Times Past

Dan Krieger: Dialing in on the early Chinese community

The operators had to speak five Chinese dialects and English. Telephone patrons often wanted to be connected by name rather than by number.

Referring to people by number was considered rude. The telephone operators memorized the name of each subscriber. They knew the address and the profession of subscribers so they could distinguish between two people with identical names, which often happened among the immigrant community.

The Chinese Telephone Exchange at 743 Washington St. in San Francisco’s Chinatown was a favorite spot for me to visit as a young child. The colorful exchange was near Yee Jeung, our favorite restaurant, just a block or so up Washington Street.

The exchange was started in 1894 with a small switchboard to connect less than a hundred subscribers to the telephone system. It provided some special services not available with our fiber-optic, high-speed digital service today. When the subscriber was not at home, a runner was dispatched to locate the person.

On Jan. 22, 1947, modern technology and the end of wartime-imposed phone rationing shut down the exchange. Rotary-dial telephones seemed a vast improvement to many. The cashier at Yee Jeung continued to speak the name of the person he was calling into the receiver before he began dialing well into the 1960s.

The colorful pagodalike building was purchased and restored by the Bank of Canton in 1960. It is now the United Commercial Bank. When I pass by the building, I remember the chatter of the operators going from Cantonese to Sze Yup to three other Chinese dialects, plus English.

The old exchange was just one way in which the Chinese immigrants adapted to life in America during the late-19th and early 20th centuries.

In San Luis Obispo, members of the Ah Louis family weren’t connected to the phone system until 1909. But that didn’t prevent Ah Louis’ eldest son, Wong Young Louis, from entering a career in the latest technology of that era. Young became a motion picture projectionist at the Agricultural Exhibition Building on Monterey Street.

Young went on to serve as projectionist at The Obispo theater, which burned down in December 1975 at Monterey and Osos streets and The Elmo, located in the old Elks Club building at Marsh and Morro. He became the first projectionist at the Fremont Theater when it opened in May 1942. And for many years he was William Randolph Hearst’s favorite projectionist at Hearst Castle, where you can see one of the projectors he used on display.

By 1920, Young was convinced that the long awaited “talkies” were coming to the silver screen. He reckoned that he had better learn more about electronics to deal with the new media. At the age of 30, he went back to school. That began his association with Cal Poly.

In the 1950s Young and his wife, Stella, founded the Chinese Student Association. They wanted everyone to experience the Chinese New Year tradition. You are invited to come and share this festive celebration with the association at its 52nd annual banquet on Saturday.

You’ll see graceful and dramatic martial arts performed by Beijing-trained Liu Yu, and her advanced students from the San Luis Wu Shu will perform the Lion Dance and the Ribbon Dance.

Celebrate SLO’s Chinese Heritage

Cal Poly’s Chinese Student Association will have its 52nd annual banquet at 6 p.m. Saturday at the university’s Chumash Auditorium. Dinner, which will be catered by Mandarin Gourmet, starts at 6:30 p.m.

The program includes martial arts to be performed by Beijing-trained Liu Yu, and her advanced students from the San Luis Wu Shu will perform the Lion Dance and the Ribbon Dance.

Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for children.

Call 925-323-2739 for reservations or e-mail CalPolyCSA@gmail.com.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.