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Ah Louis Store

San Luis Obispo, California


[photo]
Ah Louis Store
Photograph by mrphancy
posted to Flickr and used under the Creative Commons license

The Ah Louis Store in San Luis Obispo, California, is historically significant not only as a surviving building from the historic Chinese-American community in San Luis Obispo but also through its identification with the Chinese-American pioneer Ah Louis, or On Wong. The Ah Louis Store is a two story, brick, Victorian Italianate-style building in a rectangular plan which was built in 1885 and is approximately 2000 square feet in size. The foundation and walls of the Ah Louis Store are made of brick from Ah Louis’s own brickworks. This store was the center of Chinatown in San Luis Obispo from 1874 to 1930 and the house of Ah Louis and his family of eight children from 1885 to 1936. Originally built as a wooden structure in 1874, in 1885 the Ah Louis Store was replaced by the brick building that stands there today. During that time, it served the Chinese and Asian community in San Luis Obispo as a general store, post office, bank, employment office, and gathering place. Chinese workers hired there helped to build the railroads of the pacific Coast railway and the Southern Pacific Railroad from 1874 to 1894. During this time, Ah Louis also contracted to build many roads throughout the county and the wharf at Port San Luis. His men also worked agriculture and domestic work throughout San Luis Obispo County. Ah Louis was a prosperous businessman who, besides becoming a successful employer and labor organizer, was a merchant and farmer who pioneered the flower and vegetable seed business in San Luis Obispo County. He also built the first brick yard in the area, and many of today’s historical buildings in San Luis Obispo were built out of the bricks he made. He often served as a bridge between the Asian and white communities.

[photo]
Ah Louis Store
Photograph by mrphancy
posted to Flickr and used under the Creative Commons license


In 1861, 21 year old Wong On left his village near the city of Canton, China, in order to avoid the Taiping Rebellion and to search for gold in America. At first he prospected in the Washington and Oregon areas, by 1867 he arrived in San Luis Obispo attracted by the climate which was favorable for his chronic asthma. He found work as a cook but within several years he formed a series of partnerships that made him the principal Chinese labor contractor of the San Luis Obispo region. In 1868, Captain John Hartford, the ‘father’ of Port San Luis, recognized him as enterprising, and gave him the name of Ah Louis. He encouraged Ah Louis to become an employment agent to the Chinese laborers which were needed in the area. Hartford and Ah Louis, employing Chinese laborers, went on to build the first wharf in Port San Luis in 1873, known today as Avila Beach. Around this time he brought in 160 Chinese laborers from San Francisco by schooner to fill in these and other positions. This was the beginning of many projects involving hard labor from the Chinese immigrants. His laborers constructed public work projects, worked in agriculture in planting and harvesting, served as household cooks, laundrymen, handymen, and worked in hotels, restaurants, private homes and hospitals. By 1876, Ah Louis won labor contracts for road building including a county road from Paso Robles to Cambria, and from Arroyo Grande to Nipomo. In 1877, he also contracted with the county to build a stage coach road over Cuesta Grade to Santa Margarita. In 1882, with a contact for $1, 100, Ah Louis’ Chinese laborers were used to drain a swamp in the Laguna land reclamation and drainage project.


[photo]
Ah Louis Store
Photograph by tkksummers
posted to Flickr and used under the Creative Commons license

Here in 1874 was established Ah Louis' Store the first Chinese store in the county. It sold general merchandise and herbs and served as a bank, counting house, and post office for the numerous Chinese coolies who dug the eight tunnels through the Mountains of Cuesta for the Southern Pacific Railroad, 1884 to 1894.

California Registered Historical Landmark no 802

Plaque placed by the California State Park commission in cooperation with the San Luis Obispo county historical society and the sons and daughters of Ah Louis August 21 1965 

The original Ah Louis store was constructed out of wood in 1874 on its present site. As his business expanded, Ah Louis outgrew it and in 1885 contracted with Alfred Walker to build the larger brick building that exists today. It was the first Chinese store in the county, selling general merchandise and food including curious and exotic items such as herbs, salted duck eggs, sea cucumbers, dried abalone, peanut oil, and various teas besides selling sacks of grain, coffee, beans, Levis, and whisky. The store became the hub of Chinatown in San Luis Obispo, a two block area on the edge of downtown san Luis Obispo. The Ah Louis Store was the center of celebration on holidays such as the Chinese New Year. Large fireworks displays were common during these times until around 1930, by which time most of the Chinese had left San Luis Obispo County. Ah Louis passed away on December 16, 1936, at the age of 96. The Ah Louis Store was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on March 26, 2008.

Read full file on the Ah Louis Store

Ah Louis Store | Vatia, Old
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Images for top banner from NPS Historic Photograph Collection (Rainbow over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, by Thomas C. Gray, [HPC-001345]) and the Palau Historic Preservation Office.

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