The Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site is on track to add 1,000 more visitors each year, with about 9,000 visitors expected this year, curator Don Merritt said.
While this might be good news for the local tourist economy, it’s mixed news for the Oregon Parks & Recreation Department, which is concerned about wear and tear on the small historical general store and herbal medicine shop. Plans are being made for a new interpretive center to help deal with the burgeoning visitor numbers, but its construction could depend on the results of archaeological surveys in the surrounding area that was once John Day’s Chinatown.
Meanwhile, documentaries about Kam Wah Chung that will appear on the Chinese and North American versions of the Discovery Channel sometime this fall, along with promotional efforts by Prof. Zhonzhen Zhao, who stars in the Chinese production and sits on the Chinese tourism board, are expected to significantly boost tourist numbers in 2020, Merritt said.
It’s been about 140 years since Kam Wah Chung & Co. opened its doors to Chinese and American customers in John Day, and about 45 years since the former general store and Chinese herbal clinic — preserved as it was in 1955 — was opened to public tours as a museum.
The Whiskey Gulch gold rush in 1862 brought thousands of prospectors to the Canyon City and John Day area, including numerous Chinese miners.
About 2,000 Chinese men lived in the “Tiger Town” part of John Day by 1885. Two Chinese immigrants bought the existing Kam Wah Chung business in 1888 and expanded it into a grocery, dry goods store and clinic. Kam Wah Chung means Golden Flower of Prosperity in Chinese.
Ing “Doc” Hay made diagnoses and offered herbal medicine to the local Chinese 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.
Kam Wah Chung was a successful business, and Lung On’s estate was valued at almost $90,000 when he died in 1940. As Ing Hay’s health grew worse, the store closed in 1948. In 1955, three years after Ing Hay’s death, the building and its contents were deeded to the city of John Day for use as a cultural museum, and the doors were closed.
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 contents just as they were in 1955, with food in the kitchen, a stock of dry goods and medicinal herbs and Ing Hay’s tools on the apothecary table.
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.
The official tourist season at Kam Wah Chung runs from May 1 through Oct. 31, seven days a week, with a maximum of eight tours of eight visitors per day, Merritt said.
The average is seven tours, but three days last year saw more than 100 people show up, and about half of them were unable to accompany a tour guide in the historic stone building.
Hundreds of visitors are turned away each year, Merritt said, but they are still able to learn from the exhibits in the interpretive center on the opposite side of Canton Street. This particularly impacts visitors who are passing through and international visitors who have limited time.
This year, Merritt will introduce a pilot program allowing a limited number of visitors to set a date and time to tour the historic building. With the current system, tickets are often gone by 9 a.m., he said.
Merritt said the staff does not formally track where tourists come from, but based on queries last June, about 20 percent came from China. About 60 percent are Dutch, drawn to Eastern Oregon by a reality-TV game show called “The Mole,” he said. This year, the Philadelphians Tour Group of Gresham will include Kam Wah Chung on their tours to Eastern Oregon.
OPRD doesn’t advertise the heritage site, but Travel Oregon promotes Kam Wah Chung heavily, Merritt said. Informal surveys indicate about 60-70 percent of visitors learned about Kam Wah Chung by word of mouth, he said.
Two new RV sites at Kam Wah Chung will help OPRD attract seasonal park hosts to help with operating the heritage site, Merritt said. One couple is returning after nine seasons. Hosts camped at Clyde Holliday State Park in the past, he said.
Local residents were the source of two new features at the heritage site. Friends of Kam Wah Chung authorized the purchase of a hydraulic monitor from Isa Larkin. The heavy cast-iron water cannon, which was used by placer miners in the early years of the gold mining boom here, will be the centerpiece of a future outdoor exhibit.
A 50-page scrapbook donated by the family of Charlie and Cecille Lewis contains memorial service cards and ceremonial dimes, news clippings and historical photos about Kam Wah Chung and the John Day Chinatown.
Charlie Lewis, who was a close friend of Ing Hay and lived to 104, wanted the museum to have the scrapbook after he died. He kept it on his bedstand at night, Merritt said.
In addition to sample napkins Ing Hay handed out for the Fourth of July, the scrapbook contains photos of Chinatown buildings and two residents — Tall Sam and Monkey Tom.
Last year, Eric Brand, a student of Zhongzhen’s in Hong Kong who is fluent in Chinese, discovered a 300- to 500-year-old medical book in the curation building. Owned by Ing Hay, it may be an original copy of a book written by one of the founders of Chinese medicine, Merritt said.
Last year’s subsurface imaging project at the heritage site led by Chelsea Rose, an archaeologist at the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology, turned up a number of unexpected findings, Merritt said.
Data from the ground-penetrating radar was compared to historical photos in order to identify possible Chinatown-era buildings, including a temple, two more general stores, a laundry and numerous residences.
Remains of at least 10 structures were revealed, including one close to Canton Street, Merritt said. Two important findings were that the radar found no significant mining impacts in the area, which could have seriously disturbed artifacts, and that the discovered features appear to be near the surface, he said.
Rose and a group of 15 undergraduate and graduate students will return to the heritage site July 11-15 to dig a trench where the temple is believed to be and at the site near Canton Street.
The findings will influence planning for the heritage site. An earlier master plan is defunct now that it’s known key properties can’t be acquired by the state, Merritt said. It’s possible the only location for a new interpretive center is where the Gleason Pool sits now, he said.
A lot of design will go into the new center before it opens its doors at least four years from now, Merritt said. In addition to housing curation facilities and existing exhibits, the new center could feature a “virtual reality” room that would simulate the interior of the Kam Wah Chung building.
Merritt said OPRD has the equipment and staff to create a three-dimensional digital image of the interior of the historic store. That data could be used to create murals that would accompany displays of items currently stored in the curation building. He cited exhibits at the Museum of Chinese in America, in New York City, as a model. It’s even possible to stream the data into 3D goggles for children and people with disabilities.
Funding for the interpretive center will come from OPRD, which is primarily funded with lottery dollars, and donations. In 2006-2007, donors contributed the $2 million needed to build the exhibits at the interpretive center, furnish the curation building and pay for the high-tech security and fire-prevention systems inside the Kam Wah Chung building.
A public archaeology day will be held at Kam Wah Chung on July 13 with displays of artifacts found both in the ground and inside the store. Archaeologists will give talks, and visitors will be given a chance to screen for artifacts, Merritt said.
Three talks on Chinese archaeology will be presented at the Canyon City Community Hall: July 11, Adrian Praetzellis, a professor emeritus at Sonoma State University; July 18, Priscilla Wegar, a well-known textbook author retired from the University of Idaho; and July 25, Ben Bronson and Chuimei Ho, a husband and wife team who have written about Chinese-American history.
The Oregon Museum Association will hold a conference in John Day on Sept. 15-17. Merritt said about 50 people will attend during Kam Wah Chung’s busiest month. Snowbirds passing through the area boosted visitor numbers to 1,645 last September, he said.