Barlow #1 5/24/04
D: Testing, 1 2 3. Room tone.
B: Is that keyboarding going to bother you?
D: You know, I didn’t really hear it till you mentioned it. I may have you repeat some things, but I think it’s going to be okay. If you could get a little bit closer so I don’t have to, oh no, I will hold it…
D: All right. So if you would start off just by introducing yourself, saying “I’m” and what your position is and what your history with John Day is.
B: Am I speaking to you or to an audience?
D: You’re speaking to me.
B: Good enough.
D: Not a lecture. It’s just – you’re talking.
B: Got that. Okay, I’m Jeffrey Barlow, Professor of history at Pacific University…
D: Do you want to start that without the “okay,” just “I’m”…
B: I’m Jeffrey Barlow…Pacific, uh….I’m Jeffrey Barlow, Professor of History at Pacific University and <?> chair of East Asian Studies. My area of interest over the years has been Asian immigration into the Pacific Northwest as well as modern Chinese History, Vietnamese history and recently a lot of work on electronic communication.
D: What is your history with John Day?
B: Okay, we, I was contacted in the early 1970s. I was at the time teaching at the University of Oregon in my first job and a young architect wandered into my office and asked if I was interested in seeing a Chinese site in eastern Oregon. And I was almost between jobs. I was looking for a job and I wasn’t really sure that I would have a new position because things were pretty tight in the academic world at that point. My fiancé, Christine Richardson, we married within the year, and I decided that we would go out and take a look at it. And we went out with the architect and were just charmed because it was, the Kem Wah Chung itself, as a building was just remarkable. Simply driving up and seeing the Kam Wah Chung I knew it was a Chinese site and that was pretty unusual. And then when we got in the building had been gutted at the time that we first saw it – the floorboards were up, all of the artifacts had been removed, but nonetheless there were many signs in the building itself of extended Chinese habitation. And then we went to the various, everything from garages to attics around town where they had stored the artifacts that they had taken out and they were unbelievable. I mean, it was just a wonderful range of Chinese artifacts from the 19th century well into the 20th century as well as a lot of interesting Americana from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. And we were asked – the point of the architect taking us over there was to ask if we wanted to be involved in the project to write a grant to inventory, restore, and replace those artifacts. So we agreed quickly that yes, we would love to do that. We didn’t know what we were getting into because the project itself reflects the dual nature of the Kam Wah Chung. On the one hand it’s incredibly interesting and just a true treasure, for Oregon or any other site in the United States. We later had occasion to look for similar sites, so I can tell you a little bit about that later. But the second, the flip side of how interesting it is is that it is in the middle of virtually no place. I mean, John Day is a charming community, Eastern Oregon is extremely interesting, but for someone who works in an urban area like Portland or Eugene, it’s a seven-hour drive in each direction. But it was that isolation that first of all drew the Chinese to the area, because there was gold mining in the mountains around it. And second, were it not for that isolation I don’t think the Kem Wah Chung would exist. If it had been in any other area that was any more populated, it probably would have been destroyed sometime in the 40s or the 50s. Because the fact was, in the late 1940s they simply closed the building up, locked it up, left it with the death of the inhabitants and it was there so long that when the project began, before we became involved but a few years before we became involved, when they started the project they literally were not sure who owned the building. It turned out that the city owned it, that it was on parks land, but there was some confusion at the time. So the building had been shut for 30 years. Now periodically, apparently, supposedly boys, let’s put that in quotation marks, “boys” had broken into the building and rummaged through it, looking apparently for fireworks. It was said that the Chinese had stored fireworks in there and there were many things more valuable than that of course. And the building was intended to be a kind of a fortification. So if you’ve seen it – it’s natural stone from a quarry not far away, the walls are several feet thick, all the windows are barred, reflecting the violence and anxiety of the frontier community in the 19th century, and it cannot have been easy to break into. I think it must have been a major operation to even get in, so it was a time capsule. It was remarkable – once we got it back together and realized what it had looked like in the 1940s and to imagine it sitting dark and unopened in that entire period was just for us a terribly exciting thing. A chance for a historian who’s largely a theoretical, research-oriented library kind of person to walk into a site like that and get your hands into the artifacts…
D: I heard something there. Let me change my hand, too. Okay. Yeah, tell me about the moment you walked into the Kam Wah Chung.
B: Uh, Heather? I’m sorry we’re trying to do a little radio thing here – can you work in my office? Okay, why don’t you just go ahead. Shut down whatever is in there.
D: It’s just weird little sounds like paper or a squeak…
B: Any sound that the audience can recognize as being…
D: Sometimes you can edit it out.
B: But the trouble.
D: Well, that’s the biz. So if you can lean in again, and I just want to capture the moment that you first walked into the Kam Wah Chung. Like what day was it, when was it, and then give me the setting.
B: Okay. Good. Well, the first time I went over was during the winter and it happened that the architect was still over there and I didn’t want to drive so I took a bus and the bus, I think it probably left about 10 o’clock in the evening from Eugene and then hit eastern Oregon about dawn and there had been a frost and I really will never forget that the entire landscape just wreathed in frost so that every plant you saw, every blade of grass was covered in frost. It was like you were moving through this beautiful frozen landscape and then the sun hit it and it just all came alive. And I suppose there was only about 20 minutes that it was like that but among the sights of my life, you know I’ve been down the Yang Zhe River, I’ve seen a number of remarkable things but I really will never forget that 20 minutes on the bus into Eastern Oregon. And from there on it just got better and better. Because the architect, Greg Olsen who was with the University of Oregon at the time, took me into the building, and it was relatively dark because he only had work lights up and he had the floors up so we stepped into a gravel bed and then walked through the building. And Greg, like we came to be, was really an admirer of the Chinese gentleman who had been in the building and really the entire operation. I mean, there was a romanticism to it and I know it sounds strange, but also a very strong sense of power to the building. I mean, I have a PhD and I’ve written four books, okay, so I’m not nuts here, I just have to say that the building itself had an incredibly powerful aura about it so the fact that we had worked in that environment and came to know those men, came to be I think very meaningful for everyone who was ever engaged with the project.
