During my time as a tour guide at Kam Wah Chung, I found it hard to give more than two tours a day. I did okay with three, once in a while. But on the couple occasions where I did four, I was completely hoarse by the end of the day. On my tours, I talked nonstop for a full hour. There’s a lot to say about Kam Wah Chung.
But for the purposes of this tour, I’m giving just some of the highlights. As I said in the photo essay post, you must go in person to truly get the full experience of the place.
There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills
Gold was discovered in Canyon City, two miles from John Day, in 1862. Like with the Gold Rush in California, it brought people from all over the world, including men from China. At the time China was not a very good place to live. There was famine, the Opium Wars, political upheaval. So the appeal was to come to the US to make a little money and return home.
Because of the anti-Chinese sentiment, Chinese were not allowed to live in the local towns which is why Chinatowns popped up wherever the Chinese went to work. That was true in Canyon City as well. But in 1885, the Chinatown in Canyon City “mysteriously” burnt to the ground. And they were not allowed to rebuild.
So many of the men drifted down and settled in the Chinatown that was on the outskirts of John Day. And by the late 1880s John Day’s Chinatown—often called Tiger Town back then—was the third largest Chinatown in the US.
Within 30 years, by 1910, gold had played out in the area and there were less than 100 Chinese who called John Day home. They moved on to follow the work. Some went to the next big gold rush in Alaska. Some went to Astoria to work in canaries. The first photo we have is from 1909 so it doesn’t even come close to showing what the area looked like in its heyday.
Many assume that the Chinese built the building. But, in fact, they did not. It was built in 1865 or 1866 by the Dalles Military Road Company. They used it as a trading post. But they didn’t use it very long because they sold it to a Chinese man in 1871. The first Chinese man is the one who named the place Kam Wah Chung which means Golden Chinese Outpost. The sign on the building is the original sign. The building went through several hands before 1888 when Ing Hay and Lung On met on the streets of John Day and purchased the building, which is where the real story begins.
The Doc’s Office
I would welcome visitors into the building’s main room by telling them they were in Doc Hay’s area of the business. They might not recognize it but they were actually standing in the waiting room and the exam room.
Doc Hay who had very poor eyesight was a pulsologist. In the corner is a red chair (now very faded). Next to the chair is a table that Doc Hay would have a white satin pillow. He’d ask you to put your hand, palm up, on the pillow and would feel your pulse to make a diagnosis. He could feel 24 different pulses.
Then he’d get up and go to his apothecary where there were over 500 herbs and animal parts to make up your formula. He’d grind it with either a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle, put the mixture in an envelope. The customer would take it home, boil it for 8 to 10 hours, strain it and then drink it per Doc’s instructions.
We should pause here for an interesting side note. We have many formulas that Doc recorded. At this time only about 10% have been translated to English. In addition to being written in Chinese, Doc Hay had his own form of shorthand making the translation task especially challenging. However, we have found some formulas with as many as 79 different ingredients.
It was said boiling the mixtures would make a person’s house completely stink. And as stinky as it was, it tasted even worse. But lots of people got better. Here I would tell one or two of the stories of miraculous recoveries from those who would’ve died if not for Doc Hay as western doctors were unable to help.
Before I continue to tour, I need to flash forward to the end of the story. So, in 1940, Lung On who was the business man and ran the general store side of the business (I’ll tell you his story shortly) died at Kam Wah Chung of a heart attack.
Eight years later, Doc Hay fell at Kam Wah Chung and broke his hip. He decided to recuperate in Portland. He left Kam Wah Chung that day, locked the front door, expecting to return in a couple of weeks. Four years later he died in Portland having never returned.
His nephew inherited Kam Wah Chung but didn’t use it. He deeded it over to the city of John Day who promptly forgot about it.
Then in 1969, John Day wanted to build a park. They wanted to tear down the old building so went to research who owned it and it turned out that they did. Then someone had the idea that they should go in and see what was in the old building.
And when they did, they essentially opened a time capsule from the day that Doc Hay locked the front door in 1948.
Doc Hay’s Bedroom
You can do the math to figure out that Doc Hay lived and worked at Kam Wah Chung for 60 years (1888 – 1948). In that time, this was his bedroom. We have the room set up to match a picture one of his friends took in the 1940s. The only thing not represented in the room was the chamber pot he kept under the bed (though you will see it in the photo below).
A few fun things about the room:
- Doc Hay couldn’t see but there is a clock on his night table. He took the glass off the front of the clock and would feel the hands.
- Notice the meat cleaver on the nightstand? The Chinese Exclusion Act, among many things, didn’t allow Chinese to own weapons despite the fact that a lot of violence and hatred was directed at them. There are meat cleavers in every room as a source of protection.
- The black box under Doc’s bed, when opened, held $23,000 of uncashed checks from the early part of last century. That’s more than $300,000 today. When asked why he hadn’t cashed them, he told his nephew that “those people need the money more than me.” In the Interpretive Center we have many of the checks on display.
