For about a century, several blocks of downtown were home to hundreds of Chinese people and their families. Banned from citizenship and forbidden from crossing north of Market Street, they created their own community next to a red light district of brothels and saloons.
Now, the upscale Gaslamp Quarter has replaced the rowdy Stingaree district, and the former Chinatown is gone, memorialized by an eight-block historic district in the downtown area around Market Street and Island Avenue.
Now, the historic Chinatown is gaining a place in San Diego’s institutional memory thanks to the work of Murray K. Lee, curator of the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum.
The 83-year-old Lee leads walking tours of the former Chinatown neighborhood, guiding tourists and locals through the past and present. The World War II veteran has just finished a book about the history of the Chinese in San Diego; it’s due out later this year. And Lee, also a former cartographer, is working with city officials to honor the Chinese, Filipino and Japanese people who made downtown their home.
In an interview at the Pacific Beach home where he’s lived for 26 years, the East Coast native — who’s half Chinese and half Scottish-Irish-German-English — explored the evolution of a San Diego community from outsiders set apart to Americans who no longer need a place of their own.
How did the Chinese first end up in San Diego?