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“San Diego had a Chinatown?!”
That was a common response to my interview last week with Murray K. Lee, the chronicler of downtown San Diego’s largely forgotten Chinatown neighborhood.
The story became the most read article on our site, suggesting that there’s plenty of interest in this topic. Here’s more background about Chinatown with help from Lee, curator of the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum.
Where was Chinatown, exactly?
It was roughly in the eight-block area of what’s now known as the Asian Historic District in the Gaslamp Quarter area, as seen in this map: between Market Street and J Street to the north and south and Second Avenue and Sixth Avenue to the west and east.
How many people lived there?
The number varied, but seems to have always been in the range of a few hundred. Lee has examined census figures that showed 202 Chinatown residents in 1880, including cooks, laborers, launderers, fisherman, housekeepers, merchants, clerks and physicians. The Chinese made up almost 3 percent of the residents of the county then.
In 1930, the district was home to 546 people — 240 Chinese, 119 Japanese, 91 white, 86 black and the rest of other ethnicities. Most of the Chinese who had jobs were restaurant workers, grocers, produce workers, herbalists, gardeners and chauffeurs.
What was Chinatown’s connection to the Stingaree, the famous red-light district that’s now the Gaslamp Quarter?
Chinatown overlapped with the Stingaree, which notorious for all sorts of crime and vice. “It was a pretty wide open place, just like the Barbary Coast in San Francisco,” Lee said.
Saloons — including two with the memorable names Old Tub of Blood and Seven Buckets of Blood — provided beverages to visiting sailors, while “gaudy women” proffered their services at brothels. (Last fall, we examined the rise and fall of prostitution in the Stingaree and noted a 1912 raid that spawned this classic headline: “138 Are Arrested in Stingaree Raid/136 Promise to Leave City; Two Agree to Reform.”)
In Chinatown itself, Lee said, opium dens were common and were raided on occasion after people complained about them.
It’s not likely that the Chinese engaged in prostitution because “there weren’t enough Chinese women as it was,” Lee said. “But they did do gambling — fan-tan and the Chinese lottery. Every merchant sold lottery tickets.”
Did people of other Asian nationalities move nearby?
The Japanese moved in to the area around Fifth Avenue and Island Avenue around the 1880s and 1890s, Lee said, and called their neighborhood “Fifth and Island” instead of a more traditional “Little Tokyo.”
Did Christian churches reach out to the residents of Chinatown?
They did, and missions were part of the neighborhood for decades, even though as one Congressional Church report put it, the “fallow ground” in Chinatown was “as hard as a rock, and it will require the faith of a Moses and the power of the Infinite Spirit to ‘break it up.’”
What was life like in Chinatown?
Not surprisingly, it could be rough. Chinese immigrants were only allowed to work in a small number of jobs, and they couldn’t become citizens or own property.
In 1900, a public health official toured Chinatown and reported that it was “filthy,” full of shanties and prone to the spread of the plague.
Then came an even more pressing need to clean things up: the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, which attracted tourists and left us with the buildings of Balboa Park.
As part of a citywide cleanup effort, health officials ordered that 99 buildings be torn down in Chinatown. In a report, officials said they were “as lenient … as possible” with the people who lived in the buildings and helped them relocate.
The city health inspector then proclaimed that “the waterfront has been cleaned up, the Stingaree had been wiped out, Chinatown had almost disappeared.”
Chinatown didn’t actually vanish: it remained vibrant for a few more decades, but withered after World War II when the Chinese were able to become citizens and own property.
Lee said Chinatown was never very populous to begin with, probably because San Diego had lacked major industry to attract more Chinese people. “We didn’t get the railroad directly from the east. We got bypassed, so Los Angeles got all the industry and factories, which is probably a good thing for San Diego.”