• Stone and wood building with sign Kam Wah Chung & Co.
Trailblazers

Meet the Chinese business partners who left a legacy in Oregon

2021-06-22T15:39:33-07:00
Posted on May 10, 2021

In John Day, Oregon, merchants and Wells Fargo customers Lung On and Ing Hay owned a general store that became a center of community for Chinese residents. Today their humble store, now a museum, is all that remains of a once-thriving Chinese community.

In 1887, Lung On and Ing Hay, both immigrants from China’s Guangdong Province, together purchased the Kam Wah Chung & Company store. Loosely translated, Kam Wah Chung means “Golden Flower of Prosperity” and the enterprise these two entrepreneurs brought to their adopted hometown lived up to that description.

In the Kam Wah Chung store, they stocked imported goods from China, books and newspapers, groceries, tools, medicines, and many necessities for life in rural eastern Oregon. Lung On managed the general store, while Ing Hay stocked an apothecary with a variety of teas, tonics, and herbs used in traditional medicine and healing.

Portrait of seated man holding paper scroll and fan

Lung On. Photo Courtesy Oregon Historical Society Research Library # bb010985.

Portrait of man with hat

Ing Hay. Photo Courtesy Oregon Historical Society Research Library # bb006126.

In addition to running the store, Lung On served as a labor contractor, matching up workers and employers. Fluent in both English and Chinese, he provided translation services at his store counter, and often handled correspondence on behalf of customers. Ing Hay—known as “Doc Hay” for his skill as a healer and herbalist—treated Chinese and non-Chinese patients from all over the region in his practice.

In their business dealings, the two men relied on Wells Fargo for banking and express shipping services. When they ordered merchandise from suppliers in Portland or San Francisco, Wells Fargo swiftly delivered the goods. For their small businesses’ banking needs they opened accounts with Wells Fargo & Co.’s Bank in Portland. After Wells Fargo sold off that branch bank in 1905, Lung On continued his banking relationship with Wells Fargo Bank and Union Trust Company in San Francisco through the 1930s.

Bank account statement from Wells Fargo Bank & Union Trust Company San Francisco addressed to Lung On, John Day, Oregon.  White faux leather bank book with diamond-shaped logo reading Wells Fargo Union.

Lung On’s Wells Fargo account passbook and 1940 bank statement. Photos courtesy of Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department.

Calendar from 1933 shows January date page in Chinese and reads Wells Fargo Bank & Union Trust Company

This Wells Fargo lunar new year calendar hung in the Kam Wah Chung store in 1933, and is now part of the historical collection preserved at the site. Photo courtesy of Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department.

Under their ownership, Kam Wah Chung & Company stayed in business for over 60 years. During that time, the store not only served the commercial needs of local residents, but also provided a safe space and gathering place for Chinese community members who were often marginalized and discriminated against or sometimes threatened as outsiders in the larger society. The business also hosted cultural events, music, poetry readings, and other social gatherings. After 1900, the store also provided space for a religious shrine and altar after the local temple, or Joss House, was abandoned. In many ways, the Kam Wah Chung store was the social, cultural, economic, and spiritual hub for Chinese residents of the area.

Chinese immigrants had long been a part of the population of eastern Oregon, working in mines and lumber camps, and laboring to build roads and railroads since the 1860s. When Lung On and Ing Hay acquired the Kam Wah Chung store, the local mining economy was already on the decline. In the 1880 US Census, 358 residents of Chinese descent called John Day home, the vast majority of them miners. Another 550 ethnic Chinese lived in surrounding Grant County.

That population declined dramatically after enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This discriminatory federal legislation barred immigration solely based on ethnicity, and explicitly targeted Chinese laborers. Combined with an earlier 1875 law that prohibited entry by women of Chinese descent, these laws severely restricted family formation and reunification. Lung On and Ing Hay, like many male immigrants, had left wives and children behind in China, and now were unable to reunite their families. If they traveled back to China they risked being denied entry to the U.S. upon their return. Even merchants and business owners with significant capital investments in American communities suffered discrimination enshrined in the exclusionary acts. In some cases, re-entry petitioners brought cases before federal courts, and sought supportive testimony by Chinese and non-Chinese allies. In several cases, Wells Fargo employees testified to vouch for customers of Chinese descent so that they could return to their homes and businesses in America.

View of unpaved street with store building at left and smaller buildings in distance. Man walks in street.

The Kam Wah Chung store anchored John Day’s Chinese business district, c.1910. Photo Courtesy Oregon Historical Society Research Library # bb001859.

Even as the Chinese population of John Day dwindled, the Kam Wah Chung store continued to attract a diverse clientele. The proprietors added a second floor, then a stone addition in 1917. Lung On, an enterprising businessman, ran the store, speculated in real estate, bought livestock, and established the area’s first automobile dealership. Ing Hay presided over two rooms in the establishment, one which held his many herbs and medicines, and a second diagnosing room where he tended to his many patients. In 1905 state authorities cited Hay for practicing medicine without a license, part of a larger effort to crack down on Chinese herbalists. The action had no practical result since no local jury could be expected to deprive the community of his healing talents. By 1920, Doc Hay’s receipts as a healer surpassed the general store’s merchandise sales. Doc Hay continued his practice into the 1930s, tending to patients even after his eyesight began to fail.

After Lung On passed away in 1940, a nephew of Ing Hay moved in to help manage the business. A broken hip forced Hay to move to a care home in Portland in 1948. He locked up the store building with its shelves of merchandise and his apothecary of herbs and medicines. A few years after Doc Hay’s death in 1952, the Kam Wah Chung building passed to the city, and sat abandoned for two decades.

When the building reopened as a museum in 1975, the Kam Wah Chung & Company store and its preserved contents presented a veritable time capsule filled with tins, boxes, barrels, and consumer goods from an earlier time. Doc Hay’s extensive collection of over 500 types of herbs and remedies is one of the largest collections of such medicinal cures known, and serves as a virtual living library of herbology and traditional Chinese medicine.

Today, the Kam Wah Chung & Company store is a state heritage site and a National Historic Landmark. The museum and exhibits provide a unique glimpse into the personal and professional lives of pioneering immigrants who successfully integrated into the larger culture of a community, while maintaining their own ethnic identity and customs.

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