Calaveras Enterprise

Amador in Action: New book reveals the real ghosts of the Shenandoah Valley

The Chew Kee Store in Fiddletown houses many Chinese artifacts today.Photo by Mike Taylor

The Chew Kee Store in Fiddletown houses many Chinese artifacts today.Photo by Mike Taylor

Cornstalks teeter in the breeze outside of Plymouth again, rising high and haunting over haystacks dotted with pumpkins that have a tinge of blood in their orange, fall glow. The rustic ambiance of the Shenandoah Valley is unbeatable around Halloween time, though on the valley’s far edges the real specters that lurk past the trees are those of a forgotten history – an army of Chinese immigrants that helped build the Gold Country before being largely written out of its legend.

Amador County historian Elaine Zorbas looks to change that with her new book, “Banished and Embraced: The Chinese in Fiddletown and the Mother Lode.”

Every town near Highway 49 has its own special story, and in Fiddletown the tale involves a strong archeological record of the Chinese presence during the Gold Rush that’s the main mission of a preservation society that works to safeguard relics that speak not only to a chapter of the town’s history, but a neglected part of California history. One Fiddletown resident who’s been part of that mission is Zorbas, who first saw the Chew Kee Store in 1987. Zorbas had moved to the area and soon embarked upon years of research into the vanished faces that had once inhabited it.



“I’ve had a continuing interest in the challenge that immigrants faced in our country,” Zorbas said, “and learning about the persecution of the Chinese was something that moved me deeply.”

After reading extensively on Chinese culture, Zorbas dived into any and all public records on the group she could find in Amador County. She examined 19th century deeds, assessment records, business licenses, inquests and dozens of other documents in the county archives and county recorder’s office. She then set about the daunting task of getting letters and books that had been left in the Chew Kee Store translated, some of which were held in Amador’s archives and others at the Ethnic Studies Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I was fortunate in getting help from two superb Chinese-American historians who also provided the cultural context of China and Canton Province, which is now Guangdong, where the Chinese came from during that time,” Zorbas says.

Chinese immigrants had a strong presence in many Amador towns during the Gold Rush, including Drytown, Jackson and Ione. However, Zorbas says that their stronghold in Fiddletown is linked in some ways a darker side of their story in California.

“(Fiddletown) became a refuge for Chinese during the 1880s after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed,” she noted. “Amador County was a microcosm of the anti-Chinese movement, but not the most violent. The book covers that aspect, but even more essential, involves learning how the Chinese developed a support system that helped them to sustain their culture, to persevere during hard times and to ultimately be embraced by the larger society.”

This month, area families can combine harvest time fun with historic experiences by visiting the Shenandoah Valley, stopping first at the Amador Flower Farm’s pumpkin patch and corn maze, and then driving up to Fiddletown to see the Chew Kee Store from the inside and the Chinese Gambling Hall from the outside. The pumpkin patch and corn maze is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Oct. 31. It’s free and includes visits with farm animals and, on the weekends, a free tram ride and tour, weather permitting.

The Chew Kee Store includes many of the artifacts and herbal remedies that were sold in it for more than a century. There is a $2 suggested donation. If you really want to bolster the adventure, you might pack a copy of “Banished and Embraced,” which is sold at Lizzie Ann’s Books in Sutter Creek, Hein & Co. Bookstore in Jackson and at the Chew Kee Store itself. The store is open from 12 to 4 p.m. Saturdays through October at the corner of Fiddletown Road and Jibbom Street in Fiddletown. Check out

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, shadows of the past go stalking every corner of our community. Thanks to this new book of lost legacies, those shadows make for more impressive visages in the north county this October.

Send word on your Amador County event to

WHEN: Daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Oct. 31

WHERE: Amador Flower Farm, 22001 Shenandoah School Road, outside Plymouth

COST: Free

MORE INFO: 245-6660

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