Preserving the Chinese Gold Rush: Fiddletown's Chew Kee Store
Preserving the Chinese Gold Rush
Recently, a shoot for KVIE/PBS took us to the unforgettable Chew Kee Store in Fiddletown, California. Once a Chinese herb store during the Gold Rush, the store gives the visitor a rare glimpse into the lives of early Chinese immigrants to California. The store is one of the most authentic windows into the Gold Rush you will ever find.
Now a museum, the store reflects 100 years of continuous habitation by Chinese immigrants and residents.
Covered in dust, everything in the store is authentic, reflecting the daily life and work of its various inhabitants. Herb doctor Yee Fung Cheung founded the store in the mid-1850s, who then passed it to merchant-gambler Chew Kee and his wife Sigh Choy, who then gave it to their adopted son “Jimmie” Chow.
The solid building was constructed by Chinese workers using the traditional Chinese technique of rammed earth, resulting in thick mud-packed walls that cool the structure during hot summer days. On the day we visited, temperatures soared into triple digits, yet we were cool and comfortable in the shaded rooms.
Hand-made knives hang in the makeshift kitchen. Each resident left behind objects that tell the story of Chinese culture transplanted in emergent California. All furnishings and artifacts in the rooms are original.
Chew Kee was a merchant who took over the store in the 1880s, selling merchandise from China, groceries, and gambling supplies to the Chinese community. By 1910 however, there were only four Chinese Americans residing in Fiddletown.
The store served as a business and home for its residents. Besides the spacious commercial room at the front, private living space includes bedrooms, an office, and two add-on kitchens – much of the interior is built with hand-hewn wood.
Everything in the store was constructed, imported, and used by the people who lived there. Paper hangs on many of the walls, used as an insulation to protect the inhabitants from extreme cold and heat.
In 1895, ten year old Jimmy Chow was too ill to make the journey home to China, leaving him in the care of Sigh Choy and store owner Chew Kee. Years later, Jimmy Chow was the last resident of the building, and also the last Chinese resident of Fiddletown. Jimmy lived in the rear of the building, leaving the store untouched.
Well-liked in Fiddletown, Jimmy’s death in 1965 at the age of eighty was the end of an era. After his death, the building, the contents of the store, and Jimmy’s living quarters, were left all left intact. It was abandoned until the Fiddletown Preservation Society members worked to open it for the public.
Many thanks to Elaine Zorbas and Karun Yee with the Fiddletown Preservation Society for giving us such a special tour.
The Chew Kee Store is open to the public as a museum operated by the Fiddletown Preservation Society, April-October, on Saturdays only from noon-4:00p.m and by appointment.
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