Times Past

Ah Louis Store was vandalized. It’s a reminder of how fragile SLO’s historic places are

San Luis Obispo’s historic Chinatown, Palm Street, in foreground is where today’s parking garage is, background shows Ah Louis Store.
San Luis Obispo’s historic Chinatown, Palm Street, in foreground is where today’s parking garage is, background shows Ah Louis Store.

Tagging or street graffiti goes back to the earliest cities. The colorful, albeit sometimes obscene, graffiti in the ruins of Pompeii is a well-known aspect of that much visited archaeological site.

In 1993, Liz and I had an eight-hour layover in Helsinki, Finland, while en route to St. Petersburg. Virtually everyone in Finland speaks English, so I asked a cab driver to give us a three-hour tour of the city. The amount of American-style gang graffiti on most of the public spaces appalled us. Even the massive monument to Finland’s national hero, Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, was covered with graffiti.

We asked our driver, “How does the tagging of Los Angeles gangs like the Crips and Bloods come to Finland?” He replied, “We have lots of unemployed young people who watch American television all day.”

Again, it seemed like the “ugly American” visited foreign shores.

This past week, I was up at Stanford when I received an e-mail from Joan Kunkler, sent to all the SLO Mission Docents, stating that “the brick wall of the Ah Louis store was vandalized last night. Big black letters over 6 feet tall on the Chorro street side.”

Vandalism at the Ah Louis Store--August 30, 2018.jpg
The vandalized wall at the Ah Louis Store, Aug. 30, 2018. Courtesy photo

Help was needed for the clean-up. Despite my still painful sutures from recent surgery, this news caused greater hurt.

Liz and I were just relieved that our good friend, Howard “Toby” Louis, the youngest son of Ah Louis and longtime proprietor of the store, wasn’t around to witness the defacement of the wall at his birthplace. Howard died in 2008, just after his 100th birthday.

Like our Mission, the Ah Louis Store is a precious jewel in California’s rich historic past. In the 1990s, while Howard was still operating the store, it received recognition as one of the two oldest operating commercial establishments in California.

Ah Louis’ birth name was Wong On. “Wong” was his family name and “On” his village in South China. He arrived in San Francisco in 1861. He came to San Luis Obispo in 1868 and found the climate here beneficial for his asthma.

In 1873, Wong On linked with Capt. John Harford of the Pacific Coast Steamship Co. and began working as his labor contractor for county roads, wharves and the construction of the narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railway that linked Port Harford (now Port SLO) with our county seat, Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley.

Captain Harford noticed that most of Wong On’s workers were also “Wongs.” To avoid confusion, he renamed him “Ah Louis.” pronouncing it “Ah Loo-ie.”

In 1874, Ah Louis constructed the first Chinese commercial building in the county on Palm Street, cattycorner from the Mission. In 1886, he rebuilt it in brick, establishing the first modern brickyard in the county to supply materials. Several downtown buildings including the Sinsheimer Store (Giuseppe’s) were constructed from Ah Louis’ bricks.

At times, the store served as many as 2,000 Chinese laborers at work on various construction projects, farms and ranches and cinnabar and chromate mines. It supplied work clothes, the ubiquitous conical straw hats, herbal medicines, rice, cooking utensils and banking services.

Howard Louis recalled that his father roasted whole pigs in deep pits next to the store: “It was the tastiest meat that I’ve ever eaten.”

The store was also the site of a family tragedy in 1908 when Howard’s mother, Gon Ying, was murdered as he — just a year old — lay in bed with her.

Howard would tell us that the murderer “deprived me of a mother’s love.”

Instead, he was raised by Spanish speaking nursemaids and as an adult was proud to be able to speak eight or nine Spanish dialects.

The Ah Louis Store and other architectural and historic treasures in San Luis Obispo may have internal fire and burglary protection. But there is a need to install closed-circuit television cameras on the street side to prevent the sort of vandalism inflected on the Ah Louis Store. This will require a joint effort of the owners of historic resources, the city and police and fire departments.

Dan Krieger is professor of history emeritus at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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