Early Years in China
Ah Quin was born on December 5, 1848 in a small village in the Hoiping District of Guangdong Province of southern China. He was the eldest son of parents who were farmers. He had a younger brother and a sister. The family name was Tom or usually Romanized in San Diego as Hom, but as often the case with Chinese immigrants, names were misinterpreted by government officials, and he became known as Ah Quin.
When Ah Quin was young, his parents moved to Canton (Guangzhou), the provincial capital. This provided Ah Quin the opportunity to grow up in the city with the greatest exposure to the West, since Canton was the only seaport in China available for trade with the West, having been opened in 1757. Canton and the Pearl River Delta, of course, played a major role in the emigration of Chinese to Southeast Asia and America. Canton also provided Ah Quin with the opportunity for an education at an American missionary school. There he learned English and to read and write Chinese. He was exposed to Christian teachings, which led to his conversion, and wandering Chinese scholars, who provided him an opportunity to broaden his education even more.
The period when Ah Quin was growing up in Canton was one in which the circumstances developed that led the early Chinese immigrants to leave the area in large numbers for America. The Opium Wars, local strife, disruption of the economy , floods, and resulting famine were many of the "push" factors in the migration. The "pull" at first was the discovery of gold in California. Therefore in 1868, Ah Quin's parents decided to send him to America. Like all the families of the time, he was expected to make his fortune and send money back to support the family.
Getting Started in America
Unlike most Chinese immigrants, Ah Quin's family was able to pay for his passage across the Pacific in advance. If the fee of $50 was not paid, the immigrant usually had to buy a ticket on credit and have the money deducted from the wages he was to earn. This usually took about three years to repay.
When Ah Quin's ship landed in San Francisco he was most likely met by clan members who took him to Chinatown and provided him with lodging and employment. He also made contact with the Chinese mission in San Francisco and continued his religious study. This experience added to his knowledge of English and helped him develop contacts with the Americans. Ah Quin remained in San Francisco for about six years employed in a variety of jobs, which included serving as a house boy and cook.
In about 1873 he moved to Santa Barbara, where he learned merchandising from an uncle. Santa Barbara had a small Chinese community where the Chinese worked as servants in the homes of white families or were employed in the fields. Santa Barbara also had a Chinese Mission, which Ah Quin joined. The Mission provided him with additional instruction in English and the opportunity to establish contacts with other Chinese and prominent members of the Congregational Church. He became friends with Judge Charles Huse, one of the founders of the church, and even after he left Santa Barbara he would visit the judge whenever he passed through the town. [Note the early photo of Ah Quin and an unidentified man from Santa Barbara and the date 1873 written at the top. Possibly the man in the photo is Judge Charles Huse.]
The Diary Begins
In Santa Barbara Ah Quin began to accept Western customs and clothing. He also began his first diary in June of 1877. This is one of the most unique contributions he made in his lifetime. Keeping a diary, which was continued intermittently for about 25 years, was most unusual for a Chinese immigrant in the nineteenth century, especially when the diary was in English. If comparable records had been kept by other Chinese of this period there would be a wealth of information to better understand the lives of these early pioneers. One of the earliest entries explained his decision to go to work for a small mining company on a remote island in Alaska.
The Santa Barbara company of E.J. Gourley and Stearns had coal mining interests in Coal Harbor, Alaska, and Ah Quin had signed on to be the cook. The ship stopped in San Francisco on the way, and there one of Ah Quin's uncles lectured him about leaving California. Ah Quin was determined to fulfill his obligation and arrived in Alaska on July 26, 1877 after experiencing a bad case of seasickness. Conditions for cooking at first were quite inadequate, yet he had to prepare two meals for the miners every day. After improvements were made to the living quarters, Ah Quin found enough time to explore the island, which was part of the Shumagin group. He encountered Russians, who had settlements on the island and Aleuts whom he found to be unsophisticated and who could only communicate with him by hand signals. Even though Ah Quin was homesick and had concerns for his aging parents, Gourley convinced him to stay on longer. Ah Quin used his time during the long Alaskan winter nights to write letters, read the bible, and make records in his diary. He wrote and received many letters from California and China, and as was customary for Chinese in America, he sent money to his family.