Lung On was the businessman of the pair and his area was the general store. He was a savvy businessman and quite entrepreneurial. Unlike most Chinese, he was able to learn English which made him a particularly valuable resource among the Chinese. In addition to the store, he printed his own lottery tickets, charged a fee as a China Boss where he connected local businessmen (ranchers, for example) with Chinese men who were looking for work, invested in real estate and owned race horses.
Notice the prevalence of alcohol and tobacco products. Some of the brands you will see are still in existence today. We found the boxes full and unopened, and we have never opened them.
One interesting thing found in the general store when Kam Wah Chung was opened was two trap doors. Any guesses what they were used for? I’ll give you a hint…Prohibition. Found under the trap doors, in the walls and other places were 98 bottles of prohibition alcohol, still full and unopened. However, the city gave some away and other bottles simply disappeared. Today the collection is 33 bottles, each valued at $10,000. (No doubt, someone is kicking themselves for giving so many away.)
Lung On opened the first car dealership in all of eastern Oregon. And then, being the entrepreneur, he looked around and decided to open the first gas station. By the end of his life, he spent most of his time at his car dealership and less time at the general store.
The Bed and Breakfast
As Chinese men working in the mines and local ranches would come to town for supplies and their mail, they needed a place to stay. We affectionally called the kitchen where four bunks were set up the “bed and breakfast.”
Things of note in the kitchen:
- There is a water pump in the kitchen which may have been the first “indoor plumping” in John Day. While you can see how practical something like this might be, it actually was installed indoors due to safety concerns. The anti-Chinese sentiment was so great in the early years that they wanted to ensure everything they might need to survive for several days was inside the walls of Kam Wah Chung.
- There is a vertical square of wood that is flush with the wood of the floor. It goes down all the way to the ground below. It served a chopping block to cut wood for the stove. They couldn’t just chop wood on the floor or they would’ve ripped it up so this small square of wood was kind of ingenious.
- How many Chinese men do you think Lung On rented a place to place each night? This question I asked the people on my tours. It was rare that anyone guessed correctly. The answer was 16. Yep, four men to each bunk bed.
- Altars, there are three. The fruit you see all shriveled and hard are the actual fruits that Doc Hay offered before he left to recover from his fall in 1948.
- Lung On’s bedroom was added on in 1914 so he could have his own entrance since he was generally out until all hours of the night. It doesn’t have furniture because at Kam Wah Chung there are no reproductions (except for the wall paper in Doc Hay’s bedroom) or items not found in the building which is noteworthy as most period museums must supplement their collection to make it a full experience. The furniture in Lung On’s bedroom was used by Doc Hay’s nephew and family who came to take care of him after Lung On died and has since been lost to time.
- Lung On and Ing Hay along with the most prominent rancher in the area kept their money in the banks during the Great Depression, and made sure all the locals knew about their decision, which ensured the local banks did not go under.
- Nearly all of the Chinese who came over to the US to work wanted their bodies or their ashes returned to China to be buried with the families. Both Lung On and Ing Hay became such beloved members of the community, they wanted to be bury in John Day. You can visit their graves in the local cemetery.
Like any place, it’s easy to look around, snap a few photos, do the “ooh” and “ah” without giving the place its due. At the end of each tour, I asked visitors to consider what they have seen. Then I ask if they realized the historical value of the collection. In fact, it is only one of three collections in the world with this breadth and depth, particularly when it comes to the medicinal items. And you might be surprised to know the other two collections are in London and New Zealand.
Nope, there is nothing like this even in China. China destroyed much of their own stuff at the height of communism in the 1950s. So, Kam Wah Chung has given permission to many Chinese scholars to examine our collection.
It really is a remarkable collection and a true national treasure in little ol’ John Day, Oregon.
After the tour of the inside, I would lead the group outside and ask if they wanted to hear one last Lung On story. They always did. I’d walk them to the side of the building and under a big tree since it would be shaded there (and, remember, while I was there, it was very hot).
Lung On heard through the grapevine that a railroad might be coming through John Day. His entrepreneurial mind went to work and started thinking about how to capitalize on the influx of new visitors. He decided these people would need a place to stay.
He wandered around Chinatown until he found a house that was the same dimensions as Kam Wah Chung (pause for effect) and then I’d share that he had the house hoisted on the roof. Well, the railroad never came to pass so he never opened the place for boarders. In fact, you’ll notice, he never even had stairs built. Then I’d point to the door in the middle of the second story.
People always got a kick out of that. Paint analysis showed the colors they see today are the original colors of the house. And, when we opened the second floor, we discovered Lung On’s business papers as well as Doc Hay’s records. Today the second floor remains empty as all the contents were moved to a more secure and climate-controlled locations.
Kam Wah Chung
I hope I have convinced you that, should you find yourself in north eastern Oregon, a stop at Kam Wah Chung is well worth your time.
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