It was said several times during “Far East Deep South,” a 73-minute episode of PBS’s America ReFramed, and I couldn’t say it any better: when you think of Mississippi, you don’t think of Chinese people. But that’s exactly what the true story of Charles Chiu and his family entailed.
Chiu is an elderly man who immigrated from China as a teenager, and he now lives in the San Francisco area with his wife. The program explains that, as their two sons got older, the boys had questions about their paternal grandfather, a man their father didn’t seem to want to talk about. KC Lou, that grandfather, had died in Mississippi when Charles was a small boy still living in China with his mother. And Lou’s tale winds its way through American and Southern history, through the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, through the work of segregationist senator James Eastland, and into the small town of Pace, where he operated a grocery store. Through the course of the program, the family visits several sites, including the location of his old store and Delta State University’s Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum.
Though the racial narrative of the South focuses heavily on white and black people, people of other races, ethnicities, and backgrounds also played significant roles in the culture. This episode of America ReFramed describes how Chinese immigrants often ran grocery stores, how their children were educated in mission schools during the time of segregation, and how they commingled with local blacks in ways that whites would not. Broadening our perspectives, the black-white narrative has subplots, backstories, and asides that challenge a mythic notion of a dualistic culture. Becoming more aware of these will allow our understanding of the South to grow and to become more accurate.