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
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.”