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A look at the history and influence of downtown San Diego's Chinatown

Posted at 6:15 AM, May 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-31 10:39:19-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – If you walk down 3rd Avenue in downtown San Diego, you’ll notice the remnants of the vibrant Chinatown that existed there a century ago.

Historian and educator Michael Yee points out some of the artwork on display behind a glass window.

“We have this wonderful Chinese dragon that's used during celebrations, models of the Chinese mission building.”

This area is now called the Asian Pacific Thematic Historic District. It spans eight blocks between Market and J streets to the north and south, and Second and Sixth avenues to the west and east.

From art displays to decorative streetlights, to a statue of the first emperor of China, you get a sense of what this area must have been like generations ago.

While pointing to a wooden door, Michael said, “This is actually one of the key buildings for the Quin family, with Ah Quin being the unofficial mayor of Chinatown. It doesn't look like much now because there's stucco in front of it, but one hundred years ago this was a wooden building. They ran their produce business.”

One of the best ways to understand Ah Quin's critical role and Chinatown’s origin story, is to head into the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum on 3rd Avenue.

“This is a wonderful model of the Chinese fishing village that would have been just about where the Convention Center is. They harvested the local fish and a lot of the abalone, so they were exporting tons of abalone out of Baja California all the way up into Santa Barbara,” said Michael while pointing to a diorama in a glass case.

The fishing village depicted in the case flourished in the 1860s and gave rise to Chinatown.

The next diorama shows how from there it grew into a town filled with mostly wooden buildings like an old frontier town.

“It's not ornate, like San Francisco's Chinatown, because the residents were not allowed to own property for the most part. So they were just renters,” explained Michael.

Despite that, their hard work spread from fishing to building.

“They were instrumental in really providing that railroad construction and building up infrastructures, such as the Hotel Del Coronado during San Diego's Great Boom in the 1880s.”

Many of those early accomplishments would not have been possible without Ah Quin, who could speak English and act as a bridge between two worlds.

“He understood the court system; very pivotal person and he was able to basically fight for some rights for the Chinese community at the time,” said Michael.

However, with the inroads also came intolerance, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. for 10 years.

“They were considered subhuman, a lot of very demeaning depictions during that era,” says Michael.

San Diego Chinese Historical Museum Executive Director Jacinta Wong points to knowledge as one way to combat prejudice.

“I mean, we have such a long history here and I want people to understand that we're not so different, right? I mean, I think in terms of some of the hate rhetoric that has been out there, we want to make sure that people understand that we're all the same.”

Wong hopes people will stop by the museum to see for themselves how shared history is what helped lay the foundation for America’s Finest City.

“It's the perfect time to remind people that Asian Americans have been part of the backbone of San Diego's history for many, many years,” she says, referring to May being Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

It was many, many years later in the 1950s that Michael says Chinatown started to shrink, when Chinese immigrants could finally own property.

“More residents were able to live elsewhere in the city. So that's a healthy growth.”

They finally got the chance to enjoy their own growth after helping the city grow first.

When asked what San Diego would be today without that contribution Michael responds, “It would be different, and it would be I think, a less, less engaging and interesting place.”

Most San Diegans probably think of the Convoy District in Kearny Mesa when it comes to Asian cuisine and culture. Michael says there's a connection between Old Chinatown and the Convoy District.

"Woo Chee Chong was really being one of the founding grocery stores oriental markets, that also helped them to be the first Asian market to get established in Kearny Mesa and could very well have been the start of the Asian cultural district."

Woo Chee Chong was founded in San Diego's Chinatown in 1899. Michael says they were then the earliest to establish a shop in the Convoy District in the 1970s, carving a path for others to follow.