Murray Lee runs a finger across a family tree he’s displayed in the Chinese Historical Society Museum on Third Avenue downtown. On the left of the big white board, Lee taps at a solitary name, Ah Quin, a man from Canton, China, who moved to San Diego in 1880 and who, by the time he died in 1914, was the most influential Chinese in Southern California. (He died with $50,000 in his estate.) In a house on Third Street, Ah Quin raised the first Chinese family in San Diego. He named his children Annie, George, Mamie, Tom, Maggie, Lillian, Franklin, Minnie, Henry, Mary, Mabel, and McKinley. Murray Lee runs his finger across the family tree to the names of Ah Quin’s great-great-great-grandchildren, born in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Some of Ah Quin’s fifth generation,” says Lee, “may not even know that they have a famous Chinese ancestor.”
Lee, who serves as curator of Chinese American history at the museum, gives the impression of someone who takes pleasure in precision and order. Now retired, he worked much of his life as a cartographer for the U.S. government, managing the research and production of maps. Around him in the museum, his exhibit on the early history of Chinese in San Diego, In Search of Gold Mountain, is a tidy explanation illustrated with maps and pictures of Chinese migration from Guangdong Province. Lee shows how immigrants, particularly those from the Four Counties Area near Canton, made their way from China to San Francisco and southward to San Diego. Lee’s prose is lucid, his explanations clear. One photograph in the exhibit stands out from the others: Ah Quin surrounded by his mighty brood. Unlike other turn-of-the-century photographs that show stoic immigrants gazing stonily at the camera, Ah Quin’s isn’t grim. Someone must have said something funny just before the picture was taken. Ah Quin’s two oldest daughters are fighting off grins; his wife is too. Ah Quin’s own face is caught in a semi-smile: a man who named his son McKinley is someone who had a sense of humor.
Murray Lee isn’t related to Ah Quin. His interest in the “Mayor of Chinatown” is purely intellectual. Lee lived and worked in the Washington, D.C., area until he retired to San Diego in 1983, when he became involved in the local Chinese Historical Society. In many ways Lee is the local Chinese Historical Society. He edited the society’s newsletter and still writes much of what’s in it. Lee lugs slides of his In Search of Gold Mountain exhibit around town to colleges, universities, and high schools and lectures on its contents.
Talk off-the-record with other Chinese about the Chinese Historical Society Museum and you are lickety-split down the rabbit hole of what “Chinese” means. You hear talk of a power struggle. Taiwanese, you are told, aren’t much interested in the immigrant experience and want to turn the museum into a showcase of Chinese culture. There are, you are told, two kinds of Taiwanese: the Taiwanese-Taiwanese who immigrated to Taiwan four centuries ago and the mainland-Chinese-Taiwanese who, as Mao’s Communist victory rolled across China, came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1940s. While the Taiwanese-Taiwanese are content with their own identity, the mainland-Chinese-Taiwanese are self-consciously Chinese-in-exile, see themselves as an authentic remnant of what it means to be Chinese, and are therefore big promoters of Chinese culture. The mainland-Chinese-Taiwanese long for reunification with the mainland, their motherland. The Taiwanese-Taiwanese do not. There’s considerable friction, obviously, between the two groups. Moreover, the question of Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland is the central question to all Chinese — to all Chinese, that is, other than the American descendants of immigrants who, like Murray Lee, stand outside the fray with an amused calm.
Murray Lee doesn’t have a personal stake in the Taiwan question, as do other local Chinese, but he would like to see the wishes of those who live in Taiwan taken into consideration. If Taiwan does or does not reunify with the mainland is something for others to decide. As for whether or not Taiwanese from the mainland are trying to hijack the museum and turn it into a showcase for Chinese culture, Lee’s response is a shrug of his shoulders.
“Their own immigrant experience is so different from that of the Chinese who immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. They’re very well educated people. They’re professionals. They’re Mandarin speakers. They didn’t come to America to work in gold mines or build a railroad. Theirs is a whole other experience. They didn’t have to face the impact of discrimination and exclusion laws. Everyone needs to know about and recognize what the early immigrants had to face and how successful they were under trying circumstances. We can all share their early history with the same pride as we share our Chinese heritage and culture.”
In a roundabout way, Lee is addressing the problem of Chinese identity. Most Americans use the word “Chinese” as if it defined a homogeneous group, but “Chinese” is more imprecise than “Anglo” or “Hispanic,” for “Chinese” doesn’t even describe a people who share a common spoken language. At its most useful, “Chinese” describes someone who can trace his or her ancestry to China; beyond that the word offers few clues. For example, 75 percent of the people most San Diegans think of as “Vietnamese immigrants” are in fact hoa — ethnic Chinese, Cantonese-speakers, whose families settled in Vietnam in the late 1920s and ’30s. These people think of themselves as “Chinese,” but their experience of what that word means is worlds away from what “Chinese” means to a Taiwanese-Taiwanese who owns a successful biotech firm in Sorrento Valley. Or even from what “Chinese” means to Murray Lee.
Lee’s own family history — the Chinese history that fascinates him — is rooted in the Toishan District southwest of Canton and is therefore, in many ways, a typical Chinese American history. Until only very recently, the great majority of Chinese immigrants came from Guangdong Province, a part of southern China that, for historical reasons, has been exposed to Westerners and the West since the mid-18th Century. To talk then about “overseas Chinese,” or who the Chinese call “huaqiao,” is, generally, to talk about Southern Chinese, a regional group regarded by other Chinese as hardworking and industrious. A small corner of Guangdong Province, the Four Counties Area, yielded many of the immigrants who settled in California, including the well-known Hom family, which settled in San Diego. When people from the Four Counties Area speak Cantonese or Mandarin, the official language of mainland China, they speak with a strong rural accent.