Nothing, of course, is truly new, it only has better bells and whistles.
Academia's "continuing education" program that invites adults to kit themselves out with backpacks and laptops is a new branch on an old tree called the Chautauqua movement, which originated more than a century ago, when travel and learning were all very well but out of reach to all but a very few.
That short-lived institution in Chautauqua, N.Y., inspired touring companies, Tent Chautauquas, whose lecturers held forth with astonishing tales and lantern slides about their travels to the Mysterious East or the Dark Continent.
This is the story of a modern Chautauqua. It brings us our own California back yard of 150 years ago. For the sesquicentennial, the California Council for the Humanities has sent forth a baker's dozen of historical characters from the mid-19th century, portrayed by performer-scholars traveling the state to evoke a California nearly trampled underfoot in the rush for gold. Among them:
The Mexican military wife who fought for her family's Spanish land grant up to the U.S. Supreme Court . . . the Native Americans who variously led a tax revolt, outfoxed Gen. John C. Fremont and organized Indian labor . . . the woman whose accounts of Gold Rush camp life helped spur the craze for Western stories . . . the slave who won her freedom and founded a church . . . and Yee Fung Cheung, Chinese herb doctor.
In an age when California Chinese were reviled, scapegoated, killed--22 massacred in a riot in Los Angeles in 1871--and then virtually excluded from coming here altogether, Yee was a one-man HMO, so successful that he had three herbalist shops going at once. And once he saved the life of the wife of the governor of California.
At a time when Chinese miners were such easy pickings for robbers that a San Francisco shop did a brisk trade shaping their gold into frying pans and blackening them to fool the thieves, Yee Fung Cheung carried his fortune around in his head.
Oh, he too had come from China for wealth and adventure at "Gold Mountain," but he saw his prosperity was in treating the other Chinese here, and soon the white men were consulting him, too, often as the only medical man for miles--or the only one who didn't recommend leeches or amputations.
Like Yee, writer/performer/composer Charlie Chin--the ex-New Yorker who portrays the mid-century Yee--grew up with herbalism. His father boiled up what Chin and his brother called "jungle juice" remedies, but later he came to study herbalism seriously himself.
When he undertook to portray Yee, he had no letters to build on--only contemporary and family accounts of a jovial and witty man of no little business acumen, a professional man who is played wearing robes and a skullcap at a time when most Chinese were laborers.
Chin's Chautauqua monologue is the testimonial he imagines Yee might have delivered in 1904, before returning to China after 54 years in California. With his chest of herbs, he tells tales of "all of these Chinese ghosts up and down the length of California," making it clear that while he was a business success, he was also witness to discrimination and violence.
Yee's is now a well-established California presence; his family, in its sixth generation here, is wall to wall with dentists and doctors. His first store, in Fiddletown in Amador County, is a historical site, an intact time capsule because the man who inherited it was no herbalist; he simply locked up the business end of the store and lived in the back.
But it was at another store, Wah Hing's grocery in Sacramento, where Yee would be found playing mah jongg one day in 1862, when a Chinese cook came frantically seeking him:
Jane Lathrop Stanford was the governor's wife, and she was at death's door.
Her husband was one of the Big Four who ruled California almost like a fiefdom; he was a co-founder of the state Republican Party, future founder of Stanford University, president of the Central Pacific railroad and soon of Southern Pacific. It was he who would drive the Golden Spike to create the transcontinental railway. And he had referred to the Chinese, who worked so long and hard and cheap laying track on the Central Pacific, as "the dregs of Asia."
And then, in 1862, one of them saved his wife's life. Yee brewed up an infusion of ma huang, which contains ephedrine, a substance still used to treat pulmonary ailments.
Ever after, white Californians knew him as "Dr. Wa Hing," for the store where the Stanfords' cook had found him. And for some time after, Chin says with a small laugh, Leland Stanford was not heard to talk so long and so loud as he once had about the "dregs of Asia."
Bookings of the Chautauqua scholars can be arranged through the California Council for the Humanities, (415) 391-1474.