It’s been about 140 years since Kam Wah Chung & Co. opened its doors to Chinese and American customers in John Day. And it’s been 10 years since the Friends of Kam Wah Chung restored the historic business into an interpretive center.
To celebrate this unique heritage site, the Oregon State Parks Foundation and Friends of Kam Wah Chung will host a dinner June 9 at the John Day Senior Center with former First Lady Mary Oberst and Barbara Sidway, who spearheaded fundraising for the interpretive center in 2005, as honorary speakers.
Other speakers will include Christy Sweet, who served as curator at the Kam Wah Chung Heritage Site from 2005 to 2016, and Eric Brand, an expert in Chinese herbal medicines who accompanied five professors from universities in Hong Kong, Beijing and Taiwan in a cultural visit to John Day in 2017.
Following the dinner, the Portland Lee’s Association Dragon & Lion Dance Team will perform a traditional Chinese dance. They also will perform during the ’62 Days parade in Canyon City the same day at 11 a.m.
Between the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 and the communist country’s dramatic industrialization over the past three decades, much of China’s rich heritage has been lost, leaving the Kam Wah Chung site both culturally unique and significant. The five visiting Chinese professors commented on this fact last August.
“During their visit, they were allowed access to the apothecary and archives, where they were absolutely amazed at the amount of information we had on Chinese medicine,” site curator Don Merritt said in his season newsletter. “In fact, they told us of all the places they visited around the world in the last 10 years, this is the best preserved, most intact and complete collection they have seen so far.”
That information includes some 20,000 documents found inside the building. About half are written in English and involve bookkeeping, Merritt told the Eagle, and about half are in Chinese and include medical formulas, patient records and business transactions.
“We are in our 11th year of scanning these documents into the computer,” Merritt said. “We have about one year’s left to finish.”
The Kam Wah Chung site has been recognized in many ways. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and the store opened as a city-run museum in 1975.
The site was named a National Historic Landmark in 2005, by which time the city understood that it lacked the funds to run the museum properly and sold the site to the state.
A 2010 documentary about the Kam Wah Chung site was produced for the Oregon Public Broadcasting television series “Oregon Experience.”
A crew from the Discovery Channel will be in John Day in July to begin filming another documentary, Merritt said.
Last September, 12 students and two professors from Washington State University visited the Kam Wah Chung site, the first field trip for WSU’s new Asian Culture studies program. Forest Service archaeologist Don Hann led the class on a visit to a Chinese archaeological site during their trip.
The popularity of the Kam Wah Chung site has grown in recent years. Merritt, who succeeded Sweet as curator in 2016, reported that 9,314 visitors and 1,154 tours representing all 50 states and 42 countries came to the heritage site in 2017. Taking into account the impact of the eclipse event last year, visitation increased by about 1,000 people, he said.
“We expect between 9,000 and 10,000 visitors this year,” he said.
Former Grant County Chamber of Commerce President Jerry Franklin led a two-year effort to erect a new sign on Main Street in John Day directing visitors down Northwest Canton Street to the heritage site. The 26-foot-tall sign, which required a conditional-use permit from the city, will feature an 8-foot tiger and an 8-foot dragon on each side.
The colorful orange and black tigers and green and red dragons were hand-painted by Grant Union High School art student Savannah Wyllie as her senior project. The steel plates were cut into shape by the high school’s metal class using a computer numerical control plasma cutter.
The chamber recently presented a proposal to the John Day City Council to establish a sister city relationship between John Day and Sijiuzhen, a city in the Guangdong Province in China, or Canton, the provincial capital.
Ha-Pen, a village in Sijiuzhen, is where Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On, owners of the Kam Wah Chung business, lived before coming to the United States. Sister city relationships not only foster tourism and cultural and educational exchanges but also establish contacts that could lead to trade and investment, Taci Philbrook said on behalf of the chamber of commerce.
Merritt said three-directional sound speakers recently were installed in the interpretive center that allow for a quieter viewing and visitor experience. Funding for the speakers came from the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation, Friends of Kam Wah Chung & Co. and the chamber using a John Day room tax grant.
Tickets for the June 9 celebration dinner at the John Day Senior Center have already sold out.
For more information about the Kam Wah Chung Heritage Site, visit https://oregonstateparks.org and friendsofkamwahchung.com.