Chinese Architecture and Buildings
1860 – Early 20th Century
Notable: The Nanking Cafe, the Manilla Cafe & the Casa de Tomas
1912, 1913, 1930
From its very beginning, San Diego has been a city with an independent and ethnically diverse population. The various cultures of these pioneers are reflected in the architecture throughout the Gaslamp, and in the ways we all now celebrate the customs brought to modern San Diego from throughout the world. The early Victorians reflected the elegance of Europe and the Christmas customs now enjoyed by many. The Chinese, the earliest permanent Asian culture to occupy New Town San Diego, brought with them the ancient celebration of the Chinese lunar New Year and the Chinese inspired architecture expressed throughout the Gaslamp.
The Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival in modern China, is the longest and most important of all Chinese festivals. It is tied to the Chinese lunar calendar, and begins on the new moon that appears between January 21 and February 20. This year it begins on February 1st and lasts for 16 days, although only the first 7 are considered a public holiday. This year, the Year of the Tiger, will culminate with the Lantern Festival on the 15th. The years are named after the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac and their ascribed attributes.
The Chinese architecture has evolved as the Chinese immigrants and their numbers and occupations evolved. Large numbers of Chinese arrived in California during the Gold Rush, with 40,400 being recorded as arriving between 1851 to 1860. Locally, the first Chinese settled in Point Loma and in NewTown San Diego along what is now Third Avenue. As they were primarily fishermen, they anchored their boats, called junks, along the harbor at the foot of Third Avenue. The boats were also built in that area. The vast majority of these new residents were men, who lived in shacks on stilts along the shore.The area inland from the fishing village then became Chinatown, and remained even after fishing was largely lost in 1888 and 1892, due to Federal exclusion laws. Any remaining fishermen moved back to Point Loma at this time.The early Chinatown residents stayed worked primarily in the service industries as laundrymen, cooks, gardeners, and servants. As the population expanded, barbers, tailors, herbalists, and produce vendors joined the workforce, and wooden structures now lined Third Avenue.
Unfortunately, because it was a port city with many sailors coming and going, San Diego developed a red-light district. Also unfortunately, the red-light district, known as the Stingaree, abutted Chinatown. The Chinese had many legitimate businesses in the area, along with their versions of gambling (the lottery and fan tan), opium dens and “China dolls.” However, despite the dominance of vice in the area, the Chinese community was able to endure and residents began to raise families. This was in large part due to the unofficial mayor of Chinatown, Ah Quin – a merchant, real estate developer and networking genius.
Ah Quin was born Tom Chong-kwan in Namzha village, part of Changsha City in the Guangdong Province of South China on December 5, 1848. His family moved to Canton, where he attended an American Missionary school, where he learned English. He also began saving up the $50 he would need to pay his passage to America, where he would seek his fortune and send money back to his family in China. Upon his arrival in San Francisco in 1868, he became affiliated with the Chinese Mission, worked at various jobs and continued his English studies and learned merchandizing along the way. He, additionally, cut off his queue (long braid), which symbolized his commitment to making America his home.
Ah Quin (the name given him by immigration officials who did not know Chinese) moved to Santa Barbara in 1878, and made a visit to San Diego in 1879. It was here that he met George Marston, who persuaded him to move permanently to San Diego and direct the procurement of Chinese laborers to build the transcontinental railroad. This would effectively “put San Diego on the map.” Quin opened a storefront in the Stingaree, where he directed his operations from his labor pool of 1,000 Chinese men, and also supplied provisions for the workers at the railroad camps. He returned to San Francisco in 1881 to marry, and brought his bride, Sue Leong, back to San Diego, where they eventually had 12 children, including the first Chinese boy born in San Diego. The Quins lived in a two-story home on Third Avenue.
The Chinese community continued to grow and prosper, and the town and its buildings began to proliferate. Three iconic buildings still standing in the Gaslamp are the Nanking Building, the Manilla Cafe building and the Casa de Tomas.. Although built within a year of each other, the first two are very different in appearance. The Nanking Building was built in 1912 by Ah Quin. It is architecturally described as “modern,” as it displays none of the elaborate ornamentation common to Victorian era structures.The building features steel reinforced columns both inside and out and 5 -bricks thick walls. It was originally used to sell Chinese imports such as fans, lanterns, parasols, etc. In the rear, the Chinese lottery was run!
Just a couple of doors north is the Manilla Cafe, an adaptation of classic Chinese design. It is a narrow, two-story structure topped by a Chinese style roof made of local adobe tiles. It originally featured a long hallway on the second floor with an equally long skylight, now mostly covered after its 1930 “rebuild.” Both buildings reflect a traditional Asian culture.
On Fourth Avenue, across from the Davis-Horton House, stands another Quin building – the Casa de Tomas. Thomas Quin, oldest son of Ah Quin, commissioned D.S. Calland to reconstruct this building in 1930. It was originally a saloon and then a laundry. The reconstruction featured a store on the street level and two apartments upstairs. As Mr. Calland was from Mexico City, the building was named the “Casa de Tomas.” A garage, known as the Casa de Tomas addition, was added to the side.
Third Avenue remains the traditional Chinatown and the heart of the Asian Pacific District, with several of the original buildings still standing. Among them are the Chinese Mission building (Chinese Historical Museum – 1885), the Chines Consolidated Benevolent Association Building (1911), and the Quin Residence & Produce Building (1890).
Iconic pagoda-style gaslamps line the streets in the district, and serve to remind one of the fascinating and culturally rich heritage of the Gaslamp.
Sandee is the Historian/Lead Tour Guide for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected].