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For a century, the city’s banished Chinese population had its own pocket of downtown. Murray K. Lee is now the keeper of that history.
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?
The fishermen came down here first, probably in the 1850s. There were a lot of fishermen up in Monterey Bay and San Francisco. They weren’t allowed to fish in the ocean — they could only be shrimp fishing in the bays — but in Monterey they could gather abalone. I’m sure they came down from Monterey, and when they saw San Diego, they said, “Wow, this is a base for gathering abalone all the way down to Cabo San Lucas.” Which is what they did.
But the exclusion laws (in the 1880s) forced the fishermen out of business.
Anytime the Chinese had anything they could earn a living at in California, [politicians] would try to eliminate that and make them go home. They went after the fishing industry and passed a law that said anyone who was outside the three-mile limit in the ocean had to have papers when they came back into the port. Chinese weren’t allowed to become naturalized citizens until World War II, in 1943, so they had to sell their junks.
When the fishing dried up, what did the Chinese do?
They’d get into market gardening — they’d raise vegetables down in Sweetwater Valley and Mission Valley and sell produce door to door. They would go into restaurant business, laundries and other service industries. That was about all they were allowed to do except construction.
They helped build the San Diego Flume, which brought water down from Cuyamaca all the way down to the city. They helped build the Hotel del Coronado and other major projects like the railroad built from National City to San Bernardino.
Was there as much discrimination against the Chinese in San Diego as in the rest of the state?
The Chinese couldn’t work for the state, the county or for the city. If they worked for a private company like a department store or something like that, the stores would be boycotted. They had to do their own thing.
In the 1870s, when there was an anti-Chinese campaign going on in all of the West, some group wanted to burn down Chinatown. The local sheriff said well, we’ve got to maintain order here, and he went to the armory, picked up all these new rifles and paraded his men on the streets with a little show of force.
He was saying, “You’re going to have to deal with us if you try to destroy Chinatown. We may not want the Chinese here, but when they’re here they’re under our protection.”
He was a little advanced for his time.
How did things change in the 20th century?
In 1943, they repealed the exclusion laws. The Japanese were using the laws as propaganda against the U.S., saying, “Oh, we want to include all our Asians in our sphere in Asia, and you want to exclude them.”
They repealed the laws in 1943, then the Chinese could become naturalized citizens and own property. They could get better housing, they could get better jobs.
A lot of them had training in repairing aircraft, and we had a big aircraft industry. So they went to work for Rohr and all these things and could move out of Chinatown, didn’t have to live there. Gradually, Chinatown disappeared. You didn’t need that anymore.
In a sense, that’s a good thing. Like in New York and San Francisco, Chinatown is no place to raise kids or educate them.
Why do you think Asians don’t have a lot of power in San Diego’s political world?
There’s probably more than you realize. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, Tom Quin (the son of famed early Chinese settler and Chinatown “mayor” Ah Quin) used to invite all of the city councilmen to his restaurant, the Nanking. He had some pretty good influence in the early days.
We had the first Asian on the City Council, Tom Hom, in the 1960s. Then he got elected to the state Assembly. But there hasn’t been any since then.
What is the main theme of the story of the Chinese in San Diego?
I call my book “In Search of Gold Mountain.” The Chinese called California or America “Gold Mountain” because in the Gold Rush days, the Chinese came over to mine for gold, like everyone else from all over the world.
The Chinese were having war and famine at that time, and every family would send a son over here to help support them. They came over looking for Gold Mountain.
The first generation never really attained it. It wasn’t until the later generations that the Chinese could realize the American dream. It took generations of the early pioneers to clear the way for others to succeed.
— Interview conducted and edited by RANDY DOTINGA