CAMSIG FIDDLETOWN STORY http://cim.ucdavis.edu/clubs/CAMSIG/Story.html
By David Yee
(Dr. Yee Fung Cheung was born in 1825, Dr.Arthur Fan notes)
Visitors to Fiddletown might find it difficult to imagine this quiet hamlet along the banks of Dry Creek populated by several thousand people—as it was during the Gold Rush. Settled by Missouri immigrants in 1848, the town served as a trade and social center for nearby mining camps.
According to local legend, Fiddletown was so named because in late 1848 a group of Missouri prospectors had started their diggings there and were stopped by heavy rains. During the weeks of waiting for the weather to clear, they passed the time fiddling and swapping yarns.
Located on the northern edge of Amador County, Fiddletown today has shrunk to a handful of residences, a general store, an old schoolhouse, a community hall adorned with a large fiddle above the entrance, and several historic structures. One of these structures, known as the Chew Kee Store, provides one of the strongest remaining links to Chinese history in the Mother Lode.
During a time of economic and political hardship in China, news of the Gold Rush in California lured tens of thousands of Chinese, many seeking to acquire wealth to take back home to their families. In 1849, there were 791 Chinese in California; by 1850 that number had risen to 4,025.
Fiddletown grew during this time to include the largest Chinatown in California outside of San Francisco, with a population of between 2,000 and 5,000 Chinese. Among the Chinese who came in the year 1850 was a twenty-five year old man from Toisan, China named Yee Fung Cheung. Descended from Yee Fung Shen, an eminent counselor during the Song Dynasty (420-479 AD.), he came from a distinguished family. Like his father, Yee Fung Cheung was an herbal doctor, but like countless others who had heard the fabulous stories, the lure of gold proved irresistible.
Yee Fung Cheung did not prospect for gold long, however, as he was discouraged by discriminatory laws placed on Chinese miners and by the difficulty in gold mining. Instead, he established a medical practice as an herb doctor and built the original rammed-adobe earth store in 1851. Yee Fung Cheung attended to the medical needs of the Chinese miners, and later to those of the Chinese laborers working on the transcontinental railroad. At various times, he also operated herb shops in Sacramento and Virginia City, Nevada.
While practicing in Sacramento, Yee Fung Cheung produced “a famous cure.” In 1862, Governor Leland Stanford’s wife lay dying from a severe pulmonary disorder. After conventional medical treatments failed to restore her health, the Stanford’s Chinese cook went to the Chinese section of Sacramento searching for the famous herbalist and found Yee Fung Cheung playing a game of mahjong at the Wah Hing grocery store. Hearing about Mrs. Stanford’s illness, Yee ran to his shop and brewed an elixir that ultimately saved her. The primary herb in the concoction was later identified as “majaung,” a natural source of ephedrine commonly prescribed for pulmonary diseases. Not knowing his real name, the governor’s staff called Yee Fung Cheung, Dr. Wah Hing after the store he was found in. It was the name that non-Chinese were to call Yee Fung Cheung for the rest of his life.
Evidence of Yee Fung Cheung’s practice is still on display in the store museum. Visitors can view his office, with its wooden bed for examining patients, and his desk on which rest an abacus and wooden mortar and pestle. Cabinets contain labeled glass vials, jars once filled with herbal medicines, and such tools of trade as an old stethoscope and straight razors. On one wall is a cabinet of 25 drawers, with Chinese characters on each to identify the contents.
“The drawers are the heart of the store, because they contained herbs dispensed by Dr. Yee,” says museum docent Gail Schifsky. “Each drawer is divided into eight or more sections, as a type of file cabinet for the herbs, many of which were shipped from China.”
The store reveals much about Chinese culture during the late 1800s. A decorated altar indented into one wall, for instance, was used for prayer by the store’s residents. Above each door and entryway throughout the building hang three decorated paper strips. The Chinese believed the strips prevented evil spirits from entering, but perforations in the strips allowed good spirits to pass. Other artifacts include Chinese coins, Chinaware, and pottery, books, and pamphlets, sticks and cards used in Chinese gambling, and an opium pipe.
After mining activity slowed, many Chinese remained in the area, and Yee Fung Cheung maintained a good business. In 1880, he employed Chew Kee as a full-time assistant to help run the herb store.
In 1904, Yee Fung Cheung, the California pioneer and famous herbal doctor, retired and returned to China, where he passed away in 1907. His son, Dr. T. Wah Hing sent for his nine-year-old nephew to join him in the United States. That young man was Henry Yee, the son of Yee Lun Wo, who had stayed in China. Yee Fung Cheung’s family continued to live and work in California for the next four generations. Today Yee Fung Cheung’s direct descendants live in the Sacramento area; among them are dentists and physicians who continue the family tradition in medicine.
