Helena, Arkansas: circa 1950 – 2008.
There were two deaths in Helena, Arkansas which are part of me and which reflect a slice of American history. But first one must know about the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Only Chinese merchants, diplomats and students were allowed citizenship and families in the US. My maternal grandfather, Joseph Lum, is buried in Helena, Arkansas in a very small, hard-to-find cemetery. I was told he went to Columbia University as a student and ended up as a merchant grocery man in Arkansas serving the black cotton-pickers and share-croppers. Like the few other Arkansas Chinese, he did not want his children to grow up in Mississippi, where by Mississippi law, Chinese kids were not allowed to attend either white or black schools. But by Arkansas law, Chinese were allowed to go to white-only schools. When Joseph Lum died, his three sons and two daughters returned to China. Later, his wife and one daughter died of unknown causes leaving the three sons and my mother orphaned as teenagers. After WWII, the two sons and my mother who were US-born citizens, returned to the US.
Other Chinese men in the South were not so “family fortunate”. They lived an isolated and lonely life running similar grocery stores serving the black poor. We all lived in the backs of those stores in black neighborhoods. About every 3-4 months, my father would close our store for an afternoon and we would drive to nearby towns and visit these single men “Uncles”. One lived in Helena, Arkansas in a store built on stilts embedded atop a flood levee. His grocery stock was a soda box, bread bin, and meat box with only bologna and cheese. He grew vegetables and raised chickens for eggs out back for himself. He had a TV which carried the 2 and half channels from Memphis. I do not remember his name. He was one of several unrelated single Chinese men I called “Uncle”.
One summer vacation morning in the late 1950’s, our Forrest City, Arkansas phone rang. After answering it, my father told my mother that the Helena Uncle had died and the Helena Police were asking him to come. My father gathered some sodas and made some sandwiches and told me that he and I were going to Helena because the Uncle had died. He needed me to keep him company during the long drive.
When we got to the Helena store, my father went in. Police were still there. I was told to stay in the car. After a long time, my father came back out with a large paper bag and put it in the car trunk. He told me we had to go to the Police Station and a funeral home to sign papers to bury the Helena Uncle. He told me that the Helena Uncle had shot himself with a pistol. I do not know if he was buried in Helena or Forrest City.
1975. In 1975, a tornado destroyed our Forrest City store, home and three rental houses. Four of our black neighbors died. Almost everything we owned was either blown away or was filthy from rain and mud. I remember searching in the rain with my father for his .45 cal. pistol to keep looters away. We never found it. After a week, the Army Corps of Engineers bulldozed the ruble into trucks for the town dump.
2008. In 2008, our mother passed away leaving an empty house in Memphis. My brother Gerald was the owner. His family and I spent a week cleaning it out in preparation for sale. As we were cleaning the kitchen, Gerald said to me to be careful because there was a gun hidden high atop a kitchen cabinet. Gerald is a trained firearms instructor, so we retrieved the weapon together.
What we found was a small .22 caliber gun and a box of bullets with one bullet missing. I asked Gerald where did this gun come from? He didn’t know for sure. With a chill in my back, I told him I knew. It was the gun the Helena Uncle used decades before to commit suicide. The gun in the bag that my father had brought to the car. Gerald was and is very safety-conscious. He knew old ammo can be unstable. We agreed that he would safely dispose of the gun and bullets at the firing range he taught at.
In retrospect, I remember conversations my parents had. I remember some mention at the time, that the Helena Uncle had been very “sick” before he died. Being “sick” in the rural South, far from doctors, nurses, ambulances, or hospitals, often meant a lingering death. For many lonely Chinese men with no family to care for them in illness, suicide was acceptable.
Postscript: When the mood strikes me, I write of my memories of growing up Chinese in the South. The above is just one more chapter of my life that I wish to share with my family and a few, very select close friends. It is a book with many yet-to-be written chapters. Thanks for reading.