Chinese American Herbal Medicine: A History of Importation and Improvisation

By Tamara Venit Shelton

“Chinese herbalists imported everything from China.” This is what I consistently heard from herbalists I interviewed when writing Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. As far as anyone knew, when the first generation of Chinese herbalists began to immigrate to the United States in the 1850s, they imported all their medicinal ingredients from China through the port of San Francisco. By 1878, there were eighteen wholesale companies in San Francisco that serviced Chinese herb shops across the United States. In later years, herbalists could find what they needed through wholesalers in Portland, Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago.[i]

Fig 1: Frontispiece of The Science of Oriental Medicine, 1902. Los Angeles Herbalists Tom Leung and Li Wing advertised their remedies to English-speaking patients through long and short-form print advertisements. Public Domain.

Historians of China are aware of the importance of improvisation and substitution in traditional Chinese medicine, and yet the prevalent assumption that all Chinese medicines were imported to the United States made some sense. After all, according to thousands of years of Chinese herbal lore, therapeutic efficacy relied on a highly specific process of procuring medicinal plants, animals, and minerals. The collection or cultivation of traditional medicinal ingredients in China happened only in well-defined areas, under certain seasonal, climatic, and astrological conditions.

Yet as I dug into archives, historical newspapers, memoirs, and oral histories, it became apparent that historically, practitioners of traditional Chinese herbalism in America sourced most, but not all of their supplies in China. There is ample evidence – both anecdotal and archaeological – that the Chinese in America grew and foraged for local sources of medicinal ingredients. These findings speak to the ways in which diasporic Chinese medicine responded to new conditions as well as to the resourcefulness and adaptability of its practitioners.

Fig 2: A.P. Russell, a West Virginia merchant, shows off a 1700 pound shipment of ginseng destined for China in 1928. Wild ginseng, foraged in Appalachia, was a major American export to China from the late eighteenth century until its overharvesting led to near extinction in the mid-twentieth century. Public Domain.

Looking back to the end of the nineteenth century, we see examples of Chinese and non-Chinese farmers growing medicinal herbs and roots for Chinese herb businesses. In 1898, a newspaper in Washington D.C. reported that Lee Poit, recently transplanted from California, had given up trying to compete in the crowded field of laundry and retail and was instead growing “many queer vegetables and herbs” on four acres of land that he rented near Terra Cotta Station, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Line.[ii] Across the country, J. B. McCloskey, an American farmer who studied commercial ginseng production in Korea, opened his own farm on two acres in Oxnard and became the major supplier for Los Angeles-area Chinese physicians in 1904.[iii]

Zoological-based medicines also seem to have been locally sourced. The Chinese collected all manner of reptiles and amphibians – snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads – to supplement dried, imported varieties in America. Sometimes, doctors substituted local species that seemed similar to what would have been available in China. In Boise, Idaho, C.K. Ah Fong famously used rattlesnake (a North American reptile) in traditional Chinese tinctures to treat arthritis, and amidst other Chinese health-related artifacts from Lovelock, Nevada, archaeologist Sarah Heffner has found bobcat bones that may have been used in place of expensive, imported tiger bones.[iv]

Fig 3: Canton Harbor and Factories with Foreign Flags, 1805. European and American traders exchanged medicinal goods through this port city. Public Domain.

Substitution was just one form of improvisational thinking among Chinese herbalists in the United States. Studies of hand-written prescriptions from Chinese American apothecaries reflect a tendency to include an unusually long list of ingredients. This divergence may have been an artifact of herbalists’ swift business in mail-orders for patients unable to meet face-to-face. Patients wrote letters describing their ailment or filled out a pre-printed “symptom sheet,” and the doctor sent back a package of medicine along with a detailed instruction sheet. With an extra-long list of ingredients, Chinese American herbalists could cover a lot of bases when confronted with ambiguous descriptions of symptoms.[v]

Fig 4: Cover image of Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. Yale University Press.

