There is a timeless feeling in some places across Oregon’s high desert – not just the across the vast landscape – but with imagination, you can also experience it on the back roads or neighborhood streets where life passes by as it did a century ago.
So it is with the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day where imagination and OPRD Park Ranger Judy Bracken’s descriptions of life a century ago may sweep you back to an earlier time.
“Chinatown was all around us, noted Bracken – an Oregon State Park Ranger. “The laundries were all along one side of the street and over in the corner was a brothel and a bar – and then we have Kam Wah Chung.”
The Kam Wah Chung or “Golden Flower of Prosperity” – was a general store and herbal medicine shop that operated for more than half a century – including a time when more than Chinese laborers worked in the region.
Bracken added that Kam Wah Chung was the social center for more than 2,000 Chinese: “They had baking powder, rice, sugar, flour, beans – everything you might need but there was so much more! This is where you would come to find a job – you could have letters written home because a lot of the miners were illiterate. You could come here to gamble, smoke, drink – have a nice relaxing time.”
What comes into clear view inside this tiny, dim-lit shop was a big business that once flourished on the western frontier beginning in 1887 when two young immigrants, Ing Hay and Lung An, bought the Kam Wah Chung.
In addition to food for the stomach and solace for the soul, you might also find a cure for what ailed you.
You see, “Doc” Hay was the most famous herbal medicine doctor between Seattle and San Francisco, according to Christina Sweet, the OPRD Curator, who added that Hay served both the Chinese and the white communities:
“He took your pulse, told you what was wrong with you, gave you Chinese medicines and herbs and made you better. Doc Hay cured influenza, blood poisoning, even broken bones with a thousand different herbs.”
Even more remarkable - the shop was locked up for twenty years, and when it reopened in 1969, perfectly preserved artifacts were revealed.
From a box of Wheaties - the Breakfast of Champions...
to marshmallows sealed in a can.
The stone and brick structure protected the building’s contents from blistering heat or frigid cold.
Sweet added that we also know much about the men and their place from the records because Doc Hay and Lung An kept everything: 20,000 sheets of letters, accounts and correspondence.
“They provide a detailed picture of the Chinese in Oregon,” noted Sweet.“The letters and the records go everywhere, so we are learning about the Chinese in John Day and what they did here and also what happened in the community and the Chinese in different areas of the state.”
Like everything in this wonderful state park time capsule, all of it is perfectly preserved! Just as the story of the unusual men who ran a business that became a legend.
“These men changed the community, added Sweet. “They made this area what it is today – initially, they were very much the outsiders but then each really became a part of the community. They were well loved by hundreds of locals and this is a part of our Oregon heritage. We want to celebrate it and preserve it through Kam Wah Chung.”