D: What did it look like?
B: It was small: the first thing about the Kem Wah Chung building is that it is probably no more maybe than 20 feet on a side, 25 feet on a side. It is two floors – the top is just simply an attic and the top was originally intended to be a sleeping area for Chinese railroad workers, who never showed up because the economy of the area changed unexpectedly and then in the late 19th century the hope had been that the railway would go all the way into John Day. But the tragedy is that the railway actually stopped in Prairie City, which is some maybe 15 miles away. I’ve actually biked that, so I should know, but it’s about 15 miles. And the consequence was that since the railway didn’t get to John Day it didn’t develop in the same way that the towns around it did and that’s one reason the Kam Wah Chung is still there. But for the men who lived in the building it was an economic tragedy because they had presumed that the track workers who would come in to finish that railway between John Day on down to some unspecified point in Eastern Oregon, ultimately linking up with the railway along the Columbia river, and then the railway through the passes to the south, it was just never built, and the result was we were walking into this dark, rather forbidding, there was a feeling when you were in there alone, let’s say, and cold, my goodness, it was cold, the building had been heated only by a little wood stove, and no doubt with the wood stove going and those thick walls it became quite comfortable, but since it had not been heated, to work in there was with gloves and hats and parkas through that winter, we could get a feeling of what it might look like, but with the floors up and the walls down – they literally took everything out. And when they went into the building, and by they I mean the townspeople who began working on the project, bless them, and Greg Olsen and the others, it looked just as it had on the last day when it was used, which was some time in the late 1940s. Doc Hay’s last meal was still on the stove. He had been cooking a chicken when he had a stroke and the pot was there with a chicken in it. By this time it was historical artifact rather than a rotten piece of meat, as you might think, but it was a real insight into how the building had just one day simply been frozen. One of the jokes of the people who worked on restoring it was they had asked Olsen, the architect, if they had to save everything and he said everything, everything, we want everything. But everything included a dead cat that had crawled under the building and died and they put it in a plastic sack and labeled it “one dead kitty” for Greg to add to the artifacts. I don’t know where dead kitty is today, I don’t think he goes back to the 1940s, but.
D: It must have been one smelly building…
B: It actually smelled, in some corners it smelled like opium, which is a very kind of funky smell. Once you’ve smelled it it’s hard to avoid. But it also smelled – maybe if you can imagine a grocery store that had maybe been shut up, airtight, for 20 years and everything had gone through, everything that could rot had rotted, everything that could dry out had dried out, and it wasn’t a bad smell. There were also all the medicines, so one corner of the building smelled like Chinese herbs and that’s a smell that is a kind of a compound of a lot of different smells. It’s a very herbal, strong smell. A lot of the people who lived in the community, the first thing they would comment on – we were given a bank which had been shut down to work in so we were in this bank and we had all of our equipment in there spread out for restoration and categorization and we were using every element of the building and the minute people walked in they said oh, it smells just like the Kam Wah Chung. What they meant was, some of them called it a ‘Chinese smell,’ which, they were being, they were kind, we didn’t run into any overt, deliberate racism at all. We did run into a little parochial attitudes toward the old Chinese community, which no longer exists, but to many they would say ‘yeah, it smells like the Chinee building’ meaning the Kam Wah Chung, and that was that strong odor of Chinese herbs more than anything else.
D: It still smells like that. I mean, I was very struck by the smell. So why would anyone, why would any Chinese settle in John Day?
B: Okay. You really have to go back to the events of the late gold rush and the building, the Oregon rush was secondary on the one hand to the 1849 rush to the south and the probably 1850s rush in Canada so we found as we began later to try to trace movement through that area that on the one hand you wanted to know what was going on in the Rogue River rush and in California and then you also wanted to know what was going on up what is called the Rocky Mountain trench which ends at Walla Walla and if you follow it north, along the various river valleys, then you find yourself in Canada. And in the, along the so-called Wild Horse trail you find associated Chinese sites at that point. So once gold was discovered in the 60s, and I’m sorry to say with many of these dates, it’s been so long since I’ve worked with it, I can’t be as precise as I should for you, but once gold was discovered then that began bringing in a great many Chinese workers. There was a period in the 19th century, strange as it may seem, when Chinese were actually the dominant ethnic group in both Idaho and Eastern Oregon. Now, that’s not to say that there were more Chinese than any single group but of all the ethnicities, the Chinese were the most numerous because at that time people were extraordinarily race-conscious, so they really divided you know, the English were broken down into are you Welsh, or Scots, or Irish, or English.
D: This is really good but I’m hearing voices.
B: Hey Ben, just pull that door shut behind you for a few minutes, we’re doing a radio thing here. Hey Ellie! Why I don’t go pull that door shut…
D: Oh, I’m sorry….so, I’m just wondering I guess, what it was like for Ing Hay when he arrived.
