HISTORY IN
    
SAN LUIS OBISPO
        COUNTY
  
Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2001
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Features and Information:

 

   "What California Means
to Its Oldest Living Chinese"
1934 Interview with Ah Louis

By Chester Newten Hess,
in Westways, March, 1934, vol. 26, No. 3,
reprinted with the kind permission
of Automobile Club of Southern California
Westways Editor John Lehrer

***

"Chinatown in San Luis Obispo had been lazily astir for several hours that clear, brisk morning.  But the sun’s warm radiance still fell upon the closed heavy steel shutters and doors of the two-story brick structure bearing the legend, “Ah Louis Store.”

"Finally the sharp rasp of latches proclaimed activity within.  Window coverings and doors swung open on soundless hinges.  A white-haired, snowy-bearded Chinese of ancient mien stood blinking in the sudden effulgence.

"Ah Louis—I knew it could be none else—seated himself slowly on the doorstep, leisurely kindled his long pipe, and regarded the beginning of a new day. On such a day as this, in 1875, he had performed this same opening ceremony for the first time.  With but a few exceptions, he had been doing it every morning since.  Each year a little later in the day, perhaps…. 

"Could Ah Louis have been thinking of his childhood in the village of Loong On Ook Gong?  Or was he living over that day when, as a youth of 21, he set out on a sailing vessel bound for California, land of fabulous wealth, where gold lay on the ground in great, dazzling nuggets?  Mayhap his thoughts dwelt on more recent events: On say, his return in November from China, where he had gone to die—so his children must have thought.  His reflections could not have been far from this, certainly, as Gin Sai Yon, old, blind, and infirm, spoke a cheerful greeting and shuffled slowly on his way.  Ah Louis had advised his friend only a few days before: 'Do not go back to China.  You will find only disappointment.  End your days in California—here in San Luis Obispo.'

"When I made my introduction, Ah Louis was comfortably seated in an armchair reading a Chinese movie magazine—Laurel and Hardy grinning from the cover.  At his elbow was a periodical bearing on the cover a pretty Chinese girl in an occidental bathing suit, 1934 mode.  Next on the reading list was a Chinese detective story monthly.  He still reads without the aid of glasses.  The pipe, with its long stem of lemon wood, was relighted.

"Ah Louis’ smile was friendly as his son, Fred, told him who I was and why I was there.  While the son, a University of Chicago graduate, from time to time interpreted a question difficult of expression in English to the father, I had opportunity to observe the interior of the historic establishment.

"A high ceiling, from which were suspended modern electric lights and a gas light.  Along one wall, glass-covered shelves, sparsely stocked with typical Chinese merchandise, including shoes untouched for twenty years.  Along the opposite side a neat tier of drawers, labeled in Chinese.  These held drugs, herbs, medicaments and all the mysterious ingredients used by the Chinese herbalist in his secret compounding.  Until a few years ago, there were neither labels on the drawers nor on the many jars and bottles within them.  The two long wooden counters, one on each side of the room, were fashioned by the proprietor at the time the store was built.  Through the wire cage window at the end of one counter, Ah Louis paid off every Saturday the many who worked for him on the various projects that made him the largest employer of labor in the county at one time.  And Ah Louis in his armchair against the back wall, with an electric heater close by to warm his old legs.

"I most wanted to hear from Ah Louis why he went back to Cathay, presumably to end his days and be laid beside his ancestors, and then suddenly returned to America to settle down in utter complacency at the age of 94 years.  The answer, coming from California’s oldest Chinese, was certain to be enlightening in several directions.  Following a few words with the son in the native village dialect, Ah Louis, waiving aside the proffered assistance, slowly arose, went to a shelf and took down a dusty box of cigars.  Extending the opened box of cigars to me, he said: 

'These cigars eleven years old.  Fresh tobacco no good.  Take whole handful and put in your pocket.  Smoke slowly and think of Ah Louis.  I smoke very strong Chinese tobacco that make you sick mighty soon.  Old man like me can stand anything. Now we smoke and talk. 

‘You have picture of me there with my children and grandchildren just before Fred, Howard and me sail for China last year.  I have no beard in that picture.  Now you see I have beard and look like wise old Chinese man, eh?  Let me tell you why I have beard now.  When in China two months, my dead wife, Gon Ying, appear before me in dream and say: ‘You must grow beard.’ And so I grow one right away.  But I was not old man of China. I want to come back San Luis Obispo one month after I arrive in China.’ 

"My journalistic heart leaped.  Perhaps now, without having to ask, I was going to learn the secret of Ah Louis’ return to America! 

