Unfamiliar Land

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. At the center of this community was Kam Wah Chung & Co., a general store, medicine shop, boarding house and social hub. The store was co-owned by entrepreneur Lung On and herbalist Ing “Doc” Hay. Both men were prominent members of the town, equally respected by both Chinese and white settlers. This is notable given the anti-Chinese sentiment in Oregon during this period of history — the bullet holes that can still be seen in the shop’s tin door show that life here wasn’t easy.

In 1948, after Lung On’s death, Doc Hay suffered a broken hip and closed the shop temporarily to travel to Portland for treatment. He never returned. Ownership of the building fell to his nephew, who deeded it to the town of John Day to be re-purposed as a cultural museum. The boarded-up store was then left forgotten until 1967. It was very nearly demolished before construction workers opened the door for the first time in decades and realized what was preserved inside.

Today, Kam Wah Chung & Co. is maintained 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 before it closed. 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 Chinese immigrants in Oregon has been lost.

# Posted on January 26, 2020 by Marc Charbonneau.