Ah Louis in San Luis Obispo
Updated: Mar 14, 2022
(Video courtesy of Elliot Gong)
Wong On, more commonly referred to as Ah Louis, was a Chinese banker, labor contractor, farmer, pharmacist, and shopkeeper in San Luis Obispo. Below is a timeline of his life:
Ah Louis was born in Southern China
According to Dr. Dan Krieger, Professor and SLO Tribune columnist, there was a sweet potato famine is his village, but since Ah Louis had sufficient money, he crossed the Pacific and landed in San Francisco.
According to National Park Service, Ah Louis left China to escape the Taiping Rebellion and prospered in Washington and Oregon by searching for gold.
End of Civil War (1860s):
Met Captain John Harford of the Pacific Transportation Company. The company had a railroad and maritime component. They had freighters traveling up and down the Pacific Coast searching for seaports with sufficient economic activity. Then, they would build wharves and narrow gauge railroads, to help transport agricultural sources and natural resources.
Wharf and narrow gauge railroad (Photo Courtesy of Elliot Gong)
According to National Park Service, Ah Louis came to San Luis Obispo because the climate was favorable for his chronic asthma.
Found work as a cook
According to Dr. Krieger, Ah Louis came to San Luis Obispo to work for John Harford
Recruited Chinese laborers
Supplied labor for three Wharves: Harford Wharf (Port San Luis), Avila Wharf (Avila Beach pier), and a wharf for George Hearst in San Simion
Also supplied most of the labor for Captain Cass' wharf in Cayucos
Many of the laborers were Ah Louis' cousins; because all of them had the surname Wong and Ah Louis was the leader, Captain Harford needed a way to identify him, so he called him Ah Louis. The surname "Ah" is traditionally given the head of the labor crew.
After Ah Louis' arrival, the city of San Luis Obispo, which had a population of less than 100, quickly jumped to a population of 7000.
Harford Wharf (Photo Courtesy of Elliot Gong)
Built first wharf in Port San Luis
Ah Louis' "laborers constructed public work projects, worked in agriculture in planting and harvesting, served as household cooks, laundrymen, handymen, and worked in hotels, restaurants, private homes and hospitals" (Ah Louis Store -- Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month).
Found a disused area in San Luis Obispo, near the Mission, to settle down
Began constructing a wooden store, known as the Ah Louis Store
Mainly served the Chinese community, but the wide variety of goods also attracted others in the area
Many items imported from China, such as straw hats
Most attractive item was his roast pork
Ah Louis' laborers worked on building county roads from Paso Robles to Cambria, and from Arroyo Grande to Nipomo
Ah Louis was given the job of constructing the West Cuesta Canyon Road (still navigable today).
Eventually, there were railroad tracks above the road (in 1890s)
Saw a need to replace his store building with brick, as wood was prone to fires
The Ah Louis Store was finished and had iron shutters
The Old Ah Louis Store building moved across Palm street (it is now the Mee Heng Low Noodle House)
Since the building looked secure, the Sinsheimer Family asked him to build them a store out of brick
He did just that
To supply the bricks, he built the first modern brickyard in San Luis Obispo, on Lincoln Street
His bricks are unique, and can be seen on the 600 and 700 blocks of Monterey Street
Ah Louis Store Today (Photo Courtesy of Elliot Gong)
"With a contact for $1, 100, Ah Louis’ Chinese laborers were used to drain a swamp in the Laguna land reclamation and drainage project" (Ah Louis Store -- Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month).
Anti-Chinese Land Acquisition Act said that no person of Asian birth could own land in the United States
When demands for laborers to work on wharves dwindled, Ah Louis saw another opportunity to recruit laborers, which was to work on seed cultivation, such as drought-sustainable barley. By this time, he could not legally own land, so he leased it instead. Note that he owned the Ah Louis store, because he bought the land before the anti-Chinese land acquisition act of the 1880s.
Leased 1100 acres of land in Edna Valley, near the current SLO airport
Cultivated 300 seed varieties
His business was thriving, until the Sperry Company saw this as a profitable task and put Ah Louis out of business
By that time, he had considerable wealth, and became a banker for Asians. He kept their money in a safe in his store, and kept careful accounts.
He was also a pharmacist, as he had a large collection of herbs in his store
The Ah Louis Store had 800 residents at one point, but with labor demands diminishing, the population was just 200. Soon after, it dropped to the double digits
The desire for more land by people of other nationalities became more prevalent, and many Chinese stores were abandoned
He belonged to the Society of Odd Fellows, a fraternity designed to give migrant Americans a home away from home, and when a member died, a burial place would be provided.
Ah Louis was very active in the group
When he died, his sons contacted this group, and asked them to open up a grave site on Higuera street for Ah Louis
However, the Odd Fellows said they now had a Asian Exclusion act, which stated that Asians could not be buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery
Father John Arnett heard that Ah Louis needed a place to be buried, and according to the Hebrew Testament, they are instructed to take care of the dead
He shared that in 1925, a new Cemetery was created on Higuera Street and Ah Louis could be buried there, as there were no Asian Exclusion laws in the Catholic Church
Burial Location of Ah Louis (Photo Courtesy of Elliot Gong)
World War II:
Chinatown was vacant, except for the Ah Louis Store and restaurants that fed soldiers
Chinatown was nearly forgotten
When Ah Louis' son, Howard Louis, heard that the city wanted to demolish the Ah Louis store to create a large parking lot, he fought the city for 2 years and told them that the store had historical value
City officials tried to take the store away from Howard and demolish it, through a process known as "escheat".
But thanks to Howard, who was a veteran of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, and was friends with many people in power, it is still standing today
But the Chinatown district of San Luis Obispo is only 1.2 percent of what used to be Chinatown
California Historical Landmark No. 802 (Photo Courtesy of Elliot Gong)
“Ah Louis Store -- Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/nr/feature/asia/2009/ah_louis_store.htm.
“Ah Louis in San Luis Obispo.” YouTube, youtu.be/7mn-gEMifhA.
Wong, H. K. Gum Sahn Yun = Gold Mountain Men. Publisher Not Identified, 1987.