The introduction of the Chinese to Arkansas can be traced back to their roots as a sojourners’ society—men who left the Chinese “motherland” ready to amass wealth in the United States before returning to their families in China. However, Arkansas did not offer vast riches like that of the fabled gam sahn, or “Golden Mountain,” among the gold mines of northern California. What Arkansas did offer was work in the cotton fields of the Delta.
Following a regional conference on Chinese immigration organized by planters from Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas and held in Memphis, Tennessee, on July 13, 1869, local planters met in their own smaller conventions to begin the importation of Chinese labor. There was extensive debate on the topic, as detailed by Powell Clayton, the Reconstruction governor of Arkansas at the time. In his book, The Aftermath of the Civil War in Arkansas, Clayton kept track of these meetings and wrote of editorials on the subject that appeared in both the Democratic and Republican newspapers: “Both parties favored immigration, but were widely divergent as to the character of the immigration sought, and the rights and immunities of the newcomer as compared with the old citizen.” The Democrats, in editorials to the Arkansas Gazette, wrote that, because Chinese immigration posed a threat to the plantation system, any such workers needed to be non-political for this project to work. However, Governor Clayton was dubious of the Democratic argument and quickly realized that the true purpose of importing Chinese labor was to “punish the negro for having abandoned the control of his master.” He advocated that these new workers from the “Celestial Empire” be treated fairly and with respect. Soon, the Arkansas Valley Immigration Company was formed. Under the helm of Captain George Gift, the company set out to China and the Western United States to find workers.
While it is difficult to know how many workers the company brought back from its expedition, the 1870 Census found ninety-eight Chinese were found to be working in the cotton fields of Van Buren, Lincoln, Jefferson, Pulaski, Chicot, and Arkansas counties. Most of these workers were young men from the Guangdong Province (Canton) in southern China. Some had previously been working in California and were possibly in Arkansas to escape the brutal violence and expulsions that were occurring in the region. Others were workers from the sugar cane fields of Louisiana, while still others were thought to have been railroad workers who decided to stay in the region after construction of the Texas and Yazoo Railroad was completed. As credit-contract workers, they were loaned their passage fees by the planters who employed them and bound by contract to work at most five years. In addition to monetary compensation, records also indicate that some planters offered half a pound of opium per month on top of wages (though once the price of opium went up, the planters quickly abandoned the incentive).
In addition to being a cheap source of labor, the Chinese also served another purpose for the ruling plantation class. In the years following the Civil War, the federal Reconstruction programs that were put in place began to allow more freedoms to the former slaves who had worked the fields. As the former slaves began to fight for higher wages and better hours, the planters sought out alternate forms of labor to counteract the growing socio-political power of black laborers. The non-citizen, non-voting Chinese workers were seen by the planters as the perfect solution. They believed these workers could be easily manipulated and were cheap to hire. However, as Powell Clayton recalled in his book, “the Chinamen [sic] sagaciously learned the purposes for which they were introduced.” Many cut their contracts short and did not serve their promised five years. Though there were reports of Southern planters importing Chinese labor as late as 1880, by the late nineteenth century, Chinese immigration to the area was almost non-existent. Making things more difficult was the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress in 1882. The act prohibited the immigration of Chinese people, either skilled or unskilled, to the United States, thus resulting in a serious decline in population both in Arkansas and nationally. With the passage of the act, the number of Chinese in Arkansas dropped from the 133 counted in the 1880 Census to only ninety-two by 1890. Many sought work elsewhere, going back west or back to China. Those who stayed had to find new sources of work. According to census records, from 1880 to 1910, the majority of the Chinese in Arkansas ran small laundries, as was typical of Chinese residents elsewhere in the United States. Soon, many moved on to another line of work, operating small grocery stores.
By the 1920s, the majority of the Chinese in Arkansas were working in the grocery store business. These small grocery stores were located in the rural areas of the state and mostly in places where farm workers lived—namely in Phillips, Chicot, Jefferson, and Crittenden counties (nearly seventy-five percent of the Chinese during this time lived in these four counties)—selling dry goods and produce. These neighborhood stores came at a time when the plantation-owned commissaries that had previously provided their laborers with the necessities began to shut down. Another impetus for this shift may have come from the exemptions for merchants that were written in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (students, officials, and teachers were also allowed). This transition from farm laborer to grocery store owner/merchant brought the second wave of Chinese immigration to Arkansas, and while some remained sojourners, many decided to stay. Those who stayed would also eventually send for their families, usually a cousin or nephew at first. Once settled, they would send for their wives and children. This chain migration allowed for the already small and tight-knit Chinese community to be even more tightly knit, with the population consisting of only a small handful of familial clans. Another noticeable characteristic of the population at the time is the lack of women. According to the 1880 Census, only two Chinese women were in Arkansas. Even as late as 1940, the Chinese population in Arkansas was heavily skewed toward males. This led to many interracial marriages, particularly between Chinese men and African-American women. However, as the racial hierarchy and power structure became more solidified (combined with opposition from members of the Chinese community), this practice died out.
