John Quon Interview · Back to DSU Oral Histories 

Quon, John Tape 1 of 2 12/2/99
By Margaret Tullos

 

This is an interview for the Mississippi Oral History Program. The interview is being recorded with Mr. John Quon in his residence on December 2, 1999. The interviewer is Margaret Tullos.

 

MT: This is Margaret Tullos. I am interviewing John Quon on December 2, 1999. We will be talking about his experiences growing up in the Mississippi delta as a Chinese American. We will begin by John telling us about his family’s ancestral history, and how they arrived in the delta.

 

JQ: Okay, first of all let me make a correction. I think it is the common order to list the nationality, the race vs. nationality. I think to all of the Chinese. They considered themselves American first. They are really American Chinese.

 

MT: Thank you that is good.

 

JQ: Starting off, dealing with my parents or my ancestors, the only records that I have is that my father immigrated to the United States in 1924. Previously I had an uncle that came over on a student Visa to college. Then my grandfather came next. Then my father came. He came in 1924, and he experienced the ’27 flood. He incurred no damage in Moorhead, because it was fairly dry. He then brought my mother over in 1941. Now all during that time before the family came, they were involved in a family owned business. It is not owned individually. Now let me back up again. They were discriminations against Chinese specifically. There was a limited immigration. That was upheld by and enacted by the Congress, and up held by the Supreme Court. There were also states that enacted the Alien Land Law. That prohibited Chinese from owning real property. That is land and building. Then they were not even allowed to become Naturalized Citizens, nor were they allowed to own corporate stock. The immigration that was allowed was limited to merchants. All this was repealed not until 1943. From the time that my father immigrated to the time that he brought my family over, he had a family owned business among the brothers. Eventually my father was the guardian of his two nephews by different brothers. They took turns running the store.

 

MT: This was in Moorhead?

 

JQ: This was in Moorhead. They were on a three-year cycle. So would have the operation of the store for three years. When his three years were up, he would then turn the business over to the next person. In the meantime, the first one has saved enough money to go back to China. So he could work for three years and rest for six years if he chose. It was a family owned business, not in the sense of the building and the land. In the inventory and the goodwill it was a family owned business. That rotated up until 1945 because that is when my father opened up his own separate store. He turned his share of the business back over to the other two nephews. They continued to operate. My father’s investments prior to W. W. II were all made in China because he could not risk investing in real property in Mississippi where it could possibly be confiscated. He experienced the depression. He was very suspicious of the bank. He had to take the train to Clarksdale to deposit his money because that was the only bank that was still opened during the recession.

 

MT: What led your family to leave China to come here?

 

JQ: It is obviously an economic reason. I will not say there was any political reasons. It was primary economic reasons. Our family came from a farming community. There were not many opportunities. My father’s village, I still own the house in that village. I still have a deed to it, and I still can claim it if I chose to go back there to live. It was a fairly prosperous town because my father received a fairly good education. I think he reached high school level in China, which is pretty good. Now he did tell me that his education was interrupted periodically because of raids by warlords. They would come in and sack a village and not only steel material goods, but they would take hostages and kidnap them and hold them for ransom. So my father spent a lot of his time hiding in caves from these warlords. He still got a fairly good education in Chinese because there was no English. I am not sure if he had any exposure to the Americans in the sense that he learned English in China. I think mostly his English was learned here. I don’t think there was a combination of Chinese and English school.

 

MT: Were they missionaries there from America?

 

JQ: He never did say anything about that. He did not embrace Christianity. My parents did not. They still, well they did not have an organized religion. They went to ancestor worship. That is honored by elders, but they were not staunchly religious. They never did pass that on to us. Therefor then they were very liberal on what our religious beliefs were. I think we all here in the United States grew up as Baptists, but there were others communities that were Methodists. There are some Catholics. So it depends on there first exposure to the missionaries. I think that is where it comes from. Of course it depends on what community that they reside in, and who tried to bring them into the fold if I used the correct term.

 

MT: I believe you have told me before, that some of your family first exposure was to Baptist missionaries when they come in contact in the delta.

 

JQ: That is right. In fact the Baptists were, well I only know of the Baptist having missions in Mississippi for the Chinese. There are two missions, well three. There is one here in Cleveland, one in Greenville, and later on one in Greenwood. Of course they even have a Chinese church in Memphis.

 

MT: Oh really.

 

JQ: I have never attended. I base that on hear say. They do have a Chinese minister that will deliver the sermon in both English and Chinese. That is Cantonese. That is becoming a problem, because the population now has changed. The settlers that came were from a very small region near Canton, China. They call it Guondon now. It is from an area that is no more than forty miles across. Therefore most of the Chinese are somehow related because we were such a close community. We spoke Cantonese. Now there is more and more immigrants from the main land who speak Cantonese, and there is some from Taiwan that speak Mandarin. So I attended church Sunday, that they said the program two weeks again at the church, it was a film of telling the story of Jesus. It was done in three different languages, English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. There were three different showings. That the culture has pilferated from the Chinese viewpoint because we are having a lot more Mandarin Chinese to immigrate to the Mississippi delta. Again my father came from a farming community. I don’t think there was no industry there. There maybe some trade there, but it was very little. It was a fairly backward area. In fact even now, I am told. My mother-in-law went back, and she said that they still have one-lane dirt roads. The only way you can really travel is by bicycle. You can rent a van, but the ride is very uncomfortable. The niceties that we take for granted, they do not have. I would expect that they might even have health problems because of the sanitation.

 

MT: So how did they choose to come to the Mississippi delta?

 

JQ: I am going back to use somebody else’s research. Sharon Nelph had research. She is the secretary at the First Baptist Church of Greenville. She wrote a paper earlier. Her research shows that the first Chinese to come to the Mississippi delta was coming up the river around the 1870’s. Obviously during the reconstruction era they came. Like many of the other ethnic groups, they came here to replace the freed slaves to take over the work.

 

MT: The agricultural work.

 

JQ: I think they suffered. They also realized it was a better life to go into the mercantile business. I think what happened was one the plantation owners closed down his commensary, and therefore a Chinese picked it up and became prosperous. Of course everybody else followed the lead.

 

MT: That is continued down to the current times with the merchant.

 

JQ: Basically, in mercantile business, you don’t have to have a great command of the English language. All you need to do it to be able to count, and know what the price is and make a decent profit. It is not a conversational type of language ability. Then that proliferated. Greenville says that 1870’s were when the first Chinese were to settle. They were going by court records. Of course those that are here we probably could not trace our roots back that far to those early settlers because of the come and go. In fact, we would have trouble tracing our genealogy. China was a decentralized government for a long time. There was no such thing as a courthouse to record births and deeds, but there was a community house, which is really a family lodge. That is where the records are kept. When the communist took over, then when the Cultural Revolution occurred they destroyed all reminisce of the old rules. Therefore we could not trace any of the early births. I recall my father sent back to the village my birth to record my birth. I think it was hanging in the rafters with my name on it. I am giving a Chinese name. I do have a Chinese name.

 

MT: What is your Chinese name?

 

JQ: Gon Wal Whei

 

MT: Would you spell that? Or can you?

 

JQ: I can not spell that, but that is the pronunciation. That is not in English. Of course the order is Quon Gon, and that is the clan name. Wal is the generation name. The last name is the given name. In other words it is in reverse order of the isodental naming. That is where they emphasize that the family is probably the most important thing. The individual is only part of the family.

 

MT: That is interesting. Did your family give you both an isodental name and an oriental name?

 

JQ: Well on my birth certificate, I am a junior. Now again, I suspect that my father had not prepared to name me. So I believe the doctor tacked on Junior behind my father’s name. Then I had a peer group that was almost ten years older than me that I ran around with. My mentor was John Paul Thiner, who later became a jet test pilot and was killed in one while he was testing a jet plane. Since I tagged along behind him, they called my John Paul as well. So I think that is the story of where I got my name John Paul because of my mentor.

