Marker honors role of Chinese in Memphis history

Cites former home of Lung Kong Tin Yee Association near Beale Street

By Updated: May 25, 2019 9:01 PM CT | Published: May 25, 2019 3:50 PM CT

The city’s first historical marker noting the role of Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans in the city’s history brought drums and cymbals and a brightly colored Chinese dragon puppet to the plaza of FedExForum.

The large puppet controlled by two men writhed and twisted and turned to the rhythms Saturday as a group of 60 watched.

The marker, unveiled later outside the old Gibson Guitar plant, marks the location of the Lung Kong Tin Yee Association that opened in the 1920s just south of Beale Street. It was founded as a kind of community center by Chinese emigres and Chinese Americans for themselves and others who came to America before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the first law ever to ban an entire ethnic group from immigrating to America.

“They came to Memphis more than 100 years ago,” Jin Liang Cai of the Chinese Historical Society of Memphis and Mid-South told those in the plaza. “They came to the poorest part of the country — the Mississippi Delta — during the most difficult times in America’s history — racial segregation. … They not only survived, they also prospered.”

The marker, sponsored by the society and the Shelby County Historical Association, emphasizes the role the exclusion act played in the specific struggle of the Chinese who had been welcomed to California during its gold rush years and recruited to build the Transcontinental Railroad only to face barriers that cut their ties to family in China just a few decades later.

“For the Chinese who were here it was devastating. That made Lung Kong Tin Yee so much more valuable as a community center where they could continue to celebrate and have community,” Jin said. “It (The act) prohibited many people from leaving the United States because they couldn’t come back. So they wound up spending the rest of their lives in the U.S. away from their families. Many of them lived here during the later part of their years.”

The 2010 census put the number of Chinese living in Memphis at 5,000.

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The association formed in the 1920s took its name from a temple on Lung Kong mountain in the Sze Yap region in what is now known as Guangdong Province — where most of the early Chinese settlers in Memphis and the surrounding area came from.

“It’s a quite diverse community today,” Jin said.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said the diversity is “the soul of the city.”

“We often think of Memphis just in terms of black and white,” he said. “We are a more diverse city than even that. We’ve never had a historical marker recognizing the Chinese population. It’s important to recognize everyone. Everyone is important and everyone should be recognized.”

There are plans for another historic marker in the summer on or near the site of the Chop Suey Cafe restaurant on the Beale Street entertainment district’s eastern end, a Chinese-owned business that was part of a small group of businesses known in their day as a Chinatown district on Beale.

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The café was originally known as the Oriental Café, according to “Beale Street Talks,” a parcel-by-parcel guide to Beale Street’s history by Richard M. Raichelson. The building stood between the New Daisy theater and what is now the police precinct in the building that was once home to the Monarch Saloon.

Lau C. Chu rented the building in 1919 ad opened the Oriental Café on the ground floor, living with his family on the second floor. The original name of the café remained in the entranceway tile floor even after its name was changed in 1921 by Moy Ming, the new owner. The Chop Suey Café endured on Beale into the late 1960s.

May also marks Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

The site of a Japanese-American owned bakery on Madison Avenue west of Cleveland is marked by what is left of a public art installation from 2008.

The UrbanArt Commission commissioned the installation by artist Sanjit Sethi to mark the location of the Kuni Wada Bakery, owned by the Kawaiis and Nakajima families until it was closed and members of the two families were arrested by federal authorities the day after the Japanese military’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The bakery was later seized by the Federal Reserve Bank as assets owned by Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants were seized as America entered World War II.

A plaque, which tells the story of the bakery and the families, remains affixed to a metal box in what is now a parking lot. For a year or so after its installation, the box contained a system that twice a day spread the scent of bread baking in the immediate area.


Memphis@200 Jim Strickland Jin Liang Cai Chinese Historical Society Of Memphis And Mid-South Lung Kong Tin Yee Association
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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