Gathering: Sword Cane

Relationship: Im/migrant
Sword cane belonging to Ah Quin, ca. mid-1800s. Donated to the San Diego Historical Museum by Jeanie Ming. Courtesy of San Diego Chinese Historical Society and Museum.
Sword cane belonging to Ah Quin, ca. mid-1800s. Donated to the San Diego Historical Museum by Jeanie Ming. Courtesy of San Diego Chinese Historical Society and Museum.

A prominent figure in San Diego’s development as a major city, Ah Quin was born Tom Chong-Kwan on December 5, 1848, in Kaiping, Guangdong Province. Like many Cantonese during the mid-1800’s, Quin was sent by his family in 1868 to seek wealth in California. After arriving to the United States, Quin worked various jobs in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Alaska. A charismatic individual, Quin was recruited by San Diego philanthropist George Marston to work for the California Southern Railroad in 1881. As a labor broker, Quin was directly in charge of procuring Chinese laborers to help build the railroad, which would propel San Diego’s status as a major port city.

Once in San Diego, Quin opened a mercantile in the Stingaree District of Downtown, where he provided supplies for railroad work gangs. An ambitious entrepreneur, Quin continued to expand his merchandising business and eventually became involved with local real estate after the completion of the railroad. Quin became an influential and highly-respected member of the Chinese community, and became known as the unofficial mayor of Chinatown. He often served as a liaison between the Chinese and the white communities, many times serving as translator when there were court cases involving Chinese community members.

Ah Quin was often seen carrying his cane, which discretely doubled as a sword when unsheathed. It is speculated that Quin carried this cane for protection, as The Stingaree, where he ran his business, was considered a dangerous part of the city and was often subject to police raids. This sword cane was donated to the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum in 2011, by the spouse of one of Quin’s descendants, who believed that it would be best kept by the Museum, which is located directly across the street from the old Quin residency.

This object was featured in the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)'s exhibit, "Gathering: Collecting and Documenting Chinese American History," October 17, 2019 - March 22, 2020.

Place(s): San Diego, CA
Year: 1850

– San Diego Chinese Historical Society and Museum

Relationship:  Im/migrant Im/migrant