Ah Quin and his wife, Sue Leong, had 12 children and lived in a two-story house on Third Street
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.
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.
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.
Map of Chinese quarter, 1912. Sharing the neighborhood with Seven Buckets of Blood and the Old Tub of Blood were the fan-tan (a counting game played with beans or coins and a bamboo stick) and lottery houses run by Chinese.
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.
Quon Mane & Company. "George Marston figured that my father's a pretty bright young fellow and encouraged him, ‘Quon, why don’t you go into business?’ "
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.”
Ah Quin's grave, Mount Hope Cemetery. Every 10 or 15 years, until the Chinese Communists took control of the country and forbade it, bones of immigrants were disinterred and shipped back to China for permanent burial.
Joe’s family had been living downstairs in Ah Quin’s house; after his father's death they used the insurance money to buy the property next door. His mother lived there, with Joe and his family, until she died a few years ago. Really, all that’s left of the original building is the decorative wooden lintel at the top. Years ago, Joe had the building jacked up, laid down a concrete foundation, stuccoed over the walls, and remodeled the upstairs.
Joe Quin is sixty-five now. His hair is steely gray, cropped short on the sides and brushed across the top of his head. His expression is somber in repose, but when he smiles his whole face dimples. He speaks English thickly, as do many American-born Chinese who grew up hearing more Chinese than English. His wife, a Chinese-Vietnamese whom he met in Hong Kong, helps wash and process the vegetables that they sell to hospitals and restaurants. Their daughters, one in high school and one in college, help too, but their oldest child, a son, doesn't like the work. As for Joe, he never tried anything else, except farming in the Tia Juana River Valley, which turned out to be too much of a gamble. “It’s all right. I had no training for anything else. It’s my dad’s business so I kept on.”
Standing outside the corrugated metal doors of his house, Joe points across the street. “There used to be a place over there,” he says, “that roasted a pig every week and sold the meat. It’s gone now.”
That was the hog house, a combination slaughterhouse for hogs and residence for Chinese. Until 1914 — before Joe’s time — a butcher used to slaughter hogs there almost daily, and prepare and cook the meat in a large scalding pot and an open fire hearth. Today, it is just one of the many underdeveloped lots slated for phase three of the Centre City Development Corporation’s Marina Housing Project. But seventy and more years ago, it was one of the clapboard or brick buildings in a four-block Chinatown of stores, homes, gambling rooms, and opium dens.
San Diego’s Chinatown was well established in Alonzo E. Horton’s New Town by 1872. Bounded originally by Island, K, First, and Third streets and eventually spilling beyond, it was in the southwest comer of the notorious Stingaree district that became the heart of the red-light district. Sharing the neighborhood with saloons such as the Seven Buckets of Blood and the Old Tub of Blood were the fan-tan (a counting game played with beans or coins and a bamboo stick) and lottery houses run by Chinese. Only a few steps separated the parlor houses and “stables” or “bull pen” (a double row of cubicles with names such as Rosie or Dolly over the doors) of the red-light district from the lodging houses and tenements of the Chinese. Throughout the area were dark, unventilated inside rooms with high levels of carbon dioxide, and many of the dwellings were shacks, with old hopper water closets, wooden sinks, cesspools under kitchen floors, and outhouses inside. Beginning around 1910, the city health department began inspecting, condemning, and removing some of the worst buildings. Cleanup intensified as the date for the opening of the 1915-1916 Panama-Califomia International Exposition approached, so the city could present the best possible image to the out-of-towners who would be coming in. Shortly before the exposition began, one of the largest gambling raids ever to take place in Chinatown startled both the Chinese and the normally indulgent non-Chinese populations.
Besides fan-tan, there were dice games and lots of other gambling games, all of them quick — not mahjong, which takes too long and is played for fun — but the lotteries were the biggest game in town. Tom Quin ran one of the main lottery houses, the Monkey King. Some of the other lottery houses located along Island and J streets between Second and Sixth were thinly disguised behind names like Hip Sing Herb Company. Lottery tickets — six-inch squares of rice paper that the Chinese called tickets and the non-Chinese called rice bonds — were sold on the premises and all over town by Chinese vegetable peddlers from their horse-drawn wagons. Ten cents could get you $2000: all you had to do was ink out the winning ten Chinese characters in an eighty-character poem. Drawings were held twice a day, at two or three in the afternoon and in the evening at nine. The tickets were stacked under a master ticket and a lever-operated punch punched out the winning spots. It was an honest game, impossible to rig.
When the subject comes up among Chinese who remember the Chinese lottery, this is what they say: “My father had a store-type of a thing on Second and J until ’32 . . . let’s call it merchandising.” “In those days everything was merchandising in front and the family lived in the back and they would sell lottery tickets. It wasn’t legal but there was no trouble as long as they paid the police off.” “They were forced to it. There were no jobs they could get . . . and if they wanted to go back to China, and they didn’t have the money ...” “Gambling and a few slot machines . . . that’s how people made a living.”
It’s not so easy to find people who remember, or will talk about, the opium dens or “ash places,” as the Chinese call them. They were private, not places everyone could go. Those who did would lie down on straw mattresses, pick up the long opium pipes, dip the needles into the yellowish-brown drug and slowly burn it to dried ash, and escape into a dream. Into the 1930s, and perhaps later, there were still Chinese who smoked opium in San Diego.
There were more legitimate businesses in Chinatown that, like the lottery, also offered a service to the larger community. One of these was the Chinese hand laundry. Chinese became laundrymen in the railroad and mining camps because it was easier work than hammering steel or digging dirt, or because it was a menial task relegated to them. Before there were enough of them in the camps, laundry was actually sent to China to be washed. Whether out of choice or necessity, they became proficient at the work and took it with them out of the camps and into the cities, where it didn’t take much capital to nail together a couple of boards and buy an iron. In 1887, seventeen of the twenty-three laundries in the city were operated by Chinese.
