Chinese Flocked to Gold Mountain But Never Got Respect

There were just 791 Chinese in California in 1849, but by the following year, 4,025 had come to Gum Shan - Gold Mountain. They came because there was gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills. They intended to claim their share and then return to their homeland to live rich lives. Many came from Kwangtung Province in a China, beset by civil war, droughts and floods and fierce typhoons. Before long, 20 percent of the California gold miners were Chinese.

By 1852, 25,000 Chinese were in California living hard lives. Some found gold, but most didn't because they faced discrimination, racism and hostility that included physical abuse and a government in the mining camps - the state at first, but soon the federal - that was determined to force them to return home. In 1851, California enacted a Foreign Miners Tax that was especially hard on the Celestials, as they were called. Intended to protect California's gold for white miners from all foreigners, it was only strongly enforced against Chinese.

Sixty Chinese miners brought to the diggings in Tuolumne County by a British company were driven off by white miners. Chinese women were barred from immigrating to California in the hope Chinese men would return home - in 1852 in Sacramento there were 804 Chinese males and 10 females. Chinese miners at Mokelumne Hill in Calaveras County were "taxed" $70,000 for the right to mine safely in 1856. In Nevada City a Chinese man was hung for stealing a mule that was proven to be his own.

Those Chinese who left the diggings found other opportunities. Some became farmers who supplied the mining camps. Others became cooks, restaurant or laundry owners, merchants and herbalists. As unskilled laborers, the Celestials often took on jobs that the white settlers of California didn't want to do. Some American settlers were frightened by the growing number of Chinese in California. (Sounds strangely familiar today, doesn't it?)

When work began on the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869, The Chinese famously took on the challenge of laying tracks over the Sierra. At first they were thought to be too weak or fragile to do this type of work, but after the first few days the decision was made to hire as many Chinese as could be found in California and import more from China.

How were the Celestials rewarded for their hard work? In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring any further immigration from China. The act was extended in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. In fact, it stayed in force until 1943, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Magnuson Act on Dec. 17.

Yee Fung Chung Cured the Governor's Wife

A Chinese immigrant named Yee Fung Chung, the son of a famous Chinese herbalist, came to California at the age of 25 from Toisan, China, in search of gold. He settled in Fiddletown, a gold rush camp in Amador County that had the largest Chinese population outside of San Francisco.

Soon enough, he gave up the hard work of mining and began treating Chinese miners for their ailments. He was so successful that over the next decade, as his practice grew, he opened herbal stores in Sacramento and Virginia City, Nevada.

In 1862, Jane Stanford, wife of Governor Leland Stanford, lay apparently dying of a pulmonary disorder. Her doctors had been unable to cure her, but her Chinese cook raced into Sacramento to find Yee playing Mahjongg in the Wha Hing grocery store. Yee rushed to his shop and prepared a treatment using majaung, an herb that is a natural source of ephedrine. Shortly, Mrs. Stanford recovered.

In 1904 Yee Fung Cheung retired from the herbal medicine profession and returned to China where he died in 1907. His descendents have remained in Sacramento, and in 1988 his grandson, Dr. Herbert Yee, along with the Fiddletown Preservation Society and the State, preserved the original adobe building where Yee Fung Cheung practiced (photo). It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and open to visitors who can see artifacts of Yee's practice.

Attention California history aficionados:
Here's a great way to enjoy California history without being bogged down with thick tomes heavy with footnotes. A library of short historical articles by Willard Thompson is available on AmazonKindle. Called Chronicles of Western Pioneers, articles currently available are: The Last Cattle Drive; Empire Builder, the Story of Walter Vail; The Day Jack Powers Turned Outlaw; and The Wreck of the Gold Rush Steamship Winfield Scott. Coming soon are: Going for the Gold, Travel by Sea to the Gold Rush and Jessie Frèmont, the Woman Who Won the West. More are coming. Don't miss any of them!

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