Yee Fung Cheung’s original adobe building, the Chew Kee Store, still stands in Fiddletown. It was fully restored in 1988 through the combined efforts of the State of California, the Fiddletown Preservation Society, and Yee Fung’s great-grandson, Dr. Herbert Yee. The store is included in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Fiddletown Historic District. Containing many of its original artifacts, it is open to the public as an historical museum.
How to get there.
The Chew Kee Store, located six miles east of Plymouth is found by taking the Fiddletown Road from Highway 49. The museum is staffed by docents from the Fiddletown Preservation Society and open for visits and tours on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. during April to October, or by appointment. Contact Fiddletown Preservation Society, P.O. Box 53, Fiddletown, CA 95629.
A visit to Chew Kee Store can be part of an outing to nearby historic Mother Lode towns in Amador County such as Plymouth, Drytown, Amador City, Sutter Creek, and Jackson and Volcano; or as part of a wine country tour of wineries of the Shenandoah Valley northeast of Plymouth. Lodging and a private campground are available in Plymouth. Motels or bed and breakfast inns can by found in the towns mentioned, and camping is available at Chaw-Se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, two miles south of Volcano.
Rieger, Ted. “A Mother Lode Link to Chinese History.” Sierra Heritage (Sept/Oct
1991):47 (4 pages).
Chin, Charlie. “Yee Fung Cheung, California Pioneer.” California Council for the
Humanities’ “Rediscovering California at 150.”
Another paper: Herbert Yee: Cultivating growth in Sacramento. By Lance Armstrong. http://www.valcomnews.com/?p=6229
Descendant of Sacramento pioneers
Although Herbert did not arrive in the United States at Angel Island as an immigrant from Sing Tonga, Kee Siu, Toi Shan, China until he was 6 years old on May 1, 1931, his family history in Sacramento dates back to the 19th century.
Herbert’s great-grandfather, an herbalist, named Dr. Wah Hing (born Yee Fung Cheung), arrived in California during the Gold Rush, and while practicing in Sacramento, he had his most famous patient, Jane Stanford, the wife of Gov. Leland Stanford.
FAMILY MAN. Herbert and Inez Yee have been married for 66 years. The couple is shown prior to their marriage in this photograph, which was taken in about 1944. / Photo courtesy, Herbert Yee
Herbert explained the story behind his grandfather’s work with Jane Stanford.
“As the story goes – you’re talking legend, because this was so long ago – in about 1862, (Jane Stanford) was suffering from sort of like pneumonia and the American doctor said that he could no longer do any more and that was it,” Herbert said. “The Chinese chef said, ‘Well, since you finally gave up, why don’t you try our Chinese doctor?’ So, the governor said, ‘Well, go and fetch him.’ So, (the chef) got on the horse and buggy, went down to Chinatown and they located him playing mah-jongg or gambling something at Wah Hing grocery store. So, (Dr. Wah Hing) told his helper – a young man – to go fetch a certain item of medicine and they brewed it and then brought it to the governor’s mansion. (The doctor) then gave the brew to Mrs. Stanford and told the staff that in one hour, if her fever breaks and she can breathe, then she would be fine. Interestingly, this story was related to me back in 1950 by an old man who was 100 years old. He said, ‘You know, you’re great-grandpa saved the governor’s wife.’ So, the legend has been traveling all of these years.”
Today, Herbert resides in South Land Park with his wife, Inez, whom he married in 1945. The couple has four sons, four daughters-in-law, nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Dr. Yee Fung Cheung
Early Chinese settlers conveyed many cultural accomplishments and attributes in their travels and helped transform the Sierra Nevada. Chinese immigrants built many roads, flumes and other infrastructure, including the Big Gap Flume in Mariposa County in the 1850s. By 1852, the Chinese were leaders in land improvement projects, and were even endorsed by California Governor John McDougal for swamp and flooded lands reclamation. Chinese immigrants were pioneer workers in the wine industry and Chinese farmers were the only ones who could successfully grow celery. Much of the citrus industry depended upon Chinese labor.