At that time there was no alternative to hand laundry, but even after there was, the Chinese continued to do their laundry by hand — washing, starching, buttoning all the buttons, folding, and ironing. Only a few of the larger laundries, like Hop Lee on Fourth between Island and Market or Kong Chong at Third and F or New Life which later moved to North Park where it still is, used machinery such as electric washers and steam presses. They became wholesale or “wet wash” laundries, doing the washing for smaller laundries and delivering the still-wet wash back to them for hand finishing. The handful of Chinese laundries that are left in the city today are scattered all over, and most of them send their wash out. Forty-five years ago, when a fifteen-year-old Chinese boy left Canton with five U.S. dollars in his pocket and arrived in San Diego without a penny, he might have gotten a job at Hop Lee Laundry, whose owner came from the same village as he did. The boy would have worked for six or seven hours after school, seven days a week, for four dollars a week. Eventually he would have gotten a raise, to seven dollars a week.
Chinese cooks also came to the city from the railroads and mines. By the 1870s they had acquired a certain prestige: it was considered better to have a Chinese cook than an Irish cook, for example. Some of them, and their cousins the houseboys, could become integral members of the household. Here is one published recollection: ‘ ’Chuck not only undertook the usual household duties of a cook, but got the kids ready for school and saw to it that they attended, did all the marketing, most of the laundry, and, in his spare time, taught the kids to play chess. The family belonged to him, and he saw to it that they met his standards.” The food that Chuck and others who worked in restaurants would have cooked was not Chinese, but American. One Chinese cook started cooking for the Navy: Gooey Quan, who is, as far as anyone seems to know, the oldest Chinese in San Diego. Ninety-four (Chinese) years old, he still goes every day to the Canton Cafe (Chinese & American Food), the restaurant on the southeast corner of Broadway and Ninth Avenue that he opened in 1957. For fifteen years before that, he was a first cook at Balboa Naval Hospital. Now his son Francis does the cooking while he sits and reads Chinese newspapers at the back of the restaurant, under a wall of photographs and certificates of merit brought from school by his grandchildren.
Another former Chinese cook, Paul Yee, learned his trade in Albany, New York, where his father ran a restaurant. He came to this country from Canton in 1915, at the age of fifteen. (He, like Gooey Quan, counts his age in the Chinese way, from the year he was born, 1901, and not from the first anniversary of his birth as Westerners do.) In the early years of the Depression there wasn’t enough business in Albany, so in 1932 he came to San Diego, where his father-in-law also had a restaurant. He started his own business in 1935, “a restaurant, because my trade is restaurants. I don’t know anything else. It was American cooking, ham and eggs, roast beef. At those times, Chinese food was a sideline, just a few items like chop suey, chow mein.” It wasn’t until 1955 that he had a “Chinese Chinese restaurant,” in Lemon Grove. Paul Yee is retired now and doesn’t cook at all, but he still helps out at the checkout stand of Woo Chee Chong. He’ll explain what tree ears are if you ask him, and he ’ll tell you how to cook them, too.
Jennings Hom of Woo Chee Chong.
The elite group of immigrant Chinese were always the merchants. They were intermediaries between the Oriental and Occidental communities, they were often labor contractors and money lenders, and they were exempt from much of the discriminatory legislation against the Chinese laborers. One of the first old-time groceries was Woo Chee Chong. Now it s a chain of Oriental supermarkets, incorporated since 1970 with Jennings Hom and his wife Mary the sole stockholders. Jennings Hom describes the old days almost as though he were there. “We had a cracker-barrel store, 450 Island. A place where people hang out, have tea, and b.s. They might sell rice in straw bags tied with tin straps, from China. We sold fermented black beans and salted cabbage and Chinese staples and spices and things like that. “
Jennings Hom looks too young to have so much white hair mixed in with the black, and a boyishness in his face belies the creases that deepen around his mouth when he smiles. He is, in fact, too young to be remembering the beginning. “It was 1899. My father came from Canton when he was seventeen. The partnership — distant relatives — already existed. I don’t know why they started or how they started.
“My father made trips back to his old home, got married, left his wife there, went back, brought her over and started a family. I'm born here. I’m the oldest living child ... I’m fifty-eight. I was born in 1924.
“We lived down on Third Avenue above the old store when we were growing up. I worked part-time in high school and college. Just before I graduated we built a new building on the comer of Third and Island, 472. We were there until '64, when we designed and built this place (at 633 16th Street, between Market and G). Chula Vista, our largest store, opened in 1974. My son Jeffrey opened up the store on Convoy (in Kearny Mesa). After a year or so we had him come back here to help set up the computers. ’’
Six of the eight children of Jennings and Mary Hom are involved in Woo Chee Chong and it seems a safe guess that there will be Homs at Woo Chee Chong when its hundredth anniversary comes around. None of the other old-time Chinese groceries made the transition from family business to corporate business, nor did the grocery families successfully pass the interest on from generation to generation. Gim Wing, for example, the store that was right next to the Woo Chee Chong at 450 Island, and that was established a year earlier. The two used to share a wooden sidewalk. Gim Wing is gone now. So is the Chinese-American Market that was at Fifth and Island after World War II.
