Chinese San Luis Obispo

Presented on February 7, 1998 at the Cuesta College Forum

Tong Yun Fow

Chinese junks had plied the California coast long before Spanish galleons arrived, but the first recorded Chinese did not appear in San Luis Obispo County until the mid-19th century. Like most other local immigrants they were pushed by hard times at home and pulled by dreams of California gold. The stories of these pioneers and their descendants are tales of enterprise, persistence, and family ties. Chinese labor fueled local economic development. Immigrant domestics cooked and washed in homes and ranches throughout the county. There were settlements of Chinese fisherfolk, abalone and seaweed harvesters along the coast, enclaves of miners in Cambria, Adelaida, and La Panza, farming hamlets from San Miguel to Guadalupe. Chinese labor was the backbone of local road, railroad, and heavy construction. The focal point of Chinese San Luis Obispo was the 800 block of Palm Street. Residents called their community Tong Yun Fow, or “Chinese People’s City”; most other locals called it Chinatown, or simply “Palm Street.” Between 1870 and 1900 its population varied from two to four hundred, peaking in the early 1890s when one in every ten San Luis city residents was Chinese. The most enduring Palm Street families were the Wongs and the Gins. Patriarchs Wong On (later Ah Louis) and Gin Sai Yuen (Quong Chung) became leading merchants, entrepreneurs, labor agents, and community spokesmen. Palm Street businesses were mostly extended family enterprises, anchored by Ah Louis’s two- story brick store. Even in a small town like San Luis Obispo, Palm Street was a place apart, a safe haven for the Chinese and an alien presence for the white community. Mutual economic needs, however, bound the two communities closely together. In the twentieth century Palm Street declined as the pioneer generation aged, federal policy blocked new immigration, and the Great Depression took its toll in the old neighborhood. By 1950 only fifty Chinese residents remained in San Luis city, only one hundred county-wide. Today the only physical remains of Tong Yun Fow are the Ah Louis Store, the Shanghai Low and Mee Heng Low restaurant buildings, the Chong’s Hand Made Candies building, and archaeological artifacts. But families, memories and rich traditions live on, now reinforced and energized by a new influx of Chinese students and professional people.

Coming into Focus through Archaeology

Archaeology provides the perfect complement to historical research, revealing details of daily life in the Chinese community established on Palm Street in San Luis Obispo during the 1870s. Peeling back the layers of time, archaeologists chart changes in people and places. On Palm Street the lowest layers hold evidence of a nearby Native American village, whose inhabitants later became neophytes working at the growing mission complex. More recent levels show a Mexican pueblo forming around the church, and still later, artifacts from a Chinese settlement on the former mission grounds. Archaeology deciphers the stories hidden in the pink plastered walls of unknown adobes, and in the redwood root cellars and trash pits of Chinatown. Piecing together excavated personal effects, archaeologists reconstruct their former owners’ lives. Combs, buttons, pipes, toothbrushes, and rings are datable evidence that fills in details. Parts of dishes, food containers, bottles and utensils offer clues to their makers and places of origin. Burned and butchered bones provide evidence of economic patterns and cultural lifeways. Sometimes archaeologists discover the most important information in the seemingly most insignificant and subtle of artifacts. Seeds are indicators of dietary practices, trade relations, and even climate change. Pieces of coke screened from an excavation mark the location of a nearby Chinese washhouse, and show that its owners bought their fuel from the San Luis Obispo Gas Works on Dana Street. Archaeologists only begin their work at the dig site. The crucial next steps are painstaking processing and analysis in the lab, and the preparation of a written report. Here archaeology and history meet, bringing the people of Palm Street into clearer focus, enriching the heritage of San Luis Obispo.