Last updated: May 29, 2018
The Kam Wah Chung Company Building is located in the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day, Oregon. The building was originally constructed as a trading post near Canyon Creek in the 1860s and was purchased in 1887, by two Chinese businessmen - Lung On and Ing Hay. From the late 1880s to the 1940s, the Kam Wah Chung Company Building served as a commercial, social, and cultural center for the Chinese community in eastern Oregon. Today, the building is the best known example of a Chinese mercantile and herb store in the United States and has one of the best collections of its kind, containing hundreds of artifacts dating from the late 19th through the mid-20th century.
In 1848, gold was discovered in California and throughout the 1850s Chinese immigrants were a major source of labor for the mines in the western U.S. In the 1860s, Chinese laborers were recruited in large numbers from both China and the U.S. western mining industry to help build the western section of the Transcontinental Railroad. By the 1870s, Chinese immigrants were working in the lumber mills in Oregon and Washington and the coastal fishing industries on the West coast as well as in agriculture, construction, and retail.
Because of the large number of Chinese laborers in the West, Chinese communities began to form to support the growing immigrant population. By the late 19th century, the Chinese community in John Day was the largest one of its kind in eastern Oregon. In 1887, two Chinese business men, Lung On and Ing Hay, decided that their combined business and medical skills would benefit their community. They purchased the Kam Wah Chung Company Building and began to sell goods and services from a general store and an herbalist shop located in the front of the building.
Ing Hay, also known as "Doc Hay," was born in Xinning (modern-day Taishan) County in China's Guangdong Province in 1862. He came to the U.S. with his father in the early 1880s after five of his uncles emigrated in the 1870s. Coming from a long line of traditional Chinese herbalists, Ing Hay set up an apothecary and medical practice in the Kam Wah Chung Company Building, practicing his skills as an herbalist and a diagnostician. He was well known in the Chinese and non-Chinese communities for his effective treatments, and patients from as far away as California, Nevada, and Oklahoma sought him out for his expertise. Ing Hay was a master of the traditional Chinese medical technique known as pulsology which measures the pulse to diagnose medical problems. He would see his patients behind a small counter in an area enclosed by an iron cage that divided the front room from his herbal medicinal supplies. After the local Buddhist shrine was moved to the Kam Wah Chung Company Building in 1900, Hay, a Buddhist, would perform rituals for Buddhist immigrants as well as for Chinese seeking other forms of religious guidance.
Lung On, who was considered one of the most prominent leaders of eastern Oregon's Chinese community, was born into a middle–class family in the Guangdong province of China in the 1860s. Trained as a traditional Chinese scholar and educated in the Chinese classics and the English language, in which he was fluent, Lung On left China for the U.S. in 1882, seeking adventure. He was a skilled businessman who managed the general store and Ing Hay's practice, and served as a labor contractor, mediator, and translator for the Chinese community. He also provided assistance to newly arrived Chinese immigrants as well as to those seeking permission to enter the U.S. In addition, he established one of the first automobile dealerships and service stations east of the Cascades and invested in the local cattle industry as well as real estate in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.
The Kam Wah Chung Company Building contained not only Ing Hay's treatment room and pharmacy, but also an informal library, a post office, and a general store. The building was expanded over the years to include a second floor and a new wing and was a hub for Chinese immigrants and non-Chinese residents and workers in eastern Oregon. The general store served as a wholesale outlet for other stores in neighboring communities and bulk supplies from the store were sent to isolated ranches and outposts. The store's shelves were stocked with a variety of items including such Chinese imports as sandalwood fans, ginseng, candy, rice, silk cloth, pipe tobacco, firecrackers, beer, incense, soaps, teas, canned goods, sugar, and gambling supplies. Clothing from China was also available through mail order. In addition, the Kam Wah Chung Company Building had a bank, an assay office, and tables for letter-writing.
Ing Hay's and Lung On's businesses continued through the 1940s, surviving and thriving despite the Great Depression and the shrinking of the Chinese community in John Day. Lung On died in the Kam Wah Chung Company Building in 1940, leaving his substantial estate to his business partner and friend Ing Hay. Bob Wah, nephew of Ing Hay, helped his uncle run the general store and the pharmacy until 1948. After falling and breaking his hip, Ing Hay moved to a nursing home in Portland, Oregon and passed away four years later in 1952 at the age of 89. In 1955, Bob Wah donated the Kam Wah Chung Company Building and all of its contents along with the surrounding land to the City of John Day for use as a Chinese history museum.
For 20 years the Kam Wah Chung Company Building remained locked and unopened, preserving the goods and artifacts stored inside. In the 1970s, the building was rediscovered, when the City of John Day began looking for land for a new city park. The building was restored and opened as a museum whose exhibits display collections dating from the 1880s to the 1940s and which interprets the business and daily life of the immigrant Chinese community. Due to the dry air of eastern Oregon and limited light exposure, the furniture, clothing, trading supplies, household items, financial records, over 500 herbal concoctions, and personal letters and documents of Ing Hay and Lung On remained largely intact. The collection of artifacts found in the Kam Wah Chung Company Building is considered one of the most complete records of Chinese herbal medicine and the pioneer life and culture of Chinese immigrants in the U.S.
The Kam Wah Chung Company Buildingis located in Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day, OR. For more information and a brochure, visit the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site website.