Among all of San Diego’s Chinese merchants, though, the winner of the longevity award is Quon Mane, an Oriental art goods business that started in Chinatown and branched out as far as Del Mar. The last Quon Mane store is in La Jolla, run by Lenora Quon. Lenora Quon's brother-in-law closed his store some years ago, but he readily tells how it all started. He speaks English carefully and deliberately and has a charming, dry laugh that shows his teeth like ivory lozenges. He is seventy-four. “We belonged to a very poor family in Canton. They heard about the United States, the Gold Mountain, so they came here to earn a living. My father was supposed to come to work for the railroad in 1881 but he found out, no jobs. The railroad was just about finished, so no hiring. He heard down here at Coronado Island — it was all bushes — they planned a building, the Coronado Hotel. They hired a crew of Chinese to clear the bushes. After they finished he found a job in a family as houseboy. That was George Marston’s mother. He learned his English from Mrs. Marston She was a very religious lady, and she taught him how to read bibles. He worked for them a few years, and he picked up English very fast. Mr. George Marston figured that he’s a pretty bright young fellow and encouraged him, ‘Quon, why don’t you go into business?’ So he quit, went back to China, that’s when he got married, and when he came back after a year or so he formed a partnership with his four brothers to import and sell Oriental goods. That was 1888. It was way down below Market Street, at Fifth and Island. Gradually, when business got a little better, each time they moved to a better location, always on Fifth. Fifth Avenue was always the main street.
“We were the only Chinese in business uptown for a long time. Our trade was generally the Western people, not the Chinese.”
Quon Mane was the principal Chinese import business in San Diego during the 1935-1936 California-Pacific International Exposition and they had a booth in Balboa Park. “There were very few Chinese booths because no one in Chinatown was importing. I saw two people, one they call him Fu. He specialized in soapstone imports.”
That was my father’s uncle, who came from Chekiang Province for the exposition. Ben Quon remembers him. “He always went down to Chinatown. He learned to speak our dialect. He loved to play mahjong.” My father also had a booth at the exposition, but Ben Quon may not have known him because they didn’t speak the same dialect.
My father, like most of the Chinese who came before him to this country, always intended to go back to China one day. Sojourners, they are called, or “birds of passage.” They made no great commitment to becoming Americanized, and received little encouragement to do so. Because they expected to return home, because they had no money to bring their families here, and because the U.S. immigration laws prohibited the entry of their wives and children, my father and the others, whether married or single, came alone. They made trips back to China to marry and have children, then came back to the U.S. to work. (In those days of arranged marriages, the immigration laws could be a convenient excuse for leaving a wife you didn’t love without “losing face.”) As long as they were in the U.S. they sent money home — for five, ten, twenty, even forty years or more. Some were eventually able to bring their wives here, or some of their children. Others died here alone and were buried in the Chinese section of Mt. Hope Cemetery; and every ten or fifteen years, until the Chinese Communists took control of the country and forbade it, their bones were disinterred and shipped back to China for permanent burial, so they got home that way. But many went back alive, and enough of them with gold in their pockets or stories of gold in the streets to encourage others to come.
The signs of the work they did while they were here are generally gone. Who remembers that the Chinese constituted ninety percent of the early cigarmaking industry in San Diego, or that the Chinese farmers introduced intensive irrigation methods to the then-undeveloped agricultural industry in California? All the old Chinese herbalists are gone. (The last ones had a large clientele — much of it Mexican and not much Chinese because, as someone who knew them said, “The Chinese people knew that they . . . didn’t exactly graduate . . . didn’t have the right training.”) Even the Chinese fishermen, who were the first in San Diego and who dominated the industry — the biggest on the West Coast — for more than fifteen years, quite suddenly and thoroughly vanished.
Chinese were fishing sporadically off the coast of San Diego as early as the 1850s, but it was during the Civil War that the first fishermen settled here. They were fishermen from the Pearl River Delta in Kwangtung Province, but had come to the United States for gold. They usually retreated from the discrimination of the American and European miners to stake only the more meager claims, and by the mid-1860s, as gold dust was getting as hard to find as gold nuggets, they left the gold fields. Heading south, some looked for gold in San Diego’s back country, while others discovered at the water’s edge an empty economic niche they were allowed to fill for a while.
Rough redwood shacks, some of them perched on stilts, were erected in two fishing colonies: one on San Diego Bay along the New Town waterfront near the bottom of First Street; and the other across the bay at Roseville near what was then the mouth of the San Diego River, and where the San Diego Yacht Club is today. Fishing junks were built of California redwood with masts and rudders of iron wood imported from China. Smaller, flat-bottomed sampans were also made locally.
The junks sailed out of the harbor as far north as Monterey and as far south as Cabo San Lucas, while the sampans stayed in the bay. Fine-meshed, bag-shaped seines were swept across the bay from end to end and caught nearly everything in it. Large fish were peddled door-to-door from baskets suspended from bamboo poles slung across shoulders, their heavy weight requiring a smooth, low gait. Fish too small to be sold fresh were salted in brine, dried for days on large wooden drying racks, and consigned to local merchants who shipped them to San Francisco for distribution throughout California and export back to China. Nets were stretched across the mouths of rivers. Mudflats along the bay were scoured. Hook and line was used in the kelp beds offshore for shark — a food item so remarkable to Westerners that it inspired this comment in the San Francisco Bulletin: “Even the fins of the shark are eaten by Chinamen, and are by them esteemed to be a great delicacy — as much of a delicacy as a Chinaman would be to a shark.”
The best crop was the abalone, which the Roseville fishermen took in their sampans, prying the abalone from the bottom with sharpened metal trowels. Sometimes the abalone resisted being taken; as one San Diegan recalled, “A Chinaman was fishing for abalone off Pt. Loma and it clamped on his hand and he didn’t have sense enough to take a rock and break it and he drowned. They found him clamped to a rock there. ” By 1880 the Chinese were harvesting 700 tons of it annually, solely for export — for in those days, Americans didn’t eat abalone. An Easterner, Charles Nordhoff, advised that abalone meat was “as much tougher than that of Long Island quahaug as that is tougher than an old boot.”
