Introductory notes by ANCESTORS producer Loni Ding
Working as an arts organizer I once came upon a neighborhood exhibit that completely startled me: I saw a series of huge photographic portraits of Black cotton field workers working on plantations and black families relaxing informally on their porches in a rural US Southern town. The Exhibitions theme was titled NEIGHBORS but these photographs were at a neighborhood art gallery in San Francisco Chinatown.
So I wondered how could these intimate and up-close photographic studies of Black people be framed as "neighbors "in this neighborhood? As it turned out the portraits were the work of Chinese American photographer - Crystal A. Huie, who grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. So I sought him out to interview him about his work and his life growing up Chinese in the American South.
CRYSTAL HUIE was born and grew up among Black Americans in 1940s-50s Little Rock, Arkansas. These were indeed his neighbors. His mother and father ran a small grocery store and they were virtually the only Chinese in town at that time.
All of Chriss life was balanced between the outlook of his African American schoolmates and neighbors and the small farming villager outlook of his Chinese parents. They came from the Pearl River Delta of coastal Guangdong Province, the source of perhaps 90% of the early Chinese who pioneered the American West.
Chris was not unlike the men from China, starting from provincial beginnings, but then expanding in unexpected ways ever outward from there. Chris attended Little Rock University and later served in the US Army in Germany in the 60s. He then studied photography at Rochester University and finally took a Masters degree in History at New York University.
GROWING UP CHINESE IN LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS by Chris Huie
I grew up with in North Little Rock, Arkansas in the '40s and '50s. My birth certificate said, "White", which was crossed out and marked "Chinese." I grew up amidst segregation, meaning Blacks ate in the kitchen, whites up front.
At that time I took it all to be completely natural. I grew up in a particularly impoverish section of Little Rock nicknamed "Dark Hollow" because it was too poor to even have electricity. Our store sold a lot of kerosene for lighting.
But I went to a white school. My family had a small grocery story. In Arkansas, Chinese were few enough to be an oddity but not a threat, unlike Mississippi, where there were a lot more Chinese who were visible and became targets.