The legacy of a local Chinese pioneer

Note: Most newspaper content reprinted here is incomplete and delayed. Want it all? Sooner? You can subscribe to our full print and online editions by calling (559) 674-4207 and get both editions for the price of one!

webmaster | 03/14/06
Author(s): 

Yee Chung was a troubled man in 1880. He watched with trepidation as the town of Madera grew from nothing in 1876, to a full-fledged village four years later. A portion of the Chinese merchant's concern stemmed from the fact that the town of Borden, four miles to the south, was losing residents almost daily to its upstart neighbor to the north, and that meant fewer customers for his merchandise store in Borden's Chinatown.

However, no matter how significant his economic woes were becoming, what really disturbed Yee Chung's peace of mind were the thoughts of his homeland. It had been 15 years since he had left China for America, and not a day had passed without thoughts of the wife and daughter he had left behind. Would he ever see them again? Who could say? Probably not.

For the next seven years, Yee Chung struggled to make ends meet in Borden, and with the passage of time, he grew more and more lonely. Finally he could take it no longer. He traveled to San Francisco in search of a wife. It didn't take long to find the right one.

Jung Shee was just 13 years old when she and her mother boarded a ship for Gold Mountain (America) in 1884. In all probability she had been destined for a life of prostitution in San Francisco, but fortunately a well-to-do family took her in, and she became a domestic servant. Three years later, through some fortuitous connection, Yee Chung found her and took her as his bride.

Before they left San Francisco, Yee Chung visited a photographic shop to have pictures taken of his new wife and himself. He wanted his wife in China to know what he had done and what the second Mrs. Chung looked like. Later evidence was to show that the first Mrs. Chung received the news with equanimity and placed both photographs on her ancestral wall. In time she would have her own photograph taken and placed on the wall as well.

Yee Chung and his new wife, Leong Shee, set up housekeeping in the Borden store and started a family. Three children were born in Borden - a son in 1889, a daughter in 1891, and another son in 1893. Four more sons would follow, but they would all be born in Madera.

In 1895, after more than 20 years in Borden, Yee Chung closed his store and moved to Madera, but before he left, he took care of one very important item of business. For two decades, the Chinese in Borden and later Madera had been burying their departed countrymen in a little lot on the West Side of Borden - behind the town, so to speak. It was not officially a cemetery, so Yee Chung decided to preserve it by purchasing it. He paid $200 for seven-tenths of an acre and thereby created the Borden Chinese Cemetery. Seven years later he sold the cemetery for $10 to the Jung Wah Corporation, a benevolent society that tended to Chinese burial places.

When Yee Chung and his family relocated to Madera, they lived on the Dorn Ranch, just outside of town. There Yee rented some acreage and became a very successful fruit merchant. At the same time, he somehow ingratiated himself with the Anglo community of Madera. They referred to him as the town's "Whitest Chinaman." Meanwhile, the second Mrs. Chung kept house and had babies. It had turned into a success story for all concerned until that fateful day in April 1902.

On Friday, April 25, 1902, Madera physician Dr. Byars was summoned to the Yee Chung home on the Dorn Ranch. When the doctor arrived he found the fruit merchant breathing his last.

The next day, the coroner's jury paid a visit to the family of the deceased to determine the cause of death. The verdict revealed that Yee Chung had died of "excessive drinking." Witnesses testified that he had been on a continual binge for more than two years.

Yee Chung's funeral took place on Sunday, April 27, 1902. A large number of Chinese from Madera and Fresno attended, as did many Anglos. The procession made its way from Madera to the Borden Chinese Cemetery where he was buried. Notice was sent to the family of the deceased in China. In that way, both of Yee Chung's wives mourned his passing.

Little is known of the first Mrs. Yee Chung, except that she was the mother of Leong Kam Kiu and lived in the little village of Lung Yuet Tau in a house built with money sent to her by Yee Chung. It was in this house that the photographs of Yee Chung and his wives were found in 2002.

The second Mrs. Yee Chung remained in Madera where her children attended both Howard and Alpha Schools. Then in 1910, they all moved to the delta area near Stockton and became successful merchants and farmers.

Now more than 100 years after the passing of Yee Chung, the question of his legacy comes to the fore. Precisely what did he leave to show that he had trod the paths of this earth? Many things come to mind.

First, there are his descendants, all of whom are either in one of the professions or in business. Second, there are his contributions to the Chinese community in both Borden and Madera. The stories of his generosity to his fellow countrymen are legion. Third, there is the fact that he was able to assimilate. To an amazing extent, Anglo Madera accepted Yee Chung as an equal during a time when his countrymen were being officially ostracized.

For this writer, however, the significance of Yee Chung lies in the fact that he saved the Borden Chinese Cemetery. If he had not purchased the burial ground and then transferred it to the Jung Wah Corporation, we would have very little evidence that the Chinese even existed in this area.

Every time one drives past that little piece of ground across from the Madera Irrigation offices, the presence of those seven tombstones and the red altar serve as reminders of the Chinese presence in Borden and Madera, and for that we can thank Yee Chung, to a large extent.

 

comments powered by Disqus