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Chinese merchant kept two wives

Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society Mrs. Yee Chung is shown here 18 years after her husband died in Madera. During the settlement of his estate in 1902, it was discovered that there were two Mrs. Chungs--one in Madera and one in China.


The year was 1865, and Yee Chung was headed for Gold Mountain, the Chinese name for America. He bid his wife and children goodbye and forever turned his back on Lung Yuet Tau, his ancestral home. Little did he know that many years later, the family he left behind, would become the subject of so much attention in Madera, California.

For the next few years Yee Chung labored in the gold mines of northern California. Then he went to work for the railroad. In 1872, when the Southern Pacific started laying its track up the San Joaquin Valley, Yee Chung was one of the hundreds of Chinese who were employed to do the job.

After the crews passed what is now Madera, the railroad built a switch and called it Borden. In a short time, a village grew up around the little depot, and Yee Chung decided to stay.

He opened up a merchandise store in the fledgling town and then went to San Francisco for another wife. They were married, and he brought her back to Borden where he continued his mercantile business, and she bore him six children.

In 1876, Madera was founded, and by the 1890’s it was apparent that Borden would be eclipsed by its neighbor to the north. In 1898, Yee Chung moved his second family to Madera, but he never forgot his first family back in China. He even commissioned a Madera photographer to take pictures of him and his second wife and sent them to China to be placed on the ancestral wall of his home in Lung Yuet Tau.

Yee Chung rented a portion of the Dorn Ranch just outside of Madera, and became a very successful fruit grower. So influential was the prosperous Chinese gentleman that he became known as the “whitest Chinaman” in Madera.

By 1902, Yee Chung seemed at the pinnacle of success, but there was one problem. Although he had money and prestige, he enjoyed a daily rendezvous with the demijohn. Such were his bouts with the bottle that he became an alcoholic, and died in a drunken stupor on May 2, 1902.

Yee Chung was buried in the old Borden Chinese Cemetery, and two weeks later, his pregnant Madera wife nominated a “Mr. Charlie” from Fresno to be the administrator of her husband’s estate. That’s when the trouble began.

Madera County Coroner, R.C. Jay, objected on the grounds that the Widow Chung in Madera was not really the wife of the deceased. He disclosed that Yee Chung already had a wife and children in China, thereby disqualifying the local widow from participation in the estate proceedings. Jay proposed that he be given letters of administration for the Chung estate.

When the basis for Jay’s challenge was made public by his counsel, W.H. Larew, H.H. Welsh, attorney for Charley, shot to his feet. This was preposterous! Claiming to be a friend of the deceased, Welsh took great umbrage at Larew’s impugning of Chung’s reputation and the characterization of his children as “illegitimate.” Mr. Welsh put witnesses on the stand to prove that Yee Chung had no wife in China and said, “it made his collar rise to think that an attorney would put in such a petition.”

Larew then insinuated that the testimony offered by Mr. Welsh was perjured, to which the Fresno attorney responded by calling opposing counsel a liar, and Mr. Larew returned the “compliment.” When the court adjourned for lunch, Mr. Welsh approached Larew and fisticuffs began.

Order was finally restored, and when the court reconvened, it rendered a judgement in favor of Mrs. Yee Chung. Judge Conley rejected the argument that Yee Chung, ever had a wife in his homeland, but the pioneer jurist was wrong!

In August of 2001, nearly one hundred years after the death of Yee Chung, a group of students at Sierra Vista School began researching the old pioneer’s life. Their sleuthing led to a ninety year-old woman in Sacramento, the widow of Bing Chung, the posthumous child of Yee Chung. She revealed the family secret. Her late father-in-law DID have a family back in China. This set the living descendants of Yee Chung into action.

Marcia Chan, great-granddaughter of Yee Chung traveled to China to find the other side of her father’s family. She went to the ancestral village, Lung Yuet Tau, and found the home of Yee Chung’s descendants from his first wife.

Although no family members lived in the house (they had all fled to Hong Kong) the ancestral wall was still up, and on that board were photographs that Yee Chung had sent from Madera. They included pictures of himself and several of his Madera children as well as both of his wives. Within days, copies of these photographs were in the hands of the Madera County Historical Society for its archives. Their recovery is a wonderful story and an important part of Madera’s history that would have lay hidden had it not been for the curiosity of some kids and the fortitude of a family.


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