January 13, 2014

Kam Wah Chung

 

From the outside it doesn’t look like much. Given its location, standing alone in a city park in the small eastern Oregon town of John Day, the stout little structure might be mistaken for some kind of shuttered concession stand—a place to buy hot dogs and soft drinks in summer, when the park swimming pool is open. Except for the hand-lettered sign overhead saying Kam Wah Chung & Co., and the fact that its address is on Canton Street, you’d never guess that this building— just blocks from the Grant County Fairgrounds—once stood at the center of one of the largest “Chinatowns” in the American West.

When gold was discovered not far from John Day in the early 1860s, Chinese immigrants flocked to eastern Oregon just as they’d rushed to the California gold fields a decade earlier. In 1887 two Chinese men, Ing Hay and Lung On, bought the existing Kam Wah Chung store in what was then a flourishing Chinese frontier community. They would own and operate their idiosyncratic business—part general store and part traditional herbal dispensary—in its original building for more than 50 years. (more…)