Thursday, April 8, 2021

Deny Them Their Names: Chinese Men in 19th Century California

This blog post is prompted by the escalated attacks on Asian Americans in recent years; the heightened verbal and physical violence during the COVID-19 pandemic; and the mass slaughter last month at the Atlanta, Georgia, business sites of Asian spas.  These occurrences are on a historical trajectory begun when the first Chinese men set foot on the American continent.

Central in the composition of this postcard photo is the cook during the "noon hour," quite probably a Chinese cook.
He was the 'indispensable enemy'1 during meal time.
(Postcard from a private collection)

In the 19th century the first Asian faces met with general disdain were the masses of Chinese immigrant laborers appearing throughout the U.S.  This post will focus particularly on those who set out for California and the West seeking opportunities as gold miners, farm hands, cooks and railroad builders.  Although the federal census recorded their names and vital statistics, and local tax assessment books logged the taxes they paid, they were essentially anonymous.

1860 United States Federal Census
(Courtesy: Heritage Quest Online. Provo, UT, USA; Operations, Inc. 2009.
Image reproduced by FamilySearch)

1870 United States Federal Census
(Courtesy: Heritage Quest Online. Provo, UT, USA; Operations, Inc. 2009.
Image reproduced by FamilySearch)

Chinese men and women were commonly listed on American record books with a surname of "Ah" as in Ah Chew, Ah Chin, Ah Ching, Ah Con, Ah Cong, Ah Cope, Ah Corn...and so on.  Entire groups of men in whole counties were simply entered in the census as "John Chinaman."  Or else men were each listed by their singular name.

The Chinese men possessed richly expressive individual names like any other culture - usually stated with the family name first, followed by a two-word individual name.  An example of the naming structure:  Bruce Lee, the iconic Chinese American actor and martial artist, used a Chinese stage name Lee Siu Loong, translated to "Lee Little Dragon."  Imagining if Bruce Lee were listed as a Chinese railroad worker in the 1860s, he might have appeared under the entry Ah Loong.

Importantly, among the Chinese, Ah is a natural linguistic affectation2 stated before a noun:  Ah Ma (mother), Ah Ba (father).  Ah is a personal, fraternal, friendly, respectful and endearing way to address one another.  I can imagine the harsh physical and psychological pressures among the early Chinese in America, and the salutation Ah reinforced a sense of camaraderie.  Ah can be applied following the name, too, for congenial emphasis, Ah Loong ah

Ah was not comprehended by the non-Chinese.  When a large swath of the Chinese population was subjected to the name Ah, stripped away was each person’s individual traits as a human being.  But the uniform naming device conveniently served both the white labor boss and the non-English speaking laborer.  Neither needed to trip up over multi-phoneticized names - nor did the census takers.

Matchbook cover

A modern case of the naming pattern perpetuated can be found in the former chain of high-end Chinese restaurants located in Los Angeles from the 1940s to the 1980s - Ah Fong's.

An actor Ah Wing won roles in American silent films of the 1910s and 1920s.

Ah Quin, the Unofficial Mayor of San Diego's Chinatown

In Southern California, there is only one 19th century Chinese man whose life was well-documented:  Tom Ah Quin, known as Ah Quin.

Ah Quin with his wife and large family, circa 1899
(Courtesy of the San Diego History Center)

Susie Lan Cassel, a scholar of Chinese American history, uncovered his family name to be Tom, or pronounced Hom.3  Additional biographical material found here told that his given name, Tom Chong-kwan, was converted to Ah Quin by immigration officials.  And while it was common for federal census takers to err and misspell the names of those they surveyed, the 1900 census underscored the confusing Chinese names when husband and wife were listed respectively as Tom Quinn and Ah Quinn [sic].

The family portrait above, in and of itself, does not reveal the persona of Ah Quin, nor the varied opportunities for upward mobility that life in San Diego afforded him.

A page from Ah Quin's diary, 1891
(Courtesy Artstor, University of California, San Diego)

Ten diaries, penned by Ah Quin between 1876 and 1902, were kept by descendants, sometimes forgotten about, and they eventually were turned over for preservation in a research institution.  His entries in Chinese and English documented experiences, beginning in Santa Barbara, then in the U.S. District of Alaska, a return to Santa Barbara, and finally in San Diego beginning in the 1880s.  Along with additional writings from his time in San Francisco, the entire trove has aided historians with subjects such as the bachelor society in that city.

Even had there been the absence of diaries, modern day researchers could at least find substantial information on his life because Ah Quin's family and business affairs were reported frequently in the local newspapers.

He was born in the south China province of Guangdong on December 5, 1848 (according to his headstone).  He attended an American missionary school that provided him with English language skills that usefully navigated his new American journey when his family in 1868 sent him to California where other relatives had preceded him, and there were missionary contacts in San Francisco to receive him.  A good biographical source is here.

His birth date is convoluted, too, because in several diary entries he self-stated to be born on the 8th of December, 1850.  Whether it was 1848 or 1850, by the time he was born, surely his village was receiving the news spreading of the Gold Mountain in California following the gold strike at Sutter's Mill.

I read somewhere that he was a fairly tall man.  Because he was a Christian, spoke English and wore his hair in Western fashion, all these characteristics formed a charismatic individual who forged business relationships with white Americans.  Quin is also an Irish surname.  Another summary of him can be found here.  For more extensive scholarly excerpts by Susie Lan Cassel on Google Books, visit here.

His embrace of American life was reflected in part by the naming of his children:  Annie, George, Mamie, Thomas (Tom), Margaret (Maggie), Lillian (Lily), Franklin (Frank), Minnie, Henry Horton, Mary (Violet), Mabel, and McKinley.  The last son was named when William McKinley was on his second campaign for the American presidency.  (A thirteenth child, Ida May, deceased, can be found on online genealogical sources.)  The naming of fourth son Henry Horton may hold a clue to Ah Quin's relationship with his contemporary, Alonzo Horton, the prominent San Diego developer.  They may have been on par on certain social and business levels.

Wong Kim Ark of San Francisco

The use of "Ah" in government records diminished with each decade.  Individuals like Wong Kim Ark born and living in San Francisco in the late 19th century did not have to be identified as Ah Ark.

Mr. Wong was the defendant in a now-celebrated 1898 Supreme Court case United States v. Wong Kim Ark that established a person's birthright citizenship.

Not Goin' Back to China!

Ah Quin and Wong Kim Ark made California their permanent home.  

As ongoing American victims of anti-Asian hate are attacked with choruses of 'Go Back to China!' one response might be 'Why Did Your American Missionaries Go Into China??'

Just a Few Notes:

1    The term is borrowed from the title of the book The Indispensable Enemy:  Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California, by Alexander Saxton, the late UCLA historian.

2    The term "linguistic affectation" is credited to Oakland-based journalist William Wong resulting from my email conversation with him.

3    The Chinese in America:  a History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium, edited by Susie Lan Cassel, Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California, 2002.