The Education of Bobby Joe Moon

The Education of Bobby Joe Moon

I am a lifelong learner.

I want to know if something can be fixed.

Bobby Joe Moon is standing in the back of his driveway in Houston, Texas, surrounded by defunct appliances and tropical plants. His front door has a note taped to it, instructing visitors and deliveries to go around to the back door, please, so this is where I find him, holding a long-handled object and smiling.

“This is a homemade dust pan that my mother made in Mississippi, probably over forty years ago,” he proclaims the moment I’m close enough to hear him. “As you can see, it used to be a Wesson oil can, and she fashioned it into a dust pan that we’ve been using for over forty years.” Bobby points to a dull gray square inside the bottom of the pan, the part that holds the weight of whatever is swept inside. “When it started rotting, I just added a piece of sheet metal. And that’s what we do here: We try to re-use everything and keep it going.”

Bobby Joe Moon was born in Cleveland, Mississippi, and was part of the community of Chinese immigrants that helped shape the culture of the Delta during the last century. He left Mississippi for good when he graduated from college in 1965, but it’s clear that the culture shaped him, too.

Chapters:

THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT

Moon family at time of arrival in United States at Cleveland, Miss.." (1939) Rice University. Left to right: Sue on lap of J.G. Moon, Joe Sing standing behind, Yuen (b. 1923) standing behind mother, Lillie on lap of mother.

Bobby’s parents, Jew Guey (J. G.) and Sue Wong Moon, were both born in Kaiping County, Guangdong, China. 1  Neither had much schooling. J.G. Moon left China as a teenager with a second-grade education and landed in California in 1908. Like most young Chinese men of that era, Moon’s goal was to earn money to take back to his family in Guangdong. He worked on farms and ranches near Sacramento and taught himself English by studying the local newspaper. As soon as he had a handle on the language, he sought better employment with Tidewater and Tonopah (T & T) Railroad and was hired as a cook. “Whenever he cooked at home...he didn’t cook Chinese food; he cooked American food! He cooked steaks, pork chops, apple pie, biscuits, grits, stuffed baked chicken, stuff like that,” Bobby recalled in a 2013 interview. 2  When he had saved a good amount of money, J. G. Moon returned to China and started a family of his own. After his first wife died giving birth to their third child, he married Sue Wong. In 1939, the Moon family, which now included a fourth child, set their sights on the Mississippi Delta, where cousins had successfully established themselves as part of the merchant class by operating small grocery stores that served the Delta’s African American communities. They opened J. G. Moon & Company in Boyle, just three miles south of Cleveland and lived in the back of the store. 3

J.G. Moon & Company, Boyle, Mississippi. (No date.) Courtesy of Bobby Joe Moon.

Bobby was the Moon’s third Mississippi-born child, arriving in 1944, five years after his family had settled in the Delta. (Bobby is the seventh of ten children.) He grew up in the grocery store, learning Chinese and English, as well as how to navigate the Delta’s complicated social structure. He watched his father do bookkeeping on an abacus and was handed responsibility at an early age:

“We all were expected to check in the merchandise when vendors bring in the goods and stuff. So you’re auditing them when they’re bringing it in. ‘Hey, I got 50 bags of flour here.’ And you gotta count ‘em! Make sure they don’t cheat you. ‘I got 10 loaves of bread.’ They could cheat you since they make it look like ten, there’s only six you know.” 4

He also watched how his parents interacted with their customers:

“We interacted with the Black customers every day. And if you don’t treat them with respect, they’re not gonna do business with you. So, we had to learn how to treat the Black people with respect so they would come back.” 5

Parallel to this was the elder Moon’s lesson to his young son that the customer is always right. “I put that in my resume one time, and [the company] hired me!” Bobby shared during our recent visit at his Houston home.

Bobby’s mother arrived in Mississippi with a sixth-grade education and no knowledge of English but a strong motivation to learn. Sue Moon hired local women to tutor her in English and became integral to the operation of the store. “My mother was very much a people person, and I guess I learned a lot from her,” Bobby said. “And she always used to say that if she’d had a chance to get her education, she would’ve loved to have been an attorney.”