Chinese Medicine Was More Sophisticated
The Chinese were also leaders in medicine. In the 19th century, Western/European medical treatment was primitive by our standards. Western medicine had yet to develop any safe drugs, anesthetics, or surgical techniques, and unregulated, patent medicines were the norm. Barbers often doubled as surgeons and a common remedy for many ailments was to bleed the patient with leeches. Age-old Chinese herbal medicine was remarkably sophisticated by comparison. Many of today’s “wonder drugs” are scientifically synthesized versions of Chinese herbal remedies. In the Sierra Nevada, there is a remarkable remnant of this Chinese medical legacy in the Amador County village of Fiddletown. It is the Chew Kee Herbal Medicine Store.
The store was built about 1850 using an ancient technique called “rammed earth.” This traditional Chinese construction method involved leveling a site and building a thin foundation of gravel and stones. Forms to pack, or “ram,” adobe for the walls were placed along the perimeters. As the walls grew the forms were moved to the next layer. The walls are about two feet thick on average. Only two historic structures in California were built this way.
As special as the architecture is, the human story is even more intriguing.
Herbal Medicine in Fiddletown
Many Chinese immigrated to the Gold Country in the first years of the Gold Rush. Among these was the young son of a prominent Chinese family—Yee Fung Cheung.
Yee Fung Cheung was a highly respected herbal doctor. After losing interest in gold mining, Dr. Yee Fung Cheung established an herbal medicine store in Fiddletown. He attended to the needs of his patients and also built medicine stores in Sacramento and Virginia City, Nevada.
In 1862, Dr. Yee Fung Cheung provided a remedy that cured the severe pulmonary condition of California Governor Leland Stanford’s wife. The governor’s staff issued a resolution thanking the doctor for his services. Unfortunately, the staff did not know or did not care to know the doctor’s name, so they called him “Dr. Wah Hing”—Wah Hing was the name of the store he operated in Sacramento. Non-Chinese referred to him as Dr. Wah Hing for the rest of his life. Yee Fung Cheung died in 1907.
In 1880, Dr. Yee Fung Cheung employed an assistant in Fiddletown named Chew Kee. By the 1890s, Chew Kee owned the store and his name has been applied to the Fiddletown structure since.
The store displays many of the good doctor’s original implements of his practice, including medicinal vials, his examination bed, and an herbal storage cabinet with twenty-five drawers.
The Chew Kee Store was fully restored in 1988 through a cooperative effort of the State of California, the Fiddletown Preservation Society, and Dr. Yee Fung Cheung’s great-grandson, Dr. Herbert Yee. The store is included in the National Register of Historic Places and has been visited and studied by University of California, Davis, Medical School students.
- The Chew Kee Store is located in the Sierra Foothill community of Fiddletown. Source: Photo by Gary Noy
- The Chew Kee Store. Source: Photo by Gary Noy
Chinese transformed ‘Gold Mountain’
Few struck it rich, but their work left an indelible markBy Stephen Magagnini
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998
In Fiddletown, Amador County, the 1860 census showed 2,000 Chinese men and six “women of pleasure,” according to Dr. Herbert Yee, a prominent dentist, philanthropist and historian whose great-grandfather, Yee Fung Cheung arrived here in 1850 and soon made his way to Fiddletown.
When gold mining didn’t pan out, Yee, 25, unpacked his herbal medicines and began treating his countrymen, and, gradually, other nationalities. So genial was Yee, it was said, “it was only a dose of his smile they needed.”
Yee prospered, opening a second store in Virginia City to capitalize on the 1859 Comstock Lode silver strike in Nevada. Yee’s “Chew Kee Store” in Fiddletown — the only Gold Rush-era emporium still intact — has been preserved as a historic site.
Yee’s most famous patient was the wife of Gov. Leland Stanford, who called Chinese immigrants the “dregs of Asia” in his 1862 inaugural address and urged their expulsion.
But when Jane Stanford contracted a seemingly incurable pulmonary disease, the governor’s minions tracked Yee down in a gambling hall in Sacramento’s Chinatown on I Street between Front and Sixth streets. Yee stopped playing mah-jongg and cured Jane Stanford with majaung, a natural source of ephedrine. One of Yee’s great-great-grandsons, Dr. Allen Yee, is now a pulmonary specialist in Sacramento, one of a long line of Yee healers.
Stanford never got Yee’s name right, calling him “T. Wah Hing,” the name of the men’s club Yee frequented. Yee’s son Yee Lock Sam adopted the name, listing himself in a 1901 Sacramento Bee ad as “Dr. T. Wah Hing, Physician and Surgeon. Eye, ear, nose and throat.”
Yee returned to China in 1904 a rich man. His legacy includes the 3,000-member Yee Family Association of Sacramento.