When fishermen of other ethnic groups, such as the Italians and Portuguese, began arriving in San Diego, tolerance of the Chinese fishermen declined. Several years earlier, the Chinese had been criticized for depleting the bay by taking too-small fish in their fine-meshed nets. Now complaints appeared in the San Diego Union about the smelly boats and drying racks of the Chinese, and their unsightly piles of garbage. The final, fatal blows came as legislation: the Scott Act of 1888 prohibiting re-entry to any laborer who was a noncitizen (and Asians were not allowed citizenship) if he passed the three-mile territorial limit of the U.S.; and the McCreary Amendment to the Geary Act of 1892 classifying as laborers all takers of fish, who until then had generally been accepted as merchants and thus not subject to the Scott Act. In 1886 there were eighteen Chinese junks; in 1888 there were thirteen; in 1890 there were six; and in 1916 there was only one, manned by only one fisherman. A few of the fishermen stayed to fish from shore, some went back to China or up north, and most of the rest went into truck gardening in Mission and Sweetwater valleys. The junks were used for hauling, or for smuggling illegal Chinese aliens from Ensenada.
As for the fishing industry, it dropped off until canneries were built in the 1890s, enabling San Diego to ship fish all over the country. By about 1910 Portuguese fishermen had moved into the abandoned redwood shacks at Roseville and established the tuna industry. And the tracks of the Chinese fishermen disappeared so completely that in 1936 the San Diego Union reported on the city’s “new” business of gathering abalone and shipping it to the Orient.
The immigration laws that eradicated the Chinese fishing industry were two in a host of local, state, and national anti-Chinese laws that came and went with the social, political, and economic winds of change in the United States and Europe as well; while the circumstances of Chinese emigration to the United States from Canton were several, the most complicated of which stems not from China nor from the United States, but Britain and the British thirst for Chinese tea.
The British began buying and paying for tea with silver in the mid-Seventeenth Century. The British East India Company had a monopoly on all trade with China until 1834, but private British merchants began smuggling in opium from India long before then, and by the 1820s opium addiction among the Chinese had taken hold and grown like a cancer. China's attempt to suppress this smuggling led to the first Opium War of 1839-1842, after which China was forced to concede additional coastal ports (Canton had been the only port open to foreign trade). The second Opium War of 1858-1860 made the importation of opium into China legal. Soon the Chinese were buying more opium than they were selling tea and the British began shipping their excess silver back home. There was no fixed exchange rate and so, as silver became scarcer in China, the amount of Chinese copper needed to buy British silver rose. The effect on the economy of southern China was ruinous.
Furthermore, overpopulation and a series of devastating floods and droughts in the southeastern provinces of Kwang-tung and Fukien from 1846 to 1850 caused widespread famine. Internal political turmoil in the last decades of the corrupt and declining Ch’ing Dynasty made life for the Chinese peasant unusually unpredictable and perilous. Emigration, especially to the Gold Mountain, represented escape from starvation at home and the promise of wealth, prestige, and power that could be brought back home to China. Desperation made acceptable the price they had to pay for that promise — leaving home and family, weeks of seasickness in filthy steerage quarters, and the “Chinaman’s chance” that welcomed them when they arrived.
Meanwhile, the new broom of emancipation that was sweeping slavery out of European colonies only made room for cheap, exploitable foreign labor. Chinese seeking money and opportunity signed up “voluntarily” as indentured laborers and were sent to European colonies all over the world. This “coolie” trade (in Chinese, ku-li means bitter strength) was really no better than the African slave trade but sounded less bad. California’s demand for a large labor force to develop its natural resources in the 1840s and after led to the introduction of Chinese labor under contract, according to one historian, “as an alternative by which benefits of slavery might be enjoyed without some of the external appearance of the system.” So the Chinese came, in the 1840s, increasing in number in the Fifties, through the Sixties, and in a great wave in the middle Seventies.
The gold rush. At the beginning of 1849 there were only 26,000 people in California, excluding Mexicans and Indians (American immigration to California had begun only in the 1820s). By summer, there were 50,000; by the end of the year, about 115,000. About 20,000 of these were foreigners, and the Chinese were the most numerous of them. By 1852, more than 20,000 Chinese had entered the state; and by 1860 one of every ten in California was Chinese, almost 35,000. In 1870 the number had increased to nearly 50,000 (of a total of 56,000 Chinese in the U.S., only 500 were east of the Rockies); and in 1880, 75,000. (Nearly all of these were men; in 1890, there were twenty-seven Chinese men to every Chinese woman in the U.S.) Official reaction generally paralleled public opinion. Governor Stanford, who made a fortune as a coolie importer, called them “peaceable, industrious and economical, apt to learn and quite as efficient as white laborers” although he also said of them, before he entered the trade, “The presence among us of numbers of degraded and distinct people must exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race. ...” Hard times stimulated anti-Chinese sentiment; when depression, recession, and unemployment intensified, the Chinese became scapegoats: they worked too hard for too low wages, they sent their money back to China, they took away the white man’s job. Legislation against the Chinese began as early as 1852, when a foreign miner’s tax was levied only against the Chinese in California. There was some legislation benefiting the Chinese — most notably, the 1868 Burlingame Treaty between the U.S. and China (suspended in 1881), which allowed the people of both countries to emigrate freely; but such friendly legislation was far outweighed by hostile laws. The 1878 California Constitution prohibited Chinese from entering California, from owning land or real estate, and from government employment; and in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of new Chinese laborers into the entire country. The exclusion act was the first instance of significant immigration restriction in American history, and remained in effect for sixty-one years. For many of those years the Chinese, and only the Chinese, were not allowed to bring a wife from their native land back to the U.S., and all American men or women who married a Chinese lost their U.S. citizenship. Chinese who lived in the U.S. were not allowed to become citizens until World War II.