 

MT: Do your children have Chinese names as well as other names?

 

JQ: Juan does. Trey has a Chinese name, and my father is the one that gave him the name because I have no ability to do that. Shannon was born after my father died, so he did not have one. Trey’s name that is my older son. Of course he is the third. His is Gon Slate Salum. Again Gon is the family or clan. Slate is a generation, and Salum is three in Chinese. That is tied in with him being the third. So he is Salum, but yet we don’t address him by his Chinese name. Going back to my father, I think there was four male members in the business that was working. You know when they took turns, those that rotate off as owner could still work and draw a salary. They would have other people working. I can recall that they had hired someone just to cook. That was his only job, except he was blind. The funny story was that he could not read, and he had switch the black pepper can with the B. Brand powder brand. I don’t know if you know about B. Brand, but that was an insect powder. He almost poisoned the family. I mean not the family, but the guys. So eventually my father came over. I know he did take money back. He said that some of it he carried gold in a money belt. Then he carried in paper money. Obviously he carried gold. He built a house, a three-story house in his village. It was made of marble and concrete. He said that the coolies were working at that time for fourteen cents a day. They would have to haul the cement from Canton, maybe thirty miles inland. They were carrying it in hundred pound sacks. It was a rough life then. Obviously the economy was so bad, that it forced a lot of the Chinese to immigrate. There is another thing about genealogy that there is always were floods and famine because they did not have a levy system. They were closer to the valley and the mouth of the river. So they would get most of the flood. When they did have famine sometimes the families were broken up. I may have told you that sometimes the family has to give up a child for somebody else’s adoptions. So that child can survive rather than everybody perishing. They have to sacrifice, and hopefully that child that is given up will have a better life as well. So in genealogy that is hard to trace back. I believe my father told me that my grandfather was an adopted child from famine. So everything is fuzzy prior to that.

 

MT: So your father came, and you were born here. Then you have sons now.

 

JQ: Right

 

MT: And you are expecting a grandchild?

 

JQ: Right, now I do have. There were five children in the family. My oldest sister was betrothed at the age of six or seven. That was the Chinese custom. All my siblings were born in China. I think she was betrothed at a very young age. She was married at around fifteen or sixteen, maybe younger. She was the only one that was left behind when my mother came over in 1941. It was the last passenger ship to come from China.

 

MT: That your mother was on.

 

JQ: That she was on. It was U. S. S. Coolidge, Calvin Coolidge. When it back, my father told me it was torpedoed. So I guess that was providence or luck. My brother came, and I had two older sisters to come as well. There were three that was already in the family. Then I was born. I was the only one to be born in the United States.

 

MT: I believe you had told me that you are the first Quon to be born in United States.

 

JQ: I am the first Quon to be born, right. There are now, maybe five generations here by next year.

 

MT: That is exciting. So your father came in relation to the immigration laws, he came in the late 20’s.

 

JQ: The late 20’s, well really he came in ’24, 1924.

 

MT: That is when the U. S. Supreme Court, the Aliens Lands Law is prohibiting Chinese from owning land.

 

JQ: Right

 

MT: Then in ’29.

 

JQ: It even excluded even the merchants. They just cut off all immigration. They were allowing merchants to come in, but not laborers. Then in 1929, they even excluded the merchants. They were finally when the hostility between China and Japan. I think they may have opened up the immigration quota a little bit because my mother was one of eight thousand allowed to immigrate. So that is a blessing.

 

MT: So she was able to get in just before they repealed the law?

 

JQ: Right, they both did become naturalized citizens. In fact as well as my siblings were naturalized.

 

MT: So tell me about your life growing up in Moorhead.

