Jerry Franklin was recognized Nov. 15 by Friends of Kam Wah Chung for his continued self-driven contribution to the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, and specifically for coordinating the design and construction of the dragon and tiger sign at Highway 26 and Canton Street.
The former Grant County Chamber of Commerce president said he was honored and humbled for the recognition, but he credited the numerous students, craftsmen and businesses who donated time and materials to the project.
Friends of Kam Wah Chung Vice President Francis Kocis presented Franklin with a certificate of appreciation and said his name will be attached to a plaque honoring Carolyn Minheimer and a dozen people who have worked to protect the historical site.
It was another busy year at Kam Wah Chung, but the future looks even busier, museum curator Don Merritt told chamber members at their monthly meeting. The historical site saw 8,851 visitors this year, slightly down from 9,314 visitors in 2017, which was bolstered by the eclipse event.
Camera and sound technicians from Yiping Media Group of Shenzhen, China, came to Kam Wah Chung on Aug. 1 to work on a documentary about the spread of Chinese herbal medicine around the world.
Professor Zhao Zhongzhen, who starred in the documentary produced for the Chinese version of the Discovery Channel, also sits on a tourism board in China, which has 3 million visits on its website, Merritt said. He said Zhao has encouraged every travel agency in China to promote visits to Kam Wah Chung.
Two months later, a film crew from Beach House Pictures of Singapore came to Kam Wah Chung for production of a similar documentary for the American version of Discovery Channel. Dr. Eric Brand, a student of Zhao’s, and Beth Howlett, vice president of communications and academic services at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland, were presenters in the video shoot.
All this attention has enormous implications for Grant County’s small tourist industry, which could be overwhelmed by bus loads of Chinese tourists in coming years. It also could increase impacts to the historical site itself, Merritt said.
For the first time, the interpretive center began to take reservations for tours this year, Merritt said. Guides were conducting 16-20 visitors per hour through the small store, and some visitors were turned away, he said. As word gets out, more people will turn to reservations, and it’s possible the site will rely entirely on reservations in the future, he said.
The building, which began as a trading post built on The Dalles Military Road around 1866, has a good stone foundation and walls, but wear and tear from aging and visitation is becoming evident on wooden elements, such as window and door frames, structural posts and flooring.
In 2007, a preservation crew evaluated the building and gave it an estimated lifespan of 50 years. Merritt hoped that figure could be pushed up to 100 years. State preservation experts were expected to complete a study this winter to see if a cap on visitation is necessary to protect the historical building, he said.
The 2007 crew had recommended completely enclosing the Kam Wah Chung building to protect it from the elements, Merritt said. Instead, the state is considering building a new interpretive center after acquiring nearby city-owned parkland.
The new center could be completed in 4-6 years, Merritt said. One feature he said he’d like to see is a virtual reality room that would mimic the Kam Wah Chung interior using lifelike murals on the walls and displaying items currently stored in the archives building. The goal would be to offer visitors an alternative to actual tours, which would address high demand and lessen impacts on the small building.
Other work continues at Kam Wah Chung, as Merritt fields numerous requests from researchers interested in the site. In early October, Chelsea Rose, an archaeologist at the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology, brought a crew to John Day to use ground-penetrating radar to survey the Kam Wah Chung site.
In addition to studying Chinese mining sites in the Malheur National Forest, Rose has conducted research in Jacksonville, home of Oregon’s first Chinatown, and made two field trips to Guangdong, where most of Oregon’s Chinese miners originated.
On top of that, Merritt reported that a 10-year project to scan about 20,000 documents discovered at Kam Wah Chung has been completed — three years ahead of schedule. This is the largest collection of Chinese documents in North America outside of British Columbia, he said. About 6,000 of the documents are in Chinese, and plans call for a small committee of translators to work on the documents in batches to ensure quality control, he said.
The Friends of Kam Wah Chung also had good news to report. The store in the interpretive center took in about $34,000 in 2018, Kocis said, including $10,000 in donations and $2,000 in membership dues. The largest donation was a $100 bill, he said.
Kocis credited manager Chris Labhart for the store’s success. He noted that a visitor from the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland said the selection of items offered at the Kam Wah Chung gift store were much better than theirs.
Merritt said the Friends will use the funds to acquire a historic hydraulic mining monitor from Isa Larkin. The 8-foot long, 500-600 pound cast-iron nozzle was used to direct high-pressure water at mining sites in Grant County.
About 90 percent of the 300 hydraulic miners who worked in the county were Chinese, Merritt said. The monitor and its heavy base will be moved to the Kam Wah Chung site and featured in a future exhibit on the role of Chinese miners here, he said.
The Whiskey Gulch gold rush in 1862 brought thousands of prospectors to the Canyon City and John Day area. About nine years later, Chinese immigrants opened a store called Kam Wah Chung, translated as Golden Flower of Prosperity.
About 2,000 Chinese men lived in the “Tiger Town” part of John Day by 1885. Two Chinese immigrants bought the Kam Wah Chung business in 1888 and expanded it into a grocery, dry goods store and clinic.
Ing “Doc” Hay made diagnoses using pulsology and offered herbal medicine to the burgeoning Chinese population as an alternative to Western medicine. Lung On, who spoke both Chinese and English, ran the general store and facilitated communication between Chinese and American settlers.
In 1967, while surveying for a new park, John Day city staff discovered the ownership deed. When volunteers opened the long-closed building, they found the interior just as it was in 1955, with food in the kitchen, a stock of dry goods and medicinal herbs and Hay’s tools on the apothecary table.