Chinese nationals flooded the Pacific Northwest in search of gold in the late 1880s, the The Kam Wah Chung and Company building was established as a Chinese-owned dry goods store, temple and joss house, post office, library, business and interpretive center, contract labor source, social club, dormitory, and apothecary shop in John Day, Oregon. The engine behind this successful enterprise was the business partnership formed between two immigrants from the same home county, entrepreneur Lung On and Chinese herbalist Ing Hay. They thrived against a backdrop of anti-Chinese violence in the region and a national policy of Chinese exclusion, fulfilling the mission inherent in the store’s name, “the prosperity of the gold-rush Chinese.”
After 1910, Kam Wah Chung was the only Chinese-owned mercantile and apothecary in eastern Oregon to have survived the outward migration of Chinese immigrants to larger cities and Chinatowns and a transition to a largely white, rural clientele. Ing Hay’s medical skills—pulse diagnosis and the use of traditional Chinese herbal remedies—were known throughout the northwest and made him a vital contributor to the health of both local and regional patients. His mail order clientele included requests from towns throughout Oregon and Washington and from states as distant as Alaska and Oklahoma.
The Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum, with its unparalleled collection of turn of the century primary source materials, including hundreds of raw herbs and formula records, demonstrates the remarkable transnational integration of Chinese medicine and medicinal practice during the late Imperial period. Personal and business letters, prescriptions, and account documents archived at the museum and at the Oregon Historical Society provide a rare and intimate view of the complex business challenges Chinese immigrants as they tried to preserve their Chinese identity while establishing themselves in rural Oregon.
It has been an honor and a pleasure to collaborate with museum staff, the Oregon Historical Society, and OCOM students and faculty in improving the quality of understanding of the Chinese-language records left in John Day. The following resources provide anyone interested in this story context for better understanding of the records found in the Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum.
Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home, by Madeline Hsu
This book is by far the best resource to understand the economic and cultural back-story driving outward migration from South China around the turn of the twentieth century. This non-fiction account meticulously documents market and political forces which contributed to Lung On and Ing hay’s decision to migrate, to stay in America and the complex dynamics of maintaining a transnational household.
China Doctor of John Day, by Jeffrey Barlow and Christine Richardson
The only book specifically dedicated to the topic of Kam Wah Chung, written by the first scholar to have spent significant time with the recently discovered collection. Written in a colloquial style, it lacks the benefit of collaboration with experts in Chinese medicine, the many significant resources developed since the advent of the internet and the flourishing of Asian-American studies.
Oregon Experience. Kam Wah Chung, by Oregon Public Broadcasting
A brief and informative documentary about the museum’s history including interviews with Jeffrey Barlow, the current museum curator and local John Day residents who interacted with Doc Hay in their lifetime.
Chinese medicine men : consumer culture in China and Southeast Asia, by Sherman Cochran
This work of economic history covers print advertising of Chinese medicinal in the early twentieth century, transnational marketing of Chinese medicine and the history of Tiger Balm.
Several of the patent brands found in the Kam Wah Chung collection are pictured in this book, as well as the history and reasoning behind the elaborate packaging of Chinese medicinals prepared for the marketplace.
Sweet cakes, long journey : the Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon, by Marie Rose Wong
This book is another meticulous work in the field of Asian-American studies, pertaining to the demographics and history of Portland’s original Chinatown. The information on anti-Chinese policies and population pertain to the situation in John Day. This book is most interesting, however, in its relationship to the history of OCOM’s new campus location.
Kam Wah Chung Image Credits
"Kam Wah Chung Company Building" by Jimmy Emerson, DVM. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).
"John Day Loop - Kam Wah Chung-13" by oregon ducatisti. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).