The Coast News Group
Murray K. Lee will talk about his book, “In Search of Gold Mountain: A History of the Chinese in San Diego,” in February at the campuses of MiraCosta College. Photo courtesy of Murray K. Lee

Book highlights history of Chinese in San Diego

COAST CITIES — Murray K. Lee will share his insights on San Diego Chinese-American history at MiraCosta College campuses Feb. 13. 

Lee has dug deep into the topic of San Diego Chinese-American history. As the curator of the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum since 1996, he took on the task of researching and writing about it.

His research includes interviews and meticulous reviews of San Diego records. Lee said he gleaned a lot of information about the daily life of Chinese-Americans through detailed death reports in which employers and friends of Chinese-Americans were interviewed.

The results of his research are lectures, historical tours, numerous articles and the book “In Search of Gold Mountain: A History of the Chinese in San Diego.” The 352-page tome is filled with 245 photos, maps and illustrations.

Information in the book will be a large part of his lecture.

“In Search of Gold Mountain: A History of the Chinese in San Diego,” published in 2011, describes San Diego Chinese-American history from the 1850s to 1960s. The book follows the history of early Chinese abalone fisherman in the 1850s who anchored their junks at Shelter Island, later laborers and shopkeepers, and Chinese-American troops in World War II.

The book also documents the ill effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act that was repealed in 1943 but still prompted unjust attitudes toward Chinese-Americans up until immigration laws were changed in the 1960s.

“It happens that if Chinese got into anything and were making a livelihood the establishment would be trying to eliminate it with exclusion laws,” Lee said.

One early case in point is at the height of the abalone fishing industry in 1883 it was made into law that traveling 30 miles off the coast was considered leaving the country.

Many Chinese had difficulty obtaining the correct papers to stay in the country and ended up selling their junks.

“Exclusionary laws put a damper on a lot immigrants coming into the economy in San Diego,” Lee said.

“It’s a struggle we don’t want to see repeated again,” he added.

The book also tells of Chinese-American successes. Ah Quin was considered the unofficial mayor of San Diego Chinatown. His son Tom Quin was the first Asian to serve on the San Diego City Council in the 1920s. Other political leaders followed like Tom Hom ,who was elected to the state Assembly in the 1960s.

Lee’s own experience growing up as a Scottish-Chinese-American on the East Coast did not include exclusion. He and his brother were the only Chinese-Americans who attended their high school. Their uniqueness did not draw ridicule. Lee served as class treasurer, earned a letter on the school track team, and later earned a degree at George Washington University.

He also kept a close connection with his family and culture. Lee remembers his father having difficulty finding work other than simple labor.

“My father was educated and born in this country, but never could find a job other than restaurants or laundry,” he said.

Lee includes stories his grandfather told him in his lectures. Stories include accounts of immigration, building the railroad, and his grandfather’s unique friendship with American Indians.

The lecture will be held at 3 p.m. Feb. 13 at MiraCosta College’s Oceanside Campus, 1 Barnard Drive, Student Center Club Room in Oceanside. Admission is free.


1 comment

Ann Eidson February 14, 2013 at 11:48 am

I was in San Diego Feb 1 -7, visiting from Chattanooga, Tennessee (I am studying American history at Chattanooga State). We have been studying about the Chinese/Americans; I was so excited to read that Mr. Lee was speaking at Mira Costa College. My departure date could not be changed, so I was unable to meet Murry K Lee, but I will look for his book and read it. Ann Eidson

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