Bobby Joe Moon’s high school yearbook picture. May 2017. Amy C. Evans, photographer.

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YOUNG, GIFTED, AND CHINESE

In 1924, when Chinese grocery store owner Jeu Gong Lum’s daughter was denied entrance to the white-only school in Rosedale, Mississippi, he led the fight to desegregate the state’s public schools. The resulting 1927 U.S. Supreme Court case Lum v. Rice made the argument that it was discriminatory to force Asian students to attend a school in which "colored" otherwise meant Black. The Court’s ruling, however, upheld the classification of a student of Chinese descent as “colored” and set a precedent for continued discrimination. As a direct result, the Cleveland First Baptist Church established a Chinese Mission School in an effort for its Chinese residents to disassociate from their Black neighbors—and customer base—in the area of education and begin making their own way in an overwhelmingly bi-racial society.  6

But, by the time Bobby Joe Moon was attending school in the 1950s, post-war Mississippi was seeing a much greater acceptance of its Chinese residents. Cleveland’s Chinese Mission School closed in 1951 and, for many small Delta towns during this era, school integration had become a local option. That is, each town decided whether or not its Chinese residents would be allowed to attend its whites-only school. Bobby recalls some of the confusion he felt during this time: 

“There was no question that we were not White since while we were growing up in the store we saw Whites and Blacks and they were not like our family. What was puzzling was why we were allowed to go to public school in Boyle [Mississippi] with Whites and segregated from Blacks, but in Cleveland there was a Chinese School . . . I still remember John Jr., Charlie, and Walter Wong going to the Chinese School in the early '50s while we never had to do that in Boyle.” 7

With his practical education in the store and a natural flair for numbers, Bobby did well at the all-white school in Boyle. But by the time sixth grade rolled around, his older sisters Sue and Lillie had a mind to set him on a different path. All six of his older siblings had endured the prejudices of the same sixth-grade teacher. Bobby’s sisters lobbied their parents to relieve him of this experience. Their solution was for him to go up the road to Cleveland for middle school instead. So at the age of eleven, Bobby moved in with his cousins, Wing and Kam Joe, and lived with them in the back of their store on Chrisman Avenue to attend Cleveland’s all-white middle school. Bobby was the only Chinese boy in a class of 100 students, and he excelled, eventually being placed in Section 1A, which was the equivalent of a gifted and talented program. He excelled in high school, too, and was accepted to Mississippi State University, where he majored in accounting. Bobby got his degree in just three years. In 1965, he took his first job, serving as an internal auditor for the United States Air Force in Savannah, Georgia. Two years later, he relocated to Houston to be an auditor with the Defense Contract Audit Agency. In 1975, he worked for the United States Department of Energy, and in 1986 he took a position with Houston’s METRO Transit Authority as its manager of auditing contracts. Bobby retired in 2011.

While the state of public education in Mississippi continues to fall far below the standards achieved by the of the rest of the country, and its history remains one of strict racial segregation, Bobby’s experience in the 1950s and 60s was a relatively positive one. He was generally accepted by his peers and rewarded for his hard work.

When Bobby arrived in Houston in 1967, he began attending the Chinese Baptist Church. 8  There, he met his future bride, Jeannie. They married in 1971, bought a house in Houston’s Sharpstown neighborhood, and had two daughters, Laura and Amanda. Around 1987, when Laura finished elementary school, Bobby found himself in a familiar place: He wanted his daughter to be able to attend the best school for sixth grade. Laura tested into the gifted and talented program at their chosen campus, but the family was told that there wasn’t room for her. As it turns out, there were only three categories of students accepted into the program: White, Black, and Hispanic. Asian students were included in the “White” heading, which held only ten percent of the allotted spots. Making use of his contacts within Leadership Houston, a non-profit organization that offers leadership and training skills to accepted members, Bobby led a charge for the school district to change its policy and succeeded: A separate category was created for Houston’s Asian population. Laura went on to receive a degree in accounting, just like her father. “[My mother] only had about like a sixth grade education in China because they didn’t think girls needed, uh, education,” Bobby recalled in 2013. “But she was natively intell—very intelligent lady, of course. And she always loved to learn, and she always stressed education for us.” 9

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HISTORY IN A FIFTY-FIVE-GALLON DRUM

Bobby regularly consults YouTube for tips and tricks on any number of repairs and projects. There’s a video of him there, too. In it, Bobby is seen standing at the corner of his garage, leaning on the lid of a large metal drum. 10

Bobby Joe Moon reaches for the lid of his homemade char siu loo or Chinese barbecue oven at his home in Houston, Texas. Amy C. Evans, photographer.

“When real Chinese see this, they know what it is,” he says to his cousin who is behind the camera. “This is called a char siu loo in our dialect.” The dialect is Taishanese, a sub-dialect of Cantonese, and Bobby is fluent. The object they are talking about is a homemade “Chinese barbecue oven” (I called it a smoker, and he was quick to correct me). Bobby made it from a recycled fifty-five-gallon drum that once held Johnson Wax. I asked him what makes it Chinese. “I guess the design,” he answered. “This is what my father said they used in China because you hang the meat.” Inside the drum, a grid of rebar is welded into place near the top, ready to accept any kind of meat that can hang from a hook. A charcoal fire goes in the bottom, and the lid traps in the heat. “It takes about two hours to cook the meat, but you can cook a lot,” he explains. “I mean, you can put six or eight chickens around here. I mainly do pork, chicken, and ribs. I’ve never done duck, but I could, I guess.”

While the Mississippi Delta never really established its own style of barbecue (I maintain that people were too busy making hot tamales)  11 , Chinese families enjoyed a smoked-meat tradition of their own. I imagine char siu loos can still be found in backyards and behind Chinese-owned grocery stores throughout the Delta. This is part of the story of Mississippi barbecue. And the sauce on top of that history? Hoover’s Sauce, the iconic Delta-Chinese barbecue sauce.

Hoover Lee was born in China. In 1934, his father brought the family to Louise, Mississippi, and opened a small grocery and dry goods on Main Street called the Lee Hong Company Food Store. Sometime in the 1970s, when Hoover was back home from college, he decided that he wanted to try to recreate a Cantonese-style duck sauce, using American ingredients. What he came up with became a Mississippi barbecue sauce sensation. Today, Hoover still sells it by the quart or the gallon, and people can’t seem to get enough.

When I spoke to Bobby on the phone, prior to our in-person visit, one of the first things I asked him about was Hoover Sauce. “I don’t think I’ve ever used Hoover’s sauce,” he told me. “We use my mother’s sauce. We have her recipe, and we keep it in the refrigerator.” Standing in Bobby’s kitchen a few weeks later, I remind him of this conversation. He goes to his refrigerator and takes out an old mayonnaise jar, its clear sides thick with a burgundy-brown goo. There’s a strip of green tape on top, matching the jar’s green lid and on it, written in black marker, are the words “July 2014.” Around the edges, the advertising slogan for the jar’s original contents is still visible: “Bring Out The Best.” “See how thick that is?” Bobby asks me. “Hoover’s ain’t nothin’, I’m telling you!” 12

Jeannie, Bobby’s wife, stands next to me, holding a small photo album of handwritten recipe cards. It doesn’t take her long to land on what she’s looking for: “Chinese BBQ Sauce (Mrs. Moon’s Recipe).” The last ingredient is whisky.

Bobby Joe Moon with the wagon he made at his home in Houston, Texas, May 2017. Amy C. Evans, photographer.

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REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE

The grocery-store education in business and customer service wasn’t all Bobby learned at J. G. Moon & Company. He also watched his father catch ducks and chickens with a homemade hook and fashion garden trellises out of metal fence posts. He watched his mother bake Chinese pastries and find new uses for old things. “Chinese people are very thrifty and very resourceful,” Bobby tells me—traits that he has carried with him all the way to Houston, Texas.

During our recent visit, Bobby took me on a tour of his yard. We weren’t fifteen feet from his back door when he put his hand on a metal stake and said, “My father must have had these sixty years ago. These poles are from our house in Mississippi. He would make a trellis for vegetables to hang on. I stake my tomatoes on them.”

Another ten feet, and we were at the door of a small shed behind the garage. Bobby opened it and pulled out a little wagon. “I saved the wheels off of my daughters’ original, thirty- to forty-year-old wagon,” he said. “That light-colored wood is from the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Houston. These are leftovers from when they did some remodeling. It’s all maple. Hopefully, my granddaughter will use it one day.”

Just a few feet from the shed is Bobby’s homemade aboveground koi pond. Behind the pond and on top of a wheelbarrow is a small box with screened sides. “This is the fly-proof cage I built to cure my salted fish,” he explained. I ask him what kind of fish. “Oh, trash fish. Whatever my church members catch and don’t want to eat, they give to me.”

Bobby Joe Moon at his home in Houston, Texas, May 2017. Amy C. Evans, photographer.

“I’m a tinkerer,” Bobby said with a glint of pride. “I only started this like four years ago. Nobody taught me. I go to YouTube and, heck, if they can do it, I can do it!”

Back in the driveway, Bobby reaches for a long pole that stands upright near the back door. “Oh, here’s a version of a chicken catcher.” It’s a recycled painter’s pole with a long metal hook attached to one end. “My father used to use this to catch chickens and ducks at home—with a curved hook to catch them by their feet. I made this to go catch some ducks, but we never used it.”

Something tells me that one day soon Bobby Joe Moon will catch a duck with that pole. Then he’ll cook it in his homemade char siu loo, slather it with his mother’s Delta-Chinese-style barbecue sauce, and post a video of the whole affair on YouTube—so we can all learn from him.

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Footnotes

  1. ^  For more on the Moon family’s history, read the 2013 oral history interview with Bobby Joe Moon that is featured in Rice University’s Chao Center for Asian Studies’ Houston Asian American Archive
  2. ^  Moon, Bobby Joe, interview by Zou, Alisha and Han, Mijin. June 11, 2013, p. 8. Houston Asian American Archives oral history interviews, 1980-2013, MS 573, Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.
  3. ^  To learn more about the history of Chinese grocers in the Mississippi Delta, visit the Southern Foodways Alliance’s oral history project on the subject. 
  4. ^ Ibid, p. 22.
  5. ^ Ibid, p. 4.
  6. ^  The Mississippi Delta’s history also includes waves of Lebanese, Syrian, Jewish, Italian and Mexican immigration. Presumably because of their relative position on the spectrum of otherness, as well as a greater desire for assimilation, these groups did not face the same discrimination as the Chinese.
  7. ^  Moon, Bobby Joe. “Growing up in Mississippi in the '40s -'60s.” 
  8. ^  Bobby Joe Moon’s parents embraced Christianity when they moved to Mississippi, and the family attended services at the First Baptist Church of Cleveland, where the pastor had been a missionary in China. 
  9. ^  Moon, Bobby Joe, interview by Zou, Alisha and Han, Mijin. June 11, 2013, p. 7. Houston Asian American Archives oral history interviews, 1980-2013, MS 573, Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.
  10. ^  Moon, Bobby Joe, interview by Moonlake Sue. October 25, 2013.
  11. ^  Evans. Amy C.. “Delta Hot Tamale Festival," Mississippi Folklife, July 13, 2016. 
  12. ^  Let the Delta Chinese BBQ Sauce War begin!

Amy C. Evans

Amy C. Evans

Amy C. Evans is the Custom Editor at Mississippi Folklife. She is also an artist, writer, teacher, and documentarian based in Houston, Texas. Amy built the oral history program at the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and was the chief architect of the award-winning Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail, which was published online in 2005. In 2011, marker #138 on the Mississippi Blues Trail was unveiled in front of Joe’s Hot Tamale Place in Rosedale, MS: “Hot Tamales and The Blues.” Read more about Amy under the Editors tab, and follow her @artandpie.