B: Right. Well, when Ing Hay came in, and we know he was in John Day by 1887 and in the country by, say 1882, it was still a frontier. And one of the facts that I think is not appreciated by Oregonians, or fully understood, is that Oregon really was the last frontier. By this period the great cattle drives were over, Texas is being settled, the Mexican-American war has been fought out – other areas of the country are relatively settled, but Oregon was still very wild. It had its own Western culture that was very different from Southern culture. We don’t speak of cowboys, our cowboys are buckaroos, and there was, in that part of Eastern Oregon, with the gold rush, it was still an extremely violent area. There were Indian tribes in the area that were still unsettled. Chinese miners had been murdered, supposedly by Paiutes, a few years earlier. There was some controversy over that, as to whether it was really white thieves or not, but nonetheless, there was a great deal of violence and you had to be in that environment a pretty tough man to make your way. Doc Hay was not, in the sense that he was a medical doctor, but he was so valuable to the community that he was protected. So this was a man who, to begin with was 19th century Chinese, which was not very tall, not very heavy. A man very, he was a pulse doctor and for a pulse diagnostician it was very very important to protect the softness of your hands because hands were the way you communicated with patients. So he habitually wore gloves. He would not pick up anything with his right hand at all – he used his left hand. His right hand was his diagnosis hand so that he would lay those fingers on your wrist and other pulses to read the internal state of your body. And we heard repeatedly of course as to how soft his touch was. He was also semi-blind, later in life he was completely blind, so it was probable in a typical way he compensated to a degree. But if you can imagine a small, slight Chinese man who never really learned to speak English (Lung On had to interpret for him; his English was broken at best, it wasn’t among his many talents) living in that violent environment. Poor man. We have no evidence that he was frightened. He probably trusted in the spirits that the probably saw as protecting him in the area. I would have been frightened. Most of us would have been frightened in that particular environment. And he lived in a building, in the Kam Wah Chung after 1847 that had to serve as a fortification. Periodically, buckaroos would get liquored up and go down and decide they were going to hoo-rah the Chinamen, so they would lock the shutters and stay. Now, it’s not correct to see the Chinese simply as helpless victims because a great many men who came in the gold rush were fleeing from the Tai Ping rebellion in China and this was an extraordinarily violent movement: we now believe that between 20 and 40 million people died.
D: Can you say that? Between…
B: 20 and 40 million people died in the Tai Ping rebellion because of the failure of the political and economic system and many of the rebels had been in the field against the Chinese and western armies as well for almost a decade. A great many of the core rebels that came out of the Guong Dong province and Guong Shee province who came on into the United States to become miners were seasoned soldiers. Very experienced, particularly with black powder. A large part of the reputation of the Tai Ping was their ability to make mines and bombs, so when they came in they must have made wonderful gold miners and they were also men who had seen quite a bit. So we heard of the deaths of several Chinese. We also heard of Chinese who were much faster with a knife than buckaroos were with guns. So there was a kind of a process of mutual respect in that area, I think, and among the things that startled us, now this is the 1970s, so put yourself back into 1970s America which was, I think in many ways more race-conscious than we are today and it may seem to many young people that there are a great many unresolved racial issues, and clearly there are, but compared to the 1960s and the 1970s we’re living in a very, an ultramodern era. So to think about race in those particular periods and the violence in those particular periods – it was so very different than it is today. Now Lung On I think – when we think of Doc Hay – I really think of them almost as a hybrid personality. Some people are so fortunate in their partnerships that they really could not exist one without the other and Lung On and Doc Hay are one of those partnerships. They really, totally complemented each other and I in some ways I think that Lung On was the brains of the gang and that he clearly had the wider cultural knowledge and could not only cope but was a respected man in the surrounding community. Never talked to anyone who felt anything other than a very high regard for Lung On and scattered in the surrounding countryside were various Chinese that we know about. Now the reason that they had all filtered down to John Day as a community was that other communities had become very violent. When gold mining played out in the 1870s and 1880s racial events and violence in California and Oregon and Washington became much much more salient, because suddenly there wasn’t enough gold to go around. In the old days when there’d been enough gold to go around whites were willing to put up with the Chinese because the Chinese would work at moving dirt, and that was very important. Gold mining in this particular area is very seldom the gold nugget sitting on top of the ground, although there are those stories. It was mostly hydraulic. And hydraulic mining means building elaborate water systems for forcing water through pipes and hoses to wash mountains down for goodness sakes. And just as the Tai Ping rebels were very competent with gunpowder and bombs and mines of every sort, every Chinese knew about hydraulics because rice is grown in water and the key to growing rice is to put the water on the fields when you need it and take the water off the fields when you want it someplace else. So that meant a lot of the technology of the mining region is really Chinese. We’ve lost a lot of that knowledge today. I’ve been in many many museums where I’ve been shown Chinese technology and been told that this is American technology from the 19th century gold mines.
D: That is really interesting. Oh wow. So there was a lot of, I don’t want to say usury or exploitation, but it definitely was a huge contribution on the part of Chinese.
B: Oh, it was a major contribution. It’s a very hard to imagine that technology growing up without the input of the Chinese. Now other nationalities contributed as well. You can certainly find German and Welsh techniques in the mining, but the Chinese hydrology, if you will, is incredibly important. That knowledge is very very important. Everything from in the mines they used a very odd one-wheeled wheelbarrow with the wheel in the center and I’ve been in museums where I’ve been told oh yeah, this is a typical mining wheelbarrow and I would laugh and say this is a typical Chinese wheelbarrow you’re looking at here, but all that knowledge has just largely been lost. So when the mines played out, the Chinese tended to be unwelcome. Now they were seen as the grubby little foreigners who would not leave a clod of dirt undisturbed to get at that last bit of gold and there was violence all across the west of this particular period of the late, mid 1880s, with a lot of deaths. And as a result a lot of people moved down into John Day. Now one of the things that surprised us was that on the frontier race is a lot less important than you might think. I think race is more important in the towns and cities than it is out in the countryside or on the ranches. What we found was the main concern of the people in this area was really the answer to one simple question: can you do your job? Can you be relied upon? Are you a man or a woman who will stick? And the Chinese were, so this is the work they ended up doing, and in John Day they were welcome. When we first went into the area we kept hearing stories of a legendary wagon-master. And this man had pushed the first wagons through that area and we finally saw a picture of him and he was, as my father would have said, as black as the ace of spades. And I was struck. I thought my goodness, their wagon master was black and nobody even mentioned it, I mean, why’d nobody mention it? Well, because it wasn’t important. It was important to me as an American in the 1870s, where…1970s where we thought about race all the bloody time because of the events of the 60s and 70s, but it wasn’t important to the people of that particular region.
