Chinese History in the U.S.A.


|| San Diego || Angel Island || The Ah Quin Story ||

A Short History of the Chinese in San Diego, California

by Murray Lee

It is not known, who was the first Chinese to set foot in San Diego, but more than likely he was a fisherman. In the early 1850s, many Chinese came to California or "Gold Mountain", as they called it, in search of gold. Later they came as contract laborers to work on the railroads and other construction projects. As gold mining was made increasingly difficult for them and construction projects were completed, they soon began to seek other means of livelihood. Many of the Chinese went into the fishing industry, an activity that was familiar to many of them back in their homes in the Pearl River Delta area of Guangdong Province.

From San Francisco and Monterey Bays they eventually went south to San Diego, where they established a base to fish the waters all the way to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. They established a fishing village at Roseville in Pt. Loma and another at the foot of San Diego's New Town, the latter village to become Chinatown. They dominated this industry until 1890, and during its peak built and sailed as many as 18 junks. Besides a wide variety of fish, they had exclusive domain in the pursuit of abalone. They were able to supply all the fresh fish requirements of San Diego and to export dried fish products to other Chinese communities worldwide.

In the 1880s, activities by the Chinese in San Diego included construction of the California Southern Railroad between National City and San Bernardino, and work on the San Diego Flume, which carried water from the Cuyamaca Reservoir to San Diego for 36 miles on 315 redwood trestles and through 5 tunnels. Besides providing labor for large projects in irrigation and flood control, the Chinese were involved in mining gold and precious gems in the mountains centered in Julian. Pink tourmaline, which was prized in China at the time, was shipped through local Chinese merchants.

One of the most notable early merchants was Ah Quin. Due to his English language capability, he also served as a labor broker with the responsibility for procuring the Chinese used in the construction of the California Southern Railroad. He raised a family of twelve children and was an influential member of the early San Diego Chinese community.

Other activities in San Diego in the 1880s, included work on the Del Coronado Hotel, where they cleared the land, helped in the Hotel's construction, and later served on its staff. When the Scott Act of 1888 brought about the end of the Chinese fishing industry in San Diego, many of the Chinese went into market gardening, another familiar occupation for the men from the Pearl River Delta. Their gardens were principally located in the Mission and Sweetwater Valleys, where the land became fertile after they built irrigation systems. After harvesting their crops, the farmers with their baskets balanced over their shoulders on the ends of poles, would peddle their vegetables from door to door.

Most of the early organizations were created to serve the interest of the early immigrants and were their homes away from home in an alien environment. There were the family, district, and business associations, and the major umbrella organization -- the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA). The Chinese Mission began in 1885, and became a center where Chinese immigrants (mostly bachelors) could learn English, in order to better adapt to their new environment and find employment. Besides religious instruction, the Mission served as living quarters and a social center. Many of these early organizations remain today.

San Diego had a smaller population base compared with San Francisco and Los Angeles, and its Chinatown also was relatively small. In 1880 there were only 200 Chinese out of a total population in San Diego of 8600. Chinese occupied the area between Market and K Streets and between 2nd and 5th Avenues. At that time the area was close to the bay, where the fishermen had shacks extending over the water. Chinatown was also adjacent to the Stingaree, San Diego's red-light district. Some of the activity spilled over into Chinatown. Gambling was always a popular activity, and there were fan-tan and lottery.

Besides fishing, the Chinese were employed as laborers (construction, manufacturing, and farming), and worked in the service industry as launderers, cooks, servants, and gardeners. Later, as their capital accumulated, they became merchants, restaurateurs, and grocers. Although the San Diego Chinese were spared the violence of the anti-Chinese movement, discrimination and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act kept the Chinese population from growing, and the 1888 Scott Act was responsible for putting an end to the Chinese fishing industry.

The early 1900s saw a slow growth and integration of the Chinese into San Diego's economy. Although the Chinese organizations and social activities remained traditionally Chinese, there was involvement in the larger community-wide activities. Early participation in the annual 4th of July parade, creation of the Hall of China (now the House of China) for the 1935 California-Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park, the growth of the Chinese Mission and its outreach into the community, and the creation of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance all reflect the growing American-oriented trend of the new Chinese generations.

Japanese aggression against China and the subsequent outbreak of World War II, marked a milestone in many respects for the Chinese in San Diego. The Chinese found community support for their united efforts in raising funds for the relief of war-ravaged China. Chinatown's youth enlisted in the military services or were active on the home front. The fast growing aircraft industry provided new job opportunities for both men and women.

The exclusion laws were repealed in 1943, but there wasn't a significant increase in Chinese immigration, although Chinese could become naturalized citizens, own real estate, get defense jobs, and bring back war brides. After the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished the national quota system, there was a sharp increase in immigration. Many of these newer immigrants came from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some came as students and remained, others came to join family members already here. Some of the recent arrivals originated in Guangdong as did so many of the early immigrants, but many are from a much broader area of China with more diverse backgrounds. There has been a surge of refugees and other immigrants from many Southeast Asian countries as a result of political upheavals and unfavorable economic conditions for the ethnic Chinese there. Most of these ethnic Chinese trace their origins to Guangdong Province and the large worldwide Chinese migrations of the late 19th century. The new immigrants have revitalized many aspects of the Chinese Community, but in San Diego their arrival has been too late for the revitalization of old Chinatown, and they have located in other areas throughout the city.

Many of the original Chinese organizations remain active today, but there has been a proliferation of new organizations and activities, which reflect the broader and more diverse nature of the community. The San Diego Chinese community has come a long way since the days of the early fishermen. Today there are many prominent Chinese Americans in San Diego with accomplishments in the fields of politics, science, architecture, education, justice, engineering, art, media, and business. They are finding greater acceptance in the mainstream of American society. Many have succeeded in the search for "Gold Mountain", the elusive goal of their early pioneer ancestors.

The City of San Diego has recognized the contributions of its diverse ethnic makeup and is trying to preserve historic sites. It has established the Asian/Pacific Thematic Historic District adjacent to the Gaslamp Quarter. In this district the old Chinese Mission, originally built in 1927, has been restored as the Chinese Historical Museum to preserve Chinese American history and heritage for all to enjoy. Adjacent to the building is an Asian garden, including a statue of Confucius, a waterfall, a stream, and a large gate in honor of Dr. Sun Yat Sen.


Murray K. Lee, Board Member
Chinese Historical Society of Greater San Diego and Baja California

Revised, March 1996

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