The Kam Wah Chung Company building, located in the eastern Oregon community of John Day, stands as the sole reminder of the town’s once thriving Chinese community. Built circa 1866 as a trading post, the building later served as a commercial, social, cultural, and spiritual center of the Chinese settlement of John Day. Today the Kam Wah Chung Company building collection contains not only medicinal herbs, but also an impressive material collection that embodies the story of Chinese immigrants who contributed significantly to the cultural and economic development of the American West. The building has perhaps one of the best material collections of its kind, for it contains hundreds of artifacts dating from the historic period including furniture, clothing, medicinal herbs, account books, letters, store merchandise, and household items that reflect immigrant Chinese culture in the American West.
Chinese immigrants were lured to America during the 1849 California gold rush. The 1860s marked gold rushes in the semiarid land of Eastern Oregon that encouraged the Chinese in California to migrate to regions east of the Cascade Mountains in search of wealth and new labor opportunities. Kam Wah Chung’s owner (known to the Americans by his store name, a common practice at that time) sold the building (and business) to Ing Hay and Lung On in 1887. The two men headed a group of investors, typical of Chinese business partnerships of the time, continued the name Kam Wah Chung Company, and remained in business for more than 50 years On arrived in John Day after a brief stay in San Francisco. Educated in the Chinese classics and English language, he was also skilled in business. In 1887, he set his sights on Eastern Oregon where he met his future partner and lifetime friend, Ing (Doc) Hay. Hay first arrived in the region in 1885 after leaving China with his father on the advice of five uncles who were living in Walla Walla, Washington. The two men decided their combined skills would benefit each other in business and by 1888, the two men were selling goods to the Chinese community from the little stone building.The Kam Wah Chung Company, or the “Golden Flower of Prosperity,” served as a social and supply center, post office, labor-contracting office, medicinal herb shop, and as an outlet for other businesses for the Chinese community. Shelves of the mercantile and storeroom were stocked with a variety of goods including items from China such as sandalwood fans and ginseng. Candy, cigarettes, tobacco, cigars, matches, firecrackers, beer, incense, and gambling supplies lined the shelves along with staples such as first aid items, sundries, soaps, coffees, teas, candles, lard, canned goods, sugar, flour, cotton and rice. Garments could be ordered through the store from mail order catalogues. At one time, John Day’s Chinese community had an established “joss” house that served as both the community meeting house and religious temple. As the town’s Chinese population waned the shrine was moved from the temple to the Kam Wah Chung Company Building (after 1900). Here Hay, a Buddhist, performed rituals for Buddhist immigrants. The shrine stood in a small room complete with ornate, brocade curtains and a small seated image of the Buddha.
The store served as a wholesale outlet for stores in neighboring communities and bulk supplies from the store were also sent to isolated ranches and outposts. The store supplied goods to the non-Chinese of John Day as well. Calendars, advertisements, notepaper and business cards touted the store as a seller of “medicinal herbs, groceries, and general merchandise” and were written in English to attract non-Chinese customers. The extant merchandise in the store dates from pre-1900 to the 1940s.
Hay was well known in the Chinese and non-Chinese community for his effective treatments. His herbal medicine and treatment center was located in front of the Kam Wah Chung Building. Behind a small counter, and enclosed by an iron cage that divided the front room from his supplies, he saw his customers. At first his patients were Chinese miners but his business continued to flourish beyond the dwindling Chinese community because of his reputation for effecting cures in cases where western medicine had failed. Chinese herbal stores existed in many parts of the United States, but were particularly numerous in the American West where nearly all of the Chinese population resided in the late 19th century. Compared to other stores established in the western United States during this time, the Kam Wah Chung Company stands apart. With the exception of the Kam Wah Chung Company and the Chew Kee Store (Fiddletown, California), all of the Chinese herbal medicine stores, their herbal collections, and other materials have been destroyed or significantly altered. Even with the decrease in the Chinese population in John Day, the Kam Wah Chung Company was still the heart of the community’s “Chinatown.”
The businesses of Hay and On continued through the Great Depression. Lung On died in the Kam Wah Chung Company Building in 1940. A testament to On’s business prowess can be seen in his estate that was estimated at more than $90,000, a substantial amount in 1940. His estate was left to his lifetime partner, Ing Hay. Hay continued to run the business until 1948, when he fell and broke his hip. He was sent to a nursing home in Portland, Oregon, where he died four years later. The Kam Wah Chung Company Building and the rest of Hay’s estate went to his nephew Bob Wah who had come to John Day to apprentice and help Hay after On's death. In 1955, Bob Wah donated the building to the city for use as a museum to interpret the Chinese history of the area. For almost 20 years, nothing was done. The building was locked and remained unopened, preserving the collection in the dry climate of Eastern Oregon. In the 1970s, the building was rediscovered, restored, and opened as a museum. The herbs combined with the few still extant medical books in Chinese for the use of herbs to cure illnesses make Kam Wah Chung an unusual scholarly resource on Chinese medicinal practices and herbal remedies. The Kam Wah Chung Company Building is currently used as a museum by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The Kam Wah Chung Company Building is a two-story building constructed of native rock and wood. Completed in three phases, the building evolved throughout its history. Measuring 47 feet (north-south) by 26 feet 7 inches (east-west), the three phases of construction include the ground floor with a lean-to on the north and south sides (circa 1866), the second-story wooden addition (circa 1890), and the masonry addition (circa 1917) on the north side of the ground floor. The interior of the Kam Wah Chung Company is divided into seven rooms that served distinct purposes and include a front room, small herb shop, a bedroom, stock room, a general store, kitchen/bunk room, and an interpretative area once used as a bedroom. The Kam Wah Chung Company building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior in 2005.
Images for top banner from NPS Historic Photograph Collection (Rainbow over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, by Thomas C. Gray, [HPC-001345]) and the Palau Historic Preservation Office.