D: But then you have other places – I don’t know if this is just Oregon you’re talking about because you have the Snake River massacre which was about the same time, the Wyoming Springs massacre – I mean yeah, as far as territory-type…
B: Yes, and you also have the destruction, in addition to these massacres, Rock Springs, probably very famous.
D: Well, can you talk about these massacres, I don’t want to have my question in there.
B: Right. Well, there’s simply…there are in the 1870s and into the 1880s a series of massacres of varying scales. By massacres we’re talking 5, 6 people usually, or 2 or 3 or 8 or 10, but there were attacks on Chinatowns and it was almost a communicable disease in the 1870s. Seattle Chinatown was burned out. But because Oregon was still a frontier, Chinese labor was welcome, and that’s the important factor. For example, when Chinese left Seattle and came to Portland there were individuals, particularly in the Depression-affected industries, like lumber mills, shake mills, some iron and steel works, who wanted Chinese labor ran out. Labor unions in this period were sort of adopting the American ethnic flag – white ethnicity as a means of building support. But the mayor and the head of the Oregonian at that time, the editorial simply locked these people up. There was going to be no nonsense in Oregon of this kind of racial violence. And that’s because this area was an under-populated frontier and we were much more concerned about having the labor available than we were taking a look at the color of the men and women who were doing it. Now after Lung On and Doc Hay died and the Chinese left the area there was a resurgence in the 1950s and the 1960s, so a family moved to John Day and opened a Chinese restaurant. And we interviewed some descendents of that family. And I went in again expecting to find a kind of a racial subtext here and I had been educated at Berkeley and was very aware of the importance of ethnicity and race so I wanted to see it – I was looking for it. And I didn’t find it so I interviewed this one woman and I said well, gee, you must have, you went to high school in John Day, you must have encountered prejudice, tell me about it. And she thought and thought and thought and said well, one time a truck driver came into our restaurant and said something mean to me, but he was from out of town. I didn’t ever hear anything from anybody in John Day. We were just simply a local family.
D: So you mentioned Lung On a couple of times, why don’t you introduce who he is?
B: Okay. Lung On, like…Lung On, like Ing Hay, was from the Canton region. We don’t know about his antecedence, in the sense of we don’t know where he came into the United States and what he did before he got to John Day and this is very common. Because of American racist legislation, Chinese right down into the 1970s and the 1980s were very very wary of sketching out too much of their story because even if they had come in perfectly legally, and I emphasize that it was possible to come in perfectly legally in the 1860s and the 1870s, and then find yourself an illegal immigrant in the 1870s or 1880s because of post hoc legislation. So right down into, well into the 20th century the Chinese had learned from bitter experience to not reveal too much about themselves, so it was not uncommon that a man might have one name in one city and then worry that somebody was poking around and move to another town and adopt a new name. And in fact, one of the characteristics of Chinese culture that strikes Americans as very strange is that you don’t have any one fixed name. There is a family name and a birth name but you will also very often adopt honorary names at one time or another in your life as you move forward. So even though you might have that family name like Lung or Ing, both Chinese pronunciations from a local dialect rather than mainstream modern Chinese, you may well adopt other names. So who was Lung On, we don’t know. But when he came in he spoke excellent English. He read very well and most striking to the community was he wrote beautiful English. He had what at the time was called a Copperplate script, meaning that when he wrote letters he wrote beautiful, ornate in English. So a great many people hired Lung On to write letters for them when they were trying to impress somebody because much of the community was semi-literate. And for Chinese people, Lung On’s ability to speak English and read and write English was very valuable. Among the other artifacts found in the Kam Wah Chung were many editions of various classics from the western literary tradition. Dickens and Austen and whether Lung On read them or not we don’t know, but he certainly valued them and kept them, and I suspect he did read them. And that he learned very quickly. Some people are able to learn languages very quickly and in a frontier environment that can be extraordinarily valuable. And it was certainly important to Doc Hay.
D: How did they meet? Do you know?
B: Well, all we can assume is that their original meeting was probably, not sort of an unlikely one because at that point the Chinese community was diminishing. One of the factors of the Chinese community that became very very important later was that they tended to immigrate into the area as same surname groups. A lot of the organization of the Chinese community is built along family lines, so when you emigrated from example from Guang Dong, into the United States to become a coal miner, a gold miner, you very likely went to a name association, it’s one of the terms that we would call “tong.” “Tong” actually covers a variety of social and political and clan organizations, but you might go to a surname group and say I’m an Ing, I want to emigrate to the United States and they would then pass you on through other Ings, if you will. Now this gave an enormous strength to the organization but it had one fatal flaw and that is Chinese will not marry, cannot marry a woman or a man of the same surname. So what we get in Eastern Oregon what we get are two or three surnames. Now this is common in China itself, but in China itself there is a highly elaborated network that allows you to marry a person of the correct name, or at least not of the incorrect name, from another village. There are many many protections, obviously functional protections against pollution of the bloodline, if you will. So the Chinese had worked this all out and it served them wonderfully to protect them on the frontier, to further their way into these areas, but then when the communities began to shrink, there were simply no possibilities for marriage partners – very few women, because racist legislation had kept them out deliberately, because the United States did not want the Chinese ‘breeding’ would have been the term we would have used in the 19th century: didn’t want them breeding. So the consequence – very few women to begin with and what women there were were probably your cousin. So as the community began to shrink, they began to pool – they became bachelor communities. And this is of all the elements of Chinese society one of the saddest. It’s even sad in 21st century China – communities like Hong Kong, Shanghai. A man without his family is in serious, or a woman without her family is really in serious social trouble. So here bachelor communities begin to congregate, so one of the things that Kem Wah Chung offered to Lung On and Ing Hay was a place to be safe, together, and to begin to build an economic practice. In part it was Lung On who was responsible for this business – he kept the books, he did the banking. Part of the income was Doc Hay for sure. I think in a sense their social network and protection was Doc Hay, because Hay was so valuable on the frontier as a doctor that nobody was going to permit anyone from outside to come in and shoot their China doctor full of holes – he was too valuable a guy. So for Lung On being next to Doc Hay meant that he was safe. On the other hand, for Doc Hay, Lung On meant here is a man who can communicate, who can write. Who can communicate with China where the herbs came from. Who knows how to invest money, who knows how to manipulate social organization of both the Chinese and the Americans and they were simply a wonderful partnership. And they became very wealthy – they were probably the wealthiest individuals in the community. Now there were very wealthy ranchers out there, but ranching is boom and bust, particularly in a frontier environment, so I don’t doubt that they were the richest people in the community through the late 19th and early 20th century.
