By John Yee
During my many travels up and down the State in recent years, I drove past many small towns in the Mother Lode country with such inter~sting_names as Angels Camp, Squabbletown. Chinese Camp and . . . Fiddletown. Having only a small amount of knowledge about the early history of this area, my curiosity caused me to explore deeper into finding exactly what vital contributions were made by the early Chinese pioneers. Driving off the main highway one day in August 1954, my wife Esther and I headed toward Fiddletown. Approaching the;western end of town, we saw two brick buildings and one adobe which, we found out later, was the Chinatown area of the little community. Peeking through the dusty windows of the adobe, we had difficulty seeing what was inside. However, we were in luck that day-residing in the rear of the building was the last, lone Chinese resident of Fiddletown, by name of Fong Chow You, better known as Jimmy Chow. Mr. Chow was white-haired, and appeared to be in his 70’s. He graciously invited us into the shop, and we had a very interesting and pleasant chat with him.
JOHNNY: When did you you come to Fiddletown?
JIMMY CHOW: I was born here. I was a sickly child, and my parents did not think I could survive the long trip back to China when they returned there, so I stayed here, and was raised by a Dr. Yee.”
ESTHER: How many Chinese live here?
J.C.: I’m the only one now.
J: Why did your parents come to “Gum Saan?”
J.C.: They were looking for gold.
E.: What did the Chinese do in the old days?
J.C.: They were in all kinds of trades-mining, gambling, merchandising, lotteries, stonework, well digging, and many other businesses.
J.: What happened to all the Chinese?
J.C.: They left gradually when the gold ran out; some died off. The last one left about 1910.
J.: Is there a Chinese cemetery here?
J.C.: Yes, about ¾ mile down Old Fiddletown Road. There’s nothing there now, because in 1917 some people came from San Francisco and dug up all the bones to send them back to China.
J.: What was Chinatown like a long time ago?
J.C.: I can remember when I was a little boy. There was a gambling house across the street. Upstairs there were “sing song” girls. You could hear Chinese music all over Chinatown. Plenty of excitement here then. There were thousands of Chinese here.
J.: Did Plymouth and Drytown have many Chinese?
J.C.: Maybe over a thousand in Drytown and some amount in Plymouth. Fiddletown had the most of all.
J.: How did you earn your living in the past?
J.C.: I used to hunt, blacksmith, do roof work, and a Jot of carpentry. All the people in Fiddletown are very good to me. During World War I, I worked in the U.S. Naval Shipyard at Mare Island as a carpenter. After the war I came back here. Now I cannot do too much because of the arthritis.
J.: Do you have any relatives?
J.C.: I have a brother in China. Each Chinese New Year I send him some money. Haven’t heard from him for awhile now.
J.: Do you go into the city much?
J.C.: Yes-each time somebody goes to Stockton or Sacramento, they ask me to go. Sometimes I go and buy Chinese vegetables and groceries.
J.: Anything exciting happen around here?
J.C.: Just last week there were 25 school teachers here from Stockton. They wanted to take a look at my place. I told them to go in six at a time, because the floor is not too strong. Not too long ago, someone from the State Park was thinking about buying this building and moving it to Coloma to make a museum out of it.
J.: I notice you have many valuable things here-some dating back to 1870 and earlier. What will happen to these things when you are no longer here?
J.C.: I will leave them to the State. One official said not to touch any of it, but to leave it as it is.
My last personal contact with Jimmy Chow was in August 195 6. Ten years passed by with no word from him. Esther and I often wondered whether he ever received the small parcels we sent him on special holidays. In August 1966, I wrote to the area’s postmistress, Mrs. Robert Lawrence, requesting information on Mr. Chow. In reply, a postcard
dated August 16, 1966, said: “Dear Mr. Yee: Our very good friend Jimmy Chow passed away a year ago last April.”
Thus ended an era. With the death of the last Chinese resident in Fiddletown, that particular chapter has closed. But the Chew Kee Herb Store is still there-so is the Foo Kee Shop, both standing as silent memorials to the thousands of Jimmy Chows who passed through history, leaving their indelible imprint in Fiddletown’s intriguing yesteryears.