While in Alaska Ah Quin decided to cut off his queue. This was not a decision to be taken lightly. The Chinese had been required to wear queues from the time of the conquering Manchus and over the years had become so accustomed to them that their removal resulted in a loss of dignity. Perhaps for Ah Quin it was a matter of practicality because in the isolated site maintenance was too difficult, or it was a demonstration of his commitment to adopt America as his new country. After cutting off the queue he gave Gourley and a miner a few strands as a memento, and they graciously accepted the gift. Ah Quin completed his contract in July and returned on the steamer to Santa Barbara. His experience provided him with an adventurous interlude in his career and with some financial benefits.
On returning to Santa Barbara, Ah Quin was welcomed back to the mission by his friends and began attending classes once again and helping out by teaching some of the classes. He also was consulted by many of his friends for advice and and assistance and because of his bilingual ability he became more involved in arbitration negotiations between the Chinese and the establishment, a role that he would continue to play his entire life. For a short period in Santa Barbara he went to work for Colonel William Hollister on his large ranch.
A Visit to San Diego
As a result of the limited opportunities in Santa Barbara, Ah Quin began to survey the job possibilities elsewhere in California. He contacted friends in San Francisco and also considered San Diego. After contacting friends there he decided to make a short visit to San Diego and left with his friend Shin Sha on the steamship Senator on September 28, 1878. Ah Quin was welcomed by his relatives on the dock in San Diego and was housed in the Sam Kee washhouse near Chinatown. While attending the Presbyterian Church during his visit he introduced himself to George Camp, the minister, and to George Marston, owner of a dry goods business. Marston was later to be instrumental in founding the Chinese Mission. Before leaving San Diego, Ah Quin visited with Wo Sing, Chinese land owner, herb doctor and owner of several fishing junks. This was an important contact for the him and eventually led to a significant friendship and business association. Ah Quin with another friend, Ah Tom, returned to Santa Barbara on the Orizaba, a steamship that would play a significant part in the Chinese immigration to San Diego.
Ah Quin was to spend two years in San Francisco with the primary goal of job hunting. He lived with his uncle, Tom On, and performed odd jobs while continuing his job search. He also continued his association with the Chinese mission and there met William Pond, a minister, who would later take charge of the San Diego Chinese mission at the request of George Marston. Ah Quin even went to Stockton in search of employment, but could find nothing suitable. Soon he had to fall back on his cooking ability and took a job at the Presidio as cook and servant for two officers. It seems that the Chinese of that period could only find jobs in the service industry or at hard labor on the railroads or in the fields. It must have been frustrating for a young man with ability and potential, with so many jobs closed to the Chinese.
At least at the Presidio Ah Quin was walking distance from Chinatown and he used the opportunity to enjoy dinner and the Chinese theater with his friends, and he even made several forays into the red-light district, which gave him feelings of guilt. Maybe his increased assistance to the Chinese mission in teaching the bible and English to new arrivals helped atone for his transgressions.
Finally, in the fall of 1880 letters from George Marston and Reverend Camp in San Diego arrived. The anticipated construction of a railroad in San Diego and the possibility of Ah Quin serving as the labor broker was suggested. Although this was the kind of opportunity that he had been seeking for some time, he still pondered the question for awhile. It was quite a leap in responsibility, but his friends in San Diego would support him. He made his decision, terminated his job at the Presidio, after providing them with a young replacement and left on October 25 for San Diego. Since the steamer made a stop at Santa Barbara, Ah Quin met E.J. Gourley at the dock and visited his friend Judge Huse.
The California Southern Railroad
When Ah Quin arrived in San Diego in late 1880, he had to acquire a base of operations for his new assignment; so he chose a store location in the Stingaree District on Fifth Street between I and J. He ordered a variety of stock which would appeal to both Chinese and American clientele. Besides Oriental imports he ordered unusual items such as parrots. He remained in this location until 1882 and then relocated to a permanent residence on Third Street in the heart of Chinatown.
San Diego had been trying to get a railroad connection for years in order to compete with Los Angeles. Frank Kimball, National City founder, was instrumental in convincing the directors of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad to put the terminal in National City. After much negotiation, on October 12, 1880 they chartered the California Southern Railroad with Benjamin Kimball as President. From National City the line would run through San Diego following the coast north through Rose Canyon to San Luis Rey River, then inland along the Santa Margarita River via Temecula Canyon to San Bernardino, a distance of 116 miles. In 1881 an additional 80 miles was chartered to link up with the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad near Barstow. The goal of completing the railroad by the summer of 1882 depended upon finding sufficient labor.
