Kam Wah Chung
If you know where to look across Oregon’s vast high desert landscape, there are powerful human stories found in small, quiet places. This week, we go to a “time capsule” of sorts in Eastern Oregon‘s John Day, where a unique and memorable chapter of the Oregon story comes to life.
There is a timeless feeling at some places in 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 will sweep you back to an earlier time.
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. 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 – Christina Sweet, OPRD Curator, 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: more than 20,000 letters, accounts and correspondence.
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.”
Editor’s Note: Grant’s Getaways is a production of Travel Oregon brought to you in association with Oregon State Parks, Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife and Oregon State Marine Board. Episodes air Fridays and Saturdays on KGW Newschannel 8 and Saturdays on Northwest Cable News Network.
About the Author: Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.
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