Times Past

Most U.S. Chinatowns echoed San Francisco’s

Special to The TribuneOctober 13, 2012 

“Artifacts uncovered in SLO downtown excavation.”

Wednesday’s headlines in The Tribune returned us to a rich but often misunderstood chapter of our history.

The Chinese built much of the transportation infrastructure of the American West. But their images rarely appeared in the ceremonial photographs taken when the railroads, wharfs and roads were completed.

The Chinese workers vanished into other jobs where their labor was needed.  Chinatowns were part of every Western city, but no one really noticed.

San Luis Obispo’s Chinatown was once a very lively place. We are fortunate in having a living legacy.

In its heyday, it fronted on  a graded but unpaved dirt road. There is an elegant brick building with iron shutters at the southwestern corner. A young boy often lowered himself down into the narrow space between the brick building and the adjoining wooden structures.

“I always had a narrow waist. I was the only one who could slide down between the two buildings and recover the old opium cans.” Howard Louis recalled in 1999.

“They were made of brass and the World War (first World War) was going on at the time. The tins were worth a lot of money as scrap.”

For many years those tins were manufactured for and sold by the British East India Co. On two occasions, England went to war against China to insure the East India Co.’s right to force opium sales to China. Each tin had the image of Queen Victoria inscribed on top of the little cake of opium.

But for Howard Louis in 1917, the cast-off tins from a one-time opium den in San Luis Obispo’s Chinatown represented a source of spending money.

Howard Louis, the youngest child of Ah Louis, was born in the living quarters above his father’s store in August 1908. The store, which still stands at Palm and Chorro streets, was the only permanent building in San Luis Obispo’s blocklong­ and otherwise wooden Chinatown.

Aside from attending the nearby Court School and trips to Ah Louis’ seed farms in Edna, 9-year-old Howard’s life was intimately linked to Palm Street’s Chinatown.

And like virtually all of America’s Chinatowns, San Luis Obispo’s was a microcosm of San Francisco’s.

Chinatowns were different from other American communities. Until about 1900, one of the most obvious differences was the lack of women and children. The image of this almost purely “bachelor society” began to break down shortly after the turn of the century. Chinese merchants came to regard the West as a relatively tame and stable environment into which they might introduce their families.

There weren’t too many Chinese children for Howard and his brothers and sisters to play with. It gave Howard a unique opportunity to observe the adult world of Chinatown. 

This was a world that some  non-Chinese residents of San Luis Obispo are only now beginning to understand through the work of archaeologists.
To be continued.

 •  •  •

 Readers are invited to join me on Halloween at 4 p.m. for my annual tour of the Old Mission Cemetery at the Bridge Street entrance near the intersection of Beebe and Bridge in back of the Pacific Coast Center. This is a “non-scary” tour focusing on the lives of San Luis Obispo’s history makers from Capt. William G. Dana to Ah Louis and his son Howard.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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