“Golden Flower of Prosperity” – Kam Wah Chung

I love learning new things.  Sometimes it turns into a factor in a fiction novel I’m writing.  Others are just plain interesting.  Take the town of John Day, Oregon, for example.  Intrigued by a little museum’s unique story, we had to stop.

Kam Wah Chung & Co., an Oregon State Parks heritage site and National Historic Landmark, commemorates the contribution of the Chinese to the establishment and development of this part of the state.  After San Francisco and Portland, John Day had the largest Chinese community in the US in the 1880’s.  Escaping political and economic hardship at home, men left their families behind and toiled in the gold fields and on railroads, while facing discrimination and violence in their subsistence lives.  Two men broke that mold.  They took advantage of opportunities, served their community, and stayed when most of their countrymen fled.

Ing “Doc” Hay practiced ‘pulse diagnosis’ and ancient Chinese herbal medicine, and he’s credited with saving the lives of many local ranch folks for generations.  He kept meticulous records in Classic Cantonese about his treatments and patients, a modern treasure-trove of traditional medical care.  The 20,000 pages of documents being scanned for posterity will require skilled translations, since that is no longer a ‘living’ language.  As I write this, a delegation from China is there, attempting to begin the complicated process, searching for knowledge long lost.

His business partner, Lung On, had an entrepreneurial spirit.  He imported Chinese goods for his Oriental compatriots, but recognizing that this would not be enough to sustain his business, he also carried products Occidentals found necessary.  His general store expanded to include a post office and library, lodging and gaming facility.  He started the first car dealership in the area, offering to rent vehicles to those with a need and then selling them as used.  Ranches, livestock, businesses – his holdings were vast and his community influence strong.

The store site itself, not much larger than a small house, came to become a park through unique convolutions.  Lung On died in 1940.  Doc Hay continued his practice until he broke his hip in 1948.  He thought he’d return within a couple of weeks.  He locked the doors made of hammered metal and moved to Portland for treatment.  He died in 1952 without ever coming home.

Neither man left any claimed offspring, so the story could have ended there.  BUT – there’s always a but – Doc Hay’s nephew bequeathed the store to the City of John Day, with the stipulation that it become a museum.  The City forgot about it until they wanted to raze the building for new construction.  Thankfully, a council member decided to unlock the doors and look inside.

Everything was as it was when Doc Hay turned out the lights and pulled the shutters.  Herbs sat in boxes and tins.  Canned food and artifacts, preserved by the desert dryness and heat, had faded little over the years.  A wealth of personal papers and furnishings provide a detailed history of not only these men, but the region and local culture over decades.

I loved this little place!  I had hoped to learn historical background for a character in an upcoming series.  Instead, I was mesmerized by the story of two courageous men and their contribution to the growth, development and character of the area.

If you’re ever in John Day, take a couple of hours to visit the interpretive center and take the free store site tour.  2018 is the tenth anniversary, and celebrations will abound.  Learn more from Friends of Kam Wah Chung, and Oregon State Parks.

What little gems have you found on your travels?  What made them interesting for you?  Please share!

 

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