D: How much money did they have, I guess upon Lung On’s death?
B: Death? Well, the whole question of total amounts of money are very strange, because one of the categories of artifacts that we found, and they had originally been under Doc Hay’s mattress, were un-cashed checks. He had taken checks for medical services. And some of these were very small, 3 and 4 dollars. Others were several hundred and it was obvious that he had been caring for people for some time and then they insisted on paying him and he let them pay, but he simply never cashed the checks. He didn’t need the money. It may seem very strange for us, we lack a doctrine of ‘enough-ness’ in the 21st century, but for Lung On and Doc Hay I think enough was probably a very real phenomenon. And the result was that they had bank accounts. They had large enough bank accounts that during the crash in the late 1920s and the early 1930s, the fact that they would not withdraw their money from the bank, them and another few ranch families, Olivers, I remember that name, sat down together and decided that they were going to ride it out, they weren’t going to pull their money out of the bank. And the result of it was that the bank survived, and that was the lifeblood of that community. Doesn’t mean they didn’t have to tighten their belt, but nonetheless the bank and the community survived as a result of the fact that by this time they were Americans. And felt that they were Americans.
D: Well, why did they never… is that why they never went back?
B: I think that they didn’t go back for a number of reasons. I’m now aware in 2004 of a reason that wasn’t so apparent to me in 1970. And that was that now, in 2004, my Chinese students are afraid to go back…
D: Hang on. Let’s not use the word 2004 because this will be out, like in 2006.
B: Right. In the contemporary environment I am aware of a reason that I wasn’t aware of in 1970, and that is, with the sudden concern about immigration in the United States, foreign students, and the Chinese in particular, are afraid to go home at this point, because they’re not sure but what the law won’t change behind them, or that their visa may be invalidated or they will fall foul of a suspicious member of the American consulate in Shanghai or Guang Sho or Beijing. That may have been a factor for them. They may simply have thought, my goodness, you know, we’re here, and if we leave, at very best getting back in is getting to be very expensive. But I think there was another factor because there are letters in the Kem Wah Chung, letters of family members writing very plaintively, saying why don’t we hear from you, we worry about you, we don’t know if you’re even alive. Over the years, probably 10 or 12 of these letters. Now, we can explain why they didn’t go back but why didn’t they write letters? Why didn’t they write letters? And I think the answer is that they had become Americans and that they liked where they were, they were honored. We are presuming that neither of them came from wealthy or powerful families in China, else they would not have left. So the immigrants who typically came out are supernumerary. They are perhaps fleeing Chinese law or they are younger brothers, they are from bad conditions. Following upon the heels of the Tai Ping rebellion in the 1860s, China, south China was hit by drought after drought after drought. I’ve done research into the county records of those periods and there is hardly a peaceful, normal year from say 1865 well into the 1920s in south China. Very often local magistrates keeping records will simply use formulas to explain what that year is like. One formula, one common formula would be to say ‘in 1881 white bones filled the fields’ and what they mean by saying white bones filled the fields is that villages starved. People starved. We have emigrants, or rather missionaries going through that area speaking of regions where the tree bark had been gnawed off every tree by human beings as high as a man could reach. There was a custom in these affected rural areas where you swapped children with your neighbor because you could not afford to watch your own child die, you just didn’t have the heart to watch your child die. But you would smother the neighbor’s child and the neighbor would smother your child rather than watch that child die. So this is a world that I think we cannot imagine. And that they could not imagine once they got to the United States. I mean, true, there were problems in the United States, and Eastern Oregon is no picnic, and I’ve talked about the violence of the frontier, and simply the violence of working in areas where gold mining and ranching and agriculture or timber are the major industries, the level of violence in the 1940s and the 1950s, the 1930s in those industries would astound us today. We know of a railway from another area where wives met the train at the end to see if their husbands had survived working in the so-called Jepo Lumber industry during the day and about once a week there was a dead man on the cattle guard of the train. They put them on the front of the train and brought them down. When we were down there in the 1970s more then one man was killed in the town in those industries. So here they are – it’s tough, but gosh, you look back on 19th century China, it must have seemed a total picnic. So they were not from a section of society where they had had or could have easy lives. So those letters coming to them from China – why haven’t you written, why haven’t you come home, must have seemed like ghosts wailing in the dark in another land.
D: But they also asked, why don’t you send us money?
