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A Hidden Delta

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A Hidden Delta
Written by Boyce Upholt | Photography by Rory Doyle

Mai Little China Illuminates an Overlooked Chapter of Mississippi History

Matthew Mai was always a solid student, though not in English class. He never had much interest, he says. The son of farmers in rural China, outgoing and social, Mai was more interested in cooking: he boiled rice over grass-fueled fires so as soon as his family returned from the fields they would have something to eat. But life took one of its unexpected turns when Mai was introduced by his grandmother to an American woman. In 1997, they married. Suddenly he found himself in the Mississippi Delta—with its cotton fields and juke joints and long, empty highways—where he could talk to almost no one at all. He was a stranger in a strange land.

Prepping Fan Jiu Chicken Soup

Just a few decades ago, Mai might not have been so speechless. In 1960, there were 1,200 Chinese residents scattered across the Delta, likely the largest Chinese community in the South. And almost every Chinese family was engaged in just one business—running grocery stores.

“It was long hours, and it was a hard life,” says Cathy Mai, Matthew’s wife, who was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and grew up in the back of one of her mother’s stores. “They always encouraged the kids—‘go to college, get an education, so you can have a better career, have a better life.’ So everybody left.”

When I first met Cathy two years ago, it felt like the end of a quest. I walked into Mai Little China, the couple’s restaurant, and explained that I wanted, finally, some fresh and authentic Chinese food. She had Matthew make me salt-and-pepper seafood, and wouldn’t let me take it home until I tasted it fresh. I had been searching the Delta for food like this for years. I’d figured, given the history, that it wouldn’t be so hard to find.

Matthew Mai at the wok.

Though it is known as a predominately black region, the Delta has always been diverse. Starting more than a century ago, waves of workers— Mexican and Italian, for example—were recruited to work in its fields. Itinerant Syrian merchants sold wares to the scattered early farmers; they later established stores, some of which still exist today. This diversity is best seen in the region’s food culture: at local restaurants, a menu might feature spaghetti and meatballs next to tamales, or chili hot dogs alongside kibbeh and stuffed cabbage leaves.

His signature dish, Catfish Mai.

Then there’s Chinese food. Especially in the smallest towns—which tend to struggle economically—Chinese groceries remain, often owned by first-generation immigrants, serving hot wings and hamburgers and fried rice. But this Chinese food is, by and large, of the most Americanized sort—heavy on grease.

At Mai Little China, named by an industry group in 2011 as one of the nation’s top onehundred Chinese restaurants, Cathy and Matthew make a concerted effort to offer foods that could appeal to any palate. There’s a standard Chinese lunch buffet, and there’s a dry-aged rib eye topped with brandy cream sauce. The breadth of the restaurant’s menu is demonstrated in Matthew’s signature Catfish Mai—which combines a creambased, French-influenced sauce with Italian prosciutto, Southern fried catfish, and a garnish of snow peas.

Last winter, in honor of the restaurant’s tenth anniversary, the Mais hosted a traditional ninecourse Chinese dinner. Cathy says the event doubled as a chance to gauge diners’ responses to foods less familiar in America, from grouper steamed with ginger and scallions to dao miu, a dish of sautéed pea shoots that is considered a Chinese delicacy. My sense, based on my own taste buds and observed reactions, was that every course was a hit.

 
Lillian Kwong holds a polaroid portrait take of her at Mai Little China.

Cathy’s grandfather immigrated to America almost a hundred years ago and ran stores and restaurants in New England. During the Great Depression, struggling to support his nine children, he sent his wife and youngest kids home. “He would send them money,” says Cathy. “That’s how they survived.”

Cathy’s mother, Lillian Kwong, found a foothold in China; she married into a wealthy family. But when Japan invaded, the family fled, eventually landing in Hong Kong. “Finally, [because] she was an American citizen anyway, she decided to come over here and start over,” Cathy says. “She really just left everything.” In 1956, Kwong joined some of her brothers in New England, and gradually brought over her husband and children. Eight years later, a friend, whose uncle owned a grocery in the Delta, suggested she move south and open her own.

