Ah Quin – unofficial mayor of San Diego's Chinatown

Recruited railroad workers and kept a diary

Ah Quin and his wife, Sue Leong, had 12 children and lived in a two-story house on Third Street
  • Ah Quin and his wife, Sue Leong, had 12 children and lived in a two-story house on Third Street

Ah Quin was born in China's Kwangtung province in 1848. He converted to Christianity at a missionary school in Canton and learned to read and write in both Chinese and English. To earn money for his family, Quin came to California in 1868. “He was intelligent, ambitious, and demonstrated an ability to quickly adapt to Western customs," Griego observes, "all of which made him well suited for the overseas enterprise." Quin’s literacy in two languages proved particularly helpful.

During his early years in California, Quin worked as a house servant and a cook in San Francisco and, for a year, in Coal Harbor, Alaska. He also learned merchandising from an uncle in Santa Barbara. Quin came to San Diego in September 1878 to visit relatives. He met George Marston, owner of a dry goods store, and G.W. Camp, minister of San Diego's Presbyterian Church. When Quin moved back to San Francisco, he corresponded with both men.

In 1880, Marston and Camp urged Quin to return to San Diego. The California Southern Railroad was under construction, from National City to San Bernardino. Because the labor force was largely Chinese, Marston and Camp felt that "Quin's bilingual talents and business training made him an ideal selection for labor contractor, despite his relative inexperience...thus began an extraordinary rise from house servant to merchant and contractor."

Quin recruited men, sent supplies to the workers (who ate rice, potatoes, and fish), and occasionally supervised the "end-of-track" work. He opened a store in San Diego's Chinatown. “Much of his income was generated by selling provisions to his men."

The weather for February 1883 was harsh. As the railroad neared completion, rains washed away almost 30 miles of track along the Santa Margarita River. The engineers who planned the route never took flooding into account. “One train was stranded on the track for several days, and its passengers forced to hike to San Diego for help."

For the next two years, Ah Quin recruited men, negotiated disagreements among workmen and foremen, and helped rebuild “portions of the track above Oceanside and through Temecula Valley. Along with other labor gangs they succeeded in returning the rail connection to San Diego."

Quin settled in San Diego. He and his wife, Sue Leong, had 12 children and lived in a two-story house on Third Street. Quin managed his store on Fifth and oversaw real estate holdings throughout Southern California. He also became the unofficial mayor of Chinatown in San Diego, often acting as a spokesman for the Chinese community.

As he helped rebuild the railroad, Quin kept a diary, one of seven he wrote in his lifetime. “Despite his unpolished syntax and grammar," Griego writes, “the little books are a singular resource for San Diego history and for the history of the Chinese in California, offering a unique opportunity to observe events from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant."


From the diary of 1884:

  • Feb. 2 — have bre[akfast] in saloon 10 A.M., by stage go up to Riverside station. No train to San Diego, then back to Colton, stay in hotel, rain, cannot have train home because Temecula Valley is brook.
  • Feb. 18 — Felt very sad, not knowed anything.
  • Feb. 20 — California not knowed anything of San Diego because the California Southern Railroad is destroyed.
  • Feb. 25 — Woke up at 6:10, stay at Riverside to wait, and case of gambling of Quong Mow Lung. They ask me to interpret for Judge Conway, then the case free of charge. All the men fill happy. Riverside paper talk about me.
  • April 9 — Have big dinner and drink with friends because Wing Wo win big money in lottery.
  • July 29 — At Hop Lee Gang with trouble. He try to cheat me $30 about the commission, he try to change the figure. Supper in boarding house.
  • Aug. 1 — Trouble better, home to San Diego, in bed by 11.
  • Dec. 25 — Mine men is ready, and go up to put up the tent. Stay raining, I work in the rain and I get wet.

Fallbrook: once part of the Santa Margarita Rancho and named for Fallbrook, Pennsylvania, this community grew along the railroad tracks when a developer purchased the first 160 acres in 1884.

The small Chinese community in San Diego existed in the face of hostility from white residents, but the railroad workers received grudging welcome.

Frank Kimball, founder of National City, had been the driving force behind the acquisition of a railroad for San Diego. Inspired by a belief that a railroad terminal would transform National City into a boomtown, Kimball had coaxed the directors of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad to route a branch line through San Diego and establish a terminal at National City... When the link to the main line was reestablished...Frank Kimball's visions never materialized, because shortly thereafter the railroad terminal was removed from National City to a more centrally located site in San Bernardino. The railroad proved not to be the key to mushrooming growth and affluence everyone had expected. Yet that does not diminish the achievement of Kimball and the labor contractors.

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