B: Right, right, and those families of course want money and this is part of the practices, even today, you talk to the Chinese or Vietnamese immigrants – they love going home, there’s no question about it, but you talk to them and they will, within a few minutes, acknowledge that it is also a very expensive proposition because the people are poor back there, they know that you’re relatively wealthy, and in the 21st century they want money for a television set or medicine or DVDs or whatever it may be. In the 19th century it was money for simply survival and Lung On and Doc Hay simply did not do it. It was for me something of a mystery. I would have thought they might send small amounts of money home but they didn’t so. There may be something in their past, family issues, that we cannot simply know about, but in any event they didn’t feel the strongest of Chinese ties and that is the obligation to other members of the family who are poor and needy, they didn’t feel it. And it’s not to say that they were bad men – they were not bad men because they sacrificed continually for the local community. I think they saw their family as the people of John Day. I really believe that in a sense they saw themselves as elder uncles, fathers, to that John Day community. They had made an enormous mental shift and I wish we knew more about it. One of my big regrets as a historian is that there was a whole set of letters Lung On had had, evidence suggests, an affair – a long-term affair with a young woman on a ranch in the nearby area. And there was a whole series of letters between Lung On and that young woman and for, that would have been oh, that is the Moby Dick of historical collections and we got into the town and said where are those letters and very chagrined townspeople said well, we burned them.
D: Oh, cuz…
B: I said you burned them, my goodness, why did you burn them? They said to protect Lung On’s reputation. You know, incredible, incredible. And in a sense in their mind, you know, where in 1970s rural Oregon where misogynation was a big issue at the time. There was a lot of concern about racial issues and people poking around asking about racial issues and to them this probably seemed shocking that Lung On had an affair. To us it was remarkable, I mean we really wanted to know more of course, because this was an environment in which it was probably pretty dangerous to have an affair and the fact Lung On did over a couple of years meant that he was extraordinarily confident, was not fearful, and the young woman herself must have been an extremely interesting person. I think we can put ourself in her boots and see Lung On as a terribly sophisticated individual – I mean, he traveled to San Francisco and Seattle, he owned a racehorse, he had lots of money. He must have been in many ways an extremely attractive bachelor. But on the other hand he was Chinese, so for her to see that attraction in Lung On and apparently to act upon it, according to everyone around us, made her a remarkable woman. I mean, her story should be told too. I wish we knew more about it, but, it’s one of those things that are simply lost.
D: If there had been children you probably would have really heard about it. Okay, well since we are talking about the community and who they are, you did a lot of interviews with people in the community so I guess, what were some of the things that struck for you as far as descriptions about Doc Hay and his value to the community and about his medical practice.
B: Yes. Now, since we were in, doing most of this work in the 1970s, and Doc Hay had been active through the 1940s, we really were looking at a community of patients that remembered, within thirty years, Doc Hay working on them. And for a historian – we were forced to learn a lot by the nature of this project, because we wanted to do justice to it, so we had to learn about Chinese gold mining, hydraulic mining, and we did all that to sort of cover Lung On. And then we had to learn a lot about medical doctoring because an important element of this story was the element of Doc Hay as a medical doctor, and fortunately we were helped in that by any number of Chinese medical practitioners and my hobby at the time was martial arts, still is for that matter, so I was familiar with a number of elements of the Chinese tradition that were medicine-related in one way or another through the martial arts and then we did our research, had a couple of Chinese graduate students working with us, and then ultimately have wound up by and large being cared for over the lives of my family by Chinese medical practitioners. Most of our doctors of first-choice are Chinese doctors. So I know we learned a fair amount about it and the problem is always to kind of sort out legend and lore –this is the problem for any researcher, but let me sort of give you two ends of the story. So one end is a woman who says to us – I was interviewed by Doc Hay, and she’s whispering at this point, she lives, lived at that time in a retirement home in the community and we quickly went through all the retirement homes – called them all up, said we want to talk to anybody who worked with Doc Hay, and for I say 50 miles around we talked to people – so she says yes, he was unbelievable, I worked with him. He felt my pulse and he told me that I had had two children. And I said to him I only had one child. And he said oh, your pulses show that you had two children and she said you’re mistaken, I only have one child. And then she whispered to us, but he was right, I had had a child in a previous relationship and my husband at that time did not know about that child and I did not acknowledge it. So here was a man that was so good at reading your pulses that he could tell you how many children you had had, for goodness sakes. Another man came in…and I accept that story. She was not telling it to us with any pride – to the contrary. She just wanted to leave a good record of Doc Hay, so this for me is gold, in terms of oral history. Another man came in, and Doc Hay had felt his pulse and said, you have a piece of metal lodged in your body, and it’s pressing on the nerve system. I don’t think it’s really dangerous, but I can tell that it is there, and may be causing you some discomfort. And the man said yeah, I’ve been wounded in World War I, I had a piece of shrapnel in my neck and it was pressing against stuff, but it hadn’t caused any particular problem. Now, now let me tell you another story at the other end that we just did not know what to do with. We walked into the museum in Prineville on the way over and we said we…and we didn’t have our recorders with us, maddening to me that we didn’t, but I didn’t have my tape recorder, so this has to come off as a geezer story, if you will. There’s a geezer, I’m now that age so I’ll use this term, in the museum there and he said oh yeah, I was present when Doc Hay brought a dead man to life. I said tell me more. He said yeah, there was this young fellah and he worked in a mill. And he had buried the family’s money somewhere on the property. Because this was probably the 1920s – didn’t trust the bank so there’s gold buried. And this poor guy gets hit in the head in a mill and killed. He’s dead. Doctors come in and say he’s dead. Somebody calls Doc Hay and Doc Hay comes in and fools around with him and finds a pulse. He says to the family I can’t help him – he’s not dead but he’s dying, he’s going to be gone. Sorry. And then they say, but he’s the only one who knows where the money’s buried. Can’t you do something, can’t you? And Hay says, oh please let the poor man alone. This is his natural course. I’m embroidering a bit on the geezer story here, from my knowledge of Doc Hay. And finally Doc Hay uses coins – takes the man’s shirt off, very vigorously rubs him up and down on the nerve ganglia along the spine – which is a typical Chinese treatment for invigorating the body and the man sits up and says the gold is buried under the chicken coop and dies. You know. For real. Now, what as an oral historian am I to make of this story. You’re putting the man in there with Lazarus, which is to put Doc Hay into another category altogether, and since we did not have our