Cultural, Social Center : Chinatown’s Memories Linger in Hope for Future

It is a cool, overcast day on 3rd Avenue, just north of J Street. The street is quiet. Several new Chinese immigrants walk upstairs in the Chinese Social Service Building for a morning class, held in Chinese, to help them obtain a food handler’s card.

Downstairs, 15 elderly Chinese sit at their desks chanting slowly in unison, “Thank you for a wonderful meal,” and “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” in Robin Lee’s daily class in English as a second language, the only such all-Chinese class in San Diego. On other days, they join younger students studying to become U.S. citizens.

Across the street a light green-blue building with fluted Chinese trim sits like a dab of pale watercolor against the soft gray sky. Up the block the red balcony of the Ying On Merchants’ Assn. Building juts into the street, somehow seeming to balance the sound of hammering and occasional calls from construction workers, as the sounds of redevelopment bounce through what is left of San Diego’s Chinatown in the area bounded by 2nd, 5th, I and N.

Two of the structures that symbolize and actually house the past and present of many of the Chinese people in San Diego are the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Building, which houses the Chinese Social Service Center, and the home of Joseph Quin, grandson of Ah Quin, the first Chinese to raise a family here.


Since the ‘60s, most younger Chinese have moved to the suburbs, leaving the 30 to 40 elderly Chinese, who now live up the street in the rent-subsidized Horton House or the Lions Community Manor, and a few other scattered families and individuals. But there is still a feeling of community. Gil Ontai, an architect on the board of Centre City Development Corp., said, “One hundred-plus gather there every week. It is a quiet community--but a community.”

The 1889 Quong Building, one of the earliest structures, is still there, along with the 1925 Ying On Building, and the 1911 structure that houses the Social Service Center.

Always a gathering place, it was here in the Social Service Center building that money was raised by San Diego’s Chinese to help plot Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution that made China a republic on Jan. 1, 1912.

Ah Quin’s house is gone, but next door, to the south, another house he owned--the pale green-blue house of Joe Quin--stands like a single piece of jade between two construction storage lots.

It is possible, this quiet morning, to somehow see it as if it were still there . . . the old Chinatown.

The ghosts of the past seem almost present--the steam from the laundries, the herb shops, produce stores, the celebrations, even the opium den. Early accounts tell of candles lit along the walks to frighten away the devil.

Joe Quin sits on the second floor of his house, which used to serve also as his produce business. His eyes twinkle in a kind face beneath gray hair.

“On New Year’s and the 4th of July, all of the American people would come to buy firecrackers. My gosh, you’d look outside and the smoke was thick as fog,” he said.


“As a small child on New Year’s, I’d get good luck pieces in a red envelope--$5, $10--sometimes even $20 because my grandfather had had so many friends.

“Across the street, on every Sunday, they’d roast a pig in a big red brick oven. They’d buy a 150-pound pig, open it, put in Chinese seasoning, and lower the pig in the red oven. Then all of Chinatown would have roast pig.

“My grandfather was mayor of Chinatown when he was living, and then my uncle, Tom Quin. So,” he said, laughing, “they’d always get the best piece of meat.”

Quin was born in 1917 in the house where he lives. After 50 years of successfully running the Ah Quin Produce business, which his grandfather began, he is retired. He and his wife, Yvonne, who teaches Chinese each Saturday at the Chung Hwa School on 47th Street, have raised three children: George, 27; Madeline, 23, and Jacqueline, 21. The family also owns a home in the Bay Ridge area of San Diego, out California 94, but today Joe and his two graceful, long-haired daughters are in the house on 3rd.


“The kids like things modern, but I like the old place better,” he said. “I stay here most of the time. I have lots of memories here.”

Serving tea and wontons, he said: “I’ve lived here all my life. My grandfather came here in 1879.”

Quin shows a photo of a page from Ah Quin’s diary, written half in Chinese and half in English. Because he was bilingual, Ah Quin was often an intermediary between the Chinese- and English-speaking communities. The San Diego Historical Society has Ah Quin’s diaries on display, along with other artifacts from the Chinese community, until May, most on loan from the community.

