John Day, a fur trapper, signed on with John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company in 1811 as part of the Overland Expedition to establish a trading center at the mouth of the Columbia River. By the time they reached the Snake River in Idaho, Day was not feeling well. He stayed behind with Ramsay Crooks while the rest of the party pressed onward to Fort Astoria. When spring came, they set out to catch up with the others. Members of the Cayuse Tribe came upon the pair camped at the mouth of the Mah-hah (Mau Mau) River. Rather than killing them outright for their trespassing, the Indians took everything from the interlopers: food, equipment and the clothes they were wearing. Somehow Day and Crooks managed to survive several weeks until another party from the Pacific Fur Company, canoeing down the Columbia, found them and escorted them to Astoria. John Day became a legend. The river became known as the John Day as did the town later founded 150 miles to the south. John Day the person never visited John Day the town.
The decades following John Day’s death in 1819 (or 1820) saw immigration of Chinese to Central Oregon. Leaving a poor economy and political upheaval at home (no small part of which was the British-instigated Opium War) they prospected for gold and labored on railroad construction… and faced rabid discrimination. At its peak in the 1880s the Chinese community in John Day numbered about a thousand – almost entirely male. (The present-day population of John Day is about 1,700.)
Two immigrants from Guangdong Province formed a partnership. Ing Hay, an expert at “pulse diagnosis” set up his practice, treating Chinese and non-Chinese alike. “Doc Hay” partnered with Lung On, who helped manage his practice. Fluent in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, Lung On set up a mercantile business, was a labor contractor and provided translation services. He also opened an early auto dealership.
The partnership, Kam Wah Chung & Co, purchased a building, where Doc Hay received patients and blended his herbal remedies. Lung On operated his store and provided letter-writing services for those who could not otherwise correspond with family back home. The building was also a safe haven for newly-arrived Chinese, providing meals and a sleeping place safe from the often-violent racism outside. The two Chinese women in the community provided their services from Kam Wah Chung.
Ing Hay and Lung On had family back home, but never returned for fear of not being allowed re-entry into the U.S. due to the Chinese Exclusion Act and other discriminatory legislation. Unlike most of their countryman, who arranged to have their remains sent back to China, Ing Hay and Lung On chose to be buried in their adopted home. Lung On died in 1940, Ing Hay in 1952.
Kam Wah Chung is now a museum, operated by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. It had been sealed since the proprietors’ deaths and ownership passed to the city, then the state, before being opened for guided tours. The warm, arid climate preserved the contents and visitors will see the inside nearly undisturbed and with a little imagination, can picture the lives and times of its owners and the community.