In National City Ah Quin began negotiating with the railroad officials on the number of Chinese laborers to be used. By this time, after the successful use of Chinese labor in building the western portion of the transcontinental railroad, it was unnecessary to prove the capability of the Chinese in railroad building. In early 1881 Chinese began to arrive by steamer from the north. As many as 100 came on one trip by the steamship Senator, which docked in San Diego on March 5. The newspapers of the day always carried announcements of the arrival of the steamships, their cargoes and passengers. Although some of the contractors refused to hire Chinese, the bulk of the labor force was Chinese and they always were assigned the most difficult and dangerous sections.
The various contractors divided the line into sections and in May of 1882 there were six contractors supervising a total of fourteen gangs of Chinese and white workers. The wages were $1.75 per day. Ah Quin was kept busy by dividing his time between the construction sites and his San Diego store. He also had logistic responsibilities and shipped great quantities of food and supplies up the line to the work gangs. The Chinese diet included rice, potatoes, and fish; and the laborers undoubtedly consumed many gallons of tea as their predecessors on the Central Pacific had done in the 1860s. Fortunately, the San Diego fishing fleet was capable of providing a steady supply of seafood products. There were no complaints about the food, although the costs were on the high side. Tents and makeshift huts were the principal living quarters in the camps which had to move periodically as the construction progressed.
In the summer of 1881 construction began in the Temecula Canyon area, the toughest stretch of terrain along the route. This was the location of a large Chinese camp and over a thousand men attacked the rock with dynamite. There were a number of injuries and even a fatality in this area from falling rocks and rock slides, and the dust became so heavy and conditions so bad that at times the Chinese refused to work.
Without any mention in his diaries, Ah Quin took leave from his railroad construction duties to travel to San Francisco to be married. Apparently he had met Sue Leong at the Chinese Presbyterian Mission in San Francisco. She was a ward of the Mission and also had been taught English. At nineteen she was twelve years younger than Ah Quin. No doubt he felt that he had found in San Diego the right place and the right occupation and all that he needed was an attractive wife and family. He had reached another milestone in his life and there would be no thoughts of returning to China. On December 14, 1881, he returned to San Diego with his wife on the steamship Ancon, which was reported by the San Diego Union.
The railroad construction pace had picked up after passing through the Temecula Canyon area with over a mile of track being laid every day. Trains began to run to Encinitas in the Spring of 1882 and by late summer all the way to San Bernardino, although the railroad was not officially declared completed until September 13, 1883. Ah Quin was one of those who celebrated with an excursion on the train all the way to San Bernardino in October 1882. As the railroad construction wound down many of the Chinese workers returned to San Francisco, but as is usual several work gangs were retained for maintenance. Ah Quin was responsible for a number of the crews and kept them staffed and supplied with provisions and also delivered their wages on his frequent trips on the train.
It wasn't long before Ah Quin was back recruiting Chinese labor once more because heavy rains in early 1884 began to weaken and undermine the new railroad bed. When the railroad owners saw the threat of damage imminent, Ah Quin was asked to speed up efforts to recruit labor and he traveled to Riverside and Los Angeles in search of men. While on this assignment, the rains reached their peak and the Santa Margarita River became a deluge washing away many portions of track forcing Ah Quin to return by steamship rather than by rail. The engineers who had planned the route didn't take into consideration the potential for flooding of this ordinarily placid river and had the railroad cross it many times. Locals had warned that occasionally there were unusually heavy winter rains and it wasn't long before this proved to be the case. Thirty miles of track had been washed out especially in the Temecula Canyon area, and it was reported that railroad ties could be seen far out to sea.
