Friday, June 19, 2015
The Kam Wah Chung & Co. store was opened in the late 1860s in John Day by two men who immigrated from China. These young men left behind a country torn by war and besieged with starvation. Like thousands of other young men, they left their young wives and children with the promise to send money home and be reunited in the future. These hopes rarely came true. What they found when they arrived in America was backbreaking work and horrific racism. Many were employed in Oregon mines but were not allowed to live near other workers. They had a thriving Chinese community in John Day, and herbal practitioner "Doc" Hay and businessman Lung On decided to open an apothecary and general store together. Initially it catered to the Chinese, becoming a lynchpin of the community. As the Chinese community dwindled, the store remained and catered more and more to the white population. "Doc" Hay's cures were infamous for their terrible taste but revered for their effectiveness. He was tried 4 times for practicing medicine without a license, but acquitted because no one testified that he had caused them any harm. "Doc" Hay was a packrat, saving thousands of papers and letters that documented their lives. He survived his business partner, and after he died he willed the store to the city as a museum. But it was sealed up, abandoned and forgotten for 15 years. When the city discovered that it was theirs, they found the store inside virtually intact, with the store displays and owners' possessions all there. Today it is an Oregon State Park and a National Historic Landmark. You can see the store with a free tour. The nearby interpretive center has more artifacts removed from the building on display, a short film, and a small sign that explains that the legacy of "Doc" Hay continues. His great-grandnephew Robert M. Wah MD, an Oregonian, just finished his tenure as president of the American Medical Association. We loved this little gem of a museum and learned a great deal about the largely invisible Chinese immigrant experience in the west.