replace black labor with Chinese coolies, so as to undermine the growing political power of freed blacks (7). Loewen argues that Chinese immigration was encouraged in order to increase “white political power by displacing voting Negroes; for the Chinese. . . would not vote” (8). At the time, Powell Clayton, Reconstruction Governor of Arkansas, believed that

the underlying motive for this effort to bring in Chinese laborers was to punish the Negro [sic] for having abandoned the control of the old master, and to regulate the condition of his employment and the scale of wages to be paid him (9).

Both the Chinese in California, as well as the Chinese in Mississippi, played significant roles in the economic development of American capitalism. One distinct difference however was the fact that Chinese in the South were specifically brought in, as Loewen describes, to displace black labor. One must therefore examine the role that the Chinese played in industries which relied heavily upon black labor, to understand the ways in which the Chinese contributed to the southern economy.

The railroads and cotton and rice fields, for instance, depended upon an abundant supply of cheap labor (10). After the emancipation of black slaves, several southern plantation owners suggested that they find another source of labor. Reasons which favored the importation of Chinese workers, as well as those which objected to such a measure, were many in number. On the one hand, General William H. Chase in 1857 argued that renewing the African slave trade was preferable to introducing Chinese contract laborers and that “this was the only solution for the problem of the labor shortage” (11). However, southern industrialists favored the importation of Chinese, for they, in Cuba and Peru, were reported to be highly industrious and well-behaved. Moreover, using Chinese did not prove to be cheaper than using free black labor. Planters preferred black labor to any other kind, since they “worked harder, could be fired or disciplined with greater ease, and could be taken advantage of, financially, with little fear of retribution” (12). Ultimately, the high cost of transporting workers from China and economic competition with industries on the West Coast prevented large numbers of them from coming to the American South.

The Chinese who were brought to the South either from Cuba or China or who migrated from the West Coast found themselves in a unique social structure which placed them in-between the white and the black communities. At first, the Chinese were treated as if they were “colored.” That is, “the call for Chinese as replacements for Negro sharecroppers meant that they would be defined as the equals in status of the race they were to displace” (13). However, the Chinese entered the grocery business, which enabled them to attain relative financial success. The black community’s failure to have done this can be explained in several ways. Slavery destroyed the social skills and economic foundation that Blacks needed to establish their own businesses. Loewen also points out the stereotypes that pursued the black businessman. Wholesalers refused to give him credit, while, at the same time, many blacks shopped at white stores as an attempt to improve their social status (14). More important, a friendly relationship developed between the Chinese and blacks, stemming from more than economic necessity. Not only did Chinese grocers do business in the black community, but they also lived there; and were thus “subject to the same discrimination and prejudice” that the blacks received from the whites (15). The Chinese grocer consequently acted friendlier toward the black customer than did the white grocer. For instance, most Chinese grocers “did not require the deferential courtesy forms customarily demanded by whites” (16). In this way, the Chinese grocers were able to monopolize a portion of the market in the black community to which the white community did not have access. Over time, most of the businesses in the Delta, if they were not owned by whites, were controlled by the Chinese (17). Their ability to succeed in developing groceries gave the Chinese in Mississippi the opportunity to become socially and economically independent from the white community. The financial success of Chinese businesses placed the Chinese somewhere between “white and black”: not quite white due to their racial differences, and yet more than black as a result of their economic status.

