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Kam Wah Chung & Co.

John Day, OR

The Kam Wah Chung & Co. building is a time capsule of a community mostly forgotten by history — Oregon’s early Chinese immigrants.

In the late 1800s the mining town of John Day was home to over 1,000 Chinese workers. Kam Wah Chung & Co. was at the center of this community. It served as a general store, medicine shop, boarding house and social hub for John Day’s Chinese residents. The store was co-owned by entrepreneur Lung On and herbalist Ing “Doc” Hay. Both men were prominent residents of the town, wealthy and respected by both Chinese and white settlers. This was unusual given the anti-Chinese sentiment on the West Coast during this period — the bullet holes that can still be seen in the shop’s tin door are evidence that life here wasn’t always easy or safe for Chinese immigrants.

After Lung On’s death in 1948, Doc Hay suffered a broken hip and closed the shop temporarily while he traveled to Portland for treatment. He never recovered from the injury. Ownership of the building and its contents fell to his nephew after his death, who deeded it to the town of John Day under that condition that it be re-opened as a Chinese cultural museum. The boarded-up store was then left forgotten until 1967. It was nearly bulldozed during the construction of a town park before workers opened the door for the first time in decades and realized what was still inside.

Today, Kam Wah Chung & Co. is preserved as a museum and National Historic Landmark. Other than the installation of a modern fire suppressant system and LED lighting, everything is exactly as it was when Doc Hay still called it his home. There are only a few other collections of traditional Chinese medicine that are as well-preserved today. It’s incredibly lucky that it exists, given how much of the history of Oregon’s Chinese immigrants has been lost to time.

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