Zhen's Food Market in Greenwood

Chinese owned-groceries were a longstanding Delta tradition. As with other groups, the first recorded Chinese immigrants in the Delta, who arrived in 1869, were part of a scheme to replace black labor after the Civil War. Quickly, some entrepreneur found a more desirable role.

When the first Chinese grocery opened in 1873, it was likely a small room with two counters. Customers pointed to their purchases since the owner spoke no English.

In a divided era, such stores were essential. White grocers wouldn’t serve black customers; black residents lacked access to capital needed to open their own stores. Over time, Chinese grocers expanded to a larger clientele. Cathy says that her mother’s stores were patronized by both white and black shoppers.

Like most Chinese-owned groceries of the era, Kwong’s store included living quarters in the back, where Cathy lived with her siblings. There were seven children total, though some were gone on weekdays at a nearby college. “We lived together and worked together,” says Cathy, who swept the store and stocked cans of motor oil as a child. “It taught us compromise and survival.” Across the Delta, there were hundreds of such stores.

In the back of these groceries, Chinese culture thrived. Kwong had a garden with Asian greens and melons, and raised chicken and quails. She cooked full courses for every meal, and at midnight, when she finally finished her work day, she would cook a snack like wonton noodles. Because it was impossible to purchase traditional Chinese foods, Kwong learned how to cook them all herself.

Out front, though, was a typical American grocery. “She had a butcher in the back—my brother, in fact. We cut our own meat,” Cathy says. “And then cigarettes, candy, bread, beer. The normal things.” There was nothing Chinese for sale at all.

Prepping for the big dinner.

In 1976, Kwong opened the first Chinese restaurant in Greenwood—called Lai Ling, Cathy’s Chinese name. Largely because of the lack of good help, Kwong says, it closed within two years. But it planted a taste for Chinese cooking. “After she closed the restaurant, she would have people come up to her door,” Cathy says. “‘Can you cook me some fried rice?’”

Sesame Chicken.

Over time, the Chinese presence in the Delta waned. As of 2010, around 400 ethnically Chinese residents remained—a third of the population at its peak. Cathy returned after four years in Texas, but only to help her mother retire. Kwong wanted to sell her store and her house; that took a few years, during which Cathy found a job. Eventually she realized that Greenwood was home.

For Matthew, moving to Greenwood was a surprise. The two met because Matthew’s late grandmother, who lived in Boston, was friends with Kwong. Cathy calls herself Westernized and was uncomfortable with “the whole setting-up thing.” But she agreed to accompany her mother on a trip to China—her first ever—and, after spending time with Matthew, knew that it was love. For Cathy, too, that love resulted in a surprise: she never thought she’d own a restaurant.

Before meeting Cathy, Matthew had won, through a competition, a two-year visa to train and cook in Hong Kong. After he arrived in America, he cooked in local Chinese restaurants. He had bigger ambitions though— and now, a half-century after the peak Chinese presence in the Delta, he’s delivering some of the region’s best Chinese food.

The restaurant has taught him the language. When Mai Little China opened ten years ago, eight years after he arrived in America, Matthew still spoke little English. Now, even when he had to answer my questions in Chinese with Cathy translating, I heard snippets of English slip in.

Roasted Pork Belly with Scallion Pancake (recipe at end of article).

Such is the immigrant life. Cathy says their children learned Chinese before English, but once they were old enough for school, the first language grew rusty. In food, too, Matthew and Cathy are blending traditions. Matthew’s culinary training was traditionally Chinese, but since moving to the states he’s picked up French and Italian techniques, which he finds easier in his kitchen, with its American equipment. Hence, his signature fusion dishes.

Cathy says that offering accessible foods allows the restaurant to push boundaries, including the more traditional Chinese dishes that for so long have been hard to find in the Delta. “We thought we could introduce something new and see how it goes,” she says. “But we needed the basics that everybody would enjoy.”

Matthew Mai Recipes to Make at Home:

Roasted Pork Belly

Scallion Pancakes