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

One in an occasional series on immigrants in San Diego.

April 07, 1986|KAREN KENYON

SAN DIEGO — 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.

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