After a trip to San Francisco, where Ah Quin was able to recruit only fifty men, he spent a period once again looking after the needs of the work gangs and displaying his knack for settling complaints from the workers or disputes between them. But soon the owners were pressing him to go on more recruiting trips. After a brief trip to Los Angeles he went by rail to San Francisco, not the usual mode of travel for him. He returned to San Diego thinking he had been successful only to find that when the recruits arrived their numbers had decreased from the eighty expected to twenty-six. It seems that the Central Valley agricultural harvest was attracting all the available labor with higher wages, and since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had been passed, laborers could no longer be obtained directly from China as had been the practice in the past. Ah Quin also was getting competition from other contractors and his diary showed that he experienced frustration during that period. Eventually the railroad was able to get most of the men they needed and by the end of 1884 most of the repairs were completed, and they were able to transfer men to the extension beyond San Bernardino. Ah Quin remained involved with the railroad until the extension was completed in 1885, but unfortunately the railroad offices and shops were moved from National City and San Diego to Los Angeles. Once again San Diego would take a back seat in its efforts to realize major industrial growth through a railroad link to the hinterland.
Chinatown and the Stingaree
Ah Quin's efforts to build up his merchandising business and his real estate holdings began to occupy most of his time. The business had profited by the railroad connection and afforded him the opportunity to develop the means to provide food and supplies to the workers. This included the growing of food crops locally as well as the importing of food and supplies from elsewhere. What was the area like when Ah Quin began to develop his business?
San Diego in Ah Quin's day was a port city with many ships coming and going, therefore it had its red-light district, known as the Stingaree. The Stingaree was San Diego's version of the famous Barbary Coast of San Francisco. The Stingaree was the name given to the sting ray, a fish with a sharp barb in its tail that was common in the shallow mud flats of the nearby bay. Chinatown was within the Stingaree District and much of its activity spilled over into it. The area was characterized by violence and crime with fighting, killings, prostitution, gambling, drinking and drugs. Records of ownership and activities were poorly kept and buildings and businesses came and went as activity blossomed and waned, typical of a wide-open Western town of the period. The Chinese community had many legitimate businesses in the area along with their own version of gambling, such as the lottery and fan tan. Opium was a habit held over from China during that period and opium dens in the area were not uncommon.
Despite the dominance of vice in the area, members of the Chinese community, who had no choice in where they lived, were able to endure and to begin raise families. They were bolstered by a support system including the Chinese Mission and Chinese benevolent associations. Ah Quin and his wife Sue in their two-storied home on Third Street were able to raise a family of twelve children. Beginning in 1883 with the birth of Annie, whom they called Ah Ying, they had a total of twelve children. The birth of a child was almost an annual occurrence until the turn of the century. George the first of five boys was born next and it was noted in the newspaper that he was the first Chinese boy to be born San Diego. He was followed by Mamie, Tom, Maggie, Lily, Franklin, Minnie, Henry, Mary, Mabel, and McKinley. The children would be brought up as citizens of the United States, a desire that Ah Quin was not able to realize for himself because of the anti-Chinese laws.
Ah Quin would take his children throughout the city to see the sights and events. On April 22, 1891 his diary says: "today hung up some flag in the front of the store because President Harrison and parties come tomorrow morning." On the following day with Tom he was able to see the President at the Horton House. He was "near me by 4 or 5 feet" he said in his diary. Ah Quin believed in educating his children and the Chinese Mission established in 1885 provided their early education. The Mission was originally located at 8th and D Streets, but after several temporary moves it ended up on 663 First Avenue and then 645 First Avenue on land donated by George Marston in 1909 and much closer to Chinatown. Ah Quin's family had the only children at the Mission, the rest were adults. Annie learned how to play the organ and George studied violin and they all joined in the singing.
In 1887 Ah Quin brought an eleven year old girl named Wong Hin to San Diego as a servant to the family. He made the arrangement through the Chinese mission in San Francisco. This was a practice common among the Chinese and she later was accepted as a member of the family. The procedure was misunderstood by the editors of the San Diego Sun, and in 1889 they accused Ah Quin of holding her in slavery. The rival San Diego Union came to Ah Quin's defense vouching for his character and noting that "Ah Quin is known as a straightforward businessman and has the confidence and trust of those who know him." Ah Quin never hesitated to use the law in seeking justice. He hired a lawyer and sued the newspaper for $20,000 and slander, but after a year of inaction he became frustrated with the issue and withdrew his suit in spite of his lawyer's advice. Three years after the charges , Wong Hin, who had been treated like a daughter, was married to a Los Angeles merchant in a Chinatown ceremony in August 1892.
