The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1989, Volume 35, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Wong Ho Leun: An American Chinatown.

Edited by The Great Basin Foundation. San Diego: Great Basin Foundation, 1987; distributed by Austen Associates, Riverside, CA. Two Volumes. Bibilography. Illustrations. Volume One, 406 pages; Volume Two, 558 pages. $105.00

Reviewed by Judith Liu, Assistant professor, Department of Anthropology/Sociology, University of San Diego, and author of several pieces on the Chinese in San Diego history.

Ah Quin, one of the more prominent early Chinese San Diegans, was an important figure not only in San Diego’s history but in Riverside’s as well. Highly regarded by both the white and Chinese Community in San Diego for his leadership and conscientious service, he was recognized as the unofficial “Mayor of Chinatown” from 1885 until his death in 1914. In both San Diego and Riverside (which at one time was part of San Diego County) he served as a labor contractor assembling Chinese Crews for the California Southern Railroad built between San Bernardino and National City from 1880-1885.

The role of Ah Quin is chronicled in the first of two impressive volumes, Wong HO Leun: An American Chinatown, concerning Riverside’s Chinatown. The Volumes are named in honor of George Wong (Wong Ho Leun) who was the last Chinese resident and owner of Riverside’s Chinatown (from 1943 untill he died in 1974). Through his tireless efforts to preserve the site, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and later, the State of California, Department of Parks and Recreation, finally approved the site as a State Point of History Interest in 1963. In 1985, the Great Basin Foundation, a research affiliate of the San Diego Museum of Man, Was Contracted to conduct a major archaeological study of Reverside’s Chinatown. The historical and archeological research on Riverside’s Chinatown and its Chinese immigrant pioneers are detailed in the two volumes.

Volume I deals with the history of Riverside and its two Chinatowns from their early beginnings in 1878. Most notable are: (1) the chapter dealing with the migratory origins of Chinese pioneers obtained from burial records from the city’s Olivewood Cemetery, newspaper articles, and interviews with local residents, and (2) the chapter based on translations of banking records of overseas Chinese remittances to Chinna. of interest to San Diego readers is the first chapter concerning Riverside’s first Chinatown and the growth boom of the 1880s. Readers will find a striking similarity between the growth and development of Riverside with that of San Diego. Other chapters include the contribution of the Chinese to the inland Southern California Citrus Belt; newspaper accounts of Chinese settlers; anti-Chinese agitations; and personal remembrances of local residents. The chapters throughout this volume manage to combine scholarly detail with a readable style. Thus, the work can serve not only as a valuable research tool, but also as a fascinating account of the early Chinese experience in California.

Volume II deals with the archaeological remains unearthed during the excavations. Few early Chinatowns have survived to the extent of Riverside’s. For the layman and professional alike, this volume yields a wealth of information. There are chapters on vertebrate faunal, botanical, and shellfish remains; opium paraphernalia; coins; medical practices; religion; porcelain; and utilitarian stoneware to name a few. From the archaeological finds, one can obtain a feel for what the Chinese residents ate and drank; the things they used in day-to-day life; the games and habits in which they engaged; and their beliefs and customs. The findings corroborate facts known about and dispels myths (such as the Chinese being only sojourners) concerning the early Chinese pioneers. In short, the chapters give a glimpse into the daily life of early Chinese settlers in Riverside. This glimpse is richly enhanced by the hundreds of original and period photographs, colored plates, and illustrations which are found throughout both volumes. Visually stunning, the volumes present a feast for both the eyes and the mind. These volumes have added to our knowledge of early Chinese in California and will serve as an important reference for future archaeological excavations on Chinese sites.

Unfortunately, only one thousand copies of the two volumes were printed, and the price may deter some. One can only hope that demand will permit a second printing.