When Amber first moved back to California in 2014 to open the west coast office of Karson Butler Events, she would tell people about her dream building, The Ah Louis Store which is arguably one of SLO’s most iconic buildings. The lease was tied up at the time, but she always felt a special calling to this magical spot on the corner of SLO’s charming downtown corridor. A big believer in saying your dreams out loud, all those random conversations at cocktail parties paid off, and in the Fall of 2016 Amber received a text message saying “I think you mentioned one time the Ah Louis Store was your dream building...” She jumped at the chance, and six weeks later we opened Karson Butler Events at the Ah Louis Store on Small Business Saturday. Our first ever retail adventure, we do not take the honor of being in this space lightly. The Ah Louis Store was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on March 26, 2008. Our wish is to honor the important place this building has served in California’s history, and the entrepreneurial spirit of Mr. Ah Louis. Our “entertaining general store” strives to make the corner of Chorro & Palm streets a bustling cornerstone of our community once again.
A historically significant building…
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.
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.
More about the incredible entrepreneur and building namesake…
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.
Historical text above via The National Park Service:
Ah Louis Store — Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/asia/2009/ah_louis_store.htm
Photo by Cameron Ingalls Photography for Karson Butler Events