Will Bowen | Downtown News
You have probably heard about San Diego’s founding fathers, men like John D. Spreckels, Alonzo Horton, and George Marston. But Ah Quin — a Chinese merchant who lived in Chinatown at Island Avenue & K Street near the turn of the century — is also considered to be in that same group for a variety of contributions leading to San Diego’s development as a major city.
The current exhibition at the Chinese Historical Museum entitled “Ah Quin: Life, Leadership, and Legacy” explores the life of Tom Chong-kwan, nicknamed “Ah Quin” by American immigration officials who could not speak Chinese.
The display includes a collection of artifacts from Ah Quin’s life, donated by his descendents and never before seen. The items are now on view at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Extension of the Museum, located at 328 J St. in Downtown San Diego.
In conjunction with the exhibit’s opening, the Museum presented two lectures. The first, held Jan. 25, was by Murray Lee, author of “In Search of Gold Mountain: A history of the Chinese in San Diego, California.” At the lecture were many of Ah Quin’s descendents.
“There is no other person in the early history of the Chinese in San Diego, California, who is more deserving of being included among the founding fathers of the city, along with the likes of Alonzo Horton and George Marston, than Ah Quin,” Murray noted during his lecture.
On Feb. 22, Professor Susie Lan Cassel, a faculty member at Cal State San Marcos, gave a talk on her efforts to translate Ah Quin’s personal diaries (1877–1902), which are written in both Chinese and English and over 3,000 pages long.
“Ah Quin was brilliant at networking,” Cassel said. “His diaries include references and information on over 1,000 Chinese men in his labor pool. This information could be used to help reconstruct the Chinese census of early San Francisco, a mostly bachelor society, which was lost in the Great Earthquake of 1906.”
Quin was born into the Tom family in Namzha village, part of Changsha City, in the Hoiping District of Guangdong Province in South China on Dec. 5, 1848. When he was young man, his parents moved to Canton where he attended an American missionary school. At the missionary school Quin learned English and adopted the Christian religion.
Because of the economic devastation afflicting South China in 1868, at age 20 his family sent him to the U.S.— known to the Chinese as Gold Mountain (Gum Saan) — by sailing ship at a cost of $50 so he could seek his fortune and send money to help his family back in China.
Ah Quin arrived in San Francisco where he became affiliated with the Chinese Mission in order to continue his religious and English language studies. There he spent six years working at various odd jobs, such as houseboy and cook for military officers at Camp Reynolds on Angel Island and at the San Francisco Presidio.
In 1873, Quin moved to Santa Barbara to learn the merchandizing trade from his uncle. There he got a job with the firm of Gourley and Stearns who sent him to work as a cook in a coal mining camp in Alaska in 1877. While in Alaska, Quin cut off his “queue,” the traditional long-braided ponytail required for men by the Chinese emperor. This signaled his desire to become an American and never return to China. It was also at this time he began to write in his diary.
Five years later, Quin returned to Santa Barbara and soon made a visit to San Diego, where he befriended George Marston and Reverent Camp of the San Diego Chinese Mission.
In 1881, Marston invited Quin to come live in San Diego and direct the procurement of Chinese labor to help build the railroad, which would greatly facilitate travel to and from San Diego and San Diego Bay could become a major port. Property values doubled almost overnight.
He opened at storefront in the Stingaree district of Downtown San Diego to direct his operations and to provide provisions for the Chinese laborers that he procured. Since there were only 229 Chinese out of 8,000 people living in the city at that time, Quin had to reach northward for Chinese workers and spent considerable time in Temecula and Fallbrook at the railroad labor camps.
Quin returned to San Francisco in 1881 to marry Sue Leong, who was a ward of the Chinese Presbyterian Mission there. The couple returned to San Diego where they eventually had 12 children, including the first Chinese boy ever born in San Diego.
After the railroad was completed, Quin became involved in real estate, often leasing his properties in places like Mission Valley and Bonita, to fellow Chinese so they could grow vegetables to sell at market.
Quin soon became the most powerful person in Chinatown and was often referred to as its unofficial mayor. He became a bridge linking the Chinese community and the white establishment and was also called upon to translate when there were court cases against the Chinese.
“Ah Quin is known as a straightforward business man and has the confidence and trust of those who know him,” wrote the the San Diego Union newspaper in 1889.
Then San Diego Police Chief Keno Wills said Quin “ … was without exception the finest Chinaman I have ever met.”
When others would not, Quin began cooperating with city health inspector Walter Bellon in 1912, whose task it was to clean up the Stingaree district’s substandard housing, salons, gambling, and prostitution for the upcoming Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. “Ah Quin was a living example of good citizenship, thrift, and integrity and did not indulge in the accepted traffic of his community,” Bellon said.
Murray Lee summed up Ah Quin’s life by stating: “Ah Quin must be included among the prominent founders of early San Diego not only for his accomplishment as an entrepreneur and labor broker for San Diego’s first railroad but also for his leadership and his ability to use his influence to improve the community and help his countrymen.”
“The Ah Quin rags-to-riches-Horatio-Alger story of an immigrant who comes to this country and makes good has a universal appeal that all people can draw inspiration from,” said Alex Stewart, the senior coordinator for education and exhibitions at the Chinese Historical Museum.