History of Traditional Chinese Medicine in California: A Perspective through the Stories of Four Acupuncturists

Article excerpt

In Truckee, a small, historically frontier town in Northern California, stands a Chinese herbal shop that dates back to 1878. This small brick building is the sole remnant of the third Chinatown that the Chinese American community built in Truckee in the 1870s. (1) Archaeological studies on San Jose's historic Heinlenville Chinatown, constructed in 1887 and demolished in 1932, also identified records and remains of medicinal herb shops. (2) At the height of anti-Chinese sentiment and enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the White community aggressively destroyed Chinatowns across Northern California by repeatedly setting fires. Chinese American communities responded by moving and rebuilding their homes and businesses, supporting one another and helped by the few sympathetic White neighbors. Throughout the repeated building and rebuilding, herbal shops and traditional Chinese healers were always crucial components of the Chinatowns in Northern California, as they had been since the early days of Chinese immigration.

President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972 brought traditional Chinese medicine into the eye of the mainstream American public. The opening of China and the ensuing diplomatic relationship between China and the United States positioned China as a rising new ally. Chinese acupuncture also became the exciting new medical "discovery." With attention from the mainstream media, traditional Chinese medicine finally entered the consciousness of mainstream American society. By May 2009 a total of 13,110 acupuncture licenses had been issued in California. (3) Approximately one-fifth of all licensed acupuncturists in California are currently practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I conducted the ethnographic fieldwork for this article. (4)

In this article I will trace the development of traditional Chinese medicine in the Bay Area through the lives and narratives of four licensed acupuncturists, who represent important (and sometimes overlapping) phases in the local history of traditional Chinese medicine. The legendary Miriam Lee, a respected pioneer practitioner who was known for her political activism, represents a generation of acupuncturists who established a political foundation that gradually led to legal sanction of acupuncture in California. Sophia Chen (pseudonym) tells of a journey that represents resistance to the impersonal approach of biomedicine and promotion of a self-reflective, patient-centered, humanistic interpretation of traditional practices. (5) Crystal Jacobson (pseudonym) recalls the history of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, where, through selfless service and social engagement, acupuncturists gradually became part of the general health care community. (6) Finally, Jason Fan (pseudonym) shares his story on the continuing efforts by acupuncturists to enhance their professional image. (7) Perhaps reflecting how the different phases of this history relate to each other, although not forming an official lineage, Miriam Lee served as a mentor for all three other acupuncturists included in this article.

POLITICAL FOUNDATION: MIRIAM LEE

Miriam Lee (Chinese name: Li Chuan-zhen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), dubbed by some local practitioners and patients the "mother of acupuncture in California," was probably one of the first practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine who came into the American mainstream public eye. The now-deceased pioneer was best known for being arrested for practicing medicine without a license in 1974; she was released a few days later after over a hundred of her patients, both Chinese and Caucasian, showed up at the courthouse in protest of her arrest. (8) The dramatic incident, along with the petitions and negotiations of many other pioneer acupuncturists, their patients, and sympathizers, prompted the eventual certification and licensing of acupuncture in California. (9)

In coalition with other practitioners, Lee went on to actively advocate for broadening the scope of practice for certified acupuncturists, and eventually licensing acupuncturists. …