HISTORY IN
    
SAN LUIS OBISPO
        COUNTY
 
Site  by Lynne Landwehr 2004
     www.historyinslocounty.org   

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ah Louis Store

Chinese pioneer Ah Louis founded his store in 1874 to serve as a grocery and general merchandise store, employment office, bank, post office, and pharmacy for the Chinese population of San Luis Obispo.  Twelve years later, the original wooden building was replaced by the present structure, and the local newspaper reported: "The new brick building of Ah Louis...is an ornament to that part of the city, as it would be to any part, and shows the proprietor to be an enterprising, competent business man.  The building is...two stories in height, the front stuccoed and having an iron-railed piazza over the Palm Street front.  The main room on the lower floor is designed and furnished with shelving, draws [drawers], counters, etc. for a store; another good-sized room for storage of goods; another for a private room and office; and a hallway....The upstairs is divided into six rooms for sleeping apartments."

Among the foods stocked were rice, peanut oil, sugar cane, hom don (salted duck eggs), hoy tom (sea cucumber), lop op (dried duck), hom yee (salted fish), dried abalone, oysters, canned fish, and leong fun (a cooling dessert).  The walls of the store were lined with 72 drawers containing Chinese herbal remedies, which Ah Louis dispensed after taking the customer's pulse to help determine the affliction and its treatment.

The brick store has been in continuous operation since 1886, first by Ah Louis, then by his son Howard.  

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Ah Louis (1840-1936)

Ah Louis (Chinese name Wong On) was the best known of the Chinese merchants in San Luis Obispo's Chinatown, and acted as its unofficial mayor, postmaster, and banker from the 1870s on.  He was born in a small village of southern China's Pearl River Delta, in 1840.  Like so many others from this area near Canton, he emigrated to the land the Chinese called "Gold Mountain."  His family put up the money for his ticket, and he landed in San Francisco in 1861.  His early days on the West coast were spent in prospecting for gold in Oregon, and in taking whatever other work he could find.  

Arrival in San Luis Obispo

Sometime around 1870, he arrived in San Luis Obispo, where he found the climate helpful for his asthma.  Years later, he recalled, "When I first came to San Luis, I worked in the French Hotel as a cook; it stood on the corner across from the mission....After that, I was the foreman and employment agent of all the Chinese who were working on the Pacific Coast Railroad.  The P.C. [railroad] first extended to Port Harford, now known as Port San Luis, and later to Santa Maria and Los Olivos....

PortHarfordPlaque.jpg (40367 bytes)
Historical Plaque
at Port San Luis 
(click on photo to enlarge it to readable size)

"After that I had charge of the Chinese miners who were working in the quicksilver mines near Cambria.  After that, an American man and I became partners; we owned the first brickyard in San Luis."

From his store at the corner of Palm and Chorro Streets, Ah Louis presided over San Luis's Chinatown in the 800 block of Palm Street, which consisted of a number of stores, several restaurants, a "joss house" (Chinese temple), and various boarding houses for the Chinese laborers when they were between jobs.  As the late Young Louis, his oldest son, described it: "On any given day, there were gold, chrome, and quicksilver miners, farmers, brickmakers, hotel employees, laundrymen, men from the coast, fishermen, kelp processors, men from the abalone industry, [and] the railroad workers, who came in for supplies and relaxation." 

The fourth Louis child, the late Walter Louis, recalled that "Any Chinese who came to town would make himself known [to Ah Louis].  If they needed a meal or a helping hand, Dad made the offer."

Ah Louis loaned money, often on very favorable terms, and he acted as a banker for whites as well as Chinese.  He never needed to write down the amounts of these transactions--all the ledgers were kept in his head.  When loaning money, Ah Louis seldom required a written contract; a verbal promise and a handshake were sufficient.

To China and Back

AhLouisOnBoatToChina.jpg (6120 bytes)
Ah Louis in 1933
(photo courtesy of Howard Louis)

In 1933, at the age of 93, Ah Louis decided it was time for him to observe his native tradition of going home to China to die.  Because he didn't plan to return to the U.S., he did not take with him the required re-entry documents.  Within months, he was missing his family and friends, and he decided to return to the U.S.  However, since he didn't have the requisite papers, he was detained at the Immigration Center on Angel Island for three days, while U.S. Customs and Immigration authorities investigated his background.  

AngelIslandBell.jpg (10140 bytes) AngelIslandChinaCoveBarracks.jpg (27845 bytes)
Angel Island
Immigration Station
AngelIslandViewTowardsTiburon.jpg (49320 bytes) AngelIslandMarker.jpg (13366 bytes)

With the help and testimony of City of San Luis Obispo Mayor Louis Sinsheimer and other well known locals, as well as a telegram from then-Governor Hiram Johnson, it was determined that Ah Louis had indeed been a longtime merchant in San Luis Obispo, and he was allowed to return to the town that he had spent over 60 years helping to build.

 

 

Click here to read more about the Ah Louis Store,
Ah Louis's youngest son Howard Louis,
and the Louis Family.

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Click here to read 1934 Touring Topics interview with Ah Louis.

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Copyright 2004  Lynne Landwehr.  
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www.historyinslocounty.org