Publication Date

December 1, 2009

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

Asian Pacific Americans have a long history in San Diego. Hawaiian sailors appeared around the 1830s while Chinese immigrants came during the 1850s. Prior to changes in immigration law in 1965, the Asian community in San Diego was small, consisting mainly of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino/as. After the immigration reform of 1965 and the influx of Southeast Asian refugees, the Asian population in the county rose from 1 percent in 1960 to 10.2 percent in 2000. The population has diversified to include Filipino/as, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Laotians, Koreans, Asian Indians, Cambodians, Hmong, and Thais. Starting in the 1980s, Asian Pacific Americans became the second-largest minority group in the county, surpassing African Americans.1

In the 19th century, Asian immigrants came to San Diego to seek opportunities and to escape anti-Asian hostilities in northern California. Segregation and violence drove Chinese to move to the downtown red-light district known as the Stingaree District. The Chinese quarter, dubbed Chinatown, had both residential and business establishments, including restaurants, herbal shops, grocery stores, laundries, opium dens, and gambling halls. Other Chinese were employed in truck gardening, railroad, and fishing.

Between 1870 and 1888, Chinese fishermen were the major suppliers in the city. The prohibition of fine-meshed nets and the Scott Act of 1888, which banned the re-entry of Chinese laborers into the United States, drove the Chinese out of the fishing industry. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited further migration from China, Japanese laborers were increasingly recruited to work on railroads, farms, fishing, and canneries. Japanese farmers and seasonal laborers scattered throughout San Diego, but racial hostilities encouraged the Japanese to concentrate in the downtown area, next to Chinatown. The first Filipino/as came to San Diego in the early 1900s, but many more arrived after the Immigration Act of 1924 barred other Asians from immigration. Filipino/as’ national status allowed them to immigrate to the United States without restriction. Compared to Chinese and Japanese, the number of Filipino/as in San Diego was smaller, as many of them were migrant workers. They also were employed in the Navy and in the service sector in restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs. Their businesses likewise clustered in the downtown area. Similar to their Chinese and Japanese counterparts, Filipino/as faced racial prejudice in San Diego.

World War II was a turning point for the downtown Asian community. Forced internment removed the Japanese from the area. After the war, only a few returned. Meanwhile, postwar suburbanization and desegregation motivated many Chinese and Filipino/as to move out of the downtown area and into the suburbs.2

The involvement of the United States in Asia after World War II reshaped the Asian population in San Diego once again. American military involvement in Asia brought Chinese, Japanese, Filipina, and Korean women to the area through the War Brides Act. Beginning in the 1950s, Filipino/as came to the county because of the U.S. military presence in the Philippines and San Diego’s status as the Pacific naval headquarters. The Navy connection elevated the Filipino/a American community to be the largest Asian American group in the county. After the Vietnam War, many Southeast Asian refugees settled in San Diego, in part because Camp Pendleton, a U.S. Marine base not far from San Diego, was one of the processing centers for first-wave refugees.3 San Diego also has been a favorite destination for other Asian immigrants. The 1965 immigration law favored occupational and family immigration. San Diego’s diverse industries and mild weather have drawn many Asian Pacific American professionals to the area.

The contemporary Asian Pacific American community is scattered throughout the county, with a few concentrated settlements. Chinese, Japanese, Asian Indians, Koreans, and Taiwanese were dispersed all over the county. Southeast Asians tended to live in Southeast San Diego, East San Diego, Linda Vista, and Mira Mesa while Filipino/as were in National City, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, Bonita, and Paradise Hills. Affluent Asian Pacific Americans have moved to suburban communities such as Mira Mesa, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Oceanside, Poway, and Scripps Ranch. Asian business establishments dot the San Diego area. In the 1990s large Asian supermarkets were opened in Kearny Mesa. The area also attracted many Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants. Mira Mesa is another location that has vibrant Filipino/a and Vietnamese business establishments. In addition, El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue have become centers of commerce and community for Southeast Asian Americans.4

To find the historic Asian Pacific American community, one has merely to step outside the AHA meeting hotels and walk a few blocks to the Asian/Pacific Thematic Historic District. A product of Asian Pacific American activism, the district was established in 1987 by the San Diego City Council. Sandwiched between the Gaslamp Quarter and the Marina area, the district is located between Market Street and J Street, from 2nd Avenue to 6th Avenue. Constructed between 1883 and 1930, the 20 buildings that are part of the historic district have strong ties to Chinese, Filipino/as, Japanese, and Hawaiians. Some are still occupied by Chinese or other Asian residents, businesses, and cultural centers. To learn more about the district, contact the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum, which offers a walking tour. In June 2009, the Centre City Development Corporation voted to give the Historic District a makeover, with plans for an Asian-style gateway, guarding lions, and Asian-style street lights. Construction should be completed by spring 2010. The district will look more “Asian” when you tour it next time.



  1. Linda Trinh Võ, Mobilizing an Asian American Community (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 2004), 23–25; 2000 census. []
  2. Amanda Strouse, “Asian Historic District Set to Get a Makeover,” Union Tribune, June 11, 2009; Adelaida Castillo, “Filipino Migrants in San Diego, 1900–1946,” Journal of San Diego History 22, no. 3 (summer 1976): 27–35; Võ, Mobilizing an Asian American Community, 16–20; Leland Saito, The Politics of Exclusion: The Failure of Race-Neutral Policies in Urban America (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 2009), 43–44. []
  3. Võ, Mobilizing an Asian American Community, 21, 24. []
  4. Võ, Mobilizing an Asian American Community, 32. []

Chiou-Ling Yeh is associate professor of history at San Diego State University. She is the author of Making an American Festival: Chinese New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown (2008).