There is a stark contrast between today’s San Luis Obispo and the city it was a century ago. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the city was home to one of the largest Chinatown districts outside of San Francisco. Yet today, few remnants of old Chinatown remain and even fewer know the story behind what’s left.
The block of Palm Street between Chorro and Morro Streets that once thrived with a large Chinese-American community is now home to the Palm Theatre, a small Chinese Bazaar, a recently closed Mee Heng Low chop-suey restaurant and various shops in addition to the Palm Street parking lot.
Where it all started:
The Ah Louis Store
However, one historic building will forever be set on the corner of Chorro and Palm, registered and protected as California State Landmark. Now acting as a gift store, its outward appearance is almost the same as in dated pictures of the building. The front of the building is painted white while the sides and back of the structure are purely brick, accented with teal colors over the once dark iron doors, shutters, and iron grillwork balcony.
At first glance, it may look like some generic, small town general merchandise store, yet the bright red sign with black letters reading “Ah Louis Store” catches the eye and gives recognition to the one man behind Chinatown’s existence.
That man is On Wong, a Chinese immigrant who traveled to California in 1856 in the age of booming gold strikes. Wong, after never finding luck in the mining industry, became a laborer and worked in Oregon before moving to San Luis Obispo.
Upon arrival, he changed his name to Ah Louis (pronounced Ah Loo-ee), after a co-worker urged him to sound more ‘Americanized.’ He also changed out of his ‘Chinese coolie costume’ into the standard male clothing of the time.
But although Louis shed his name and cultural clothing to fit into his new surroundings, he is responsible for much of the infrastructure, industry and the Chinese culture that helped build the Central Coast at the turn of the century.
He opened Ah Louis store in 1874 at 800 Palm St., feeling that there was a need in the Central Coast community for a small Oriential mercantile (1 in 10 San Luis Obispo residents at the time were Chinese-American).
The store acted as a bank, employment office, and provided general items such as rice, sugar, rum and tea, but also unusual delicacies such as salted duck eggs, sea cucumbers and dried abalone. He even offered Chinese and Japanese medicines such as opium (which was legal until 1915) and whiskey-soaked rattlesnakes to be applied to sore muscles.
Walter Louis, a descendant of Louis, joked to the Telegraph Tribune (today’s San Luis Obispo Tribune) in a Oct. 22, 1991 article about the rattlesnake treatment saying, “I think it was the beginning of your sportscreme and Ben-Gay.”
“Mr. Big”: a man of many talents
The store’s upper stories were living quarters for Louis and his second wife, Ying Gon, and their five sons and three daughters. A section of the living quarters above the shop was set aside as a temple where Louis practiced his Taoist faith. Now, the upstairs serves as an office for the owner of the building – Ah Louis’ grandson, William Watson. Additionally, the wooden frame of the store was later built using bricks from the brickyard Louis owned near the base of Bishop’s Peak. Louis’ brickyard also provided many of the bricks still seen throughout San Luis Obispo’s older buildings and roadways.
A man of many talents, Louis became one of the largest employer’s of labor on the Central Coast, due in part to a contract he was awarded for a 10-year project that to dig eight South Pacific railroad tunnels through the Cuesta Grade just North of San Luis Obispo.
Around 2,000 Chinese-American laborers were brought to the area by Louis to carve the tunnels with hand tools and dynamite. With a total profit of $200 a day for ten years, Louis began his illustrious career as a labor contractor and soon became known as “Mr. Big” among community members and Chinese-American friends.
According to a May 15, 1972 Los Angeles Times article, the now deceased son Young Louis said each of his father’s workers made $1.50 a day, of which only 10 cents went to Ah Louis.
At one point, at least 10,000 Chinese laborers from Louis’ home district Toi Shan came through San Luis Obispo, a key distribution point for the laborers. Throughout California, the men built railroads and dikes in the Delta county, as well as worked in the mines.
“Many Chinese immigrants paid Ah Louis for the passage to America,” said Beverly Gietzen, assistant director of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center.