Life for the Chinese grocery store owners was a simple one. In the early days, many families lived where they worked, sharing a back room as living quarters while they tended the store in the front. Their mostly African-American clientele and location in mostly black neighborhoods made them a target of racial discrimination. Some of the bachelors who married local women became targets for discrimination on both sides. However, unlike in other states in the South such as Mississippi, the Chinese in Arkansas enjoyed some privileges that were not afforded to other minorities. For example, some Chinese families sent their children to all-white schools and attended all-white church services. By this time, the Chinese had come to understand the power dynamics of the region, and many families presented themselves in a way to preserve this racial hierarchy. Unfortunately, this sometimes meant that members of the Chinese community co-opted racist discourses when dealing with their African-American customers. Oral histories and records have cited Chinese merchants giving preferential treatment to their white customers, even teaching them how to say racial epithets in their mother tongue.
In 1943, state senator C. B. Ragsdale of Arkansas County introduced a bill that would prohibit non-citizens from owning or renting property in the state. While primarily directed at Japanese Americans (who were forcibly moved to relocation camps in Arkansas during World War II), many Chinese felt victimized by the proposed law. In addition, there was a proposal to prohibit Chinese children from attending the white public schools. After the bill passed in the Senate, the Chinese took to the streets and mobilized a grassroots effort to stop the bill from passing in the House. They contacted officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington DC and at the consulate in Houston, Texas. They also mobilized a number of key politicians such as state senator and newspaper editor William L. Ward and other civic and business leaders to speak for their cause. This came at a time when the nation was engaged in a war with Japan, a war in which China was an American ally—a point that Ward and others highlighted during the debate. The bill was indefinitely postponed when it came up, and the provision barring Chinese students from attending white schools dropped. Also in 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed Congress to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act.
World War II mobilized the Chinese in Arkansas to create the Chinese Association of Arkansas. Founded in the summer of 1943 with the help of the Chinese embassy in Washington DC, the association was the epicenter for Chinese American involvement in the war effort. Through the organization, Chinese Arkansans raised funds for both Chinese and American wartime bonds. In addition, the association promoted Chinese business and cultural interests in the state, creating Chinese language education programs and setting up a language school in McGehee (Desha County), though it was open for only two years. However, by 1949 and the retreat of the nationalists to Taiwan, the Chinese began to face increasing racial discrimination based on perceptions of communism in the community. Due to this increasing threat, the association stopped its political activism and became more of a social club.
Today, this tradition lives on through a number of Chinese churches. As in many immigrant communities, places of worship serve not only as religious centers but also as civic and community organizations helping connect newly arriving immigrants to the community. The Little Rock Chinese Christian Church (LRCCC), for example, not only holds Bible study sessions and worship services, but it also provides information on community services, schools, and job opportunities. In addition, the LRCCC began running the Little Rock Chinese School in 1999 to teach many of the American-born Chinese (ABC) children their mother tongue. Since then, the school has expanded and provides three levels of study (beginner, intermediate, and advanced), as well as a class for adults (many of whom are either carrying out missionary work or going to China on business).
The most recent wave of Chinese immigration came after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, known as the Hart-Celler Act. Subsequently, educated Chinese citizens who had escaped to Hong Kong and Taiwan during the Communist takeover began making their way to the state. The majority settled in the urban communities of Pulaski, Jefferson, and Washington counties. As of 2009, about 3,100 Chinese Americans live in Arkansas. They reside in all parts of the state from the alluvial plains of the Delta to the woods of the Ozarks. Though their numbers may be small, the Chinese have made and will continue to make lasting impressions on the history and culture of the state.
For additional information:
“Chinese Grocers.” Southern Foodways Alliance. https://www.southernfoodways.org/oral-history/chinese-grocers-in-the-mississippi-and-arkansas-deltas/ (accessed April 13, 2022).
Clayton, Powell. “Immigration.” In The Aftermath of the Civil War in Arkansas. New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1915.
Dillard, Tom. “Chinese Americans in Arkansas.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 24, 2021, p. 2H.
Jung, John. Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton: Lives of Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocers. Yin & Yang Press, 2008.
Kwong, Peter, and Dušanka Mišcevic. Chinese America: The Untold Story of America’s Oldest New Community. New York: The New Press, 2005.
Loewen, James W. The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1988.
Miller, Mrs. Walter. “Cotton Plant’s Chinese Families.” Rivers and Roads and Points in Between 16 (1989): 45–50.
Smith, LeVaughn. “The Coming of the Chinese.” Phillips County Historical Quarterly 22 (December 1983 and March 1984): 26–30.
Tsai, Shin-Shan Henry. “The Chinese in Arkansas.” Amerasia Journal 8 (Spring/Summer 1981): 1–18.
Watkins, Beverly. “The Chinese Labor Question, 1869–1870.” Pulaski County Historical Review 30 (Fall 1982): 59–63.
Jung (Kevin) Kim
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