Excerpted from Ed Davidson, "Pioneer Chinese Merchant Becomes Reminiscent When Asked About New Business Location", The San Diego Union, May 21, 1922, p. 15.
Photo published with this article. Quon Mane at far left (courtesy of San Diego History Center)
"I came to San Diego in 1883...It wasn't much of a town....Nothing north of the old Florence hotel (now the Casa Loma). Not much near the bay except the old barracks and the old Santa Fe depot. And nothing at all over on beautiful Coronado. In fact, one of my early jobs was with a cousin of the firm of Sing Yick Co., who took the contract to clear Coronado of sage brush and to build the old belt line for E. S. Babcock."
Records for Sing Yick give no clear indication of who that cousin might have been. E. S. Babcock has been somewhat forgotten in favor of John Spreckels who eventually pushed Babcock out of the Coronado enterprise he started.
"When I first came to San Diego, the Santa Fe had just started and as a matter fact our mail still came from Los Angeles by boat."
"I happened to come because I was young and ambitious and had cousins engaged in trade here. I come from a family of merchants and manufacturers. My father was a manufacturer of pottery in China."
This comment corroborates at least some of Albert's account about the family trade being in ceramics, although Albert also twice mentions an interest in farming implements. (Youngest Son's Son, Quon Mane's 2nd Wife)
"I owe a great deal to that splendid woman, the mother of Mr. George W. Marston, who took a great interest in me and among may other things tutored me in the English language for several years."
The Marston family ran a dry goods business that eventually grew into a fancy department store that along with their philanthropy made them San Diego's first family.
"There are a great many very fine people in this country...and they have been mighty good to me and I appreciate it deeply."
Merchandising of Chinese and Japanese goods "It was in 1888, just at the end of one of San Diego's booms....I started in a little 10-foot room on Sixth street, immediately across from where the Maryland hotel now stands. I was in entire command of the whole store, as you may imagine, it being a quite modest business. Our principal trade was from tourists who stayed at the old Florence hotel on the hill out in the country, so to speak. the business center what little there was of it lay south of my location. The San Diego Union was published in the old Express building, diagonally across from on Sixth and F streets."
"Later I moved to a location on Fifth street between G and H. From there we came up near F street, where we were located for over 20 years until we moved into the location we have just left. And this is the last time I am going to move."
Mr. Quon is very fortunate in the personnel of his employees. His two nephews, Quon Kuey [Frank] and Albert Quon, who constitute his main support, were both educated in the San Diego schools. Albert now being in attendance at the Junior college. In addition to these nephews, other members of the organization include Lloyd Dong, Hom Lan, and the Misses Parra and Lee, all of whom are throughly acquainted with the Chinese and Japanese art good through years of experience and their personal knowledge of the Chinese and Japanese arts, literature and legends.
From left: Miss Lee, Miss Parra [Parib?], Albert, Kuey/Frank, Ronald Quon, Hom Lan, unknown woman, Lloyd Dong and Quon Mane's elder son Ben (courtesy of San Diego History Center)
Mr. Quon has made many trips to the Orient and of course, still retains buying connections in the Far East. he is represented in Hongkong and Canton by relatives in mercantile lines. Close personal friends in both Kobe and Yokohama look after his interests in those cities, while he also has connections in Shanghai, thus affording a most excellent means of keeping in close touch with such merchandise as is best suited to American needs and will at the same time reflect credit upon the country from which it comes.
Quon Mane made four trips back to China during his lifetime, and it's believed his remains were sent back to China after his death, a common practice.
I Cleared the Sage Brush Off Coronado
Excerpted from ad for San Diego Trust & Savings Bank, The San Diego Union, October 10, 1927, p. 20.
"I arrived here in the early 80's and went to work for Sing Yick & Co., who had a contract to clear Coronado for a town and hotel site.
"The whole island was covered with sage brush and we had cross the bay in row boats.
"The clearing of the island; the building of the Hotel del Coronado and the railway along the Silver Strand; and the great excitement over the successful sale of town lots, all stand out plainly in my memory.
"After my work on Coronado I was with the Marston family.