The Chinese and Japanese do sort of look alike. Tom Hom recalls that during the war, ‘‘The Chinese walked around with little badges saying, ‘I’m Chinese.’"
Tom Hom, realtor and developer, and former city councilman and state assemblyman, recalls, “When I was in the state assembly (with) March Fong ... we had our staff gather some of the old, obsolete anti-Chinese laws — there weren't many other antiracial laws except the Chinese — maybe fifty to one hundred, packaged all in one bill, in one clean sweep we just eradicated them from the books. Some were so ridiculous, even unconstitutional, but they were there. Certain cities passed ordinances where people of Chinese background had to be indoors at sunset except if you were on a domestic errand or something — the Chinese sunset law.”
San Diego never had the concentration of Chinese that San Francisco or Los Angeles had, and did not experience as much violence against the Chinese as those cities did. There were local discriminatory ordinances, but not as many as in San Francisco; and there were attacks on Chinese, but never a riot on the scale of the 1871 massacre in Los Angeles when a white mob lynched nineteen Chinese. An attack on Chinatown in San Diego was planned in the summer of 1877, the day after an anti-Chinese riot had taken place in San Francisco. The country was in a depression and California was suffering its worst drought in twenty-five years. Sheriff Joseph Coyne learned of the planned attack and formed a “committee on public safety,” who paraded through town armed with rifles and cavalry revolvers and successfully squelched the would-be attackers. Both newspapers in town supported the California Constitution of 1878 which prohibited the Chinese from immigration and government employment. Stores advertised that they refused to hire Chinese. And on March 4, 1882, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce held a demonstration at Horton Hall in support of the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S., and asked stores and businesses to express their support by closing that day. The resultant alarm among the city's Chinese caused their population to decrease from 1000 in 1882 to 300 in 1883.
“The Chinese Must Go!’’ was the slogan of Denis Kearney and his Workingmen’s Party in the mid-1870s, when anti-Chinese hostility was soaring. Kearney, who emigrated from Ireland, was a member of the other large immigrant group in California, with whom the Chinese were usually competing for jobs at the lowest level of the economic scale. One San Diegan’s experience suggests that those early racial differences were still reverberating surprisingly recently: she was a young girl in the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s in an East San Diego neighborhood that was “conservative Irish Catholic, with several Chinese families and one Jewish family — ours. The Irish kids told us they were not allowed to go to the houses of the Chinese kids.” On the other hand, when I saw Tom Hom in his real estate office in North Park a few weeks ago, he asked me, ‘‘Where's your green?”
I thought he meant my jade, the Chinese talisman. “No,” he said, ‘‘it’s St. Patrick’s Day.”
Tom Hom is a Chinese American, but his children are part Irish, as his wife Dorothy is one-quarter Irish. His father came from Canton in 1914, started a produce business next to Chinatown in San Diego in 1920, went back to China and married, and brought his wife here. They had five children, and then she died; he went back to China and remarried, brought his second wife back, and had seven more children. Tom Hom, who is fifty-five, was the third oldest child. He contracted tuberculosis while working long hours among wet vegetables at his father’s produce company; ten years later, in 1962, he was running for state assembly. He looks quietly prosperous, has a small, neat mustache, and tends to twinkle when he makes a point. ‘‘I was the first minority to run for office in this town,” he says proudly. His children, he believes, ‘‘have the best of both worlds. I figure, if fifty percent of your kids marry Chinese, that’s pretty high.”
World War II was the watershed for the Chinese in San Diego and the rest of the country, when suddenly there were enough jobs for everyone — and the Japanese were bad guys and the Chinese were good guys. Of course, the Chinese and Japanese do sort of look alike. Tom Hom recalls that during the war, ‘‘The Chinese walked around with little badges saying, ‘I’m Chinese.’ I was a little kid then. We used to wear them. Our Caucasian friends wanted us to wear them. Sailors and so forth would abuse the kids. The Japanese had to leave the coast so there were no Japanese here, but a lot of sailors were shipped out here, they were not aware of these things. I used to sell magazines then. Sailors would say, ‘Are you Chinese or Japanese?’ “I’m Chinese. “ ‘Okay, I’ll buy one.” Tom Hom laughs heartily then adds, seriously, ‘‘A business might have a sign, ‘This establishment run by Chinese.’ Otherwise their windows might be smashed in. Emotions were high.”
About the racial covenant laws, prohibiting Chinese and other minorities from buying real estate, Tom Hom says, “In 1947 the Supreme Court ruled they were invalid, but they persisted until maybe the middle Fifties. Even your title company up to the middle or late Fifties, if you were Chinese buying in a so-called restricted area, you needed to sign a waiver to the title insurance company waiving them from responsibility in insuring that title.
“My family first owned property in 1947. We had a good friend who was a real estate broker, he found us a house in North Park. That Caucasian friend went around the neighborhood with my mother, introducing her. Her English was very limited at that time, just Hello, Thank you. The next door neighbors tried to get a petition to enforce the covenant law but the other neighbors weren’t interested, so we stayed there. My mother lived there until she died last year.”
