By Margie Lew
The long-anticipated journey to the historic Mother Lode country in central California was a dream come true for 50 members of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. Through the meticulous advance planning done by Gerald Shue and John Yee, the weekend of October 8-10 became a historical adventure to be long remembered by each participant.
First stop for the group was Fiddletown on Saturday at 2 p.m. A cordial welcome was extended by several members of the Fiddletown Preservation Society as the visiting group strolled through the community’s main.street. Of particular interest was the Chew Kee Store; one of the two remaining_ ::rammed earth” adobes built by the Chinese pioneers in the 1850’s. An authentic Chinese herb shop, it was the home of Fong Chow You, better known as Jimmy Chow, the last Chinese resident of Fiddletown. On entering Chew Kee Store, the years seemed to rol! back, and one could almost expect to see Mr. Chow coming slowly forward with a warm greeting-“Ho la mah? Nay sick faan, may ah?” Time seemed to stand still as the visitor peered at the old newspapers, posters, calendars, Chinese coins, dishes, herbs, incense, and the myriad of objects which were so much a part of a lonely man’s life. Rows of herb drawers line both sides of the room. The shop, with spare living quarters in the rear, remains the same today as it must have looked during Jimmy Chow’s lifetime. Several members of the community have donated their services for the maintenance and daily up-keep of this priceless historical building.
Included in the plans for this visit to Fiddletown was a pilgrimage ·to Jimmy Chow’s grave, a half mile from town. Joining the group from the Historical Society were several citizens of Fiddletown, some of whom were Jimmy’s good friends. At the gravesite, members of the Society placed flowers, fruit and incense as a symbolic gesture in memory
of Jimmy Chow and the thousands of Chinese pioneers who endured hardships, abusive treatment and prejudice in their search for a better life.
After an overnight stay in Placerville, a beautiful and historic community originally known as Hangtown in the Gold Rush years, the group met at the Gold Bug Mine, wandering through the mine’s two tunnels, carved out of hard rock. Also of historical interest was Stone House, a magnificent building constructed of hand-hewn stone. Built by Chinese workmen around 1865, it is the only remaining structure of Placerville’s Chinatown. From outward appearances, it was a Chinese herb store. But it also housed an opium den and a gambling room; the second story was a well patronized bordello. Stone House was restored recently and is now a respectable office building.
Travelling further north on Highway 49, the group visited Wakamatsu, where a shrine was e;ected’ in 1969 to commemorate the first Japanese settlers to arrive in California in The colony was founded by a German trader, Edward Schnell, who, brought 30 Japanese to Gold Hill to establish a tea and silk farm. The leader of the group. was Katamori Matsudaira, a political refugee from Aizu Wakamatsu. Due to lack of funds and a heavy drought in 1871, nearly all the plants died, and the venture was considered a failure. The colony was abandoned – Schnell returned to Germany, and the Japanese settlers dispersed back to Japan. Today only the grave of Okei Ito, nursemaid in the Schnell household, remains as a memorial to the forgotten colony. And it was on this grave that a group of Society members laid incense and flowers in a silent tribute to the courage and endurance of the first Japanese pioneers. On the headstone, appearing in both English and Japanese, were these touching words, “In memory of Okei, a Japanese girl-Died 1871, age 19.”
Leaving Wakamatsu, the group journeyed on to Coloma, site of tbe Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. In the 1850’s, large numbers of Chinese settled in the area to join thousands of others who where searching for gold. Still standing today are the two Chinese stores built of stone, in addition to the ruins of a joss house; and the Tree-of-
Heaven. (Many. of these trees were planted throughout the Mother Lode by Chinese immigrants, perhaps of their need to have something to remind them of home while living in a.strange and alien land.) After meandering through the historic sites in Coloma’s State Park, the Society’s next stop was Locke, picturesque town on the Sacramento River
delta, and the only one in the United States to be built entirely by Chinese. Mr. Bob Jang, active community participant, cordially welcomed the group to Locke, conducting a tour through the Chinese school, community hall, and museum.” The town, built in 1915, seems to have changed not at all, except–perhaps, in its number of residents. During its busiest years, Locke had almost 1,000 residents; today there are less than 160, fewer than half of which are Chinese. Today Locke still retains her picturesque charm and original “down-home” feeling.
At the close of this:backward glance into. yesterday, it was late afternoon of Sunday, October 9, and several of the group’s participants were preparing to start homeward. However, 24 Society members headed westward toward San Francisco to rendezvous for dinner in Chinatown with members of the Chinese Historical Society of America. Following dinner, an invitation was extended to tour the San Francisco group’s museum, which contains many photos of Chinese in the early part of the century as well as numerous historical and priceless artifacts.
As surely as night follows day or spring comes after winter, all good things must come to an end. And so the journey ended-but the memories linger on-memories of a very young Jimmy Chow left alone in a strange land, and in later years finding a special niche in the affection of Fiddletown’s citizens; memories of a Japanese girl’s lonely grave on a sunny knoll in Wakamatsu; memories of Locke, a picturesque town with a flourishing past and an uncertain future; but best of all, warm memories of a shared experience an unforgettable adventure into the past, a sentimental journey to be long remembered.