Chinese doctor was a municipal treasure
By Finn J.D. John
In the decade or two following the 1849 gold rush, a sort of “bracero” program got started in the western U.S. Chinese laborers — called “coolies” after the Chinese term “ku li,” meaning “muscle strength” — poured across the ocean to the land they called “Gold Mountain,” eager to do the dirty, menial and degrading jobs that were left to be done when all the Euro-Americans were off looking for gold or staking a homestead claim.
Little is known today about the Chinese. Most had great difficulty learning English and spoke a pidgin version that the U.S. and British settlers found amusing, but not very useful as a basis for social connections. And most of their records were destroyed when San Francisco burned following the great earthquake in 1906.
What is known is that the Chinese in early Oregon were treated as second-class citizens — openly so. By far the most horrific demonstration of how bad this discrimination could get is the massacre of 34 miners at Chinese Massacre Cove in 1887. But there are also unconfirmed stories — of a gang of Chinese laborers deliberately entombed in tunnels with a dynamite blast at the end of a railroad job by an evil boss looking to save the cost of paying them off, and of “accidental” shootings of Chinese fellows caught outdoors after dark in violation of “sundown rules,” and more.
And when the need for cheap muscle began to be fade with the completion of the transcontinental railroad lines, the U.S. government hastened to slam the door with the Chinese Exclusion Act, locking their second-class-citizen status in by statute.
But in John Day, there was one Chinese man whom the local residents would “posse up” to protect, if they had to. His name was Ing Hay — better known as Doc Hay — and he was a skilled Chinese physician.
Hay was born in 1862 in the impoverished and opium-ravaged Guangdong province in China. He came to the U.S. twenty years later, leaving a wife and daughter in the old country.
At first Hay did ku li work in the Walla Walla area, but later he moved to John Day, where he met a fellow traveler from the same part of China, a man named Lung On.
Lung On — known to his Western friends as Leon — was a highly unusual man, and by all accounts a true genius. He arrived in the U.S. in 1882, and by 1887 he’d mastered English with enough fluency to fit in in mainstream society — most Chinese people never moved past crude pidgin jargon. He soon was riding with cowboys, wearing a six-shooter and bending elbows and playing cards with buckaroos in saloons. He moved easily and fluently between the two worlds — the underground world of Chinese expats living apart from the “barbarians,” and the mainstream English-speaking world of farmers and merchants and cowboys. And pretty much everybody loved him.
When the first automobiles arrived on the scene shortly after the turn of the century, Lung On became an enthusiastic early adopter, and with a partner opened a Pontiac dealership — the first auto dealership in Oregon east of the Cascades.
In Ing Hay, Lung On knew he’d found a man as extraordinary as himself. Hay was a trained and successful pulsologist — meaning he was trained in diagnosing medical issues by just feeling the pulse of the patient in different parts of the body. Today, this sounds like new-age hokum, and so perhaps it is; but it’s part of a long tradition of medical practice in China, and even there very few people were able to practice it. Hay was clearly one of them, and it enabled him to perform a sort of parlor trick to demonstrate his competence:
“Former patients of Doc Hay state that he often told them what was wrong with them before they said anything to him,” Barlow and Richardson report in their book. “In fact, Hay delighted in surprising his patients with this diagnostic technique.”
This gifted but reticent healer and this boisterous and friendly showman soon went into business together, forming a company and a friendship that would last for the rest of their lives: The Kam Wah Chung company — “Golden Flower of Prosperity.”
Hay proved especially effective in dealing with what was known, in the day, as “blood poisoning” — septic infections.
And septic infections were a big deal. Back then, every time you cut your hand or even pricked it on the wrong piece of barbed-wire fence, you faced a real risk of death. If you were unlucky, your hand would swell up the size of a grapefruit, red streaks would appear on your skin moving toward your heart, and you’d die. Western medicine, at the time, was essentially powerless against this. And everybody in Eastern Oregon was constantly working around livestock and barbed wire. Blood poisoning was a leading cause of death in rural 1880s Oregon.
Doc Hay’s blood-poisoning cure was an herbal decoction that he cooked up at the Kam Wah Chung building and sealed up in quart beer bottles. A patient would pour out a 12-ounce draft of the stuff, which of course tasted horrible; but after faithfully following the course Doc Hay prescribed, the patient would get better, every time.
Over the first few decades of the 20th century, conventional doctors joined the fledgling American Medical Association in trying to have Hay prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. This should have been an easy case; he had no license or formal credentials of any kind. The problem was, no jury in Grant County would convict him. For them, his record was license enough.
Another interesting side note: Old-timers in John Day told Barlow and Richardson that not a single one of Doc Hay’s patients died during the terrible Spanish Flu epidemic that killed so many people around the world — about 3,500 of them in Oregon — in 1919. Not one.
Doc Hay and Lung On weren’t perfect, of course. As a young man, Lung On loved gambling of all types, from Fan Tan to Faro, but especially horse racing; he and Hay had some strident fights when he lost. And Doc Hay was an occasional opium smoker, right up until the drug was outlawed in 1905; in fact, the Kam Wah Chung building occasionally served as an opium den. Both men were big disappointments to their families back home in China, who wrote frequently begging them to come home — which they could not, for fear of being prevented from returning — or at least send money, which they did only very sporadically.
The end came in 1940, when Lung On suddenly sickened and died, and nothing Doc Hay could do seemed to make a difference. Hay took this very hard, and very personally, as if he had failed his friend in his hour of greatest need.
Doc Hay continued practicing after that, but it wasn’t the same, and he was plainly miserable without his lifelong friend. Toward the end, his eyesight started failing. By the time of his death, in 1952, at the age of 82, he was completely blind.
When Doc died, the Kam Wah Chung & Co. building was boarded up and deeded to the City of John Day. In 1967, the city belatedly realized it owned the place and had the boards removed. They found everything in place, like a time capsule. Under Doc Hay’s bed was a box containing $23,000 in uncashed checks — checks from people who, he’d told a friend, needed the money more than he did.
Kam Wah Chung has since been turned into a museum, which is well worth visiting.
(Sources: Barlow, Jeffrey, et al. The China Doctor of John Day. Portland: Binford, 1979; www.ohs.org; Harrington, Beth. “Kam Wah Chung,” Oregon Experience, 14 May 2009, Oregon Public Broadcasting)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com or 541-357-2222.
Image above: The Kam Wah Chung building in John Day, as it appears today.
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