"To Mr. George W. Marston's mother I owe most of my early education, she having taught me the English language and given me practically all of my schooling during the following three years.
"In 1888, about the time the San Diego Trust & Savings Bank was organized, I opened my first store on lower Fifth Street with a line of Oriental merchandise, mostly imported direct from my native land. My acquaintance with President M. T. Gilmore (then cashier) of the bank dates from those early days."
Newspaper accounts indicate that the Coronado clearing began in December 1885 and only lasted a few months, with possibly additional work through the summer of 1886. It's therefore unclear what Quon Mane did in the interval after arriving in the US in 1881, (assuming that date is accurate), or after arriving in San Diego in 1883.
Vegetable Boy "Amen"
Excerpted from Eleanor Ring Storrs (granddaughter of W. W. Stewart), “Parties, Politics, and Principles: ‘It's at the Local Level’”, an oral history conducted by Sarah Sharp, February 15, 1983, in Republican Philosophy and Party Activism, pp. 81-82 of 206, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1984.
"My poor mother never learned how to cook because when she was young in San Diego in the old house, Mother said the table was never set for less than twenty because everybody could always bring friends home; a Chinese cook, and Chinese vegetable boys — they used to call them, and nobody could go near the kitchen. If anybody would go into the kitchen the cook said, 'Get out of my kitchen.' So none of them ever learned to cook or anything like that. Of course, remember this was the boom and bust days in San Diego. Whenever they had good rains, there would be dandy crops and everybody— gee, it was great, and then they'd have a drought. Ha! And everybody went bust you might say.
"My grandfather helped Quon Mane get started in business. That is a Chinese name. Quon Mane came— his uncle was the cook— and he came as a vegetable boy in the Stewart household. My grandfather felt he was entirely too smart. When he was about fifteen he took him down to his warehouse and had him learn things. So today I read that it was George Marston who started him in business and, sure, George Marston did help, but it was Grandpa basically. He opened his own little shop, Quon Mane, but was always known in the family as Amen. [laughs]
Quon Mane, c. 1891 (Arrival Case File 12756/005-17, Quon Mane, RG85, NARA San Bruno)
The Stewart operation (courtesy of San Diego History Center)
"Many years later we used to have a Quon Mane store here in Coronado. I was going in there to get some wedding presents and things, and I look at this Chinese boy and I say, 'What Quon are you?' He said, 'I'm King.' I said, 'What relation are you to Amen?' He looked at me and said, 'You called him Amen?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Who are you?' I said, 'My grandfather was William Wallace Stewart and my mother was Belle Stewart.' He said, 'Oh, I'm sorry! One thing we were all told was that at no time [when] any member of the Stewart family ever came for anything would they pay; you may have anything in the shop.' I said, 'Wow, wait, stop it!'
"He said, 'No, no, I have been very firmly instructed.' When Amen was dying my Aunt Kate, who was still alive (she was the oldest girl), he called for her and she went up to Mercy Hospital and sat there with him. He said, 'Before I die I want to tell you that I have informed my family about what the Stewart family did for us all the way along the line, the two older girls' (that were named for the Stewart family you might say) 'what your grandfather did all through the years and none of us can ever, ever repay and I want you to know this, Miss Kate.' (It was Miss Kate.) Aunt Kate, ah, she was a mass of ruins, of course, because she adored him. They all were real close.
Quon Mane's older two daughters were named Katherine and Mary after two of the Stewart daughters.
"So I said to this kid, I said, 'Look, what you are doing to me, I'll never be able to come into the store again, and I love the things you have. I happen to be very fond of Chinese things and I would be very fond of getting wedding presents that are these sorts of things. Now you are going to stop me. I don't want this to happen and so you are going to have to change or I will never walk in here again.' So anyway, he went and got on the phone and talked to somebody. We finally agreed that I could pay for those sort of things, but, my little boys were a year and three years or something and he picked out little treats to go home for the kids. So I said, 'All right, I'll accept this!' [laughter] Old time San Diego, you know."
Storrs's account may help fill the 1883-1885 gap in Quon Mane's c.v., but we don't know for sure.
Progressive & Pig-Tailed Celestial
"Local Intelligence" column, The San Diego Weekly Union, September 7, 1893, p. 8.