 

JQ: Well I was born in 1942. My family was prosperous, but yet frugal. They were very busy in the family owned business. I was the youngest one. I think it is seven years between the youngest daughter and me. So I was the real caboose. They really did have a lot. They didn’t spend a lot of time in raising me. I recall the term, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I was one of those. I really do bless all of those people that really took me in. I was the only young kid that lived in the downtown Moorhead. I lived in the back of store with the rest of the family. I had the run of the town. I could walk in, and they would. I know one would even allow me to read the new comic books. They would let me look at the toys. I had a routine every day. I would go down. I would check out the comic books. Then I would go to the pool hall. Then I would stand on the corner and watch the train. Then on Saturday, I would somehow sneak off. It took them a long time to find out what happened to me.

 

MT: Where did you go?

 

JQ: I went to the movies. They kind of saw where I was going. I was going to the movies. In fact I had a maid to tell me. What I did was. I was so small that I went under the ticket window. I didn’t go to the balcony. I didn’t go to the main floor. I went up to the projection room. The projectionist welcomed me because I kept him awake. I was the one watching the movie. I could tell when the reel was getting down. So I would punch him to tell him it was time to change the reel. He really liked the company. I did that for several months before they discovered what happened. Finally they had me in a playpen. It was a man made playpen. We had a section of the store where we had flour sacks stacked up. It would even be ten sacks high. They built a perimeter around me, and they stuck me in the middle where I couldn’t even climb out. I stayed there for a long time.

 

MT: How old were you when you were doing this?

 

JQ: I probably was three to five there about. I had the run of the whole town. That is why I really do think it took a village to raise me. I would go into all of the shops. I would just go in. I wouldn’t have to say a word. The comic books were at a variety store. They made an amazing discovering, he said that I read the comic book like the Chinese. He said that I read from the back cover to the front. I couldn’t read at that time, but you can look at the pictures. So I knew the outcome first. So it is like eating desert before the main course.

 

MT: So you picked up a book and did it like you saw your family do it.

 

JQ: I don’t know. I guess I did, but that was a practice for me. My father was fairly well read. He would subscribe to newspapers.

 

MT: Was it Chinese newspapers?

 

JQ: Chinese newspapers, then there was a Chinese bachelor that was several stores down. He subscribed to several newspapers. I would be the messenger boy that would exchange newspapers. Then at closing time, that bachelor would come over, and they would sit at the back of the store and visit. They would talk about world events. Of course I stood around and picked up some of that. Then of course my father would also have us discuss world events at the dinner table.

 

MT: So you grew up speaking Chinese?

 

JQ: Oh yes.

 

MT: When did you learn English?

 

JQ: I would say probably about three.

 

MT: Was you picking up as your were going around town?

 

JQ: I probably was. My first English word that I learned and spoke was cheese. I loved cheese. So I would go to the butcher, and pull on his pants leg and say cheese. He would cut me a slice of cheese, and I would get that. I had to communicate with my mother of course to get fed. I had to talk to mama. She spoke only Chinese. That is where I really talk a lot of Chinese. Once I started playing with other kids that is when I picked up English.

 

MT: Was there any pressure from your parents to either learn the English or to speak Chinese at home?

 

JQ: Not really, they really left me alone on that. They didn’t push me “Assimilate into the American society,” but yet at the same time they realized that I will eventually because at that young age. Of course they couldn’t because of the social strata, and economic strata even of course segregation too. I don’t recall that I spoke English at home. I know my mother did not. My father very seldom. Now probably did communicate with me some in English. As far as I can remember, they also spoke Chinese to my parents.

 

MT: Do you remember any difficulty learning English in school?

 

JQ: Oh yes, I still have difficulty. I have difficulty in verb tenses. In Chinese, if I recall there is no verb tense. Trying to conjugate a verb in Chinese is almost impossible.

 

MT: So it has to be a conscience thing with you in English?

 

JQ: Yes, at times. You can see I kind of speak with broken English. It is halting at times.

 

MT: I had not been aware of that until you mentioned. It seems to me that you are very fluent with it.