tape recorder, I did not feel comfortable putting the story in the book. It was just one of the many miracles of Doc Hay stories that we heard. That I think there was probably some central truth to – one of the things you learn as an oral historian is that there’s always some kernel of truth in these stories and this was from a first-hand eye witness, very detailed, so I’m prepared to believe that Doc Hay brought a man back to life. At one point. But as I say, this is the difficulty with the range of oral history stories and tales. Now, a lot of it can be explained by one thing, and that is the ability of Chinese medical herbs to deal with the body without surgery, and that was terribly terribly important, right down to the 1920s. Because into the 19th century, we still did not know about sepsis and antisepsis. Joseph Lister, who discovered infection, ultimately went mad. I mean, Lister was a man who had worked in a birth ward for years and years where there was an incredibly high rate of death. And finally somebody finally figured out, I may not have Lister’s name right here, it may be another individual entirely, somebody figured out well, it was a bad idea to be working on corpses and then go to deliver babies without washing your hands. Well, this was the state of medical practice in the West in the 19th and early 20th century: not only did you not have a really good knowledge of where infections came from, but the other thing you didn’t have was a reliable anaesthetic. The anaesthetics were primitive at best. So anybody would do anything to avoid what was known darkly as “the knife.” Don’t go under “the knife.” Can you avoid “the knife”? Doc Hay, with his medical…with his Chinese herbs, was able to work on quite advanced infections of the body and essentially, the principle of course is to help the body regain equilibrium, so that the body fights the infection itself. Rather than blasting the body with antiseptics and other kinds of problems, you just do the best you can to keep the person going. So we heard story after story of buckaroos, ranchers, who had gotten serious infections, usually on what was known as the “barbwire.” The barbwire was of course, rusted. It was everyplace, and it was terribly easy to get a pretty bad infection just from your daily work in those areas. And any kind of slip of the axe, very very common in the lumber industry. So. And they would come to see Doc Hay because for days around, and some of these people we were told would ride in on buggies with their legs swelled so big that they had to cut their pants off. And Doc Hay could like as not, stabilize them and ultimately save their lives and in many ways more importantly, their limbs. If you went to another doctor then the chances were good, we’re still…we’re all familiar, I think, thanks to the sorts of endless documentaries on the Civil War, the state of medical care in the 1860s and 1870s. I mean, you very easily, many of these people would have been Civil War veterans. They probably would have had memories of piles of severed limbs outside hospitals at Gettysburg and Spotsylvania. So for them, to have a Chinese doctor was very important. Every community that had one really valued them. And there were several others that were very important, of note. There is an Ah Fong in Boise, Idaho, who is as revered as Doc Hay locally, and there are some artifacts remaining. Ah Fong went on, like Doc Hay to become a very prominent local individual, and a little bit like Lung On was politically successful as well, so that he was a noted member of the community into the 1950s. But for the community had to be relatively isolated, I think, for those individuals to survive, and there had to be enough people around who were willing to judge them as individuals from their performance through the 19th century, where there were no options to continue to respect them in the 20th century. So if you had, say Seattle or San Francisco or St. Louis the turnover in population, the changes in neighborhood, those kinds of things, very likely obliterated the memory of any number of Chinese medical practitioners from the 19th century. But if you can find a small town or a community like John Day, which was in a sense protected by its own backwardness, and its own isolation, then you find lots of stories of these kinds of individuals.
D: Ah Fong was around the same time period, then?
B: Yeah. Slightly later.
D: Well, okay. I’m wondering, like when I went to the museum there’s still the name Monkey Tom. And a lot of people’s are like, Tall Guy or something..
B: Well, let me talk a little bit about other members of the community. They were certainly there. And one of our difficulties in trying to restore them is that unlike Doc Hay and Lung On, who we can know, in part through their documents and their artifacts, we know them only through the memories of the local people. So three of them stood out for us. And I’ll begin with sort of the lesser important and work my way up, and one of them was so-called Big Sam. And one thing about Big Sam was that he was big. Hence, his name. The story goes that when Big Sam was buried in an average sort of box for that period, and he died probably some time in the late 20s – his knees stuck up, so somebody pushed on his knees and Big Sam sat up in the coffin. So I’m presuming he was more than 6 feet tall. Which is not at all remarkable for Chinese people. I’ve been in entire cities in northern China where many women are taller than I am and I’m 6’ 1”. So there are very tall Chinese people – ordinarily they’re from the north because they have Manchu or Mongolian blood and these are very big people. From the south of China they tend to be somewhat smaller because of the ethnicity so Big Sam may have been from a different area, we really don’t know. He worked on a ranch and the only thing we know about him is that he was welcome in town that he came into town periodically to buy food and that was about it. There was a woman who was known as Crazy Jane. Crazy Jane is a very interesting character, first of all because she is a woman. That in and of itself is remarkable because for Chinese women to get in at all was extraordinarily difficult and for them to then stay was relatively unusual. Ordinarily a Chinese woman who might have come in as a family member in the frontier region in the 19th century, would have moved back into Portland or Seattle or Boise or Walla Walla, let’s say – one of the larger urban areas, simply because life would have been a lot easier – plus the chances of marrying would have been easier, but Crazy Jane stayed and the story, the reason she is “crazy,” let’s put that in quotation marks, is because she wouldn’t talk to people. When everybody came who would try to talk to Crazy Jane she would flee, and we simply don’t know – was this a woman who was driven bonkers by the deprivations of the frontier? It certainly was possible because any number of people were, including strong men became very odd under those particular positions, and I think one of the things that made up the community was an amazing tolerance. They just simply took it for granted that everybody had their problem, and you ignored it. It’s possible, however, that Crazy Jane may simply have been an orthodox Chinese woman – you don’t talk to strangers, and we wondered at the time if she wasn’t simply trying her was to avoid strangers and not talk to them and basically she may have been a perfectly sane woman in her own home. It is also possible that feigning insanity was a kind of a protection – there is a very interesting story from an anthropologist in the Chinese revolution who returned to his home village in China and found to his astonishment that the local shamanus, who he had known to be a screaming lunatic, was now the head of the Communist party. And when he went up to talk to her, he found her to be extremely cogent, very thoughtful, excellent speaker, good leader, and he said you used to be nuts – what cured you? – in effect, and she said hey, for a woman in rural China there aren’t a lot of choices and insanity is a pretty attractive one, compared to some of the other possibilities. So we just don’t know about Crazy Jane.
