SLO County’s Chinese heritage

Special to The TribuneOctober 20, 2012 

Howard and Fred Louis and their father in front of the Ah Louis store in 1936.


San Luis Obispo’s Chinatown is back in the news thanks to recent archaeological discoveries on Palm Street. In the early 1900s, it was a parallel universe catering to Asian residents of our region who weren’t always welcome in the white side of San Luis Obispo.

Young Howard Louis would watch his father dispense herbs to customers who came in with a variety of physical ailments and complaints. Though not a professional herbalist, Ah Louis carried the best quality medications, vitamins and tonics. He obtained them through San Francisco-based trading firms and kept them in hundreds of small wooden drawers alongside the northern wall of his store.

The customer would describe his affliction. Ah Louis would prescribe a remedy. He would carefully write out the prescription in Chinese characters before going over to the scores of drawers to withdraw a herb or ground powder from some part of an exotic animal’s anatomy.

Howard Louis remembers the popularity of rhinoceros horn, most often used for maintaining virility.A rhino’s horn was kept on display. Powder would be scraped from it as needed.

Today, the rhinoceros is on the endangered species list because of such use. But this was 75 years before the peril to the rhino’s survival was recognized.

Howard was equally fascinated with the rattlesnakes pickled in whiskey. The whiskey was used as a liniment for arthritis.

Certain herbs had to be ground or chopped. In addition to a mortar and pestle for grinding, Ah Louis employed a large, cast iron trough with a heavy wheel cylinder. The cylinder had a sharp edge. Ah Louis would have one of his workers move the cylinder back and forth, bicycle style, with his feet.

The Louis family presented the herb cutter to the County History Center.

 Ah Louis served as merchant, labor contractor, banker, physician and pharmacist and bar tender to the Chinese community. He sold jiggers of whiskey for about 25 cents. Whiskey was purchased from Roth & Co. in San Francisco in 55 gallon barrels. It was regularly delivered by Sandercock Transfer Company’s drayage truck drawn by two enormous horses.

But Ah Louis never drank — nor did any of his children.

Ah Louis’ days as a laborer contractor for railroad, brickyard and county road construction were nearly finished by the time Howard can remember.  But many Chinese customers of the Ah Louis store continued working as cooks for the Southern Pacific’s laborers.

The cooking cars would park on the siding near the old Southern Pacific depot. Howard and his brothers recalled that they and their friends lost no time in visiting the cook and inquiring about the status of the apple pies which were baked daily.

The pie was thick and so was the crust, but no one complained — after all, it was free!

Howard especially remembers his father’s barbecue pits where pigs would hang over the coals as they were carefully basted by Ah Louis. 

Howard recalled,  “You never tasted more succulent pork. Chinese workers would come from miles away to enjoy this great treat.”

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

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