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Chinese remembered

Ah Louis left a huge imprint on San Luis Obispo’s formative years


Howard Louis was just 1 year old the night his mother was murdered.

He doesn’t remember the event that would have a profound impact on him throughout his long life.

The family matriarch’s shocking death "deprived me of a mother’s love," Howard would recall nearly nine decades later. His mother had been shot in the head by a thief as she slept. He was seeking a treasure trove of gold and jewels that was stored in the residence.

The 1908 incident happened in the family’s six-room living quarters above the Ah Louis Store in SLO; a small, two-story brick building at Chorro and Palm streets that today is a state historical landmark. A Chinese employee of Louis’ was convicted and hanged for the crime after a contingent of police and newspaper reporters discovered the bag full of stolen jewels under floorboards in the robber’s room.

The venerable San Luis Obispo native Howard Louis, now 94, is the only living son of Ah Louis, one of the area’s most notable historical figures and a pioneer whose lifelong efforts imparted a lasting impression on the commercial and physical development of the city.

Howard Louis will be among honored guests at a ceremony Jan. 18 at Railroad Square dedicating a life-size bronze statue depicting two Chinese men working on the railroad.

But controversy (if such can be generated among historians) still rages around the question of Chinese immigrants’ contributions to one of the most daunting construction challenges of yesteryear–carving a railroad passage over the Cuesta Grade.

One widely accepted version has Ah Louis collecting a virtual army of Chinese laborers, 1,500 strong, to prepare the bed and bore the eight tunnels for the Pacific Coast Railway lines that would finally connect San Luis Obispo County’s north to its south.

Competing historical perspectives give more credit to Italian and other immigrant workers, with assistance from just a handful of Chinese, for completing the difficult engineering feat.

There is little argument, though, about a myriad of community contributions made by Ah Louis during the formative days of San Luis Obispo County.

"There is nothing that makes me more proud than to talk about my father’s accomplishments and for people to see the Ah Louis store, which I believe serves as a contribution to the Chinese culture in San Luis Obispo," Howard Louis told Cal Poly biographer Yee Thue Huynh in 1997. "I am Chinese-American, striving to learn the best of two cultures. But I haven’t lost my Chinese identity. I do whatever I can to bring all our Chinese community together."

Howard was the youngest of Ah Louis’ eight children. His father was originally named Wong On.

Ah Louis had arrived in San Francisco in 1861. He was 21 and suffering from asthma, and he soon decided that the climate in San Luis Obispo was better for his health. In 1873 he met Capt. John Hartford, who operated Port Hartford (now Port San Luis). Hartford dubbed his new friend Ah Louis (pronounced Ah Loo-ee), because Hartford thought Wong On too difficult to pronounce. Ah Louis readily slipped into a fruitful business relationship with Hartford, who then was planning the railroad’s route over Cuesta Grade.

Ah Louis told a reporter for the old Tribune during the 1930s of his early days in the community: "I worked in the French Hotel, then located across from the mission, as a cook. After that, I was the foreman and employment agent for Chinese working on the Pacific Coast Railroad. After that I had charge of the Chinese miners working the quicksilver mines near Cambria," Ah Louis recalled.

Ah Louis recruited 160 Chinese laborers to help get the job going, and thus became a labor contractor, a man sought out by thousands of new Chinese arrivals in SLO County who wanted employment. Ah Louis eventually would hire more then 2,000 Chinese workers to work on a road system and the railroad route over the Grade.

Completion of the railroad over the grade in 1876 sparked a land boom, exaggerated by discovery of gold in the eastern part of SLO county. Thousands of miners and others seeking a new life in the promised land poured into the area. At the peak of Chinese immigration in the late 1800s, one in 10 San Luis Obispo residents was Chinese.

Despite their labor contributions, the Chinese would encounter severe discrimination in their adopted land.

A "Foreign Miners License Law" was passed by Congress, and sharply limited the number of Chinese workers attempting to enter the country.

When the 1873 recession hit in California, whites began seeking a scapegoat and landed on the Chinese population, vocalizing criticisms of the newcomers’ culture, language, and traditions.

Ah Louis saw hope in the future, nevertheless. In 1874, he constructed the first Chinese commercial building in the county, at the corner of Chorro and Palm streets. Twelve years later, he built a fine, new building with bricks he made at his own plant near Bishop’s Peak. The store boasted a wrought-iron-railed piazza over the Palm Street entrance.

Ah Louis’ bricks also were used to build the railroad roundhouse, the old courthouse, and a wing of the San Luis Obispo Mission.