D: Was she married?
B: She was married. To a member of the community and I can’t remember who it was.
D: So she was someone’s wife, so it wouldn’t have been good for her to talk to people.
B: No, it wouldn’t have. And then there was a man who was laughingly known as “Two-gunned Sam,” another Sam. And he had lost one thumb, or maybe both thumbs, the story goes. Because, as a buckaroo, he had caught a loop of a rope around the saddle horn while hanging onto it and a horse had popped the rope tight and he lost a thumb. Which shows us first of all that these men, in fact, were buckaroos. Now, this was a problem for the local community. When we came in and did a little bit of work and said some of these Chinese were buckaroos and some of them worked in the lumber mills, this didn’t fit the stereotype of some of the townspeople. They had a different image of a buckaroo. A buckaroo was John Wayne and to have the notion of a Chinese guy who apparently at some point wore twin six-shooters so that he became known as Two-Gun Sam was a little challenging. And we only knew Sam as an older man in his 60s or 70s toward his death, so we just have no way of knowing who he was or what the truth of the two guns were. But we know he worked and rode a horse and suffered industrial accidents. And then there’s Marquis Tom. Now, some people call Marquis Tom, Monkey Tom, and this is as far as I’m concerned a slur, I refuse to use it. It’s represented unfortunately in some of the documentation in the Kem Wah Chung, but I believe his name was Marquis, and that it probably began as something like Mah Key, which would be a perfectly legitimate Chinese given name, a number of possibilities for the characters there. But he became Monkey Tom, unfortunately. And he too was a buckaroo. He worked on a ranch, rode for a living, worked with other cowboys, buckaroos, and was valued for his contribution to the community. Lost, another one of those individuals who is lost, and let me say there are a couple of problems of analysis. Let me be a historian here, for a moment. One problem of analysis and of understanding in this group, that really are two groups that I find are challenged by these images of the frontier Chinese. One group are the Americans who have stereotypes about what it means to have been a buckaroo. And for them a buckaroo was white. No question about it. We know plenty about the Buffalo Soldiers and the Black Bronco Busters and black gunmen of the frontier area to know that these are stereotypes. But nonetheless, they are stereotypes that are so thorough that when they show up in a film or a museum exhibition they’re always controversial. We find them very very difficult to give up these stereotypes. There’s another stereotype, and this stereotype is one that is often held by the academic Chinese American community, and that’s the stereotype of the small frontier as occupied by nothing but Neanderthal white racists who are constantly oppressing and chasing the poor ethnic minority around, and that stereotype in some ways is just as damaging. It doesn’t do justice to what happened in John Day. Because what happened in John Day was that these men came in, went through a very bad period, undoubtedly, I’m not going to argue that there was not ethnic oppression or there was not racial prejudice. You could walk into town today and if you looked for it long enough and hard enough you probably could find it. But on the other hand it was a town that valued these men as individuals – not as members of an oppressed racial group or anything else. And their story is a remarkable one. And to, as I did – I came in, typical product of the 1960s and 1970s, I came in trying to fit them into all the categories of oppressed racial victim and it just didn’t work. I soon found I had to change my mind and thank goodness I was flexible enough at the time to do so and by doing so I learned a great deal about them. I find, however, that when I talk to modern groups, contemporary groups, I’m just as likely to meet disgruntled third or fourth-generation Chinese immigrants who have their perspective of unending oppression, as I am to meet white racists. I think they’re just as thick on the ground these days, and that the story is a much more complex one than that.
D: So the last question here, and you’re starting to allude to it too, with the last statement. What can we learn about the immigrant experience, just through this one story. And how do we tie that into contemporary times.
B: For me, the lesson of John Day and for Lung On and Ing Hay, Marquis Tom, Two-gun Sam, Crazy Jane, all the others, is that each community has got to be seen as an individual case. Now there is room for generalization, no question about that. Ethnic identity is important and ethnic categories can explain events at times, but it’s also very very important to get beneath ethnic categorization and find individuals, and you’re not always going to like some of those individuals. There was a period of intense violence between Chinese groups in this period – Tong wars. And some of them were not nice men, there’s no question about that. The oppression of the first generation of Chinese women, in this country, by often, Chinese men, is not a happy story either. But when we get a longitudinal example like John Day, where we can follow Chinese immigrants from the 1960s up to the 1940s, tells a much more complex and rich story. It’s one that almost defies generalizations, so that I find that the book, “China Doctor of John Day,” has paradoxically done very well. It is the least scholarly book that my wife and I have written. I’ve written three others, she’s written several others, my reputation does not in any way as a scholar, hinge on “China Doctor of John Day” but year after year after year I talk to people in China and in the United States and by email, whose lives were changed by the book and by the example of Doc Hay. There is for example, in San Francisco, a medical practice called the Kam Wah Chung. It’s built around Doc Hay’s medical herbal prescriptions. And the individuals down there, for them, Doc Hay is just as alive as a medical practitioner as he is for me as a historian, or for…..