Ah Quin, whose real name was Hom Ah Quen, was called Ah Quin because it seemed simpler, Joe said. As a 31-year-old with a long, braided queue, Ah Quin stepped off a four-masted schooner at the Market Street pier after working in Seattle, Alaska, Santa Barbara and San Francisco since leaving his home near Canton. He was a broker for the California Southern Railroad, and soon after coming to San Diego he brought 500 laborers to help lay rail from National City to San Bernardino, thus beginning San Diego’s Chinese community.


Ah Quin, at the time of his death, was the wealthiest Chinese man in Southern California, and a man respected by Chinese and non-Chinese alike.

“The Chinese people relied emotionally on Ah Quin,” said his grandson. “He was someone to talk for them. He enjoyed doing that. He liked to help people out. And I guess you could say most of them came from his village in China.”

The tradition continues in the family in some ways, according to Therese Muranaka, who has been filming a short documentary of Quin for use in San Diego city schools. “Joe Quin seems to speak for the people of Chinatown,” Muranaka said. “He has stayed in the downtown area and steps forth to speak for that community.”

Ah Quin’s life was brought to a tragic and ironic end in 1914 when he was run over and killed by a motorcycle rider at 3rd and J while carrying his first grandson across the street to celebrate the child’s birth with all of Chinatown.


The Chinese Benevolent Society Building, directly across the street from Joe Quin’s house, provides a bridge for newly arrived Chinese, much as Ah Quin did in earlier days.

According to Sally Wong, director of the Chinese Social Service Center and a niece by marriage of Joe Quin, the center (a member of United Way) serves 200 clients each month. “In all,” she said, “there are 90 active cases, which six bilingual and bicultural workers serve.”

The nonprofit center provides information on housing and jobs, helps with translations and interpretation, gives emergency assistance and transportation when necessary, and provides space for language and citizenship classes. The Chinese Senior’s Club and the Chinese Women’s Club meet at the center. The center no longer receives funding from federal revenue sharing and is supported solely by donations and fund-raisers such as the recent fourth annual Chinese New Year Food and Cultural Fair at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The services provided address the needs of the Chinese population in San Diego--the elderly, the new immigrants, the refugees, the truly needy, and those who do not speak English. It is a liaison between those people and the American culture. “We hope to bridge cultural tensions,” said Wong, who has a degree from California Western School of Law.


The Chinese coming to San Diego today come from not only the mainland but also from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand and Malaysia. “Many of these people have been refugees twice,” Wong said.

It is not only refugees use the center, however, she said. “We are an information and referral center, so professionals--doctors, dentists, lawyers--use our services, too. It is a community center. We all have to work together.”

Wong, who was born in Hong Kong, came to UC San Diego as a student from Malaysia in 1969 at age 16.

“The older established Chinese community is very helpful to the newer immigrants,” she said. “For example, Woo Chee Chong (one of the earliest Chinese businesses in San Diego, owned by Jennings Hom) hires many of the newer immigrants to work.


“The old established second- and fourth-generation Chinese in San Diego may not be well-versed in ways of China, as far as festivals and traditions, but the new immigrants are full of the Chinese history. So it is a good interchange. When the older established people become more aware of the Chinese culture through the newer immigrants, they stand straighter. There is mutual respect.

“Each person has a different reason for coming. Many come from Hong Kong today because the People’s Republic of China will take back Hong Kong in 1997 when the lease with the British is up.”

Wong said that some people do not want to live in a Communist country. Others come to be united with relatives already in San Diego. Also, from 1975 to 1979, many Chinese refugees came from Vietnam and now are applying to bring their relatives here. People from Taiwan are also coming, many with money to start businesses here, Wong added.

The 1980 census figure for Chinese in San Diego was 8,000, and a 7% annual increase in that number provides a conservative estimate of today’s population, said Beverly Yip of the Union of Pan-Asian Communities. She said there are also 4,686 Chinese from Vietnam in San Diego.


Wong said: “At the center, too, we hope to help keep our heritage alive, and we love to share this with Americans--so they can know us better and be enriched.”

According to the Rev. Karl Fung, leader of the Chinese Community Church for seven years: “The community is always changing and developing. Different groups are coming now. Students have been coming from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Since Taiwan has been considered a separate country and no longer a part of China, there is a larger quota. The people from Taiwan are well-educated. Dr. David Hu is an example of such a professional person.

