Quick Facts: SLO Chinese History You Probably Didn't Know
Updated: Jul 12
Chinese American history is grossly underrepresented in the U.S., and the information taught is often skewed and misrepresented. Here are some facts about Chinese History on the Central Coast that you probably didn't know.
The earliest Chinese in SLO settled in Cambria in the Camp Ocean Pines area in the 1850s. In school, many students on the Central Coast have the privilege of attending a sleep-away camp at Camp Ocean Pines. Those students were taught that Camp Ocean Pines was established in 1946 to serve the community as a non-profit camp. Yet before that, the Chinese had established a troop fishing village there, and they engaged in kelp gathering on the beaches.
Chinese laborers renovated Laguna Lake. Many residents in SLO County know that Laguna Lake is a natural lake. What many don't know is that it used to be 350 acres, but in the late 1800s, there was a need for fertile farm land and Laguna Lake would prove to be the perfect land. Therefore, plans were made to drain Laguna Lake and make it smaller. It was a tedious task and the White men soon gave up, so in the 1890s, Ah Louis was asked to supply the labor for draining the marshland at the opening of the Los Osos Valley, creating what we now know as Laguna Lake. Learn more here.
The Chinese constructed Harford Pier in Avila Beach. When learning about Central Coast history, we often learn that John Hartford built the Avila Beach wharf. While he was with the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, he asked Ah Louis to supply the labor to build those wharves. Ah Louis' laborers also constructed a wharf for George Hearst in San Simeon. Learn more here.
The Chinese brought seed cultivation to San Luis Obispo. Today, we are used to purchasing seeds at a store, but seed cultivation was started in SLO by Ah Louis. When labor demands dwindled, he saw another opportunity, in the form of seed cultivation, so he leased land in Edna Valley, as the Chinese were not allowed to own land due to the Land Acquisition Act. Read more here.
The Chinese constructed the first modern brickyard in San Luis Obispo. In the late 1870s, a merchant by the name of Ah Louis realized that his store was prone to fires, as it was made of wood, so he decided to replace his store with brick. It was so successful that the Sinsheimer family asked him to build a store out of brick for them as well. To supply the bricks, the first modern brickyard was built. Click here to find out where Ah Louis' bricks stand today.
In the 1850s, one-tenth of the population in California was Chinese. Approximately 25,000 Chinese people were estimated to be living in California at the time! But today, only less than 2% of the nation's population is Chinese. Learn more about how the Chinese population changed over time in this article, as well as this one.
Today, Chinatown in San Luis Obispo is only 1.5% of what it used to be. Back in the day, 3/4 of Palm Street was Chinatown, but today, only the Ah Louis Store and Chinatown mural stands as a reminder of the Chinatown San Luis Obispo once had.
Reference: Dr. Daniel Krieger, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly SLO