 

JQ: Well not really especially if I am dealing with public speaking, I would have trouble.

 

MT: You have obviously have done well with it, because you have certainly been a public speaker. (Tape cut off.)

 

JQ: Well from the teaching viewpoint, but I do have a script to go by to. I do have that advantage.

 

MT: There are two directions that I want to go in, but I want to hold one of them. I want to come back and pick up on what you were talking about the socialization, and how your family fit in. Go back to when you were a child. I think you have told me before that you worked in the store at an early age. That you slept on a cot in the store for a long time.

 

JQ: Right, of course we lived in the back of the store. It was limited space because we had to use part of the store to store the merchandise that we had. In the back of the store when I was a child there were three bedrooms. One for my parents, one for my brother and it was a very small bedroom. Then one for my two sisters, and I was the odd man out. I slept on a Chase lounge. It had a mattress. I slept on that till I was ten years old. So for about five or six years, I slept on that Chase lounge.

 

MT: Among the merchandise?

 

JQ: With merchandise and everything, so it was kind of a sparse life.

 

MT: Then your family built a house?

 

JQ: Well eventually, let me just go back. My father realized that we were running out of space. So he added two more rooms to the house and a bath. Right when I was going to have a bedroom to myself. My father brought his nephew over, and his family along with him. Here we had to go again. We had to share the facilities. So I didn’t get used to that bedroom for a long time. They stayed behind our store in our house, I call a house, for about almost a year because two of those cousins went to school with me. Eventually my father sponsored them, and provided capital for them to open up a business in another town. Of course they moved out after that. So I stayed in that room for about two years. Then later on, I think there was social pressure from my sisters because they were growing up, and they couldn’t very well bring friends over to the back of the store because it was messy. You know it was a business. So he tried to buy a house. In fact it was a house next to the Moorhead Baptist Church. He had even made earnest money for it. They basically closed the deal, until he got threatening letters. The agent eventually brought in postal investigators. They traced that letter back to a particular person. Of course that upset my father so much that he said, “Hey if I am not welcome, then it is no use in pushing myself into the community.” He wanted to fit with in the community. I think there is a term you use, “neutral ground. That we have to live not only with the black community, but also with the white community. One would provide us with income, and the other has the economic power.

 

MT: So most of your customers were black?

 

JQ: I would say about two-thirds black, and the other third was whites.

 

MT: So you relied heavily on the black community.

 

JQ: Right, even if you only had half or less, it still had a sizable impact. That upset my father very much. Let me go back to that person that wrote that letter. Fifteen years later, another Chinese built a house on her home site. It was almost like poetic justice. I have related to you that I really did not understand the severity of that incidence. I personally didn’t like that house, because it was next to the church. That would have required me to attend every church service there was. There was no excuse. You can not hide. Personally that was some relief. It caused a lot of constination with my parents. So my father was so upset, we dropped it. Then he bought a farm. Of course it caused a shock with in the community. That here was Chinese merchant buying a cotton farm. The seller, other members of the community tell me, he was licking his chops. He took the down payment, and he held the note thinking that my father would not be successful. He would get the farm back, and he would pocket the down payment. Except at the end of the first year, my father made a decent crop, but he paid cash for the rest of the note. That shocked the rest of the business community that my father had the cash. That was my father was prosperous. It was my mother that was frugal. She was the one that made sure that we didn’t squander our money. I wish my mother were still around.

 

MT: I believe you said that you worked in the store since you were a small child? Was it about five or so?

 

JQ: It is a family and run operation. At my young age, we had two hired butchers. Then my mother ran a cash register. My father did, and my brother would help out at the meat market. My two sisters would also help in checking out the groceries. They ran the cashier stand. Then when I reached five, and they had confidence. Of course I could run up a cash register and things like that, but when they had confidence that I could make change. Then they turned over the candy counter to me. We sold candy, ice cream, and soft drinks. I was making a list. There were like thirty something different kinds of candy. I could remember they gave me a carpenter’s apron because it was short. I held my money in those pockets. I would sell the goods and make change. On one Saturday, I sold two hundred dollars worth. That was when the soft drink was a nickel.

