Uncovering the history of Kam Wah Chung and the Chinese immigrants in this region is an ongoing process. Part of the great value of this heritage site is the access provided to this rich heritage. A brief history follows, more information can be found by following the menu items and exploring additional links.
By the mid 1800s the Chinese Qing dynasty had started to decline. Several factors encouraged emigration especially out of Guangdong in southern China. One major factor was the devastating impact on the Chinese economy by the two opium wars with Britain. The first war was from 1839 to 1842, followed closely by the second in 1856 to 1860. During the interim period between the two opium wars the Taiping Rebellion had begun, primarily in southern China in the region of Guangdong. The rebellion lasted from 1850 until 1864. With the constant conflict, plague and famine were common across the land. It has been estimated that during this time between 20-30 million people died.
In order to escape the turmoil and in search of wealth and a better future for their families, thousands of Chinese came to the Western United States. They primarily worked on mines and railroads. A few ran businesses. Getting to the United States was quite expensive and most had to have a sponsor to pay their fare. Once arrived, they had to pay back the cost of the fare. Often it was nearly impossible to repay, as wages were extremely low.
Gold was discovered in Canyon City, Oregon in 1862. The population began to grow rapidly in the region as miners flooded in. The Chinese population also grew in the region as well. At first, Chinatown was located in Canyon City, but after several fires with the final one being in 1885, the Chinese were not allowed to rebuild in Canyon City. The roughly 400 Chinese then relocated to the already burgeoning Chinatown in John Day. Chinatown had several names one of which was Tigertown. The Chinese population at its height was approximately 2000, making it the third largest Chinatown in the United States at the time, only slightly smaller than San Francisco and Portland.
The origin behind the building is steeped in mystery. No one is sure as to its original construction or purpose, though most likely it was some form of mercantile, or trading post. In the 1880s, Lung On and Doc Hay purchased the building and company name from another Chinese businessman; unfortunately other than an advertisement in a newspaper asking solicitors to stop looking to Doc Hay and Lung On to pay off the previous owners debt, there is no other information known about the man. The date of purchase is also not known. There is evidence that they may have obtained the business as early as 1882 or as late as 1887. What is known is that once they obtained the business, it flourished under their leadership, serving both the American and Chinese populations. The business was multifaceted: they not only had a mercantile, but they also ran an apothecary and doctor's office, as well as having a boarding house for migratory workers. In addition, Kam Wah Chung served as a religious and community center. The apothecary and doctor's office was the longest running of the businesses because Doc Hay outlived Lung On.
Lung On immigrated from Guangdong in southern China. He was well-educated, being fluent in both English and Chinese. Before leaving China, he had been married and left behind a wife and daughter; however, he would never see his family again. After coming to the United States, Lung On partnered with Doc Hay, an herbalist. Together, the two men purchased Kam Wah Chung in John Day, as well as a mercantile in Baker City, Oregon. Lung On also started the first automobile dealership in Eastern Oregon in John Day, where his employees were non-Chinese. Lung On passed away in 1940. Promptly after his death the Kam Wah Chung mercantile side of the business closed. More information on Lung On
Ing Hay was also born in Guangdong, China. He left behind a wife, son and daughter when he came to America and, just like Lung On, would never see them again. There is not a lot of information on Doc Hay's educational background. Some have suggested that he studied in America under another Chinese herbalist: however, there is little evidence to suggest that. It is more likely that he received his education and the rigorous training to become a doctor while still in China. Doc Hay lived in Kam Wah Chung until 1948 when he broke a hip and had to be taken to Portland to recover. The business of Kam Wah Chung would officially close its doors in 1948. Doc Hay would eventually pass away in 1952 in a rest home in Portland, Oregon. More information on Ing 'Doc' Hay
In Chinese culture, the location of a burial site is extremely important. No cost is spared to find the absolute best location possible. Most Chinese immigrants to foreign countries would prearrange to have their remains returned to China and a family burial plot. If they could not afford the cost, family members would arrange for the reburial, sometimes decades later. Many of those buried in a Chinese cemetery outside John Day were relocated to China in the 1950s.
Ing Hay and Lung On both chose to be buried in John Day, on a beautiful north hillside overlooking the town and Kam Wah Chung. This final resting place shows how these men considered this place their home and community.
Thank you to Micah Sprouffske for contributing to this brief history.
Click Here for more background information on the Chinese immigration to the Western U.S.
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