 

Chinese doctors in the United States were not so bound by tradition that they resisted adapting their formularies to their new environment. We should remember them as the innovative immigrant entrepreneurs that they were. As herbalist Li Wing Fawn explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1897: “We shall not confine ourselves exclusively to the importations from the Orient, but shall seek out also the very many valuable medicinal herbs growing in our own country [the United States].”[vi]

 

 

 

[i] Haiming Liu, “Chinese Herbalists in the United States,” in Sucheng Chan, ed. Chinese American Transnationalism: the Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 138.

[ii] “Lee Has a Chinese Farm,” New York Times, 31 October 1898, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times.

[iii] “Local Ginseng Culture Promises Rich Returns,” Oxnard Courier, 27 May 1904; “Queer Chinese Medicines, Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1907, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

[iv] Sarah Heffner, “Exploring Health-Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America,” Historical Archaeology 49 (2015): 141.

[v] Susie Lan Cassel et al, The Chinese in America: a History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium (Lanham MD: AltaMira Press, 2002), 178.

[vi] Li Wing Fawn and B.C. Platt, “A Step in Advance,” Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1896, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

 

About

Tamara Venit Shelton is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of the award-winning book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace

Consuming History—Or Are We?

By Marie Pellissier 

I’ve always been fascinated by the appeal of food in living history museums—the sound and aromas of someone cooking over an iron stove or open hearth never fails to draw visitors’ attention. Since I moved to Williamsburg, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see how Colonial Williamsburg uses food to help people connect with the past—and, as part of my dissertation, I plan to explore how this interpretive strategy has changed over time. 

Food has been a critical part of interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg since the museum was established in 1926. Visitors in the early years of the museum expected to encounter “authentic” Southern food in the museum’s restaurants, and to find African-American women cooking in the historic area’s restored kitchens. To understand what sorts of dishes they ought to be cooking, Colonial Williamsburg historian Helen Duprey Bullock turned her attention to eighteenth-century foodways. The souvenir cookbook The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, published in 1938, was the culmination of years of Bullock’s efforts researching and collecting “traditional Virginian” recipes, and provides an interesting study in contrasts. Bullock’s book is designed to be as authentic an object as possible, and yet, the actual recipes were often far from anything that an eighteenth-century Virginian would recognize. 

Helen Bullock, The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, 1938. Image credit: author’s own photograph.

Bullock modeled her project after the first cookbook printed in British North America, E. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, printed in an abridged edition by Williamsburg printer William Parks in 1742. In a note to the reader at the end of the book, Bullock describes the volume as “a typographical Adaptation [sic]” of Parks’ Compleat Housewife, set in old-style Caslon, “the closest available Approach to the [type] used by Parks.” The paper was specially made, and the binding “is believed,” Bullock wrote, “to be a successful Reconstruction of the Binding” of Parks’ Compleat Housewife. Bullock wanted the museum visitors who saw her book in the gift shop to believe that they were buying an authentic object, as close to owning a piece of history as possible. 

Title page for Eliza Smith’s 1730 book, The Compleat Housewife. Image credit: Library of Congress.

 

The contents of the book, however, are far from original to the eighteenth century. The recipes Bullock has collected are from a hodgepodge of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources, and some have been modified for the twentieth-century cook. Some recipes are deliberately constructed to make readers feel a connection to the founders—like “Mount Vernon Pound Cake” and “Martha Washington’s Potato Light Rolls.” Bullock doesn’t demonstrate any concrete links between these recipes and the Washington family, but the recipes do serve to help the reader link themselves to the founding fathers (or, rather, the founding mothers!). These connections reinforced the museum’s emphasis on patriotism and nostalgia for the nation’s earliest days. 