“The people from Taiwan can’t leave their country until they graduate, so there are engineers and professors immigrating. Since Nixon’s visit to China, more Chinese-Americans have been reunited with families and have brought them here. In the ‘70s there were many refugees from Indochina, and in 1978 and 1979 the boat people, who are Chinese ethnically, arrived in San Diego.”

As the newcomers change the face of San Diego and its Chinese-American community, redevelopment plans are beginning to change the face of Chinatown. But major decisions have not been made; exactly how the face of what’s left of Chinatown will change physically is not known.


Gil Ontai, himself a Chinese-American, commented that developers are approaching the board of CCDC with special projects to consider in the area where the Chinese community once thrived. “Before Chinatown is redeveloped, a lot of questions need to be answered,” Ontai said. “It is important for us to know whether the Chinese community feels it has an inherent desire or right to develop a community there. We are studying buildings there to see which are of historic value.

“I would hope Chinese community leaders will become involved. If they care, we want to react. There are a number of developers who want to work with the Chinese community.

“Joe Quin has a historical right to speak--to raise the banner in the Chinese community.”

Dan Pearson, president of Gaslamp Quarter Enterprises, a private corporation, has dismantled and moved the Horton Grand Hotel and Kahle Saddlery and is reconstructing them on I Street between 3rd and 4th avenues. A lobby between them will house a Chinese tea room and museum. Centre City Development Corp. paid for an archeological dig on the site and has helped put the museum together. The tea room and museum, opening May 23, will house a history of Chinatown, relics from the dig and artifacts from the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan.


“The Chinese in early San Diego had as big an impact on the city as the Mexican people do now,” said Pearson.

“This is Chinese sacred ground. The Chinese need to tell us what they want to do with it. We must be very respectful of their issues.”

Fritz Ahern, present owner of the Quong Building, said, “I think it would be ideal to have one-half block that was Chinese Social Services, and all the people still hanging around . . . a few restaurants . . . and an area that reflected the Chinese, so that the Chinese kids could come down and say this was Chinatown.”

Fung said, “In the old days, Chinatown was of value to the people. That is the only place where the Chinese people were allowed to walk around after sunset, or to speak their language. Now the economic and class structure has changed. (To me) the reconstruction doesn’t matter. What is important is we know there are Chinese going down there to the Social Service Center. As long as some space is provided for this, in terms of community, we don’t really need a Chinatown.”


The City Council in February instructed CCDC to work on ways to work with the Chinese-American community to help preserve Chinatown.

“We’ll be looking at a variety of alternatives during the next couple of months,” Hamilton said. “There are really two issues--one is the concern for Chinese heritage and the other is the issue of development of a Chinatown. The area is important because it is a transitional zone from the Gaslamp Quarter to the residential Marina area.”

Joe Quin in 1980 finally went back with relatives to visit China, to see the country his grandfather sailed from. “There was only one person left there that I knew was from our family,” he said. “Otherwise we’d lost all contact. We live in America now, do American ways, but still have Chinese culture to keep up with.

“I saw the Great Wall. Did you know that from the moon that was the only sign of civilization they could see?


“It’s very good that Americans are interested in China and that shows from China are traveling here. Pretty soon there’s going to be this panda who is going to put on a show to help preserve the pandas in China. I guess they need the money to have a refuge for these animals because if they don’t do that, pretty soon they’ll be all gone.”

Sitting beneath his grandfather’s picture with two Chinese calligraphy signs hanging from it, meaning Long Life and Good Fortune, Joe Quin talks of his hopes and dreams for the future:

“My nephew, Dr. Kong, a heart surgeon from the L.A. area, wants to open an import shop on the corner of 4th and Island.

“My uncle, Tom Quin, wanted to preserve Chinatown in his day--to sell silk, tea. That’s what I would like to do here, and I already have architectural drawings--to convert downstairs into a store and restaurant and to preserve this building. It’s something we’re proud of. We’ve been here so long--and always stayed here.


“My grandfather and father are buried at Mt. Hope,” he said with a mixture of pride and nostalgia.

“I wouldn’t want to leave here. I just love this area . . . so many memories.”