The Chew Kee Store in Fiddletown, once a Chinese herb store during the Gold Rush, gives the visitor a rare glimpse into the lives of early Chinese immigrants to California. The building is unique for its rammed earth construction of thick mud-packed walls and for the authentic objects of daily living contained within, representing 100 years continuous habitation by Chinese. It is now a museum.
The store was built during the Gold Rush by herb doctor Yee Fung Cheung. Chueng was the son of an herbal doctor from a prominent Chinese family descended from a counselor to the Song Dynasty. He came to California in 1850 to strike it rich in the Gold Rush, but was discouraged by mining restrictions against Chinese miners. He decided to practice medicine like his father, and built the adobe structure in 1851.
Doctor Yee Fung Chueng was a successful and well-known herbalist, and opened herb stores in Sacramento and Virginia City, Nevada. He became famous in 1862 when he used an herbal remedy to save Governor Leland Stanford's wife while practicing medicine in Sacramento. Stanford's wife was dying from a pulmonary disorder, and Doctor Yee Fung Chueng was sought out by one of Stanford's Chinese cooks after conventional medicine had failed her. Doctor Yee Fung Chueng produced a mixture that included an ephedrine-containing herb called majaung (today ephedrine is used to treat pulmonary issues), and the mixture saved Stanford's wife.
Doctor Yee Fung Chueng continued to practice medicine in Fiddletown after the Gold Rush. The front room of the building was his store and living area, filled with the wares of Chinese herbal medicine, an altar, decorated tea boxes from China, baskets, jugs, and hundreds of other items. In 1880, he hired Chew Kee, who operated the store from the 1880s until 1912, and added his merchandise: cigar boxes, rice in large containers, patent medicine, opium and Chinese foodstuffs. The last resident was Chew Kee’s adopted son, “Jimmie” Chow (Fong Chow Yow), a master carpenter, who lived in the store until he died in 1965. Chow retained what was already in the store, adding what he needed to work and live.
The store served as a business and home for its residents. Step behind the double doors into the tiny bedroom and office. From there cross the marble threshold into the hand-hewn back rooms, a summer bedroom and two kitchens with implements including cutting boards made from logs, dishware from China, and a built-in wok. Everything in the store was constructed, imported, and used by the people who lived there.
In 1904, Doctor Yee Fung Chueng returned to China and passed away in 1907. Doctor Yee Fung Chueng's son and his great-nephew remained in California, and his their descendants have lived in California for four generations. Today they live in the Sacramento area, and some carry on the tradition of Doctor Yee Fung Chueng, practicing medicine or working as dentists.
The adobe building where Doctor Yee Fung Chueng treated patients and sold herbs became deteriorated by the late 1940s, but it has since been preserved and today serves as a museum. The museum has an exhibit of Doctor Yee Fung Chuen'gs office that contains an examination bed, a mortar and pestle, and an abacus. The museum also contains cabinets and drawers containing jars that would have held the herbs Doctor Yee Fung Chueng used in his practice. The museum contains aspects of Chinese culture, including paper strips above doorways believed to keep evil spirits out and a prayer alter. Exhibits containing other 19th-century Chinese artifacts are also featured.
In addition to being a museum, the structure is significant because it represents the Chinese presence in Fiddletown during the Gold Rush. Two additional structures built by Chinese immigrants still remain in Fiddletown- the Chinese General Store and the Chinese Gambling Hall. Fiddletown had the largest Chinese population outside of San Francisco during the Gold Rush, with a Chinese population between 2,000 and 5,000 people.
Fiddletown is 45 miles southeast of Sacramento. Take Highway 16 (Jackson Highway) to Highway 49 towards Plymouth and head six miles east off Shenandoah Road. It also can be reached from Placerville by going 20 miles south on Highway 49 and turning left on Shenandoah Road. The Chew Kee Store is at the entry to town.