The Chinese first arrived to the MS Delta during the Reconstruction period (1865-1877). The period was a time of considerable turmoil in Mississippi as the state adjusted after the Civil War to the end of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy. Tensions were high between the Black freedmen and White people. Because the labor system was unsettled, planters recruited the Chinese as a possible replacement for the freed African American laborers. The United States census of 1880 listed 51 Chinese in Mississippi, mostly in Washington County.
Like most Chinese immigrants to the United States, those coming to Mississippi were mainly from the Sze Yap, a district in south China. Sze Yap was a more commercially sophisticated area than many parts of China at the time, with a history of contacts with foreign traders. Immigrants were likely from peasant and artisan families. Traditionally, young males from the area traveled far for work to supplement the family income. The initial immigrants to Mississippi came not to settle here, but to earn money to send home as savings to be used when they returned to China. Once they were here, though, others soon arrived, often with more financial resources than the first immigrants. Few women came in this period, and the men remained socially isolated. Furthermore, the state’s preoccupation with racial issues resulted in the Chinese being classified as non-White in a predominantly biracial Mississippi social system. These early immigrants to the state sought, however, economic success rather than social recognition, since they did not intend to stay long.
The Chinese soon realized that working on a plantation did not produce economic success. They then turned to another activity — opening and running grocery stores. The first Chinese grocery store in Mississippi likely appeared in the early 1870s. Tax records in the early 1880s list Chinese as landowners in Rosedale, in Bolivar County.
Wong On, a prominent early Chinese settler in the Delta, illustrates the way immigrants became merchants. He had been born near Canton, China, in 1844. He emigrated to California in 1860, worked on the transcontinental railroad, and then came south for another railroad job.
Little is known of Wong On’s early days in Mississippi, but he probably picked cotton, became a tenant farmer on a plantation near Leland, married a Black woman, and opened a store in Stoneville. His first grocery was probably like those of other Chinese groceries in this period — small, one-room shacks which carried only a few basics, such as meat, corn meal, and molasses. The people who shopped at his store were mostly poor African Americans working on plantations, relatively well-off laborers who had cash from their work draining swamps and cutting timber in the Delta in the late 19th century, or poorly paid manual laborers in town.
In those days, stores were not self-service and customers had to ask for what they wanted. Merely buying a sack of corn meal was a complicated matter — the Chinese storeowners at first did not speak English, and their customers did not know Chinese. Thus, pointing at merchandise was how transactions were handled. Other businessmen sometimes took advantage of the Chinese, and their lack of understanding English and the Southern legal system left them vulnerable to exploitation. At best, storeowners were dependent on customers with few economic resources themselves.
Chinese grocers, nonetheless, carved out a successful, distinctive role. One reason for their success was a cohesive family system. After they established their small businesses, these early Chinese merchants would send back home for a young male from their family to come and help the business succeed and to learn how to run a business. That young relative would later perhaps use his savings, loans from relatives, and credit from wholesale suppliers to set up his own grocery. Hard work, experience in business operations, and a reputation for financial integrity soon led to good credit ratings for the Chinese merchants. For generations, grocery stores would be passed down from father to son, and as late as the 1970s, six family names accounted for 80 percent of the Delta Chinese population.