By Hye-Jin Kim
AsAmNews Staff Writer
The diaspora of Chinese immigrants in the Mississippi Delta received little attention in its 20th century heydey.
Today, their memories of living in a segregated South — stories hard to tell in simply black and white — are inspiring Asian American journalists across mediums.
New York City-based photographers Emanuel Hahn, a 28-year old Korean American who graduated from New York University, and Andrew Kung, a a 26-year old Chinese American who grew up in San Francisco, recently published audiovisual portraits of 16 Chinese Americans born and raised in the American South.
The project’s launch party took place yesterday at the Hideout Chai Bar in New York City. Their work recently landed them a feature in The New York Times; the Lens series published a photo essay on their project last month.
“The response was incredible … Many Asian Americans reached out and told us that we were able to tell their stories of growing up in the South,” according to Hahn.
The project, inspired by a similar NPR story published last spring, took nine months to complete from start to finish. It involved a weeklong road-trip from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi.
One of their biggest challenges was scheduling interviews and photo shoots across the Mississippi Delta, “a massive place” that meant driving between 45 minutes to two hours, just to reach the next destination.
But there were many trip highlights, like the experience of Southern hospitality.
“Living in large cities, we were both used to hearing this narrative of Asians being the model minority,” Mr. Kung said in an interview with The New York Times. “We wanted to tap into untold stories when Asian Americans made a big impact in their respective communities. These stories fly under the radar. Who would think there is a Chinese population in the Mississippi Delta?”
The abundance of good food was another highlight — enjoying southern-style barbecue and attending a “home cooked Chinese potluck dinner” hosted by two of their interviewees, Gilroy and Sally Chow.
Photos of the feast show quartered mooncakes next to slices of pecan pie, and what might be stir-fried bokchoy and snap peas diagonal from vanilla-frosted cupcakes.
Dr. Jung, author of Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton is a Chinese American scholar who grew up in Georgia himself. Now a retired psychology professor, he was one of the first to research this unique diaspora; in addition to his books, he manages a website on this community of Chinese grocers, once given little media attention.
“[Kung and Hahn’s] interviews, photographs and narrative take readers back in time to give an overview of this community that was tight knit, even though it sprawled over many miles of cotton fields,” said Dr. John Jung, a Chinese American scholar who grew up in Georgia himself, said to AsAmNews.
Dr. Jung authored the book Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton in 2008 and was one of the first to publicize this little-known diaspora. In addition his books, he manages a website on this Chinese community’s long history, titled Life in Chinese Grocery Stores.
Interviews with non-Chinese neighbors might have given the project even more breadth and color, according to Dr. Jung.
“It would have been valuable to have included interviews with some of their customers, both black and white, to provide a fuller picture of what it was like to be Chinese in a segregated society,” he said.
Instead, Hahn and Kung focused their efforts on 16 Chinese Americans living in the delta, interviewing them to find many similarities between their community and their Southern neighbors. From harboring stubborn loyalties in the football rivalry between Mississippi State and “Ole Miss” (University of Mississippi) to embracing the state’s appetite for gun rights.
And like other residents of the Mississippi delta, one of the poorest areas in the country, they felt a shared sense of economic depression.
Thank you for all your support, still can’t believe our piece was featured in the New York Times! Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite photos with accompanying audio. Turn on your audio to get the best experience! It all started with Frieda Quon. She was our champion from the beginning and put us in touch with many members of the Chinese community in the Delta. For a project like this, it was essential to get people’s trust. We were told that people in the rural South tended to be suspicious of outsiders and we encountered a lot of skepticism early on from some of the Chinese. Frieda was instrumental in breaking those barriers and advocating for us even though we had barely met and only spoken over the phone. @andrew_kung
“The only reason why you’re still stuck in the Delta is because you’re a farmer, teacher or someone in the medical field. There’s nothing really here anymore,” said Taylor Pang, a 25-year old fourth-generation farmer who chose to stay in the family tradition and work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Because most of Pang’s peers head off to college before finding jobs elsewhere, the age of Chinese Americans living in the delta is quickly aging.
“One might wonder if there’s a future in the Delta for these Chinese and their children as their numbers continue to dwindle,” Jung said, citing the death of older generations and exodus of younger ones to places like “Houston, California and New York for better career opportunities.”
Despite the community’s uncertain fate, the two photographers managed to capture what’s left. And at its core, it looks quite similar to what was a once-thriving diaspora: close-knit relationships and frequent gatherings among families and friends (often involving a Chinese dish or two).
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RE: Chinese Americans with Southern Drawl Focus of New Project: I’m really interested in what is was like for them. A minority of a minority