Explore the history of Kam Wah Chung & Co., a national landmark heritage site that tells the story of Chinese immigrants and its importance to the world. A global treasure.

Coming to America

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.

John Day, Oregon

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 in 1885 was approximately 2,000, making it the third largest Chinatown in the United States at that time, only slightly smaller than San Francisco and Portland.

Kam Wah Chung

The origin behind the building is not well known. Its original construction or purpose is most likely associated with a segment of the Dalles Military Road constructed about 1864-1865 as a trading post and stage stop.  By 1871, Chinese founded Kam Wah Chung & Co. in the building.  September 1888, Lung On and Doc Hay and another partner Ye Nem purchased the building and company name from another Chinese businessman Shee Pon; unfortunately, other than an advertisement in a newspaper asking solicitors to stop looking to Doc Hay and Lung On to pay off the previous owner’s debt, there is no other information known about the man.  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 throughout the region.  The general store run by Lung On effectively closed after his death in December 1940.  Doc Hay operated the apothecary until 1948, when an injury forced him to move into a nursing home in Portland.  He died four years later in 1952, never returning to Kam Wah Chung.

After Doc Hay left for Portland in 1948, the building was locked up for the next 20 years.  Bob Wah, Doc Hay’s nephew moved in with Doc Hay into Kam Wah Chung in 1941 with his family for about two or three years, learning the trade of medicine from Doc Hay.  Wah moved into a house across from Kam Wah Chung and occasionally used supplies Doc Hay had in the apothecary.  After Doc Hay passed away in 1952, Bob Wah occasionally went into the building for medicinal ingredients, but generally abandoned the building.  In 1955, Bob Wah, whom owed the Kam Wah Chung estate by then, signed an agreement with the City of John Day, leasing the building to them for $5,000, with a stipulation that it be kept as a museum in testament of Chinese migration to the region.  After Bob Wah passed away in 1966, the whole of the estate was turned over to the City of John Day. At one point, the City of John Day was going to tear down the building for development of the city park.  In 1968, the building was turned over to the John Day Historical Society.