The California gold rush was an international event attracting gold seekers from around the world. The first large wave of Chinese immigrants to the United States came during the gold rush. Many towns had a “Chinatown,” a section where the Chinese lived and had their businesses. Due to discrimination the Chinese felt safer living together in their own neighborhoods. The best known Chinatown is San Francisco’s. Many other large and small towns throughout the mining areas also had a Chinese section of town.
One town in the mining region which has buildings remaining from its Chinese section of town is Fiddletown, 45 miles southeast of Sacramento in Amador County. First settled as a mining camp during the gold rush, it evolved into a trading center for nearby mining camps and farms.
Three buildings remain giving physical evidence of Fiddletown’s 19th century Chinese community:
- The Chew Kee Store, a one-story rammed-earth building, now a museum
- The Gambling Hall, a one story brick building
- The General Store, a two-story brick building
These buildings represent the largest grouping of early Chinese buildings (1855-1865) remaining in a gold rush town.
Here is a little history about the Chew Kee Store and its occupants. The store was built in the early 1850s by Dr. Yee Fung Cheung, an herbal doctor who established a medical practice to care for Chinese miners. The store served as a business and home for Dr. Yee. It was also a place where the Chinese in the area would socialize. A wooden addition with two kitchens and a sleeping area was added to the store later. Our image above shows a cabinet in the store with drawers that once held herbal medicines imported from China. Each drawer has Chinese characters which identified the contents.
In 1895 the parents of a Chinese boy, Fong Chow Yow (known locally as Jimmy Chow), returned to China. Ten year old Jimmy was too ill to make the journey and he was left in Dr. Yee’s care. In 1900 Dr.Yee returned to China leaving the store, and the care of Jimmy Chow, to his assistant Chew Kee. Chew Kee operated the store until 1913 when he returned to China and left the store to Jimmy Chow.
Jimmy Chow lived in the rear of the building, leaving the store intact. He worked as a blacksmith, carpenter, butcher, hunter and miner and was well liked in Fiddletown. Jimmy was the last Chinese resident of Fiddletown and his death, in 1965 at the age of eighty, was the end of an era. After his death the building with the contents of the store and Jimmy’s living quarters were left largely intact. Thanks to Jimmy Chow, the Fiddletown Preservation Society, California State Parks Department, Dr. Herbert Yee (great grandson of Dr. Yee Fung Cheung), and other organizations, this fragment of Chinese gold rush history was preserved and restored. It is now a museum, an authentic remnant of Chinese life in 19th century California.
View more images the Chew Kee Store here.