Fong Wan Spotlight: Renowned Chinese Herbalist…and Activist?

May 25, 2021

Eric Stanley, Associate Director and History Curator

Like many towns in California, Santa Rosa once had a Chinese section of the city. Most Chinese businesses in Santa Rosa were concentrated on Second Street by the 1890s, but two medicinal herb shops were among the exceptions. Both located on Fourth Street, the success of the shops demonstrated the ability of Chinese herbalists to find customers among the non-Asian community, even in times of overt anti-Chinese bigotry. Fong Poy (later known as Fong Wan), the proprietor of one of the shops, would go on to become one of the most influential Chinese herbalists in the United States and fought against discrimination against his businesses.

Fong Poy and family, ca. 1914

By the 1870s, Chinese herbalists were buying advertisements in English-language newspapers. In the twentieth century, Chinese herbalists faced attacks from medical, state and federal authorities, targeting them with accusations of fraud.

Advertisements from the Press Democrat, 1913-1916

In Santa Rosa, the Fong and Lee Herb Company was established in 1913 at 209 Fourth Street. The founders were Fong Poy and Lee Fun Kai. The business succeeded and a steady stream of testimonials from non-Chinese customers provided content for advertising in the Press Democrat newspaper. Fong Poy would later move to Oakland and opened another herb shop where he went by the name Fong Wan. There he faced regular attacks from the state and US Government, including a charge of mail fraud in 1932. Fong Wan’s advertisements, featuring bold updates on his legal battles, gained him widespread notoriety for his defiance and defense of his business. Chinese businesses so often faced prejudicial treatment that Fong Wan’s advertising campaign became a form of activism against unequal treatment under the law. Arrested dozens of times, Fong Wan remained resilient, relying on the testimonials of customers as his defense. He eventually published a highly influential book on Chinese herb lore.

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