‘I will tell you why I want to come back to California. I feel very homesick in China.  My village there not change much for 800 years.  I see one woman carry big heavy water-wheel two miles, pump up water with foot power, carry water-wheel and water back two miles.  Everything done old way.  My people learn almost nothing since I left.  Farmer work hard all year, get few sacks of rice to eat.  Very bad way to live.  No time to enjoy.’ 

"Here I prompted.  ‘You were so used to modern methods in America that to see things done with so much waste of human energy distressed and discouraged you?’ 

‘Yes, I could not be happy in China.  Other things bad there too.  When I go my native village, I decide have big banquet for neighbors all around.  We invite 1,200 people.  Build big bamboo hall just for party. Then we hire many men with guns to guard banquet from bandits.  River pirates, bandits very bad in China.  Robbers and bad men in America, too.  But nothing like in China.  When I come to California hunt gold in 1860, many bad men here.  Men not like China boy dressed in clothes of homeland. Every time see him, take off clothes and beat.  Pretty soon China boys get smart and put on American clothes.  I look for gold in Eugene, Oregon, first.  Then I come California.  After while men in California fine men.  Bad ones almost gone.  I find in all business dealings here for sixty years, American men treat Ah Louis fine.’ 

"It was in 1870 that he became a part of the San Luis Obispo community as a cook at the French Hotel.  He came to the attention of John Harford, prominent pioneer figure of the valley.  Harford induced the likable young Chinese to come to work for him at Port Harford.

"The passing years since have brought about doubt as to who was responsible for giving Ah Louis the name by which he has been known six decades.  His real name is Wong On.  Wong is the family name, and it was founded as far back as 607 A.D. in South China.  The present sons of Wong On represent the 139th generation….  

"When Ah Louis was a boy, he was known as Ock Fon, simply because someone called him that nickname.  Many of his friends in China had so known him.  Then when he came to America, he was of course Wong On.  Up to the day when I talked with Ah Louis, it had always been said that John Harford renamed him Ah Louis because that was easier to say. It was pronounced ‘Ah Loo-ee.’

  "I can report nothing on the other side of the doubt about Ah Louis’ renaming except what the aged man told me: 

‘Ah Louis not my real name.  Ah Louis name given me by John Morgan, owner of general merchandise store in Corvallis, Oregon.’ 

"Ah Louis’ son, Fred, said that was the first time the father had ever given out this information. 

"John Harford recognized in him an executive ability that developed with astonishing swiftness once it was given an outlet.  He advised Ah Louis to contract for providing labor to grade and construct extension of the Pacific Coast Railroad from Port Harford to Los Olivos.  This Ah Louis promptly did, bringing 160 of his countrymen from San Francisco by schooner to Port Harford.  The next step was the building of his store, above which he was to live, and adjoining housing for his workmen.  Thus, almost overnight, the humble Chinese cook became a railroad builder, industrialist, and merchant….  

"Ah Louis married Gon Ying, a young Chinese woman from San Francisco.  She became the mother of his eight children, and died where they were born, in 1909.  The patriarch is grateful to his chosen homeland because it has been so kind to the fortunes of his eight offspring. 

"Elaine, the first-born, is Mrs. Tye Hong, assisting her husband in the management of their four restaurants in Chicago.  W. Young Louis, the first son, is married to the former Stella Chandler of Berkeley, and they operate a café in San Luis Obispo; Young is also projectionist and assistant manager of the Obispo Theater.  Their 19-year-old daughter, Elsie, is an accomplished student at Mills College.  May, Ah Louis’ second daughter, is the wife of James Watson.  George and Helen, next children, are well known in the theatrical world; George, billed as Prince [Waln], has been on the stage nearly twelve years, and Helen is a concert pianist.  Fred, his father’s companion, studied electrical engineering and commerce and expects to follow the former line.  Howard, youngest son, accompanied his father and Fred on the recent trip to China.  He is returning to the University of California for his senior year in commerce and transportation. 

"An important part was played by Ah Louis in the agricultural development of the county.  In farming he prospered, supervising tracts at Oceano, Oso Flaco, Edna, Santa Fe, Chorro, and the old Venable place, now known as the Anholm tract.  He became much interested in breeding large work horses.  People would come from miles around to see them, some of the animals weighing more than 1,700 pounds.  He also owned several fast race horses.

"Ah Louis has no rules for longevity.  I should say he has lived long because he wanted to keep on accomplishing."

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Copyright © 2001 Lynne Landwehr.  All rights reserved.
www.historyinslocounty
.org