Features and Information:
"What California Means
By Chester Newten Hess,
"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.
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.
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:
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.
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.’
journalistic heart leaped. Perhaps now, without having to ask, I was going to learn the
secret of Ah Louis’ return to America!
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.’
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?’
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
"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.
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.’
Louis not my real name. Ah
Louis name given me by John Morgan, owner of general merchandise store
in Corvallis, Oregon.’
son, Fred, said that was the first time the father had ever given out
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….
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.
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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