Mississippi: Joe Gow Nue 周狗女公司

Winston Ho 何嶸.  
University of New Orleans,
Department of History 紐奧良大學歷史學系.

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2020 Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve.


[Wolcott, Marion Post (Farm Security Administration). Photograph of the Corner of Canal Street and N. Front Street. 1939. Library of Congress, 2017801700. Accessed from the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017801700/).]

The above is a famous photograph of the Joe Gow Nue and Company grocery 周狗女公司 in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1939. The photograph was taken by Marion Post Wolcott (1910 → 1990) of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). A native of New Jersey and New York City, Wolcott and the other FSA photographers documented everyday life during the Great Depression for the FSA. This photograph of Joe Gow Nue is now a public domain photograph at the Library of Congress (LOC, 2017759415).

In business for over a century, Joe Gow Nue was one of the first Chinese-owned groceries in the Delta region. It was located at the end of 200 Washington Avenue, on the corner of North Walnut Street. Greenville 青城 is a port city near the Mississippi River, and in the 1800s, when the U.S. economy still depended on rivers and canals, it was an important stop between New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Natchez, and Vicksburg to the south, and Memphis and St. Louis to the north. Agriculture and cotton-growing was and still is the primary economic engine of the Delta region, so much so that the introduction to the 1952 Tri-State Chinese Commercial Directory named the Delta as “cotton mountain” 棉花山.

The textile mills of the north were supplied by Southern cotton, and in the twentieth-century, after the construction of the railroads, Greenville remained an important economic and transportation hub for the Delta region. Main Street was its cultural and administrative center, lined churches, a synagogue, a post office, the library, the courthouse, and city hall. One block away, Washington Avenue was a flourishing commercial district, lined with stores, restaurants, and banks. The very first Stein Mart department and clothing store was founded across the street from Joe Gow Nue in 1908 by a Jewish immigrant from Russia. A trolley system once connected Main and Washington Streets to the rest of downtown Greenville.

[Wolcott, Marion Post (Farm Security Administration). Photograph of the Corner of Canal Street and N. Front Street. 1939.]

Joe Gow Nue was located near the Mississippi River levee, and the grass-covered levee and North Walnut Street appears in the background to the left of Wolcott’s 1939 photograph. Unfortunately, no photographs from inside the grocery have survived. However, we can peer through the windows of Wolcott’s photograph and see stacks of cans and bottles lined up along the wall on the right, as well as jars of sugar or salt on the window sill. Advertisements for RC Cola, Coca Cola, and Camel cigarettes appear outside. In an age before the modern supermarket, local residents relied on small neighborhood stores such as Joe Gow Nue for basic groceries, including fresh meat, produce, and dairy products.

We also know from oral histories and from advertisements in the Tri-State Directory that Joe Gow Nue sold Chinese groceries to Chinese American patrons, one of the few groceries in the Delta to do so. These groceries would include fresh Chinese vegetables grown by the local Chinese, and noodles, tea, preserved meat, candied fruits, and sauces from distant Chinatowns or imported directly from China. According to the historian John Jung, Joe Gow Nue attracted so many Chinese customers that it became a community center, and the grocery assisted other Chinese with immigration forms, passport applications, and ticket purchasing to New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and New Orleans.

[Wolcott, Marion Post (Farm Security Administration). Photograph of the Corner of Canal Street and N. Front Street. 1939.]

Also note the African Americans sitting and socializing around the grocery. In the Delta region, most grocery stores were owned by a single Chinese American family, and the oral histories and memories of these families note that many of their customers were African American. When segregation still existed in the South, the Mississippi Chinese could purchase goods from White wholesalers, then sell these goods to Black patrons. It was an arrangement that provided a market for White businesses, a valuable service to the Black community, and a means of earning a steady income for the Chinese. The arrangement benefited everyone, and it did not threaten either White jobs or the racial hierarchy of the turn-of-the-century South. The arrangement was duplicated not only in the rest of Greenville, but throughout the Mississippi Delta, as well as Arkansas and Texas. Given this knowledge, perhaps we should be surprised to hear that it wasn’t the Chinese, but Italians and Germans who dominated the grocery industry in New Orleans and other southern cities, but that will need to be a story for another day.

At one time, there really was a Joe Gow Nue 周狗女, who founded his grocery between the 1870s and 1890s. We don’t know when or how he arrived in Mississippi, but we do know that Mr. Joe was a native of Wang Sek village in Hoiping (Kaiping) county, Guangdong province 廣東省開平縣. Around 1910, Joe Gow Nue retired and returned to China, selling his grocery to two brothers, Joe Nam and Joe King, who had previously operated a laundry in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Joe Nam and Joe King came from the same hometown as Joe Gow Jue, and given that everyone in these small rural villages in China were distant relatives, it is possible that Joe Goe Nue was related to the brothers. A third brother, Joe Guay (? → 1945), was left behind in Massachusetts to run the laundry. But after Joe Nam and Joe King retired and moved back to China in 1924, Joe Guay sold the laundry and managed the Joe Gow Nue grocery for the next two decades. After his death in 1947, his son, Joe Ting, and other relatives ran the grocery for another five decades.