Painting of Martha Washington. Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

 

But the cookbook also taps into a deeply embedded nostalgia for the days of the antebellum South. It includes a recipe for “Robert E. Lee Cake,” which is a light, fatless cake with citrus and coconut filling (much like an angel food cake). The version Bullock offers is attributed to the Lane family of Williamsburg, and dated circa 1870 (though Robert E. Lee Cake did not appear in print until 1879). A punch recipe attributed to Confederate office Colonel Walter Herron Taylor contributes to the conflation of colonial America and the antebellum South. In the section “Of Christmas in Virginia” (which has no parallel in E. Smith’s Compleat Housewife), Bullock describes the “generous Hospitality” to be found on the plantations at Christmastime, when “the Negroes…appeared at the great House to wish each Person ‘Joyful Christmas’.” Recipes linked to Confederate officers and descriptions of enslaved people as grateful and joyful reinforced narratives of the Lost Cause, offering visitors a comfortable image of the past as a simpler time, when racial distinctions and hierarchies were clear and unchallenged. 

Despite Bullock’s efforts to ensure that The Williamsburg Art of Cookery was as physically accurate as possible, the contents of the book were distinctly shaped by the prevailing winds of public memory. Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s expected to see a paternalistic past, shaped by racial hierarchies and stability—but they also expected to see authentic objects, to conjure a feeling of being physically connected to the past. The Williamsburg Art of Cookery fulfilled all of those expectations.  


About

Marie Pellissier is a PhD candidate at William & Mary. She is beginning work on her dissertation, which will focus on the intersection of food, memory, and identity in and of early America. She is the creator of More than a Kitchen-Aid: The Elizabeth Capell Cookbook and co-creator of Explore Common Sense.

Golden State: Recipes and Memory

Amanda Elise Herbert and Annette Elise Herbert

Alzheimer's disease, artwork. Credit: Florence Winterflood. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Alzheimer’s disease, artwork. Florence Winterflood. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0), Wellcome Collection.

How do recipes make memories, and how do we remember the methods, ingredients, and techniques that go into making a dish, a piece of technology, a work of art, a scientific method? Memory is a powerful force, capable of sustaining a story, instructions, or guidelines over generations. It’s also unpredictable, malleable, incomplete, manufactured.

For the next two months, February and March 2021, we will be exploring recipes and memory at The Recipes Project. In this series we’re delighted to feature and amplify many writers who are new to the RP, and who are bringing their own work on recipes and memory to us in a rich variety of formats and media. Some contributors ask us to absorb, learn, and listen: Ozoz Sokoh will share her work on memory and foods of the West African diaspora; Stephanie Shiflett will explore starvation in sixteenth-century France; Simon Newman will write of recipes created during the Holocaust. And some contributors ask us to join and participate: Heather Ariyeh will invite readers to share their own memories of beans and rice via a memory of twentieth-century Guatemala.

Describing his childhood in Zambia, poet Kayo Chingonyi has said that he “uses the writing as a way of reconstructing that place from memory.” For Chingonyi, sharing memory – whether in writing, like his poetry, or in visual art, or sound, or taste – is generative. “Something new,” he says, “is created by the experience of sharing.”

Inspired by Chingonyi’s own ideas about memory, art, and community, I’m proud to be co-editing “Recipes and Memory” with my mother, Annette Herbert. To launch the series, here is our own post about our family’s history with a sugar factory in Northern California. Like sugar, this recipe and its memory are sweet: they tell a story about resilience, love, devotion. And like sugar, this recipe and its memory hold the potential for erasure, elision, and, if you’re not careful, rot. 

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Our family migrated to California as part of a gold rush. We weren’t drawn in 1849 by precious metals, but arrived fifty years later, pulled into the new state by sticky, golden sugar. We have a family recipe that proves it.