Wanting More
Occupying this position of “in-between” white and black was quite satisfying for the Chinese grocer, initially. “These ties were therefore not discouraged until they hindered the advancement of the group into white institutions” (18). The Chinese tried to send their children to white schools, and according to one woman, the white community would let the Chinese go to their school “‘cause they don’t know no better” (19). Since some of the Chinese families had white friends, the Chinese children were permitted to attend white schools until someone objected on legal grounds.In 1909, the state Supreme Court of Mississippi decided that “it has been at all times the policy of lawmakers of Mississippi to preserve white schools for members of the Caucasian race alone” (20). The Chinese were technically categorized as a “colored race.” Thus Chinese children were denied access to white schools. Disregarding any economic advantages that they may have had in their relationship with the black community, the Chinese, at this point, decided to completely reject their being labeled “colored.” They were now more concerned with properly educating their children than with achieving economic success. Because blacks were seen as inferior, Chinese parents did not want their children to attend black schools, they did not want to be considered “colored,” and they did not want to assimilate into black culture (21).The U. S. Supreme Court case of Rice vs. Gong Lum is an example of this dilemma and the ambiguity that surrounded the “racial status” of the Chinese community. Mrs. Gong Lum, a resident of considerable standing in the white community of Rosedale, Mississippi, “got very angry with the Rosedale school Board because they kicked her children. . . out of the [white] school” (22). Her argument was that the Lum children were not members of the “colored” race, and that they had a right to receive a “proper” education. They therefore should be allowed to attend white schools. However the Mississippi Supreme Court maintained that white children must be segregated from all other races. Although this appeared to be in contradiction with the Fourteenth Amendment, Chinese children were refused access to white schools. Loewen contends that the white upper class in Mississippi had “no economic ‘self-interest’ at stake in keeping the Chinese down” (23). However, Cohn points out that the “condition” that was attached to the admission of Chinese children to white schools, reveals the underlying fear that the white community had with admitting Chinese children into white schools. Stating that the Chinese “themselves must see to it that no children of Chinese-Negro blood apply through their community” suggests that Whites were not so much worried about admitting Chinese children into white schools as they were in admitting black children (24). C. Vann Woodward, suggests that the South, or the southern way of life, only allowed the existence of two groups, white and black, no mulattos and certainly no Chinese. A person must be either white or black. The social and political system did not accommodate anyone “in-between.” Thus, the incorporation of Chinese into the Mississippi Delta community fundamentally challenged the white community’s views about race and white supremacy.The Chinese in Mississippi tried to resolve this dilemma by turning “into Christian grocers and business people, and, after being for a time neither black nor white, found a new niche as a ‘white.’ There was no other category in southern experience in which they could be put” (25). However, the white community did not readily accept that transition. As Cohn describes, whites feared that “if Chinese children were permitted to attend the public schools these Chinese-Negro half-breeds would go along” (26). The white community in this case was well aware of the fact that they could not make any decision which would eventually lead to the acceptance and integration of blacks into their community. “‘Aren’t Chinese colored,’ they asked. ‘If we let them in, won’t Negroes want to integrate?’” (27). The question therefore was not whether Chinese children should be allowed to attend white schools, but rather how could they prevent Chinese-African children and possibly black children from attending white schools along with the Chinese. In reality, the percentage of Chinese men who lived with or married black women amounted to “perhaps twenty percent at its peak” (28). The number of Chinese-African children produced was also relatively few in number. Yet realizing that whites firmly held to a stereotypical view of their community, Chinese leaders determined that, regardless of their individual practices, the white community considered the Chinese people to be a monolithic group. Thus, changing the image of the Chinese community in this respect was crucial. Their acceptance in white society hinged upon the behavior of those among them who lived with Africans. In order to do this, the Chinese community needed to reject their relationship with blacks on a social level. As soon as they could prove to the “satisfaction of the white community that the children whom they present for admittance to the white schools are racially pure Chinese,” then whites would be more willing to re-evaluate their racial status and place in their community (29).
Making a Choice
To accomplish this task of assimilating with whites, the Chinese attempted to eliminate all Chinese-African relationships within their community. By influencing Chinese males to end African relationships and to abandon their Chinese-African kin, or by forcing those families to leave the community, they set out to “eradicate the Chinese-Negro minority” (30). The Chinese were “insisting that their men shall refrain from having Negro mistresses, and no half-breed children” (31). Interracial marriages between Chinese and blacks were intensely criticized and severely discouraged by the Chinese community as a whole (32). This desire to assimilate forced the Chinese community to avoid any social interaction with the black community.As a result, the image of the Chinese American community in Mississippi slowly changed and by the 1940s, as Americans started seeing the Chinese as wartime allies, Chinese American children started attending white schools legally. In fact, in 1945, school board president Henry Starling stated that “children of native Chinese strain are pupils of high scholastic and character standards” (33). Contrary to their aforementioned similarities with blacks, the Chinese were no longer seen as a racial threat. Interestingly enough, this new stereotype became an underlying reason for the continued oppression of blacks. The refusal on the part of the white community to allow blacks into the social system was rationalized by their acceptance of the Chinese and their alleged extraordinary abilities. In this way, whites were reassured that “their oppression of Negroes was called forth by that race’s particular and peculiar lack of capacity” (34).
In Between and Invisible
Throughout history, the legal status of Chinese in Mississippi changed often. Southern society had no place for the Chinese. “Considered neither white nor black. . . the segregation system attempted to deal with them as exceptions” (35). This dilemma played a vital role in the formation of an ethnic identity in the Chinese community in Mississippi. In the end, it failed, and they had to choose. To be in between was to be invisible.The choice that the Chinese in Mississippi made nearly sixty years ago to be white rather than black has had profound implications for our society today. Are we two nations as the Kerner Report claims? Are we either white or black? In the end, the Chinese in Mississippi found that it was to their benefit to reject the black community to be accepted however marginally by the white community. The choice has had a price.
1. Sam Sue, interview by Joann Faung Jean Lee, in Oral Histories of First to Fourth Generation Americans from China, the Philippines, Japan, India, the Pacific Islands, Vietnam and Cambodia (New York: New York Press, 1991), 3.2. James W. Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 2.3. Lucy M. Cohen, Chinese in the Post-Civil War South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1984), 57.4. Shih-shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), 56.

5. Robert Seto Quan, Lotus Among Magnolias: The Mississippi Chinese (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1982), x.

6. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 84.

7. Tsai, The Chinese Experience, 8.

8. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 23.

9. Ibid.

10. Quan, Lotus Among Magnolias, 5.

11. Cohen, Chinese, 26.

12. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 26.

13. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 24.

14. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 46.

15. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 64.

16. Ibid.

17. David L Cohn, Where I was Born and Raised (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967), 189.

18. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 64.

19. Quan, Lotus Among Magnolias, 46.

20. Quan, Lotus Among Magnolias, 14.

21. Quan, Lotus Among Magnolias, 45.

22. Quan, Lotus Among Magnolias, 46.

23. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 98.

24. Cohen, Chinese, 235.

25. Jack Chen, The Chinese of America (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), 131.

26. Cohen, Chinese, 156.

27. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 74.

28. Ibid.

29. Cohn, Where I was Born and Raised, 57.

30. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 76.

31. Cohn, Where I was Born and Raised, 157.

32. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 76.

33. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 98.

34. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 99.

35. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 2.

(Article courtesy of Organization of American Historians [Asian American])




The Mississippi Chinese : Between Black and White, Second Edition by James W. Loewen (Paperback – Jan 1988)


1 Comment

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  1. Kelly

    Very good read!

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