He continues philosophically, “Society had a ‘place’ for each one and they felt comfortable in their place, it was quite broad, it wasn’t like a prison. You couldn’t buy a house but there were many other things you could do. You couldn’t intermarry, but who wanted to intermarry? People didn’t want to intermarry.”
Some Chinese living in the U.S. did want to intermarry and, since California’s miscegenation law persisted until 1948, Chinese Californians had to leave the state in order to intermarry. Circumvention of that law was relatively easy — all it required was crossing the border of the state and continuing until they reached a state that did allow them to marry. It was the immigration law that was harder to circumvent, and the law prohibiting Asians from citizenship that seemed impossible to get around. As it turned out, there were two ways of getting around even these laws.
The first way was to be born in the San Francisco fire of 1906. Because court records of all sorts, such as birth certificates, were burned, any Chinese who claimed that he had been born in San Francisco prior to the fire could not be disproved. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1898 that a person born in the U.S. to Chinese parents is an American, those Chinese were legally citizens. ’
The second way was to go back to China. Because of a constitutional amendment conferring citizenship to a person born in China of a Chinese who had established residence in the U.S. prior to 1882, any Chinese who qualified could visit China and. upon his return, declare that he had one, two, or more children born there during his stay. Those children, being legally Americans, were entitled to immigrate.
What resulted was a couple of generations of “paper sons’’ with assumed “paper names.” Those Chinese “born” in the San Francisco fire could apply for immigration papers for their children in China; along with the Chinese who were U.S. residents, they also could apply for immigration papers for children born on subsequent trips back to China. Some of these Chinese accumulated papers for children they didn’t have, while many who had children in China had no legal way to bring those children over. So those with papers sold them to relatives or close friends who had no papers, for two or three thousand dollars. The papers were almost always for sons. But Hom, who has lived in San Diego since 1932, was born in Canton in 1897, married there, and had two children there — a boy and a girl. “I reported just one son,” he says. “I got one daughter. Not worth nothing. I didn’t report her.” Immigration officials noticed that the Chinese seemed to have more sons than daughters — about 400 to one. One Chinese-American boy in San Diego is fifth-generation in this country, and yet he was the first in his family born in the U.S. His great-great-grandfather, who worked in the gold mines, was one of the first Chinese to come to California, about 125 years ago; his great-grandfather was “born” in the San Francisco fire; his grandfather farmed in Chula Vista; and his father worked in a Chinese laundry on Fourth Street. They all returned to China to marry and have children; and his mother was the first woman in the family to enter the U.S.
A paper son who came over had, of course, to suppress his own name and assume the name on the paper, and his children would have this paper name, and his children’s children. The relatively few women came over the same way. Some men bought paper names of daughters to bring their wives over, and then “married” them here. Those who came over were interrogated in an effort to ascertain that they were truly the sons that they were supposed to be. They were kept penned up and guarded while their identity was determined, and if their answers didn’t jibe with those of their “fathers,” they were deported.
Certainly a majority of the Chinese who came here between 1882, when the exclusion act took effect, until sometime in the 1930s came under these circumstances. It was, for them, the only way. In 1955, the U.S. government confronted the fact of all these “modified” or false papers and decided that any Chinese who admitted that their citizenship was based on fiction could confess, rescinding that claim. Their citizenship would be revoked but they would not be deported, and could apply for citizenship under their own names. While there were persecutory aspects to this ruling and its enforcement, for those Chinese who regretted the loss of their own names and dreaded being found out, it was something like clemency. Many Chinese in San Diego, and all over the country, went through the process; they are called tan ba, confessed.
Early immigration officers were struck by the fact that all Chinese seemed to have the same names. The paper-name phenomenon accounted for some of the similarity, since the relatively few Chinese who went back to China had a disproportionately large number of “sons” who came here next. Furthermore, in the early days of open immigration, many of the Chinese who came did have the same names, because they came from the same or neighboring villages. Many small villages in China are clans, with people of the same surname descended from a common ancestor. Their relationships to each other may no longer be identifiable, but their ties are strong, second only to family. Often, the names were even more similar than they seemed. The common San Diego Chinese names of Hom, Tom, and the less common Tam are all the same name, given different spellings according to how immigration clerks understood their pronunciation. Thus, Joe Quin, Jennings Hom, Tom Hom, and Yut Hom are not related to one another. Joe Quin? “Ah Quin’s name was Tom Ah Quin,” says Paul Yee (who is himself married to a Hom, and whose daughter-in-law is the daughter of a Tom and owns Tom Lai’s Restaurant). “Tom is the family name, not Quin. They lost the Tom.”
Many new Chinese names have come to San Diego since the liberalized Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The new Chinese are from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, and Vietnam and Cambodia. More of them speak Mandarin than Cantonese, and tend to be professionals rather than peasants. They have increased the number of San Diego Chinese to an all-time high, nearly 10,000. With few exceptions, they don’t live in Chinatown, and they don’t seek out the services of the traditional associations that once held center stage in the Chinese community.
Bing Kong Tong and Ying-On Labor and Merchants Association are the two Chinese fraternal associations, or tongs, in San Diego. Their original functions were similar to those of their branches elsewhere, but always on a smaller scale. They gave assistance to new arrivals, extended protection and a system of justice to those who were here, might lend money to start a business or in case of emergency, and organized criminal activities.
Bing Kong Tong is on the southeast comer of Third and Island, one pipe-storage-yard north of Joe Quin’s house. It’s a long, low building of hollow-tile construction that stretches along Island, with eight doors and nine windows. The pale mustard yellow paint and turquoise trim is faded, and the asphalt walk in front of the building is broken up and overgrown. Seven Chinese single people or families live inside, renting their quarters from the association. Ying-On, diagonally across the street, is a two-story pale yellow building with dark green trim; it has a green balcony with green wrought-iron railing and red tile roof. The building is better kept than Bing Kong Tong, but, except for a caretaker, it is empty.
