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A look back at the history of San Luis Obispo’s Chinatown

Posted at 5:24 PM, May 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-21 01:37:30-04

It’s Asian American Pacific Heritage month, a time dedicated to recognizing the contributions of Asian-Americans in the United States.

On Tuesday, the House passed a bill aimed at addressing hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in response to a rise in attacks since the pandemic began. But discrimination dates back to the earliest days of California.

Someone who overcame much of that was On Wong, also known as Ah Louis. In the 1870s, Wong was one of the first Chinese immigrants in San Luis Obispo. He founded the Ah Louis store and was also a labor contractor, securing 160 Chinese laborers for the construction of the Cuesta Grade Road, railroads, and mining or draining of the Laguna Lake Area.

“The Chinese built San Luis Obispo. They made the railroad, which is extremely important for this town even being on the map,” said Russell Kwong, owner of Mee Heng Low restaurant.

But at the time, there was statewide Chinese racism.

“In 1882, you have the Chinese Exclusion Act passed at the federal level, which basically kept out all Chinese laborers,” said Coastal Awakening Executive Director James Papp. “It also tended to keep out Chinese women on the theory that you didn’t want the Chinese to start their own communities.”

“They were never recognized. The reason is because of their hair color, because of their skin color. So that is not fair,” said Cal Poly Landscape Architecture Professor Emerita Alice Loh.

Besides a few historic buildings, San Luis Obispo’s Chinatown was mostly wiped out in the 1950s.

Still, there remain a few places that capture Chinese-American history like noodle house Mee Heng Low.

“Although we’re not full Chinese, obviously, our last name is Kwong. It is a Chinese name. We’re kind of the last vestige within Chinatown,” said Mee Heng Low owner Paul Kwong. “[I] feel like we’re holding onto a little bit of history for the Chinese community as a whole.”

Also memorializing Chinese-American history in San Luis Obispo is Cheng Park.

Both the Kwongs and Loh added there probably won’t be any expansion of San Luis Obispo's Historic Chinatown in the future, but they hope to preserve the culturally significant buildings that are left.