After the discovery of gold in 1848, young Chinese males began a migration to “Gum Saan” — “Gold Mountain” — the name they gave California. A large majority were Cantonese. Wearing layers of clothing, they brought with them a bedroll and only those possessions that could be carried in bamboo baskets. They traveled from the Pearl River Delta to Hong Kong. An organization called the Six Companies paid their fare on a credit-ticket system. As with guilds, the organization provided work, housing, food, medical treatment, even legal representation. The immigrants had three years to repay the debt from their wages.
It’s hard to say how many planned to stay in California — or how many would go back to China, then return to California with a family or a new bride. According to the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, Chinese were banned from testifying against, and not allowed to marry, Caucasians; the ratio of Chinese men to women in “Gum Saan” was 20-to-1. Marriage was often the motive to make the trip home.
Young Ah Chee traveled to California in 1870. Throughout the crossing, he remained below decks in cramped quarters — with little food or water — amid the pervasive smells of bodily functions and seasickness. He disembarked at San Francisco, where customs officials searched for opium.
In the city, he met 19-year-old Tun Yow. An attraction grew, but she did not belong to the organization. A man named Ung Yu bought Tun Yow for $500 — he meant to take her to San Diego and make her his slave.
Instead of following his group to the gold fields or the Central Pacific Railroad, Ah Chee broke away. He asked friends to write him a letter of introduction: it concluded with the statement that Chee had “always been an honest, sober, and truthful fellow.” Ah Chee took the letter south in search of Tun Yow. He hired on as a cook at the Rufus Porter Ranch. Since the Porters worked 16-hour days, a full-time cook was a blessing.
Porter had bought the spread in 1865. He paid $300 for 160 acres and called it “San Jorge.” When his daughter Rufina objected to the pronunciation — “whore-hay” in Spanish — he changed the name to Spring Valley.
The two-room adobe ranch house was 32 feet long and 18 feet wide. Porter added two bedrooms, a dining room, and a kitchen. The timbers and a mahogany staircase came from the Clarissa Andrews, a coal steamer that had run aground at Ballast Point. Stairs led down to the “basement,” a hole in the ground where the Porters stored pans of milk and butter in brine — or sometimes fled to escape mosquitoes and biting flies. Two trap doors covered the basement’s entrance.
Since the ranch was ten rock-riddled miles from town, with no direct route, the ranch had few visitors. A frequent one was Alonzo Horton, founder of New San Diego in 1869. When his block-long, two-story Horton House was completed (where the US Grant Hotel now stands), Horton offered Ah Chee a job in the laundry.
Rufina Porter remembered Ah Chee as a fine cook and a “clean, reliable chap.” Since he had been a luxury, the Porters agreed to let him go. Ah Chee took the job at the hotel.
Less than 100 Chinese lived in San Diego in 1872, most either in a fishing village at La Playa or at the foot of Third Street, a location that Ah Chee may have visited often. On one such occasion, he saw Tun Yow. Love bloomed again.
But she was not free. Ung Yu had a brothel on Fourth Street. He ordered Tun Yow to be a prostitute, and when she refused, he beat her.
At first, Ah Chee was afraid to confront Ung Yu. Yu had many connections in the community and, writes the San Diego Daily Union, “would take powerful vengeance upon him.” But when the beatings continued, Ah Chee obtained a marriage license from the county clerk.
On Thursday evening, April 11, 1872, Ah Chee and Tun Yow went to the courthouse. The previous day, John R. Porter — Rufus Porter’s brother — and his wife Fanny had arrived at San Diego on the steamer Orizaba. John Porter became the local Justice, and in one of his first acts, secretly married Ah Chee and Tun Yow. To avoid suspicion, the couple agreed that she should remain at the brothel until they could take the next steamer to San Francisco.
But the marriage wasn’t a secret. The next day, the Daily Union announced in the “vital statistics” column that the wedding had taken place. Ung Yu read the paper and punished Tun Yow.
That night, desperate to free her, Ah Chee borrowed a carriage from Hinton & Gallagher’s livery stable, at the northeast corner of Second and D (Broadway). He asked a friend to drive to the brothel, pretend to be a customer, and sneak out Tun Yow. When they returned to the stable, they picked up Ah Chee, and the friend raced the carriage into the night.
Since a young Chinese couple was so easy to spot — especially with the young man’s shaved head and queue (a long braid down the back) — Ah Chee and Tun Yow imagined only one possible haven: the Porter Ranch. At the edge of town, the friend turned the rig north toward Mission Valley. They rode to an old creek bed (near today’s Highway 125), turned south, and followed the sycamore- and willow tree–lined ditch to the ranch.
At midnight, Rufus Porter heard footsteps on the porch, then a knock on his bedroom door. Frightened faces told all: the marriage, the escape, and the plea for sanctuary, since a posse would surely track them down.
Porter said he could not keep Tun Yow on the ranch, but the couple could stay the night: Porter would figure out something in the morning. He’d have to, Rufina remembered, because “there would be trouble.”
The next evening, Rufus Porter drove Ah Chee into town. They met with John Porter and discussed strategies.