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Asian America in the Deep South

By:  Jamal Booker Aug 20, 2014
Ed_Wong_Family(604)

Ed Wong’s family owned this grocery store on Wrightsboro Rd in Augusta, GA. (1936)

1950s Mississippi might not be the first place you'd expect to find Chinese language ads for Coca-Cola. However, The Coca-Cola Bottling Companies in the Mississippi cities of Greenville, Clarksdale and Vicksburg all placed ads in a Tri-State Chinese Directory produced for Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee during this period. I learned about this interesting fact recently when I was contacted by Tricia Sung, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Historical Society in Atlanta.

Tricia was researching Chinese-American businesses in the southern United States that sold ice-cold Coca-Cola as a staple in their outlets. The rich stories she shared with me provided a snapshot of the lives of Chinese Americans in the South, and conveyed how much Coca-Cola was and is a part of the fabric of everyday life and business. It is quite fascinating to hear firsthand accounts demonstrating that Coca-Cola has always been for everyone. America is beautiful, indeed.

Below are the firsthand accounts of growing up with Coca-Cola from Raymond Wong, president, Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum; Frieda Quon, past president, Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum; and contributor Harry Gong, a fourth-generation Chinese American who was born in the Mississippi Delta and still lives Greenwood, Miss.


Coca-Cola: A Measure of Success

By Harry Gong

I was born in the Mississippi Delta, proud grandson of a Chinese immigrant family who sought their future and fortune in the Old South, where cotton and plantations were the primary focus of success in the towns and cities that dotted the landscape. Cotton gins were found in virtually every community large or small, and the fact that they were so busy during the seasons of harvest year after year epitomized the agricultural success of the '40s, '50s and '60s.

The Delta was a melting pot of ethnicities, cultures of families with European, Lebanese, Asian and Jewish origins. Each family played an important role in the mechanism by which the economy functioned. In addition to the blacks who provided the muscle in the agronomy, families of Italian origin enlisted in filling managerial duties and undertaking small farming ventures of their own. The Jewish families opened dry goods and department stores and were evident in most towns and communities. 

The Chinese families in these Delta communities provided a necessary role in this social template by making available provisions for the black families that provided the labor, strength and energy in these farming success stories. I grew up in one of these mercantile establishments, and like so many of my friends and relatives who shared the same cultural upbringing, we all shared many common “positives” that existed with each and every family.

For instance, education and especially advanced education, was common with each individual of the following generation. It was especially rare that a member of a Chinese family did not receive his or her college diploma. Another common social trait was excellent food, for no friend or relative who drops by for a visit will leave without a fulfilling meal, even if it meant sacrificing a meal of his own. 

Also, one societal “positive” I can recall is the importance of serving a bottle of Coca-Cola. Back in the plantation days where Barq’s root beer, Royal Crown Cola, Prince Albert tobacco, and Moon Pies were staples that trumpeted a language of its own, one product stood out above all others. I can remember serving up pops from the soda case, but one section stood out head and shoulders above the rest, and that was the Coca-Cola compartment.

Visual displays of Coca-Cola surrounded us in our businesses. I recall a Coca-Cola thermometer that hung on the store wall to remind us of the oppressive heat we endured. The wooden cases and wooden six pack containers are fondly remembered and are now deemed as collectibles. I even reminisce the days when I would go to the corner drug store, and Coca-Cola floats were served to the patrons seated on the wooden stools anxiously awaiting the much desired cold refreshment.

Workers would enter the store after hard days of picking or hoeing cotton, and they would stop by the counter and ask for the coldest and most popular refreshment, and usually that would be for a Coca-Cola. When sales representatives, business personnel, or very close friends would drop by, a Coca-Cola was served. When wedding banquets or child birth parties were planned, Coca-Cola was always the beverage of choice being served. You can visualize the signage on many of  the store establishments with advertisements for coffee, tobacco, or Coca-Cola.

Relatives in the villages in China often inquire of progress and achievements procured in the New World. Ask any immigrant Chinese family during those early generations, and they will tell you, “We’ve done well and are successful in America...Please have a Coca-Cola!”