[Joe Gow Nue No. 2. Circa 1940s-1950s. From the Delta Chinese Heritage Museum at Delta State University (https://chineseheritagemuseum.org/about/).]

Located next to the Mississippi River levee, the Joe Gow Nue grocery survived the Great Flood of 1927, when the levee breached a few miles north of Greenville and flooded the entire city for months. Joe Guay not only rebuilt but flourished, so much so that eight years later, in 1935, he opened a second store – Joe Gow Nue No. 2 – a few blocks away on the corner of 601 Nelson Street and Broadway Street. Nelson Street was the cultural and commercial center of the Black community in Greenville, and it was once lined with churches, restaurants, stores, and clubs. As part of the “chitlin circuit,” blues music and jazz were once played here. Back on Washington Avenue, Joe Gow Nue No. 1 became a Greenville landmark for generations of local residents.

However, towards the end of the century, with the falling importance of rivers and railroads for transportation, and the rising importance of cars and trucks, commerce shifted away from Washington Avenue and downtown Greenville towards Highway 82 and Highway 1. Today, the Super Walmart and the Kroger Supermarket on Highway 1 have largely replaced the stores that once lined Washington Avenue. Around the same time, the White population of Greenville began moving to the suburbs surrounding the city after the Second World War, leaving the less affluent Black population behind. The White-owned supermarkets in the suburbs out-priced the Chinese groceries, which also remained behind in downtown Greenville. Meanwhile, the younger generation of American-born Chinese were going to college and taking high-paying jobs outside Mississippi.

It was a story repeated throughout the Delta, as technology and migration removed the factors that once made the neighborhood groceries so profitable. All of the Delta Chinese groceries struggled to survive these transformations, and Joe Gow Nue closed in the 1990s. The historic structure was destroyed by fire in 1998, and only a grassy lot remains on the corner of Washington Avenue and Walnut Street today.


[1952 advertisement for Joe Gow Nue from the 《美南三省華僑商業指南》 Tri-State Chinese Commercial Directory of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, p. 23. 1952. Accessed from Archive.org (https://archive.org/details/Tri-stateChineseDirectoryOfMississippiArkansasAndTennessee/page/n1).]

Joe Gow Nue Co /
No. 1 Phone 6571, 200 Washington Avenue, Greenville, Missississippi /
No. 2 Phone 4286, 601 Nelson Avenue, Greenville, Missississippi /

[Chinese and Western groceries, wide selection of, meat and produce,
all delicious, for overseas patrons, reasonable prices,
Joe Gow Nue Company.]

NolaChinese: Joe Gow Nue 周狗女公司 (https://nolachinese.wordpress.com/2020/12/31/joe-gow-nue/).

Wolcott, Marion Post (Farm Security Administration). Photograph of the Corner of Canal Street and N. Front Street. 1939. Library of Congress, 2017801700. Accessed from the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017801700/).

《美南三省華僑商業指南》 Tri-State Chinese Commercial Directory of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, p. 23. 1952. Accessed from Archive.org (https://archive.org/details/Tri-stateChineseDirectoryOfMississippiArkansasAndTennessee/page/n1).

何嶸《美南三省華僑商業指南目錄》 Ho, Winston. “Index to the Tri-State Chinese Commercial Directory of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee.” 2017. Accessed from Academic.edu (https://www.academia.edu/40483592/).

Shepherd, Ted. The Chinese of Greenville Mississippi. 1999.

Jung, John. Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton, p. 61-66, 103-106. Yin Yang Press, 2016.

Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum (https://chineseheritagemuseum.org/about/).

Mathews, James. “Queen City of the Delta.” Greenville and Washington County Visitors Bureau, 2019. Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AC3ik8O1nE).

“American-American Heritage Guide.” Greenville and Washington County Visitors Bureau, 2020. Accessed from the City of Greenville (https://visitgreenville.org/wp-content/themes/twentyfifteen/pdfs/landmarks-legend-and-lyrics.pdf).

[Note: Greenville was originally located on the Mississippi River. But in the 1930s, after the Great Flood of 1927, the Army Corp of Engineers initiated a straightening project that diverted the River away from the city. The project provided protection against another flood, and the former course of the Mississippi became Lake Ferguson, a tributary lake connected on one end to the rest of the River. The Greenville river terminal was moved to an industrial area south of the city. Lake Ferguson is now a popular recreation and fishing area. So, there is still a levee on the western side of Greenville, but a queit Lake Ferguson and Archer Island are on the other side, not the Mississippi River. See Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, “Lake Ferguson, Mississippi,” 2017, Accessed from MSWFP (https://www.mdwfp.com/media/251924/lake_ferguson_reel_facts_final_02032017.pdf).]

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