White ibis

White ibis
Ibis

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Golden Flower of Prosperity

My friend,Lucy Condon, has been staying with me for the last several days.  I felt she should see the John Day Fossil Beds National Park since I believe it is one of the most fascinating places on earth. Jo, another volunteer suggested we should also tour a Chinese museum in John Day.


The Building
We followed her advice and stopped in John Day and took the tour of the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site. Kam Wah Chung loosely translates to the golden flower of prosperity and is a building that was owned by two Chinese men.  Ing "Doc" Hay, who was later known as the China Doctor of John Day, and Lung On, a well-educated entrepreneur.  They formed a partnership that lasted fifty years and served both the Chinese and American communities. Even though both men became rich, they lived in the store all their lives.

And the relatively small building housed all their buisnesses: doctor's office, apothacary, post office contract letter writing, opium den, place to play cards, bed and breakfast, general store,and  site of religious rituals. Doc Hay was the last to survive and wanted the building to be saved as a public space.

But for over a dozen years the building just sat until the town started surveying for a city park.  When they opened the building, they discovered artifacts and documents from the fifty years the partners had lived and run their businesses. All their letters from China are there as are all their documents, over 1000 medicinal herbs from China, all kinds of tools, and Chinese and American foods.

A very dark view - no flash allowed - of the darkened front room

A few of the goods visible from the front room

The tour starts at the Visitor Center.  A docent walks with you to the building and has you wait while he goes around back and opens up.  He invites you in to a tiny, dark room.  As your eyes adjust, you see a section is barred off and behind it are some tiny bottles. Another wide opening looks like it might be a store counter but, in addition to lots of goods showing, there is a Chinese altar. Then the docent turns on the light in the room and you see back to a large storage room.  You can only guess or be told of all the products stored in there because you are not allowed to go in.


The apothecary
But you do get to peek into Doc Hay's room and listen to a Chinese-accented voice tell about him. He was the most famous herbal doctor between Seattle and San Francisco and practiced Pulse Diagnosis, a traditional method of feeling the pulse along the arms to determine the illness of the patient. He also mixed up the medicines for the patients.  After saving the son of a rancher from blood poisoning, after the American doctor had given up on him, he also served the American community. He even diagnosed patients from their letters detailing their symptoms and sent them prescriptions. The front room was also his office with stools for people to sit on to wait and a wing-backed chair for the patient to sit in while being examined by the doctor.


Doc Hay's Room

That front room was also where people came to buy goods, get spiritual advice, have letters written, play cards and smoke opium (while it was legal) or drink bootleg whiskey - when that was illegal.

Then we got to go into the hotel/kitchen.  This was all one room with four bunks along one wall at one end and a tiny kitchen at the other end.  The guide told us that each of the bunks could hold up to four men. But the wok told the story - it was larger than a baby's bath tub and could easily feed twenty or so. Many Chinese took over the gold mines after they were closed and hand mined gold from them. They had to travel miles to this place for supplies and had to spend the night.

Kitchen end of the hotel/kitchen room


Buffet across from bunks

Beyond the kitchen was Lung On's room.  It no longer has a bed but only his desk and storage boxes.. The guide thought that it was the custom to get rid of a bed after the person had died. Lung On was brilliant and able to capitalize on changing circumstances.  The partners remained in John Day after the need for Chinese workers ended and became important citizens of the town. Lung On had the first automobile dealership there.  He remained a playboy throughout his life, and spent lots of time out gambling or watching his race horses run. The back entrance is to his room so he wouldn't disturb Doc on his early morning returns.


Lung On's  Desk


This was a wonderful view into China's and Oregon's past. I was awed at how personal this tour was and the wealth of artifacts still in the exact place they were found.  And I was reminded, once again, how the ability to be flexible and to embrace change is so important, whether you are a woodpecker or a person. These two men survived American hatred, poverty, and loss of their families to become rich, important citizens of John Day.

If you are interested in this story, check out the page from The Oregon Experience.  The entire story documented in this small building takes hours to hear.