Community Leader and Patriarch
From the time Ah Quin arrived in America, he had a knack for making friends and establishing valuable contacts. Besides his early friendship with those men he had met and worked for in Santa Barbara, such as Judge Ruse and E.J. Gourley, he knew Reverend William Pond who was one of the founders of the Chinese missionary movement. He was acquainted with judges, lawyers, and businessmen throughout the area. Men like Frank Kimbal and especially George Marston were friends and their addresses were listed in the back of his diary.
One of Ah Quin's closest friends and confidant in the 1890s was Tam Yark, owner of a Chinatown business. Since their stores were close together, they could visit each other frequently and have long conversations and play games of Chinese checkers. They also had business relationships and borrowed money from each other. There are numerous reference to Tam Yark in Ah Quin's diaries.
Sam Wing (real name-Hong Ginn Lung), was a merchant and farmer who lived in Oceanside. Supposedly one of Ah Quin's cousins he is also an example of a successful immigrant. He entered the U.S. in 1874 by hiking through Mexico and worked as a farm laborer in the Oceanside area. He saved his money and acquired his own land and became fairly wealthy eventually buying a motor car and driving to San Diego to visit Ah Quin and his family.
One of Ah Quin's roles as community leader was as a middleman or spokesman. He helped his fellow Chinese prepare their certificates of identity, which were the result of the Chinese exclusion laws. Ah Quin's bilingual capability also put him in demand as an interpreter. The local courts called upon him often to interpret for them in cases involving Chinese. Many of the violations at that time involved fishing or gambling. At one time he was requested as an interpreter for a judge in Riverside. During a U.S. Congressional investigation, which was looking into the effects of Chinese immigration to America, Ah Quin was called to appear before the committee when it was holding hearings at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. The questioning was hostile and centered on the vice that existed in Chinatown. No doubt Ah Quin didn't want to expose his fellow Chinese to any more than he had to when asked about the Chinese lotteries. He readily admitted that they existed, but explained that most of the men who organized them were not permanent residents. "These loafers sometimes make a little money, then go away traveling," he said. This was in 1890. In 1899 Ah Quin made his position clear as to his dealing with the lottery when the Union reported the arrest of an Ah Quin for selling lottery tickets. He wanted the newspaper to state that the man arrested was not him. "I never gamble nor deal in lottery tickets," said Ah Quin, "and being the father of eleven children I do not want people to think that I am the Ah Quin under arrest."
As the family store required less of his time, Ah Quin was able to spend more time on developing his real estate interests. He acquired property around the city and county. Many of the plots were used for farming and he hired workers to cultivate them. He had farm land on San Miguel Mountain, in National City, and in Bonita along the Sweetwater River. His diary states that he sold his potato ranch in Bonita to See Fung and Tom Hin in June 1894 for $300. He also owned land as far away as Los Angeles and San Bernardino.
Besides developing his own farm lands, Ah Quin made a considerable number of loans to others who wanted to go into the farming business themselves. Most of these were repaid on time, but occasionally he had problems with some and had to bring pressure on his debtors through the use of the offices of the Six Companies. As an arbiter within the Chinese communities the Six Companies (San Francisco) or the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (elsewhere) would prevent the debtor from leaving the country before all his debts were settled. When some of his loans to non-Chinese went bad he could not use the Chinese system of arbitration and the American legal system had to be used, which wasn't always successful. Even though Ah Quin had contacts in the legal profession and used them, the experience was usually frustrating and he mentions the times which he had been taken advantage of. The American justice system tended to look the other way when Chinese were involved.
Ah Quin also had developed an interest in gems. Earlier when he was in Santa Barbara, he had picked up the fundamentals of gemstone cutting and assaying from James Shedd, an assayer. In San Diego he became acquainted with another assayer and chemist, Walter S. Young, who had an office on nearby Fourth Street. In 1891, Ah Quin translated a book on the subject by Pierre de P. Rickett into Chinese, which evidently impressed the Union, by describing his accomplishment as a "literary curiosity." Ah Quin tried to encourage his son Tom in the art of gem cutting from his friend Fred Rynerson, but to no avail. Many years later Tom and Rynerson became partners in the ownership of the Himalaya Mining Company. The Himalaya Mine, located in the Mesa Grande area, became the richest of all the gem mines in San Diego County and its pink tourmaline was highly prized in China.