A variety of several restaurants, the Joss House(a Chinese church), gambling houses, outhouses and board houses used by Chinese laborers working for Ah Louis made up most of Chinatown.
Louis is thought to be one of the most influential Chinese figures throughout the San Luis Obispo community and California in general. He was appointed the mayoral role of China town where he was called the “Chief Mandarin of Chinatown.” As chief, he would arbitrate many disputes making sure the Chinese knew and observed the law.
Even though the Chinese immigrants graded the roads that made it possible to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco (and hence the Central Coast), built irrigation systems and provided seeds, they were still severely discriminated against and often seen as foreigners taking jobs from white men.
Adding to the pressure that the Chinese-Americans was the 1854 California Supreme Court ruling from “The People v. George W. Hall.” The case resulted when George Hall, a white male, was convicted on capital murder charges for killing a Chinese-American miner in Nevada County, based on evidence given by other Chinese-Americans. The testimony was dismissed and Hall freed. The court ruling stated that the Chinese were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference.”
Adding to the racial tensions caused by the case was 1873 recession and the Foreign Miners Licence Law passed by Congress and sharply limiting the number of Chinese workers allowed into the United States.
The local government further threatened the livelihoods of Chinese-Americans in 1880, when the San Luis Obispo City Council voted to remove all Chinese laundries from the city because other residents didn’t like the clouds of steam and odor they exhuded. Six years later, Arroyo Grande residents forced the Chinese residents out of their town and threatened those who remained with hangings.
Ah Louis bought iron shutters for the windows to protect his eight children from crime and the potential blowout of racial tension. The shutters were shipped from England around Cape Horn to ‘fend off Tong Feuds and other marauders’ in early Chinatown, according to a Californian Historian edition from November 1965.
Tragedy struck the Louis family when Ah Louis’ wife was shot in the head around the same time. Historical reports differ as the actual sequence of events: some claim the wife was asleep with the youngest child when she was shot in the middle of the night while other publications say it was outside the store on the sidewalk. Either way, the male suspect was tried quickly by a jury and hanged. The Ah Louis store still kept in business despite the tragedy.
Louis is remembered as having a long white beard and a could be seen with a three-foot-long cherrywood and ivory pipe in hand that he smoked corn silk out of to help his asthma.
When he passed in 1936, his family returned to China for his last farewell. Many Chinese schools were closed for the large funeral that was carried on a nationwide broadcast around China.
Most of the Chinese-American laborers moved south in the late 1920s. San Luis Obispo began to grow extensively after World War II and the downtown served as significant component of commercial housing. Chinese residents were further forced to vacate after city officials claimed land down the street from Ah Louis’ store for a parking lot that now sits on the corner of Palm and Osos streets.
Palm Street today
Next to the store is a bell dedicated to Ah Louis from his son that sits on the right side of the building.
His granddaughter Elsie reminisces about her grandfather and the bell in H.K. Wong’s book, “GumSahn Yun” (Chinese for “Gold Mountain Men”): “At his sign (hand motion) someone went out into the street to clang the bell loudly and announce in Chinese that dinner was ready.
On both sides of the block, doors would fly open – anyone who wanted to come was welcome and would scurry to 800 Palm St. to find a place on a stool around a table which was set up in the store. Food was brought to the guests first.”
Currently, there are plans to do more on the space where Chinatown once sat. The Chinatown project being built by the Copeland family will take up 300,000 square feet containing off-street parking, an upscale hotel, condos, retail, a restaurant and offices over more than three-fourths of the block between Palm and Monterey and Chorro and Morro streets.
There is also an Ah Louis project slated to leave the store standing but include a four-story building with retail, offices and an apartment upstairs next door.
San Luis Obispo Mayor Dave Romero said the new projects will “eventually be one of a kind” and possibly “the crown jewels” of the city, although he wasn’t sure if they would contain any Chinese influence in them to reflect the history of the old town and the story of the man that built it.