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The Resilience of Ethnic Culture: Chinese Herbalists in the American Medical Profession
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The Resilience of Ethnic Culture:
Chinese Herbalists in the American Medical Profession 1

From the mid-nineteenth to the first half of the twentieth century, Chinese herbalists offered indispensable medical services to both Chinese and non-Chinese patrons in the American West, especially in California. Their thriving herbal business survived a racist, hostile society which treated the Chinese as an inferior race, Chinese civilization as an alien culture, and channeled many of the Chinese immigrants into racialized occupations in the laundry and restaurant sectors. The examination of the history of Chinese herbalists, therefore, offers new insights into racial discourse. The herbalist’s career enriches our understanding of the American West as a culturally diverse region. For a long time, the American medical profession was a field in which many different ethnic healing systems co-existed and competed with each other for clientele. Chinese herbal medicine was one of the most successful practices in this field. Its success as an ethnic heritage in a racially stratified society also requires us to make further inquiry into the resilience of ethnic culture. The viability of a culture often depends on whether its agents can creatively practice it as both a form of accommodation and resistance. To document the activities of Chinese herbalists involves addressing the issue of dependence and autonomy between the minority and dominant societies and re-centering Asians in U.S. history. [End Page 173]

The Rise of Chinese Herbal Medicine

Many pioneer Chinese immigrants possessed some medical knowledge and knew how to cure minor disease or injury with herbal medicine. Medical knowledge was popular among Chinese immigrants, because it had long been considered “benevolent” and was important for the proper fulfillment of filial duties in Chinese society. 2 In 1869, the Overland Monthly, a San Francisco-based journal, carried an article that noted: “Judging from the number of their apothecary stores, one would suppose that the Chinese were large consumers of medicines.” 3 In 1964, the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco examined personal belongings left in three sub-basements by Chinese immigrants with the Son Loy Company for safe-keeping during the turn of the century. Almost all of the boxes and trunks examined contained some Chinese herbs or medicines. 4 Early Seattle Chinese immigrants benefited collectively from an herbal recipe book which contained the best personal recipes of the members of the Chinese community. Though the book originally belonged to the Wah-Chong Company founded in 1868, it was considered community property and served everyone when no professional herbalists were available. 5 Fiddletown in Amador County, California has preserved the old Chew Kee Herb Shop, which Fung Jong Yee opened in 1851 and operated for fifty-three years until his death in 1904. 6 In the pioneer days of the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese stores supplied their immigrant patrons with not only food and clothing but also herb medicine and other health care items.

When Chinese communities expanded in size and wealth, professional herbal doctors, herbal stores, and dispensers appeared. The service provided by herbalists was a source of cultural comfort to the early Chinese immigrants. Patients could communicate easily with the physicians about their symptoms. Drinking herbal tea was a familiar treatment used by the Chinese for several thousands of years. Early Chinese immigrants preferred Chinese medicine to Western medicine, a choice that gave rise to the herbal shops and practice. 7 However, Western medicine was not totally foreign to the Chinese, especially those from the Guangzhou (Canton) area. Early missionary doctors’ books recorded [End Page 174] the presence of many medical institutions affiliated with Western missionaries. 8 In fact, some wealthy Chinese immigrants in the U.S. sought out Western medical treatment for ailments that required surgery. But in general, herbal medicine was the only treatment available to the early Chinese immigrants, because public medical facilities denied admittance to and segregated Chinese patients in the nineteenth century.

During that period, racist newspapers and health officials described Chinese immigrants as carriers of alien diseases. Chinese passengers were subjected to medical examination upon their arrival in the U.S. Their residential areas were frequently inspected for disease and quarantined. A historian noted that...