What California Meant to Ah Louis
In March of 1934, Chester Newten Hess sat down to interview Ah Louis. Below is some of what Ah Louis had to say. Click here for the full interview.
It was a clear, brisk morning, and 93 year old Ah Louis could be seen sitting on his doorstep, smoking his long pipe. Ah Louis began by saying, "These cigars eleven years old. Fresh tobacco no good. Take whole handful and put in your pocket. Smoke slowly and think of Ah Louis. I smoke very strong Chinese tobacco that make you sick mighty soon. Old man like me can stand anything. Now we smoke and talk."
Ah Louis' story begins in his hometown, in the village of Loong On Ook Gong. During the interview, Ah Louis shared how much he disliked his homeland and why he wanted to return to California after visiting his family back home. This is because in 1933, at the age of 93, Ah Louis decided that he should return to China to die, a native tradition. With that in mind, he didn't bring his re-entry documents, as he didn't plan on returning to the US. Yet, after a few months of being home, he was missing his friends in the US. He said, "You have picture of me there with my children and grandchildren just before Fred, Howard and me sail for China last year. I have no beard in that picture. Now you see I have beard and look like wise old Chinese man, eh? Let me tell you why I have beard now. When in China two months, my dead wife, Gon Ying, appear before me in dream and say: ‘You must grow beard.’ And so I grow one right away. But I was not old man of China. I want to come back San Luis Obispo one month after I arrive in China...I will tell you why I want to come back to California. I feel very homesick in China. My village there not change much for 800 years. I see one woman carry big heavy water-wheel two miles, pump up water with foot power, carry water-wheel and water back two miles. Everything done old way. My people learn almost nothing since I left. Farmer work hard all year, get few sacks of rice to eat. Very bad way to live. No time to enjoy...I could not be happy in China. Other things bad there too. When I go my native village, I decide have big banquet for neighbors all around. We invite 1,200 people. Build big bamboo hall just for party. Then we hire many men with guns to guard banquet from bandits. River pirates, bandits very bad in China. Robbers and bad men in America, too. But nothing like in China. When I come to California hunt gold in 1860, many bad men here. Men not like China boy dressed in clothes of homeland. Every time see him, take off clothes and beat. Pretty soon China boys get smart and put on American clothes. I look for gold in Eugene, Oregon, first. Then I come California. After while men in California fine men. Bad ones almost gone. I find in all business dealings here for sixty years, American men treat Ah Louis fine."
As a result, Ah Louis decided to return to the United States. But without his re-entry documents, he was detained at the Immigration Center on Angel Island for three days, while U.S. Customs and Immigration authorities looked into his case. Luckily, with the help of well-known locals, the San Luis Obispo Mayor, and the California Governor, he was able to return to the city that he spent over 60 years helping to build.
Ah Louis had such a loving affection for San Luis Obispo that he even advised his friend to not go back to China. He explained, "You will find only disappointment. End your days in California—here in San Luis Obispo." Indeed, Ah Louis did exactly that.
HISTORY IN SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY Site Created and Maintained by Lynne Landwehr, www.historyinslocounty.org/Ah Louis Store.htm.
HISTORY IN SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY Site Created and Maintained by Lynne Landwehr, www.historyinslocounty.org/Oldest Living Chinese.htm.