Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Eastern Oregon Trip: Kam Wah Chung Museum


Sheesh, I've been busy. Here it is almost two months later and I'm almost done with my travel chronicle.  After a leisurely morning, breakfast in our room, packing and checkout by noon (love that noon checkout time), we left Baker City on Oregon HWY 26 East.  If we stayed on 26 it would get us back to Portland, but our destiny took us north sooner than that.

IMG_5686_1First stop, the Kam Wah Chung Museum.  Ever since we read Midnight at the Dragon Cafe for Everybody Reads in 2007, I've been interested in visiting John Day, and viewing the encapsulated history of Doc Hay in this museum.  Included in the events for Everybody Reads were lectures on the history of Chinese and other Asians in Oregon.  More recently, OPB's show Oregon Experience covered the history of the museum and Ing Hay and his business partner Lung On.  Video here. It happened to air again before our trip, and my sweetie and I watched it together.

It turned out we couldn't visit the museum except in a guided tour, as too much damage was done when too many unescorted people wandered in the small space. We were lucky to arrive just a little before a tour...just enough time to use the restroom, buy a piece of Chinese calligraphy art, and view the displays in the visitor center.

IMG_5699_1In 1862 there was a gold rush in Oregon.  At the same time the Civil War was preventing an influx of workers, so foreign workers were relied on to fill the gaps.  As I mentioned before, only men were allowed.  Doc Hay and Lung On left their families behind.

In 1882, no one but scholars were allowed to enter the country from China.  After a certain point, even if they wanted to, the two men didn't dare return to China because they might not be allowed back.  They remained in their adopted home of Oregon.  Doc Hay wrote letters faithfully and sent money, and according to our guide, appeared to love his wife, though it was a traditional arranged marriage.  Lung On, though, was apparently glad to leave his arranged marriage.

I found myself wondering again, what about their sex life?  Did they have any once they moved to the U.S.?  Did they dare?  Could they have been lovers?  If that were the case this could never have been hinted at for the history books.  I like to think they were partners in more than the business sense, hiding their companionship in plain sight.  I also wonder if the sexual revolution has indeed made us more sexualized, and if it was entirely common for unattached women as well as men simply to have no sex life.  Lung On liked to gamble, and both liked to host a cadre of visitors.  I can imagine them smoking, tossing coins, tiles, cards, shooting the shit, laughing at low humor, easing the unexpressed libido through innuendo and crude jokes.

In 1921 electricity arrived in John Day, and Ing Hay got it the first day. One later addition was a bedroom for Lung On, with its own entrance.  This way Lung On wasn't disturbed when Doc Hay received a late night patient, and Doc Hay wasn't disturbed when Lung On returned from late nights spent drinking and gambling.

The grocery was closed down when Lung On died, and the business closed completely in 1948 when Doc Hay could no longer run his healing business. After his death, the building was closed completely. When the building was opened back up in 1969, they found items from the twenties to the forties.  They also found Kentucky bourbon under the floorboards dated 1912-1918...so apparently this catch-all business that served both Chinese and whites also was prepared to be a speakeasy, or provide the speakeasy's liquor.

Erhu: Chinese violin
Erhu, or Chinese violin, on the right
There were pasted red papers with Chinese writing on the walls. I'm guessing this had something to do with New Year's celebrations.

These two men were the only Chinese to remain buried in the town.  Everyone else had their remains sent back to their homeland as their tradition enjoined. Lung On didn't want the job, but he was the one who would dig up the bones and send them back to China.  Doc Hay was buried with a Mason funeral.

 Altars graced every room.

More details and photos here.

altar detail

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