Chinese Social Services Center building on Third was constructed in 1911 to house the local Chee Rung Tong — the old Chinese political tong (later a secret society) that plotted Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 overthrow of the Ch’ing Dynasty.
The Chinese Social Service Center is back down Third, directly opposite Joe Quin’s house. Architecturally, it is built in the same Spanish Colonial Revival style as Ying-On. The center is a narrow, two-story brick building with a beige stucco facade, and has a shallow wooden balcony with an iron balustrade and red tile roof. The building actually belongs to the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, or Chung Hwa Hui Kuan. The building was constructed in 1911 to house the local Chee Rung Tong — the old Chinese political tong (later a secret society) that plotted Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 overthrow of the Ch’ing Dynasty and establishment of the Republic of China. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association took over the building in 1930 as the representative body of Nationalist Chinese government in San Diego. It is said that the Kuomintang in Taiwan controlled the Chinese Chung Hwa in San Francisco and that San Francisco controlled all the other Chung Hwas on the West Coast. Like the fraternal associations, their usefulness decreased after World War II, when anti-Chinese restrictions had diminished considerably. Nowadays, the San Diego Chung Hwa is active only at the Chinese New Year, when they organize lion dances, and Ting Ming, the Chinese memorial day (April 11 this year), when respects will be paid to dead ancestors and a roast pig eaten at Mt. Hope Cemetery. As Jennings Hom, who is the current president, says, “It’s supposed to be an organization all Chinese belong to whether they pay their dues or not. No one has paid dues for I don’t know how many years. We could ask them to pay their dues, but you’ll spend more on gas trying to get them to pay. . . .
“The needs of the people are different now,” he explains. “In the old days, newly arrived immigrants were very insecure, they didn’t know the language. So they needed someone to look after them. They came into Chinatown, where people could understand them. If they had problems they had their elders, they had their associations, their Chung Hwas. Now the second, third generations are confident and capable of taking care of their own needs. They see their attorney.
“Several years ago it was decided that this Chung Hwa was going to be apolitical. I think the Nationalists would still like to influence the Chung Hwa. We care less. I am neither for nor against any political party. To me, they’re all Chinese. Earlier, someone would say, ‘Hey, Nixon recognized Red China, let’s take down the Nationalist flag and put up the Red Chinese flag.' We decided, take down all the flags. Either the American flag or no flag.’’ The flagpole is empty.
The Chinese Social Service Center, established in 1972, performs many of the functions that the Chung Hwa used to, but there are limits to what it can do. The center has had a succession of directors, usually graduate students who stay for a year or so and then move on. Daniel Chart has been the director since December. He is working on a Ph.D. dissertation on the mental health of Chinese Americans and goes to school full time and works at the center full time — which, because of a forty-five percent budget cut from last year, is now only four days a week. The rest of the staff consists of Helen Sue, officer manager, who has worked there for seven years; and Linda Chun, community aide, who has been there two years. Only Helen Sue (who doesn’t read Chinese) speaks Toisan, the dialect of Cantonese that most of the early Chinese in San Diego, and now the old-timers, speak. But English is her first language, not Chinese. “They tell me my Chinese is much better than seven years ago,” she admits with a smile. The staff members, despite their different job descriptions, provide the same services; and though they have their own caseloads, they fill in for each other when necessary. They take their clients to the welfare department on Ruffin Road and to the social security office on F Street, interpret and translate for them, and help them fill out forms. That is about all they can do.
“We have no time,” says Daniel Chan regretfully, “to do any therapy here. ’’ As far as he knows it’s never been part of the services provided by the center, though he feels there is a need. However, he says, “the Chinese here, and in general, are reluctant to admit they have emotional needs. They hold things in, especially family problems, or think they can resolve them by talking among the family. They consider it a sign of weakness to seek help from outsiders.’’
How many Chinese are there left downtown? “I don’t know,” says Daniel Chan. “I have no idea,’’ says Linda Chun. “We never have taken a census,’’ says Helen Sue. The Chinese all know the center is there, and those who want their services come in to ask for them, or ask that they come to them. Many but by no means all of the Chinese living downtown do come in — as often as three times a week. Even those who have relatives, children, living in San Diego that they don’t see very often. The center is closer. “What no one else wants to do,” says Helen Sue cheerfully, “they put on us to do.’’
The Chinese Social Service Center is open Tuesday through Friday. On Saturdays the Chinese meet downstairs, alternate weeks, at the senior citizens club or the women’s club. They converse, have lunch, and some stay to play mahjong. Occasionally there is a guest speaker. About sixty-five attended a recent meeting of the seniors club at which a Mandarin speaker talked about cemetery plots. Her audience was polite at first, then restive, and the sound of the mahjong tiles started before she had stopped. Paul Yee, who is president of the seniors club, commented, “The Chinese are very superstitious. They don’t want to buy a cemetery plot ahead of time.’’
A number of the seniors come from the twin towers a block away: Horton House and Lions Community Manor, side-by-side subsidized high-rise housing projects for senior citizens. Among them is Winnie Chu, who only moved to San Diego a year or so ago. Retired now and nearly sixty-eight, she is a graduate of the University of Nanking in central China, and worked for the ministry of foreign affairs in Taiwan and the U.S. — including a stint as vice-consul in Mexicali. She speaks Mandarin and English, and is something of a “Chinese ambassador" at Lions Community Manor, where about a dozen Chinese live. Next door, about thirty Chinese live in Horton House, with a “Chinese representative” who is the counterpart of Winnie Chu, also Mandarin speaking, also retired from government service. He has children living in San Diego, and moved here about ten years ago.
