The Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site attracted media attention this year, and two television documentaries now in the works could lead to a significant increase in tourism next year.
It’s been about 140 years since the Chinese store opened its doors in a former military outpost in John Day. And it’s been about 10 years since the Friends of Kam Wah Chung organization established an interpretive center for the site.
The Portland Lee’s Association Dragon & Lion Dance Team appeared at a celebratory dinner in John Day on June 9 after marching in the ‘62 Days parade in Canyon City.
Former First Lady Mary Oberst joined other notables at the dinner, including Dr. Eric Brand, an expert in Chinese herbal medicines who speaks Chinese and spent time studying in Hong Kong under Professor Zhao Zhongzhen.
Brand and Zhongzhen were back in John Day in mid-August as a crew from the Yiping Media Group of Shenzhen, China, worked on a documentary about Kam Wah Chung for the Chinese version of the Discovery Channel.
Zhongzhen, who appeared in the video, also sits on a tourism board in China that sees 3 million visits on its website. Museum curator Don Merritt said Zhongzhen has encouraged every travel agency in China to promote visits to Kam Wah Chung.
Two months later, a film crew from Beach House Productions of Singapore came to John Day to work on a documentary for the American version of Discovery Channel. Brand and Beth Howlett, from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland, were presenters in the video.
The Kam Wah Chung site had been featured on Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2009, but Merritt anticipated a significant boost in tourism as a result of the documentaries and promotions in China.
To accommodate busloads of tourists at the small and fragile historic site, the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation plans to build a new interpretive center that will be larger and feature sophisticated lifelike exhibits.
The state’s plan for the site includes acquiring city-owned park land adjacent to the state heritage site — including Gleason Pool. John Day officials welcomed the state’s proposal as a way to boost economic development, but the state’s plans set in motion a number of actions by the city.
The city announced in July plans to hire consultants to look at options for replacing Gleason Pool. The city expected to receive about $1 million from the state for the city park land, which would help pay for a new pool. On Sept. 11, the John Day Planning Commission took a first look at rezoning the city and state park land at Kam Wah Chung.
Meanwhile, the Grant County Chamber of Commerce helped establish a sister-city relationship with Ha-Pen, a village in Sijiuzhen where Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On, owners of the Kam Wah Chung business, lived before coming to the U.S. Former chamber president Jerry Franklin led an effort to construct a new sign on Main Street for the historic site featuring Chinese-style tigers and dragons.
Merritt reported that 8,851 visitors came to the site in 2018, slightly down from 2017, which was bolstered by the eclipse. For the first time, the interpretive center took reservations for tours this year. Merritt said guides conducted 16-20 visitors per hour through the small store, and some visitors were turned away.
Merritt also said he fields numerous requests from researchers interested in the site. A 10-year project to scan about 20,000 documents discovered in the store has been completed — three years ahead of schedule, he said.
Outside the store and interpretive center, Chelsea Rose, an archaeologist from the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology, who conducts digs at Chinese mining sites in the Malheur National Forest, led a crew in early October that used ground-penetrating radar to look for buried artifacts.