Joe Quin has a wholesale produce business at 431 Third Avenue, between Island Avenue and J Street. He and his family live above the lugs of vegetables and wooden produce crates of the business, as the Chinese have traditionally done. If you stand by the railroad tracks at the bottom of Third Avenue and look north, you will see his big, pale green house rising like a sugary birthday cake under the skyscrapers of downtown. On a safety fence around one of those skyscraper construction sites is a painted picture of Joe’s mother, part of a panorama of San Diego history. Just south of Joe’s house, where the industrial pipe-yard is, used to be the white frame house of his grandfather Ah Quin, who was one of the most important figures in San Diego’s Chinatown, seventy-five years ago. Joe Quin will tell you today that he lives in Chinatown, and it’s true, you can see all that remains of Chinatown from his house, but it’s a neighborhood of warehouses now — and Chinatown itself has become mostly a memory.
Ah Quin first arrived in San Diego in 1878, ten years after he left his home in Canton, China, and came to the United States. For several years he worked as a house servant and cook in San Francisco and then Santa Barbara, and for a year he cooked for a mining company in Alaska. He left San Diego soon after he arrived, but when he came back — with the encouragement of George Marston, whom he had met and impressed here — he stayed. That was in 1880, when there were only 8600 inhabitants of San Diego, including about 200 Chinese. Ah Quin became a spokesman for the Chinese community because he was one of the few who could speak English and, more importantly, because he was the only Chinese labor contractor in San Diego at a time when jobs were the only reason the Chinese were here.
The railroads were the main employer of Chinese laborers. Ah Quin worked for the California Southern Railroad during construction of the spur line from National City to San Bernardino — a distance of 116 miles — and an eighty-mile extension that intersected with the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad at Waterman Junction near Barstow. San Diego didn’t become the major transcontinental terminus as was once hoped — and the fact that Los Angeles did, permanently reversed the relative importance of the two cities — but completion of the railroad connected San Diego to the rest of the country and precipitated the first big boom period in San Diego’s history. A railroad rate war, which for a few heady days at its peak lowered the one-way fare from Missouri to one dollar, brought many new settlers to San Diego. In three years’ time, the population increased tenfold.
Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad between Ogden, Utah, and Sacramento had been accomplished largely by Chinese laborers, and the bulk of the laborers who cleared the roadbed, graded, and laid the track for the California Southern Railroad were also Chinese. Hundreds of them were hired and supervised by Ah Quin, who recruited them from China and elsewhere in California, arranged for their passage by steamer, dispatched them to construction sites, provided them with supplies from a store he set up on Fifth Street (now Avenue) in San Diego, and paid them their wages from the railroad payroll — amounting to, in 1882, $1.75 a day per man.
By 1884 the railroad work was done, and Ah Quin turned his attention to his general store, which he moved into the two-story frame dwelling (formerly a high-class house of ill repute called the Green Light) on Third Street. He also leased and owned farm land on Mt. San Miguel, in Sweetwater Junction and Bonita, and as far away as Los Angeles and San Bernardino. He went back to San Francisco to get married and he and his wife. Sue Leong, raised the first Chinese family in San Diego in that house on Third Street: Annie, George, Tom, Maggie, Lillie, Frank, Minnie, Henry, Violet, Mabel, Mary, and William McKinley. They were one of the first families in the entire city to install a telephone, and one of the first in Chinatown to have modern plumbing. Ah Quin was reportedly the richest Chinese in Southern California when, on February 7, 1914, he was hit by a motorcycle while carrying one of his grandchildren across Third Street near J, on the way to a party. He died the following day.
Tom Quin, the second son, was the most successful of Ah Quin's children, complete with cigar and chauffeur. The non-Chinese dubbed him the “Mayor of Chinatown’’; the Chinese said he controlled Chinatown. Frank and Henry went into mining. The oldest son, George — Joe Quin’s father — carried on the farming business. “He farmed in Santa Margarita,” his son Joe says, “what is now Camp Pendleton. He leased 300 acres and he grew everything — tomatoes, white rose potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots, com, cauliflower . . . everything. Truck farming. He had ten Chinese workers in charge of the farm; they were paid thirty dollars a month with meals. He had about thirty Mexican workers who earned a dollar a day and didn’t get meals but got a place to live.
“My father went to China to marry Mom. He told her that within three years they would go back to China. ’’ Joe smiles reflectively. “They never did go back. . . . Ever since I was small,” he adds, “I wanted to go back to China to study Chinese, and see what it was like. But Dad passed away when I was young. ” That was in 1930, when Joe was thirteen. “After he passed away my older sister ran the business here, and when I finished high school I took over. My older brother [the grandchild Ah Quin was carrying when he was fatally injured] tried it for a while but he didn’t do so hot.”