Times Past

Cal Poly banquet celebrates SLO’s ‘nearly invisible’ Chinese history

Sculptor Elizabeth McQueen’s 2002 “The Gandy Dancers” in San Luis Obispo’s Railroad Square District.
Sculptor Elizabeth McQueen’s 2002 “The Gandy Dancers” in San Luis Obispo’s Railroad Square District.

“The Gandy Dancers” stands in the middle of a traffic circle at the entrance to San Luis Obispo’s historic railroad district.

Two larger-than-life Chinese workers can be seen laying railroad track.

This public art does what good history is supposed to do: Make visible that which is important but often unnoticed. There was some opposition to the placement of the statue 20 years ago. Since then, in 2017, California proclaimed May 10 as California Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial Day.

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 roadways 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 until the occasional rise in anti-Chinese fervor.

San Luis Obispo’s Chinatown was once a very lively place. We are fortunate in having the Ah Louis Store and Mee Heng Low Noodle House as living legacies. The two remaining structures belie the activity that once filled a square block of Palm Street between Chorro and Morro.

In 1870, The Tribune reported that 59 Chinese laborers had arrived in San Luis Obispo. Most of these workers came from Taishan southwest of Guangdong province. Many were relatives of Wong On, who came to America at the age of 21 and eventually worked for Capt. John Harford.

Harford was active in building wharves, roads and narrow gage railroads connecting coastal seaports to towns in the interior. He was a partner in the firm of Schwartz, Harford & Co. lumber dealers. Harford needed to recruit labor at a time when the rapidly growing dairy boom was draining the market of semi-skilled workers. He found Wong On with his many family connections to Taishan, an ideal foreman and labor recruiter.

Because so many of the workers were related to Wong On and bore the surname “Wong,” Capt. Harford renamed him “Ah Luis,” which was later changed to “Ah Louis.” Ah Louis also became the chief supplier of foodstuffs, clothing, liquor and medicine for the Chinese labor crews. In 1874, he constructed a small Chinese mercantile store out of wood. In 1885, he rebuilt the store with bricks from his own brickyard. He added cast-iron shutters like those at the Sinsheimer Store on Monterey Street for protection against the frequent fires that ravaged San Luis Obispo’s commercial district.

Census numbers are deceiving. The 1880 census shows a Chinese population of 183 in the county, rising to a high of 386 in 1890. Due to close quarters, fear of white people and work in remote locations, the census undercounting of immigrant minorities has plagued the system until the present day.

We know that Chinese labor was used to construct the first “all-weather” road over the Cuesta, now appropriately called “The Old Stagecoach Road” alongside West Cuesta Canyon. They also worked on a road from Paso Robles to the Cambria Cinnabar Mines, where Chinese workers dug out the mines through the easily collapsible Franciscan sandstone layer. They constructed the wharves from Avila/Port San Luis (Port Harford) to San Simeon. All this may have employed as many as 3,000 workers.

They are the forgotten many.

This nearly invisible ingredient in the history of our region comes to life every year at Cal Poly’s New Year’s Banquet of the Chinese Students Association, a group founded by Ah Louis’ eldest son, Young Louis, and his wife, Stella. A play, “From Cowardly to Brave,” Wushu Taichi, Lion Dance Team are featured on Saturday, March 1. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. in Chumash Auditorium.

Tickets cost $12 for adults, $10 for children 12 and under; tickets are $5 for entertainment only. Reservations are required. Contact Amber Lin at 510-579-1724 or email calpolycsa@gmail.com for more information.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly State University, 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.
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune