Far East Deep South. Available now at PBS.org.
When I left the San Francisco Bay Area right out of college in 1975 for a job at a small newspaper in the Mississippi Delta, the local gentry all urged me to read the work of a Delta plantation owner named William Alexander Percy. Percy, though dead more than 30 years at that point, was still regarded as the most genteel and graceful spokesman for the old Southern order. Delta folks didn't necessarily endorse all his thinking, but his lissome prose, they informed me, set the exacting literary standards by which my newspaper stories would be judged.
So I read Percy's most celebrated work, a 1941 memoir called Lanterns on the Levee. The content, however, proved difficult to separate from the prose. In the book's first few pages, he offered a brief sociological encyclopedia of the American South:
There were the white aristocrats, whose elegance and sophistication, though in decline since the Civil War, were still notable. Poor whites—those his less cultured planter friends called "white trash"—were growing in number and influence, and the South would be much the worse for it, Percy predicted: "When these shall have supplanted the Negro, ours shall be a sadder country, and not a wiser one. Percy was paternally tolerant of and amused by those "darkies," as he called the South's black citizens. "His manners offset his inefficiency, his vices have the charm of amiable weaknesses, he is a pain and a grief to live with, a solace and a delight."
Almost as a footnote, Percy tossed in mention of the South's foreign immigrants, praising their courage and energy, but sadly noting what he saw as their moral and intellectual decline over succeeding generations. The lowest of the low, he wrote, were the Chinese shopkeepers who dotted the small towns of the Delta. "Insofar as I can judge," Percy noted, "they serve no useful purpose in community life: What wisdom they may inherit from Lao-Tse and Confucius, they fail to impart."
I thought of Percy—often, and vehemently—as I watched the new PBS documentary Far East Deep South, an account of a San Francisco family of Chinese Americans searching for their roots in the Delta. It's a tale of heartbreak and uplift, of maddening stupidity and fearless tenacity. It's a whale of a good detective yarn. It's a microcosm of the American immigration saga. And it's a brutal refutation of the William Alexander Percys of the world.
Far East Deep South is narrated by Baldwin Chiu, one of the film's producers. (His wife, filmmaker Larissa Lam, produced and directed.) Baldwin and his brother Edwin, both 30-ish, grew up in San Francisco with an odd blank spot in their family history: their grandfather. Their dad simply never mentioned him; if pressed, he simply shrugged that "it's a sad story" and moved on.
One day Edwin, sorting through family snapshots, found an old photo of a tombstone bearing the name "Lou." Wondering aloud what it was all about, he was startled to learn it marked his grandfather's grave in Cleveland, Mississippi. "Chinese people in Mississippi?" he exclaimed in astonishment. The two brothers, joined eventually by their mother (who knew no more about the mysterious grandfather than they did), launched a campaign of harassment against their mild-mannered father Charles until he surrendered. The family headed for Mississippi, in search of the gravesite and clues about the man who was buried there.
Charles Chiu's brush-off of inquiries about his father—"it's a sad story" —implied, to anybody familiar with Mississippi history, possible tragedy. Instead, his children discovered, the sad story was Charles' own. His father, grandfather, and grandmother had left China in the 1930s to set up a store in tiny Pace, Mississippi, just west of Cleveland. Charles never saw any of them again. He grew up without even the conception of a father; once, at a church service where the minister urged congregants to pray to their "dear heavenly father," Charles burst into tears. "What is a father?" he asked the preacher. "I never had a father." His lifelong grief was tinged with bitterness toward a parent who, it appeared, had abandoned him without a single afterthought.
A chance stop at Delta State University's Chinese Heritage Museum, however, threw new light on the story of Charles' father. A sharp-witted curator, told why the Chius were visiting Mississippi, rummaged through a box of artifacts and amazingly retrieved an old Bible with the grandfather's name, K.C. Lou, clearly inscribed. Tracing back the donation, the curator was able to hook the Chius up with elderly friends of Lou (both black and white) and even the family that purchased his store after his death (by appendicitis, not racial atrocity) in 1946.
They revealed that Lou's failure to send for his son was caused not by deadbeat-dad indifference but the vagaries of the viciously racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only immigration law in American history to target a particular ethnicity by name. The Exclusion Act made it nearly impossible for Chinese workers to bring their wives and kids to America. Charles Chiu became eligible to emigrate to the United States only with his father's death.
And the absence of his family had left terrible scars on Lou. In a letter to one of his American friends who had been drafted during World War II, Lou noted that the man's kids were doing fine and added: "As you know, I always love children … It's really too bad that I can't have my kids with me, I'd be willing to give everything that I got and plus 20 years of my life to have them with me now."
The tangible relief of the Chius at the knowledge that K.C. Lou may have left them physically but stayed present in spirit was leavened by their growing awareness of what Chinese Americans endured in Mississippi and the South. Chinese workers arrived in the Deep South after the Civil War, recruited to pick cotton in place of former slaves who were fleeing north. They eventually morphed into a merchant class perched precariously on the tail end of Mississippi's commercial landscape, setting up ramshackle stores and restaurants in small Delta towns.
By the standards of the time (and certainly during the Depression), they prospered. Old photos of K.C. Lou's store show it fully equipped with modern equipment like typewriters and adding machines and even its own personalized business stationery. Customers still remember him as the man who introduced the Delta to imported Chinese soy sauce.
But they were also victims of the South's totalitarian racial culture, barred from most white businesses and schools. Even when the Supreme Court ruled they had to be admitted to schools, recalled one Chinese man, "the whites never let us forget that we were not white, that we were second-class, still." The Chinese were both obstinate and stoic. One man remembers that when he complained of being picked on by white schoolmates, his parents offered unsympathetic counsel: "Suck it up—that's the way it is."
So Far East Deep South is not a Hallmark greeting card. (Though, spoiler alert: A visit to the National Archives' immigration records produces a whopping surprise that leaves all the Chius smiling in the final frames.) What it is, is a reminder that underneath all the sturm und drang over immigration are decent, hard-working people who mostly just want to survive hard times and create better lives for their children. Shame on us for making it harder.
And shame on William Alexander Percy, in whichever dustbin of history he may be found, for being such a cruel, witless pig.