On Sunday those who are Christians can attend one of a number of Chinese churches in San Diego. The first and most important of these is the Chinese Community Church, which began in 1885 as the Chinese Mission School. The original location was on the comer of 13th and F streets. Volunteers taught reading, writing, and speaking of English, and gave religious instruction. For most Chinese immigrants to San Diego this was the only English class available. In 1901 the mission moved closer to Chinatown, to 663 First Street, between Market and G; and in 1907 it moved next door to 643 First, onto property owned by George Marston. Now it was a real gathering place, especially for the women, who had no place else to meet. There was a dormitory on the premises, so rooms were available, usually for young men newly arrived from China. Gradually, it became the focal point for social activity; almost all the Chinese in the community participated in at least some of the functions. By the 1950s the church facilities had become too cramped and, since most of the families had moved out of Chinatown, the church moved too — to 1750 47th Street, in East San Diego. Although the location is less accessible for some, it is somewhere close to the geographic center of the Chinese community as it has spread out into the suburbs, and the church is still a center of organized activity.
Robert Fung, who was pastor of the church during the 1950s and is now assistant pastor, gives an example of the reciprocal relationship that the church has always shared with the Chinese in San Diego: “Many of the restaurant owners came over as single men, and they were counseled and helped by the mission in terms of learning English and all that. Many of them now are very prosperous. They don’t come to church but they support the church in terms of money. Whenever we have any need they help.” The present pastor, Karl Fung, says of the church’s future, “We will pray ... we will celebrate our hundredth birthday — the Chinese are a very celebrative people — we will increase our membership.”
Church services have always been bilingual, English and Chinese, and they still are, but English language classes lapsed sometime during the transition from mission to church. Since 1970 there has once again been a language school at the church. The Chung Hwa School has classes twice a week, in language and cultural history. Instead of English, however, it is Chinese that is taught — Mandarin and Cantonese, and Chinese culture. The complaint is no longer “My father spoke English brokenly ” or “I wish I spoke English better,’* but “My oldest son spoke Chinese until he went to school one year — that’s all it takes, one year . . There are Chinese living in San Diego for forty, fifty years, and more, who don’t yet speak enough English to “get by” and never will; they will be sojourners until the end. Others have made the adjustment needed to be at home here.
Paul Yee, a dapper, energetic man who reminds you of a smaller, slighter Burt Lancaster, speaks English in quick-bursts, idiosyncratically but well. He is a past president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, was the first scoutmaster of a Chinese boy scout troop in San Diego (‘‘All the boys around fifty years old are my boy scouts.”). He describes his arrival in the U.S., when he was fifteen. “I just knew a couple of words [of English]. I was sent parcel post to Albany. They tied a tag on me. They picked me up in Chicago, took me up to the office, then someone else took me down to the train, sent me up to Albany, they telephoned my father, and he came and picked me up.”
Tom Hom was born in San Diego, but didn’t learn to speak English at home. ‘‘Myself and my older brothers, like a lot of kids growing up in Chinatown, we didn’t know any English until we went to school. That’s where we learned English. I can’t recall I personally had any difficulty because the teacher would motion things. We learned quickly.”
Jennings Hom, also born in San Diego, remembers differently. “I didn’t learn English until I went to kindergarten, and that was a terrible experience, because I wanted to go to the bathroom and you don't go until recess unless you raise your hand. What do you do? So you raise your hand. I was too dumb to point my finger to the bathroom.”
The third generation jokes about it. Attorney Ronald Chan says he is called “a banana — yellow on the outside, white on the inside. ” And his kids “brought home a new one for the Caucasians at language school: an egg — white on the outside, yellow on the inside.”
Ben Quon says, “No, I don’t think it’s Chinatown [anymore]. No use to call it Chinatown. There’s no business. You just name me a business. ” Chinatown has gotten smaller and smaller. You can see this by the faded signs, Chinese signs, on buildings that were businesses but became warehouses and storerooms, or are no longer in use. But it’s still home to Chinese, even though no one knows how many; and it still houses memories of fathers and sons. Some of the memories have faded, too, or they aren’t said aloud because people might not understand what it was to be Chinese in San Diego, or because the past might get them in trouble, even after all these years. The connections, nonetheless, go back a long way, almost to the very beginning.
“When we first came to San Diego we had a neighbor, she read story books about the Chinese — we never have furniture, we sat on the floor. One Saturday I went grocery shopping. That lady, she tiptoed all around my house peeking through the windows, to see what I had.” (anon.)
“My dad used to bring home a watermelon. We all loved watermelon. He’d cut it in so many pieces after dinner. He’d let the youngest pick first, the youngest knew his duties, he picked the smallest. The oldest made sure the youngest picked first. He'd pick last but the biggest was always left for him. They each had their responsibilities.” (Tom Hom)
“One of the experiences we had in our childhood was the experience of shooting off firecrackers. The Caucasian children didn’t have that opportunity. It was the main thing in our life. We used to sell firecrackers. My dad used to take two cases of samples and throw them in the back of the roadster. I would go with him sometimes, all over— Lemon Grove, La Mesa, variety stores, ten-cent stores, soda fountains, hardware stores — and take orders for firecrackers. We also retailed firecrackers. We’d carry a little basket and wait on the customer, follow the customer as they would pick up the different firecrackers and put them in the basket. Once it was full, we’d pick up another basket. It was very exciting. I never saw so much money in my life. After the Fourth of July we’d put away everything and the odds and ends we’d take to the beach in boxes and just have a big ball.” (Jennings Hom)