"One of the sights of Fifth street yesterday was a pig-tailed and quilted Celestial astride a bicycle and steering down the street in sublime indifference to cheers or sneers. He was Quon Mane Kee, a Chinese merchant who has money enough to buy a bicycle every day if he likes, and progressive enough to see the utility of the machine."
Bicycle outside Quon Mane store, c. 1890 (courtesy of San Diego History Center)
Excepted from report by Oscar Greenhalgh to Walter S. Chance, March 31, 1899, cited in Jeffrey Scott McIllwain, "Bureaucracy, Corruption, and Organized Crime: Enforcing Chinese Exclusion in San Diego, 1897-1902",Western Legal History, 2004, Vol 17, No. 1, p. 94.
“Quon Mane is one of the most intelligent Americanized Chinamen that I have met. He has joined one of the leading churches, has cut off his Que, and is the President of the Chinese Sunday School. He is at the head of the largest Chinese merchant supply stores on the Coast, located on the principle [sic] street in this city. And [he] is a person of wealth."
Quon Mane, c. 1894 (Chinese Partnership File 13546-5, Quon Mane Co., RG85, NARA San Bruno)
Compared with the effort put in by 19th and early 20th century missionaries, relatively few Chinese converted to Christianity, although they were appreciative of missionaries' education and medical work. The Quons were no exception, and in the immediate family are not known for any particular embrace of religion.
Letters to the Secretary of the Treasury
William Bowers, Collector of Customs, San Diego, to Secretary of the Treasury, Washington, D. C., Oct. 19 & Nov. 4, 1901, Box 3, Folder 5604090, 1900-1904, Letters Sent to the Secretary of the Treasury, 1892-1908, Collection District of San Diego, CA, Records of the Customs Service, Record Group 36, NARA San Bruno.
(courtesy San Diego History Center)
"Quon Mane's store is the largest and best Chinese store in this city.”
"I don’t think Quon Mane needs any defence from me as to his standing in this community.
Bowers's and Stewart's signatures on a witness statement for Quon Leon, 1893
Father and son, c. 1927 (Arrival Case File 28217/008-04, Quon Chew Ben, RG85, NARA San Bruno)
Among all of San Diego’s Chinese merchants, though, the winner of the longevity award is Quon Mane, an Oriental art goods business that started in Chinatown and branched out as far as Del Mar. The last Quon Mane store is in La Jolla, run by Lenora Quon. Lenora Quon's brother-in-law [Ben Quon] closed his store some years ago, but he readily tells how it all started. He speaks English carefully and deliberately and has a charming, dry laugh that shows his teeth like ivory lozenges. He is seventy-four.
“We belonged to a very poor family in Canton. They heard about the United States, the Gold Mountain, so they came here to earn a living. My father was supposed to come to work for the railroad in 1881 but he found out, no jobs. The railroad was just about finished, so no hiring. He heard down here at Coronado Island — it was all bushes — they planned a building, the Coronado Hotel. They hired a crew of Chinese to clear the bushes.
This comment would seem to lay to rest any notion that Quon Mane or his younger brother were ever involved in railroad work.
After they finished he found a job in a family as houseboy. That was George Marston’s mother. He learned his English from Mrs. Marston. She was a very religious lady, and she taught him how to read bibles. He worked for them a few years, and he picked up English very fast. Mr. George Marston figured that he’s a pretty bright young fellow and encouraged him, ‘Quon, why don’t you go into business?’ So he quit, went back to China, that’s when he got married, and when he came back after a year or so he formed a partnership with his four brothers to import and sell Oriental goods. That was 1888. It was way down below Market Street, at Fifth and Island. Gradually, when business got a little better, each time they moved to a better location, always on Fifth. Fifth Avenue was always the main street.
“We were the only Chinese in business uptown for a long time. Our trade was generally the Western people, not the Chinese.” Quon Mane was the principal Chinese import business in San Diego during the 1935-1936 California-Pacific International Exposition and they had a booth in Balboa Park. “There were very few Chinese booths because no one in Chinatown was importing. I saw two people, one they call him Fu. He specialized in soapstone imports.”