Recipe for California Date Bars. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

My name is Amanda Elise Herbert. I remember this story this way. My mother, Annette Brown Herbert, told it to me; my grandmother, Doris Ahlgrim Brown, told it to me. Two brothers, both in their teens, were born in Prussia. They were pacifists and didn’t want to be conscripted into the Kaiser’s army. They signed up to work on a cargo ship and traveled halfway around the world. When the boat docked in Crockett California, the smell of burned sugar filled the air, for Crockett was home to the famous California and Hawaii (C&H) Sugar Company. Fearing that violence would meet them if they returned to Prussia, they escaped from the ship, hid until it steamed away, and found jobs at C&H. Two years later they’d saved enough money to bring their baby sister and their parents to California. The family settled and grew. They soaked in the sunshine. They hiked in the Sierras. And the baby sister created a recipe to commemorate their new life: California Date Bars, packed with golden brown C&H sugar.

Brown sugar. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

My name is Annette Brown Herbert. I remember this story this way. My mother, Doris Ahlgrim Brown, told it to me; my aunt, Dorothy Ahlgrim Young, told it to me. Anna Schuetz immigrated from Danzig with her parents when she was twenty. They left a married sister, named Clara, behind. Clara wanted to come, but she was married and her husband was unkind to her. Anna’s older brothers had left East Prussia to avoid conscription into the Kaiser’s army. They arrived in San Francisco, jumped ship, and then made their way to Crockett, where they worked at the C&H Sugar factory. They eventually sent for their parents and sister. When they weren’t working at the factory, the two brothers would go fishing down the hill, on the piers at the Bay’s waterfront, and when it was time to come home, their mother would wave a dish towel at them from the front door.

Eggs. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

My name is Dorothy Ahlgrim Young. I remember the story this way. My twin sister, Doris Ahlgrim Brown, learned it with me. Our grandmother Anna Schuetz immigrated from Danzig around 1888. She traveled with her parents to Crockett, California, where her brothers had settled in order to avoid conscription into the Kaiser’s army. Upon arrival she began working as a seamstress and upstairs maid for the Hooper Family, owners of the Hooper Candy Company. Her talented fingers made trousseaus for each Hooper daughter. Anna married a man named Charles Drewicke, who worked at C&H Sugar. While in Crockett, Anna and Charles had three children: Irwin, Doris, and Arnold. Anna was not a good cook. She would bake pfefferkuchen at Christmastime, cut in diamond shapes with a piece of candied citrine or a sliver of almond on top. But she often burned them, passing this off by saying “they’re just a little brown.” Anna’s daughter, our mother Doris Drewicke Ahlgrim, was an excellent cook. She would make California Date Bars for us and our friends when we went hiking in the summer.

Walnuts. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

The historical record – itself manufactured, smoothed out, cut and pasted – tells a different story. Census data, voter registration records, and death certificates show that a woman named Annie Schuetz and her parents arrived in California in 1892. None of them could read or write or speak English. Their names were misreported by an impatient census-taker in 1900, who labeled Annie’s mother “Wilhemina Wilhelm” when he couldn’t understand her German speech. Members of the family did not work at C&H; that company didn’t begin operations until 1921. Instead they were described as laborers: factory laborers, warehouse laborers. Annie’s father was still working full-time at the age of sixty-nine. Illness, death, and financial mismanagement saw a widowed Annie Schuetz Drewicke and her children living in a rented house in San Francisco by 1920, where all of the members of the family were “working for wages or on own account, not salaried.” 

Spices.
Image courtesy of the authors.

Our knowledge of the past, recovered with care and hard work and difficulty by scholars of modern history, offers further nuance. The sugarcane that fed C&H’s refinery was grown on land stolen from the Kanaka ʻŌiwi; the refinery itself stood on the land of the Karkin and Muwekma. Working conditions in sugarcane fields in Hawaii, on cargo ships across the Pacific, and in factories in California, were dangerous and dehumanizing. Annie Schuetz Drewicke and her daughter Doris Drewicke Ahlgrim had only just earned the right to vote when the census-taker visited their lodging house in 1920 to take account of them. 