 

MT: That is a lot of soft drinks.

 

JQ: I was proud. Of course they had me hooked then because once you show confidence you can not get out of it. I didn’t learn that at that young age.

 

MT: You had long days didn’t you?

 

JQ: Yes, it is a farming community. You would start in five in the morning during the growing and harvesting season till about ten o’clock at night. On Saturday, we would open at five in the morning, but we wouldn’t close till about one or two the next morning. That was a rough life. There were many times that I would just fall asleep. I didn’t have the stamina. I would just fall asleep back in the back with the flour. We all pitched in and did work. There were certain days that we knew what we had to do. Like Thursday, all of the grocery would come in. We had to immediately with limited space, we had to stack all the grocery and put it on the shelves. This was the whole family doing this. When we got out of school, the cases are piled in the isle, and we were expected to get it up and out of the way.

 

MT: When you say get out of school, you didn’t mean that you missed school, but as soon as you got home from school did?

 

JQ: Got home from school, oh we did not. My parents would never approve of that. That is when I reached school age. Going back to school, my siblings were not allowed to enter the white’s schools in Moorhead. So my father hired a private tutor to tutor them and keep the abreast of what was going on.

 

MT: Was this a Chinese tutor or?

 

JQ: No it was a Caucasian tutor. Later on some of the customers took note that the kids were law abiding and well respected. They put your foot forward, and one was on the school board that really pushed to have the school integrated. It was two of those. We are very thankful for them.

 

MT: I think you said you were in the first class to go to the white school.

 

JQ: To the first grade in Moorhead. I know that. Frieda is the first Chinese of that class to enter first grade in Greenville.

 

MT: Frieda being your wife, right?

 

JQ: My wife, yes.

 

MT: So did you have any trouble in school? Was there any objection from you being there?

 

JQ: No, I think among the kids. There just didn’t understand the ramification. I personally do not believe that any of the classmates discriminated against me. At least I was not aware of it. Now, I had some mistreatment, but not from my classmates. It was from the students that were from other schools that consolidated into the Moorhead High School. That is when I really faced and there was some from of discrimination. I don’t know if there was anything they could do to harm me, but they did say things or what not. Of course I ignored it.

 

MT: Though it hurts?

 

JQ: It hurts, but yet they have never exposed to Chinese. All of those that attended grammar school. We called it middle school. They treated me okay. The only time that I was mistreated, and it was not race. We were playing football, and one of the boys just picked me up by the seat of the pants and threw me in the pile up. It was like he was throwing a dwarf. You know he was just playing. I was fighting him. Of course it wasn’t that much of a battle. I blooded his lips. He made me mad. I never did experience it now, but I don’t know what was in their mind. You know nobody knows that. If they did, they kept it a very good secret because they have always been dear friends. So my answer is no. Now my sister, reportedly been discriminated against. She was a candidate for salutatorian. I am told that the son of one of the board members got picked. I think of course in real life, if kids keep track of other kids. My sister was saying, hey his grades didn’t match up. Of course they formed discrimination. It hurt. Of course that was her side. I recall my parents warning me, because I was the last one coming up. Don’t you ever make that mistake, in other words make sure that the gap is so far that there is no choice. Again they were not going to court. Of course they couldn’t do it. I don’t think the court would even sympathize with them. There was no political or economic crowd to do anything. I think the term was, “We are here in somebody else’s country.” We look at it that way because at that time nobody was a citizen. I was the only one that was a citizen because I was native born.

 

MT: I see.

 

JQ: You know there wasn’t anything you could do. You could just grit your teeth and go on. Say hey mentally I am the salutatorian, then we just go on from there. Obviously there were other people that didn’t like Chinese. Even today, I would be na