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From the Archives: Thomas Ah Quin joined San Diego’s police force in 1917

In late July of 1917, San Diego Police Chief James Patrick appointed Thomas Ah Quin as a Special Officer of the San Diego Police, making Quin the first Chinese police officer in San Diego — a fact noted on the front page of The San Diego Union at the time.

Quin served the department as a translator and a liaison with the Chinese community. He had previously held an official post as interpreter in local immigration cases.

Thomas Quin was a member of one of San Diego’s pioneering Asian families. He was the son of the late Ah Quin, founder of the city’s Chinatown and one of the wealthiest merchants of his time.

He was an influential representative of San Diego’s Chinese community in his own right. He inherited his father’s unofficial role as of Mayor of Chinatown. Like his father, he was a respected businessman who owned the Nanking Café on Fifth Avenues well as having interests in mining and real estate.

He also ran a gambling establishment , a lottery house, a business which ran afoul of a zealous District Attorney’s office in 1935.

Quin’s death at the age of 50 in 1937 was front page news in San Diego.

This 1917 article contains an offensive term for a person of Chinese descent. Excerpts from the Union-Tribune’s historical archives are reprinted as they appeared at the time, and may include language that is understood as racist today.

From The San Diego Union, Thursday, July 26, 1917:

Chinaman Breaks Into Local Police Force

Thomas Ah Quin bears the distinction of being the first Chinese policeman in San Diego.

On recommendation of Acting chief Patrick, the City council yesterday appointed Thomas Ah Quin a special policeman to serve without compensation.

Chief Patrick pointed out that Ah Quin has rendered invaluable service to the police department, and particularly during the period of military registration.

Thomas Ah Quin was born in San Diego and has lived here all his life, it was said.

From The San Diego Union, Sept. 29, 1937:


Thomas A. Quin, 50, native San Diegan and “mayor” of Chinatown, died from a heart ailment last night at 9:30 at his home, 500 Fourth ave.

Known to thousands of citizens as “Tom,” he watched his favorite baseball club, the Padres, win an exciting game from Portland at Lane field yesterday afternoon.

After recounting to friends the home run that won the ball game in the 10th inning, Tom returned home for dinner. Later, about 7:30, he was sitting in his armchair reading his newspaper when he was stricken. Physicians were called, but he died two hours later.

Tom’s father, Tom Ah Quin, was the first leader of San Diego’s Chinatown. At his death the mantle of leadership fell to Tom.

Whenever Chinese interests were represented in some important conference or a Chinese was in difficulty in some misunderstanding of occidental customs, Tom played a helpful role.

Owner of the Nanking café, Tom also owned considerable properties in Chinatown and other sections of the city.

He is survived by his wife, Chuey; a daughter, Helen Quin; six sisters and two brothers, Frank and Henley Quin.

Funeral arrangements will be announced from Bradley-Woolman’s mortuary.

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