The Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site

September 26, 2012 Comments Off on The Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site

Recently Judy and I took a few days for a road trip through Central and Eastern Oregon. We’ve been in Oregon four years now, and I’m embarrassed to admit that we had never been east of Mt. Hood. We drove up the Columbia Gorge past The Dalles, and then cut southeast for a stretch before looping back to Bend, and then back up to Portland. One stop along the way was the small town of John Day. We stopped there primarily to see the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which had a nice interpretive center and some scenic trails.

Also in John Day is The Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, which tells the story of Chinese immigrants that came to Oregon in the gold rush of the mid- to late-1800s. A small museum is at the site, but the main attraction is the Kam Wah Chung & Co. building, the only remaining structure of what was at the time the third largest Chinese community in the U.S.— at its height nearly 1,000 Chinese called John Day home. But like so many others in the rural west, Chinatown in John Day would not endure. When the gold rush ended and its cheap labor was no longer needed, almost all the Chinese departed Eastern Oregon. The buildings and houses of Chinatown in John Day were dismantled—most were built quickly with little thought to permanence, a common aspect of these communities. The Kam Wah Chung building was different. It was built from locally quarried boulders on a firm foundation. It is not known who exactly built Kam Wah Chung, but its impressive facade must have been quite a contrast to its ramshackle surroundings.

The story of Kam Wah Chung largely focuses on two men who stayed in John Day, Ing “Doc” Ho and Lung On. As both a nod to the past and a hope for the future, the two pooled their resources and purchased the Kam Wah Chung building in 1887, where both would live and work for the rest of their lives.

Doc Ho practiced traditional Chinese medicine, and became a trusted physician in the community. He would diagnose a patient by simply listening to their pulse. His apothecary shop in Kam Wah Chung was stocked with traditional herbal medicines, most of which were imported from China. Lung On was a very different personality. He quickly learned to speak fluent English, and was a gregarious, business-savvy entrepreneur that became a popular local figure. At Kam Wah Chung, he ran a small market selling food, alcohol, and other goods. And in 1941 he opened the Tourist Garage, the first car dealership in eastern Oregon (and he may have been the first Chinese car dealer in the country). In keeping with his local popularity and extroverted ways, Lung On also hosted his fair share of drinking and gambling parties, including during Prohibition.

Jingoistic attitudes towards Chinese immigrants reached an ugly apex with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the decades that followed the Chinese in America endured unspeakable prejudice. To most John Day residents Kam Wah Chung may have been a quirky piece of local culture at the time, but for Chinese traveling through the area it was an invaluable safe haven. One room in the building was set up with bunk beds for visiting Chinese, and they were likely almost always in use.

Lung On died at the age of 79 in 1940, and Doc Ho passed in 1952 at the age of 89. Doc Ho had asked that the building be preserved to forever tell the story of the Chinese in John Day. Upon his death however, Kam Wah Chung’s doors were shut and it rested silent for a number of years. Years later, in 1967, the city of John Day realized that the oddly shaped masonry building with a funny name was actually on city land. They sent someone to open it up, and presumably see if anything was still inside. It must have been like opening a time capsule. The dry Central Oregon climate preserved almost everything perfectly. Doc Ho had left everything in its place, and much of the building looked as if he had just left the day before. Thankfully, some forward-thinking minds worked hard to keep it that way, and it was passed over to the State of Oregon and fully restored. In 1973 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and later designated a National Historic Landmark in 2005. Doc Hay was granted his dying wish.

A free 30-minute tour is given of the building, allowing you to peer into the lives of Doc Hay and Lung On by literally stepping through their small house. There are a few rules for the tour – no flash photography and no touching of anything. The latter was harder to follow than you might think – I wanted to pick things up to get a closer look. Pictures of the interior are below. Again, without the flash they are a bit dark, and we had to keep moving as a group so I couldn’t hang back and snap as many pictures as I would have liked.

The furniture was understated and purely functional. Much of it clearly followed Chinese design, though some western-style pieces were also present. Several pieces that immediately caught my eye were little wooden stools in each room of the house. In the front main room – which doubled as Doc Hay’s waiting/examination room and Lung On’s shop, the stools were guest chairs for those waiting either for the doctor, or the salesman. Their small size suggests they were more popular with Chinese. A full size chair was also in the waiting area, a clear nod to the frequent non-Chinese clientele. The stools were slightly different in size, but all built from the same design. I was able to snap a few pictures of them, and make a few mental notes on their construction.

I decided to build one of these little stools, and in my next post (hopefully soon) I’ll show my version of the Kam Wah Chung stool.

If you happen to be traveling through Eastern Oregon, I recommend spending an hour at the Kam Wah Chung site. It’s a fascinating piece of history that, but for the enduring spirit and dedication of two men, would all be forgotten today.

Oregon Public Broadcasting ran a 30-minute special on Kam Wah Chung not too long ago. The video, and more information on this unique part of Oregon history, can be seen here (give the page a few extra seconds to load).


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