Unfortunately, Ah Quin stopped writing his diaries after 1894 for reasons unknown. Although there is a list of all the children and their birthdays, which includes the birth of his last child, McKinley, in August 21, 1900. One of his final accomplishments during his final years was his cooperation with Walter Bellon, a health inspector, hired by the city. Bellon began poking around the Stingaree District and Chinatown and found many unhealthy and substandard conditions. Of course he was not welcomed by the residents, and many of the land owners were absentee and unwilling to invest in the necessary improvements. Ah Quin was the exception, he introduced himself to Bellon and offered his help to improve the conditions in the area. In fact, he became one of the first in Chinatown to install plumbing in his house. Bellon gave Ah Quin much credit for his success in bringing improvements to the area.
One of the motivating factors in the clean up of the Stingaree was the forthcoming Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park in 1915. In 1912 the area was purged of much of its substandard housing, saloons, gambling dens, and prostitutes. Although many of these elements relocated or reappeared in other forms, the area never regained the notoriety of its early days.
The Ah Quin Legacy
Ah Quin prepared his sons to assume his duties as a merchant and entrepreneur by involving them in his business activities. They often accompanied him on his rounds of inspection of his properties and his farming plots. Tom became the most influential in the community and inherited the title of Chinatown's "mayor" from his father. His business practice was less ethical than his father's and on several occasions was accused of promoting gambling. George and Henry also participated in the family business and Henry went to USC to study mining engineering. George's son, Joe, said in a March 1985 statement: "My father, the oldest son, carried on the family produce business. He leased farm land in both Otay Valley and where Camp Pendleton is now. I was born in 1917 and I remember when the produce was brought in by horse-drawn wagons. The produce markets were on 6th Avenue, where they are today. We bought my house shortly after my grandfather died in 1914. I know it is very old and when I remodeled it, I retained the decorative wooden trim supporting the roof because I liked it."
Except for Mamie, who married Roy Rife and Mabel who married Willie West Kennerly, all the girls married Chinese immigrants. The children made significant steps in achieving the acculturation process fostered by their parents, but unfortunately, Ah Quin did not live to see his grandchildren grow up because on February 8, 1914, at age 66, Ah Quin died of a fatal accident. The prior evening he was crossing the street on the way to a banquet in honor of his first grandchild when he was struck by a motorcycle driven by Charles Mundell. He was seriously injured, taken to his home where he fell into a coma and died the next morning.
Chinatown was shocked by the news and went into mourning. It was reported that his cousin Sam Wing set a driving record in his touring car from Oceanside to San Diego to be at his side. Ah Quin was given a Christian burial as he had stipulated. As reported by the Union--Reverend W.H. Noble came out of retirement to give the funeral address at Mt. Hope Cemetery, praising Ah Quin for being a fine friend, community leader, and family man. Six American and six Chinese pallbearers carried his casket to the grave site as the band played "Nearer, My God to Thee". The estate was valued at over fifty thousand dollars with the store and real estate holdings in Los Angeles and San Bernardino, a considerable sum in those days.
Ah Quin certainly must be ranked among the prominent founders of early San Diego, not only for his accomplishments as a labor broker for San Diego's first railroad, but for his leadership and influence among his fellow Chinese and his ability to develop a network of friends throughout his life from both the Chinese and American communities. When considering the period in which he lived, Ah Quin's accomplishments during his life were remarkable-- his mastery of English, his Christian conversion, his ability to learn and adapt to his environment, and his keeping of a diary in English. The latter, in itself, is a most unique accomplishment and a boon for historians; and when one considers that he was able to raise a family of twelve children in the midst of the notorious Stingaree District, he must also to be ranked as one of San Diego's most noteworthy patriarchs.
* * * * *
The Ah Quin Story is based largely on a San Diego State University thesis written by Andrew R. Griego in 1979, titled: "Mayor of Chinatown: The Life of Ah Quin, Chinese Merchant and Railroad Builder of San Diego", various articles from the San Diego Union, the Ah Quin Diaries, and Ah Quin's descendants.
|Chinese Community Homepage||Editor : Robin Low|