Sam Sing &. Co. is the last Chinese grocery store left from the four that once vied for customers along appropriately named China Street in this mostly black Mississippi Delta town.

It sits as a relic of a bygone era that began more than a century ago, when a small-town grocery was the business of choice for Chinese immigrants in this poor region who reached out to a burgeoning population of black workers.

As owner Sam Jue, 86, watches over shelves crammed with cereal, sodas and produce, he wonders how long it will be before the rest of the Chinese groceries succumb to the desire of younger generations to do something else and to competition from low-price chains such as Wal-Mart.

"I don't know anything but this," Jue said from behind the counter inside the aging brick store. "I enjoy it. Everybody knows me, and that means a whole lot."

Chinese were first brought to the region after the Civil War as cheap labor to replace freed slaves. Another wave of Chinese came after they completed work on the Transcontinental Railroad in the West. Others were sugar cane workers in the Caribbean and south Louisiana who migrated up the Mississippi River.

Initially, they were hired as farm laborers in Mississippi's white-ruled society, but that soon changed.

"They wanted to make enough money to send back to China, but what they discovered was that there was a market for grocery stores among the African American agricultural workers," said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. "That was really a distinctive thing in the Delta."

The industry blossomed for decades because of the then-unheard-of willingness on the part of many Chinese store owners to offer credit to poor, black sharecroppers.

There is no official record of how many Chinese groceries operated in the Delta. Researchers estimate there were once 200 stores, with only a dozen or so left in the 18-county region.

Rolling Fork, a town of 2,486 about 60 miles northwest of Jackson, still has two Chinese groceries -- Jue's on China Street and Brooks Food Store in another part of town.

Jue was just a teenager when he arrived from the Quan Dong province. He spoke Cantonese and hired a tutor to learn English because Chinese were banned from public schools.

Jue served three years in the Army before coming back to the Delta and Sam Sing & Co., which was opened by his father in 1933.

Jue said as he reared his two sons, he did not try to retain much of his Chinese heritage because "I'm over here now. This is really my home now."

The Chinese often found themselves living in the black community that they served. Jue's son Larry said he remembers a childhood filled with white and black friends.

"I didn't feel different or anything," Larry Jue, 57, said. "I knew I was, because I knew I was the only Chinese in town."

Today, about 19 percent of the nation's Asian population lives in the South compared with 49 percent in the West. In Mississippi, less than 1 percent of the state's 2.8 million residents are of Asian descent, including Vietnamese, Cambodians, Japanese and Thais.

Over the decades, the Delta's Chinese population has remained fairly stable. As more younger Chinese of Cantonese descent moved away, they were replaced by Mandarin Chinese, or those from northern China, who made a living in restaurants and other jobs.

John Quon, a professor at Delta State University in Cleveland, grew up living behind his parents' grocery, the Quon Co. in Moorhead. He said the language barrier between the Cantonese and the Mandarin has kept the groups apart socially.

As decades passed, the cracks widened in the area's Chinese society, and younger generations lost touch with the traditions of their culture. Those who once celebrated Chinese New Year, attended weddings and worshiped together went separate ways.

"Mainly, it's the weddings," Quon said. "We do not invite all of the Chinese as we once did because we're no longer that close."

The congregation of Chinese Baptist Church in Cleveland, built in 1959, is down to four members and is on the verge of closing. At Quon's church in Greenville, a holiday crowd tops out at 60.

"When we have church services, a Bible scripture reading would be done in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. The younger Chinese do not know any Chinese at all," Quon said.

Although a part of their past is fading, there are Chinese who feel blending their old culture with the flavor of the South is a recipe for success.

Chef Wally Jo's family owns K.C.'s in Indianola, among the top-rated restaurants in the Delta.

"We had a grocery store just like everybody else. As we got a little older, there was an opportunity to buy an existing restaurant," said Jo, who came to the Delta from Hong Kong in 1966 when he was 4 years old.

The restaurant has served Southern cuisine with an Asian flair for 31 years, and Jo has made a national name for himself with dishes that use homegrown ingredients such as stone-ground grits, pork bellies and okra.

"It's really based on my experiences as a Chinese American growing up in the Deep South," Jo said. "The older I get, I try to hold on to those traditions and try to learn more about where I'm from."

Justin Moore separates plastic carryout bags while Susan Jue tallies a customer's order at Sam Sing & Co.The Chinese-owned groceries on China Street in Rolling Fork, Miss., extended credit to poor black sharecroppers when white-run businesses would not.Sam Sing & Co. is the last Chinese grocery store left on China Street. It was opened in 1933 by the father of the current owner, Sam Jue, 86.