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Chinese Medicine in Oregon - Doc Hay & Kam Wah Chung

by Dr. Amber Hincks LAc

Chinese medicine was relatively unknown to the American public until the 1970s when a New York Times article described the remarkable treatment James Reston had while traveling in China with Henry Kissinger.  But in reality, Chinese Medicine was being practiced throughout the United States for over 100 years at that point.  In the mid-1800s Chinese people migrated to the US by the thousands, leaving the declining Qing dynasty behind, taking jobs on the railroad in the west.  With them, they brought Chinese medicine, both acupuncture and herbalism.  

In the Pacific Northwest, several significant Chinatowns developed, in Portland and Seattle as well as in Walla Walla, WA and John Day, OR.  The white population feared losing their jobs with the gradual influx of Chinese laborers, resulting in strained relations.  These racial tensions led to discriminatory legislation, particularly regarding the prohibition of Chinese descendants from owning property, which was codified in the Oregon Constitution.  While this would eventually cause many of these once booming Chinatown’s to decline, as there was little option but to return to China, some Chinese still found significant success.  John Day, Oregon was home to “Doc Hay,” a Chinese Herbalist and his business partner, Lung On, proprietor of a general store.  

Kam Wah Chung Museum

In John Day, you can still visit Doc Hay’s apothecary, though it is now a museum, the Kam Wah Chung Heritage Site.  It is one of the best-preserved collections of Chinese Herbs from that time period.  Letters indicate that not only was Doc Hay treating members of the community, but he was also receiving requests for herbal treatment from out of state.  His medical expertise was instrumental in the treatment of railroad workers suffering from Spanish flu and it is said that without him the railroad would not have been completed.  Claims that he was unlicensed were continuously disputed because he was held in such high esteem.  In cataloguing his possessions, it was discovered that he had $23,000 in uncashed checks under his bed.  

Chinese Medicine in Oregon - Doc Hay & Kam Wah Chung, Amber Hincks Acupuncture in Beaverton, OR

Doc Hay passed away in 1952, but it would still be another 30 years until Oregon had its first school for the study of Chinese Medicine.  By then, the discriminatory legislation had been overturned, but not without the huge loss to the Chinese populations of some PNW communities.  For instance, the local Chinese population in Walla Walla may have been as high as 1,250 at one time but numbered only 50 or 60 in 1973.  Gentrification and a legacy of discrimination has largely shifted Portland’s Chinatown East to 82nd Ave, where it was once the second largest Chinatown in the Northwest.  

Although acupuncture is becoming more popular and accepted in our Western framework, it is and will always be rooted in Ancient Chinese theoretical and medical concepts.  Our herbs, grown under specific conditions in particular climates and regions, still come from China.  Acupuncture practiced apart from this history and worldview (as is sometimes advocated in Western medical fields), is not only less-effective, but also culturally insensitive.  Instead, at Vitalize, we seek to honor, learn and adapt our practices with gratitude and respect for the roots of this medicine.

Additional Information Found Below:

Chinese Americans in the Columbia River Basin - Historical Overview

A Brief History of the Chinese in Oregon, 1850-1950

Crossing East: The Legacy of Ing 'Doc' Hay

Explore the history of Kam Wah Chung & Co.