He thrived despite the atmosphere of discord that existed between whites and Chinese. The San Luis Obispo City Council passed a motion in 1880 removing all Chinese laundries from the city. Six years later, the residents of Arroyo Grande forced the Chinese out of their town, threatening those who would remain with hanging. As one might expect, no Chinese stayed in the community.

For many years after Ah Louis opened his store, the white-bearded man with the long, wooden pipe would sell a variety of dry goods, tea, sugar, rice, spices, and Chinese herbs, which he dispensed after feeling a customer’s pulse. Neighbors were fascinated by a wealth of curious and exotic items in the store: salted duck eggs, sea cucumbers, dried abalone, and a cooling dessert called leung fun were popular with visitors. The store also served as a bank, supply center, and employment office, and was the anchor for a thriving Chinatown in the surrounding area.

The proprietor would loan money on a handshake and would keep his ledgers in his head. He acted as banker for both Chinese and Caucasians, despite continuing problems between the races. White residents would complain about clouds of steam emanating from numerous laundries, and about the overwhelming odor of opium, which was not illegal at the time. (Rice, tea, and opium then were the three leading imports provided by the Chinese.)

Ah Louis was the mayor of Chinatown throughout most of his tenure here, a tiny sub-community consisting of a variety of stores, several restaurants, a Chinese temple, and boarding houses used by Chinese laborers working for Ah Louis.

Ah Louis met Eng Gon Ying (which means "Silver Dove") during an 1886 trip to San Francisco. The pair married and returned to San Luis Obispo to begin raising their family of five sons and three daughters.

After Gon Ying’s murder, a deeply saddened Ah Louis would be forced to hire a series of Japanese, Spanish, and English nannies to care for his youngsters.

"From these nannies I became multilingual, learning Cantonese, Spanish, Japanese, and Toishanese," recalled Howard.

Lynne Landwehr, who wrote a history of San Luis Obispo County two years ago, quoted the late Young Louis, the family’s oldest son, as saying, "On any given day, there were gold, chrome, and quicksilver miners; farmers; brick makers; hotel employees; laundry men; fishermen and others from the coast; kelp processors; abalone fishermen; and railroad workers who would come in for supplies and relaxation."

Another Ah Louis son, Walter, also deceased, once observed that "any Chinese who came to town would make himself known to Dad, and if they needed a meal or a helping hand, Dad would make the offer."

In 1933 at the age of 92, Ah Louis returned to his old home in China, determined to follow an old tradition of dying in the land in which one was born. He was accompanied by two sons, Fred and Howard, and a cousin, Kai-Man.

Al Louis didn’t like what he saw in his homeland.

"Women were still carrying water from a distance. Nothing had changed in the time I had been gone," he told a news reporter of the era.

He quickly returned to San Luis Obispo, to die, as he said, surrounded by his many new friends in America.

Chester Newton Hess, a writer for Westways, the automobile association’s publication, met Ah Louis in 1934 at the now-famous store, and noted that the building had "a high ceiling, from which were suspended modern electric lights and a gaslight. Along one wall [were] glass-covered shelves, sparsely stocked with typical Chinese merchandise, including shoes untouched for 20 years. 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. And Ah Louis would sit in his armchair against the back wall, with an electric heater close by to warm his old legs."

Hess’ interview started with a cigar proffered by Ah Louis.

"These cigars 11 years old. Fresh tobacco no good," Ah Louis told Hess. "Take whole handful and put in 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."

The old man told Hess he had "no rules for longevity, but lived long because I wanted to keep on accomplishing."

Ah Louis died in 1936 at the age of 94.

Youngest son Howard attended San Luis Obispo schools.

"I don’t remember ever being discriminated against in school," Howard would tell Cal Poly researcher Huynh in 1997. "In grammar school, I was a track star and won many awards and medals. When I went to San Luis Obispo High School, I was captain of the football team. Shortly after high school, I was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley, where I majored in economics."

Howard joined the Army at the outbreak of World War II and was promptly assigned to intelligence school. His mastery of numerous languages won him a specialist ranking, and he later served at the front lines under the command of Gen. George Patton.

When the war was over, Howard returned to San Luis Obispo to take over operation of the family store.

Today, Ah Louis’ old brick store is almost always shuttered, and a message on the still-listed telephone informs callers to "leave a message."

"I open the store now not to make business, but for my own enjoyment," Howard told Huynh.

In 1987, an archeological excavation was conducted in downtown San Luis Obispo, and artifacts from Chinatown were recovered. The collection has been sorted and catalogued under the guidance of archaeologist Dr. John Parker. Æ

News editor Daniel Blackburn gathered information for this article from a variety of local historical sources. He can be reached at

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