Television

Chinese Immigrants in the Deep South Struggle and Thrive in PBS Documentary

A tale of heartbreak and tenacity in post-Reconstruction Mississippi.

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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.

NEXT: More Than 300 Manufacturers Just Asked Biden To Repeal Trump's Steel Tariffs as Prices Skyrocket

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  1. Is it or is it not counterproductive to continuously raise past grievances and injustices?

    1. Counterproductive to what end?
      Is the study of history counterproductive per se?

      1. jeff thinks we are studying history. get a load of this guy.

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    2. It depends on whether you are the victim of the injustice or the perpetrator of it.

      1. Anyone alive wasn’t a victim nor perpetrator 100 years ago.

    3. Not raise, manufacture.

    4. Asians are just the flavor of the month, if you dig deep enough every ethnicity has been oppressed at some time. The largest lynching in US history was not of blacks or Asians but Italians in New Orleans, when are they going to do a PBS special on that? The dems must see the Asians slipping away, that would explain all the interest in them suddenly.

      1. Trump made sure that asians are lost to the gop for the foreseeable future. Steven Miller’s targeting of vietnamese war refugees for deportation was a dumb, dumb move.

      2. For a link to the entire series here you go: https://www.pbs.org/show/italian-americans/

  2. Seeing as it is a PBS documentary I am will assume that the information is 10% accurate

    1. What one gets when they combine P and BS.

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    2. The majority output of PBS lately seems to be how America sucks for everyone who is not a white man, Okies included. The head of PBS is a woman who makes over one million dollars a year.

  3. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only immigration law in American history to target a particular ethnicity by name.

    Is ‘American’ an ethnicity?

    1. No, but Chinese is. Do try to keep up.

  4. “the whites never let us forget that we were not white, that we were second-class, still.”

    Until critical race theory came along, and then certain whites never let them forget that they were also white, or something.

    1. White adjacent.

      1. Asians in America are like Schrodinger’s cat. If they get shot in a massage parlor or attacked on the street, they’re people of color. If they try to get into Harvard or a prestigious high school, they’re white adjacent.

        1. Asians in America are like Schrodinger’s cat.

          Out: Throw them in a lake and see if they float.
          In: Seal them in a box with a vial of cyanide.

          Party of Science!

  5. Don’t know about the south, but I have a couple stories from central California.

    I lady I took night school with owned a Chinese restaurant. While remodeling they uncovered a secret tunnel with a like of very priceless artifacts (ming vases, etc.). More history revealed a little known network of opium smuggling during the railroad days. Tunnels would lead to the edge of town, and the traced the network half way across the central valley. A reminder that much of the Chinese population was imported to be cheap labor, then relegated to ghettos, and the target of the first drug laws.

    Other story was that in the same area there was a very large Japanese population. They among the most successful farmers in very agricultural area. Then FDR sent them all to concentration camps, and forced them to sell off their successful properties. After the war some got their property back if they managed to make the right arrangements with honest neighbors, but most did not. Fast forward twenty years and the same families had new successful farms and were again on the top of the social hierarchy.

    When the man kicks you down, you get back up and keep going. This new White culture of whining to the government that life isn’t fair is disgusting, and both Red and Blue Whites do it.

    1. Those WLM protest-riots were bad.

      1. Did you see the video of the obnoxious schoolteacher verbally abusing the white cop for being an anti-white racist murderer?

        1. The cop was hispanic, the media would describe him as white hispanic. The woman was black, the media would describe her as nothing to see here.

      2. Or the protests over Tony Timpa who broke no law and had a cop kneel on him for 14 min. until dead and get acquitted of excessive force?

        Suck it up if you can Timpa and quit whining to the government about your problems – life’s not fair.

        1. I love how you guys all respond to a post deriding victimhood culture by loudly proclaiming what victims you are. Pathetic.

          1. Says the guy who consistently lies about his service record and then runs to Don Shipley to “protect” him.

  6. Meanwhile in 2021….I’ll never understand why young people in our big cities are attacking Asians. Wanton violence on Asian seniors. WHY? Robbery is one thing, but this is just teen sociopathy.

    1. I blame the facebooks.

    2. Wanton or wonton?

      1. Wonton. Violence so astounding you could knock him over with a wet noodle.

    3. Because once you attack one, you want to attack another one in an hour.

    4. Many own businesses, and those owners deal a lot in cash. Plus, many like jewelry, but lack the security awareness and precautions of other groups that do the first two.

      Finally, a lot of those businesses have personal contact with the demographic performing the vast majority of these assaults. Familiarity often breeds contempt, particularly if those who are familiar are also ‘the other.’

      1. Oh, and this documentary is but more programming to tar any potential discussion of anti-PRC or Mainland Chinese increasing influence, as racist.

        1. How so? History is off limits unless it is personally flattering to you?

          Fucking snowflakes cannot stand anyone getting attention other than them.

  7. Hearing the description of William Alexander Percy made me visualize him as that Southren Colonel on Looney-Tunes saying: “Ah! Magnolias!” and “YANKEE?!?!?”

  8. Confucius say: “Chinaman who order hush puppy in Deep South not get real dog.”

    1. Dumb and racist, name a better duo.

  9. PBS ‘documentary’ offerings are typical Left/Progressive propaganda machines that they don’t even pretend to have any neutrality. Look at the funding profiles. As another user commented P and BS. The real injustice is some of ‘our’ tax dollars are supporting this dreck.

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