Dates. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

Thousands of miles apart, in our kitchens in California and Maryland, we make the California Date Bars. We miss each other. The pandemic has meant that this is the longest we’ve ever been apart. We read the recipe off of screens. It’s been carefully and lovingly scanned and sent to us by Auntie Dorothy. It’s in Doris Drewicke Ahlgrim’s hand. The directions are sparse, and we talk about implied and implicit knowledge. We make guesses. We talk about memory. The recipe looks good, but it also seems cloyingly sweet. We add more salt.

California Walnut Date Bars on tea towel with California poppies. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

Food Identity Standards and Recipes as Legislation

By Clare Gordon Bettencourt 

In 1933, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) organized an exhibit that came to be known as the Chamber of Horrors. The horrors on display were examples of packaging intended to deceive consumers. The FDA organized the exhibit to call attention to the pervasiveness of dishonest dealings in the food marketplace, a marketplace that the FDA was ostensibly in charge of regulating. Despite the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking sensation The Jungle (and decades of organizing by grassroots campaigners), the FDA argued that the law offered inadequate regulatory power. 

Five years later, after another watershed public health crisis captured public attention, regulators repealed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and replaced it with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. As a part of this overhaul, lawmakers looked to recipes as a new way to regulate food purity. 

In the process of evaluating why the Pure Food and Drug Act had failed, some believed that the 1906 law had been too negative by focusing on regulating adulteration rather than defining purity. The Consumers’ Guide newsletter of July 1938 explained:  “it named certain practices as taboo, but did not list the affirmative requirements of honesty and safety in the merchandising of food and drug products.”[1] One way the framers of the new law sought to balance the carrot with the stick was through a new form of legislative “recipes” called the food identity standard provision. 

The provision states: 

‘Whenever in the judgement of the Secretary such action will promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers he shall promulgate regulations fixing and establishing for any food under its common or usual name so far as practicable, a reasonable definition and standard of identity, a reasonable standard of quality and/or reasonable standards or fill of container.’[2]

In short, this provision grants the FDA commissioner the power to create a grade of quality, standardize packaging fill, or establish a recipe (of sorts) for a commonly recognized food. With this new power, the FDA began writing standards detailing the permitted ingredients and production methods. In the first years, the FDA wrote standards for canned fruits and vegetables, jam, and a variety of egg and milk foods. 

The earliest food standards followed a format similar to a recipe a home cook might have used at the time. A good example of this is the canned pea standard enacted in 1940:

Pea standard published in the US Code of Federal Regulations, 1940

Though the standard contains some technical language like the scientific names for the acceptable pea varieties, and the option to include ingredients like dextrose and artificial coloring that home cooks may not have had in their pantries, for the most part the ingredients and method of this standard would have likely made sense to a home cook in 1940; it aligned with common home-canning practices.

 

“Don’t let pretty labels on cans mislead you, but learn the difference between grades and the relative economy of buying larger instead of small cans. The Pure Food Law requires packers to state exact quantity and quality of canned products, so take advantage of this information and buy only after thorough inspection of labels.” US Office for Emergency Management, 1942 Image Courtesy the Library of Congress.

The recipe format is significant because it suggests a radical and somewhat romantic belief that national food regulations could be based on home cookery. The standardization process also suggests that one single standard could be established that would align with the expectations of consumers across backgrounds, regions, and socioeconomic categories. Despite the innovation of detailing exactly what made a food “pure”, the recipe format operated under the assumption that industrial food production and home food production were analogous. While this approach was possible for foods like canned peas, new processed foods that did not exist outside of industrial preparations (like pasteurized prepared cheese food product), particularly in the postwar period, would go on to test how standards were written, and whether a recipe format continued to be applicable. Since the implementation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the FDA has created more than 300 standards of identity. While the recipe format has changed since 1938, the process demonstrates the centrality of recipes to state-level notions of purity, identity, and integrity. 

 

[1] Agricultural Adjustment Administration, “Consumers’ Guide”, Volume V Number 6, July 1938

[2] 34 Stat. 768 (1938) http://constitution.org/uslaw/sal/052_statutes_at_large.pdf