Ah Quin was born on December 5, 1848 in a small village in the Hoiping (Kaiping) District of Guandong Province of southern
China. He was the eldest son of parents who were farmers. His family moved to Canton when he was young providing him with
an opportunity for an education, which included English at an American missionary school. Like many Cantonese of the period,
his family sent him to California in 1868. The family name was Tom, but as is often the case with Chinese immigrants, government
officials misinterpreted their names, and he became known as Ah Quin. He spent his first six years in San Francisco’s Chinatown,
where he continued his studies at a Christian mission and worked at a variety of jobs including that of houseboy and cook.
Around 1873, Ah Quin moved to Santa Barbara where he began to learn merchandising from an uncle, continued his mission studies,
served as a houseboy, and developed contacts with important men of the area, such as Judge Charles Huse. In Santa Barbara
he decided to sign on for a year as a cook with a company that mined coal in Alaska. While in Alaska he cut off his queue,
which was a demonstration that he was planning to make America his home.