A documentary film crew was at the historic Kam Wah Chung store in John Day recently, but it wasn’t the long anticipated Discovery Channel film crew.
Camera and sound technicians from Yiping Media Group of Shenzhen, China, are working on a documentary about the spread of Chinese herbal medicine around the world.
Two weeks earlier, they were filming Professor Zhao Zhongzhen and Eric Brand as they studied Chinese herbs in the vast botanical collection at the Natural History Museum in London, England. Brand, from Boulder, Colorado, was a student of Zhongzhen’s in Hong Kong and is fluent in Chinese.
Zhongzhen is a professor at the School of Chinese Medicine in Hong Kong, where Brand did his doctoral thesis. Zhongzhen also heads a government-run testing center to ensure quality of Chinese herbs.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Li Shizhen, considered the father of Chinese medicine. Recognizing past errors accumulating over the centuries, Shizhen went to work properly identifying and categorizing all the herbal medicines used in China.
Zhongzhen and Brand traveled to John Day last year to inspect the unusual Chinese herbal collection at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site and promised to return.
Zhongzhen told the Eagle at the time that it was his dream to come to the museum. Last year’s visit was also a scouting trip for the Discovery Channel’s planned five-part documentary on Chinese herbal medicine. A portion on Kam Wah Chung may be filmed next year.
In the meantime, Zhongzhen found a donor to back a different film project, a smaller one that will be produced in the Chinese language and broadcast on Chinese television.
Zhongzhen was game to walking up and down the wooden staircase on the front of the historic trading post as the cameras rolled under the direction of the film crew’s producer, despite the heat wave John Day had been experiencing.
“It’s hotter in China,” one of the cameramen told the Eagle.
Liz Qi, from Los Angeles, served as a translator for the film crew. Her mother came to the United States in 1991 and ran a successful Chinese herbal medicine clinic. Qi graduated from a traditional pharmacy school last year but also has an interest in Chinese herbal medicines.
“My interest in pharmacy came from my mother,” she said.
After lunch, Zhongzhen and Brand accompanied museum curator Don Merritt to the Kam Wah Chung archives where they inspected herbs sent from China to John Day.
“This is their original paper packaging,” Merritt said.
Chinese goods shipped to John Day in the 1860s and 1870s came to San Francisco. They were transported by wagons to Portland, shipped up the Columbia River and then transferred to horse-drawn wagons for the leg to Baker City and on to Grant County.
“The trip took six weeks from Hong Kong to Prairie City,” Merritt said.
More modern artifacts discovered by curators in the Kam Wah Chung store include an “All-Flash” comic book from 1942 and cases of Kentucky bourbon bottles dating to Prohibition. The bootleg bottles, which were found under the floorboards, are still full.
Brand ranks the Kam Wah Chung site among the top 10 Chinese herbal medicine sites in the world. While historic documents and botanical specimens can be found in other locations, the Kam Wah Chung collection includes complete records of people who came in for treatment by Ing “Doc” Hay — from diagnosis and prescription to repeat visits.
As they sorted through the herbal collection in the archives building, Zhongzhen grew excited about a find. It was a package of an herb used for sinus congestion — the exact same herb he wrote about for a thesis in 1982.
He and Brand also found aged tangerine peels. The medicinal properties of the peels is related to their age, Brand noted, and these samples were 100 years older than most that are sold.
They also found coins dating to the time of the first three emperors of the Qing dynasty. They were collectibles, not viable currency, Zhongzhen noted.
“The grandfather, father and son,” he said, pointing to the coins.