Thirteen years after the following story was written the Shanghi Low building is laid low. The area is part of the Copeland’s Chinatown redevelopment slated for much of this block.
On May 12, 1999 Telegram-Tribune reporter Mike Stover wrote about plans to knock down the brick building with the Shanghi Low Chop Suey sign on it.
OLD BUILDINGS OR BIT OF HISTORY?
It’s a little after noon and the usual “Closed” sign hangs in the window of the Ah Louis Store.
Lunch traffic at the Mee Heng Low Chop Suey Shop is steady but light.
The Palm Theatre won’t begin screening its latest assortment of art flicks for four hours.
Palindromes’ deep-dish pizza is developing a buzz around town, but they don’t do lunch on weekdays.
The antique store next door takes Tuesdays off this time of year and is locked up tight.
Just another quiet afternoon in Chinatown.
What’s left of it.
Chinatown was a bustling hub of activity for hundreds of Chinese residents and laborers during its heyday in the late 1800s. It spanned both sides of Palm Street between Morro and Chorro streets and even edged across Chorro a bit.
Most of the remaining wooden buildings were bulldozed 40 years ago to build a parking lot that later became a parking garage.
Now the city wants to build a second parking garage dubbed “Palm II” and once again is thinking about warming up its bulldozers.
Palindromes and the antique store would be torn out to build an underground garage. The garage would include new stores at ground level and offices upstairs.
Money to begin the project is included in the city’s preliminary two-year budget released to the public Tuesday.
Officials say the Palindromes building and the attached store were not an original part of Chinatown and have little or no architectural value.
Despite the historic “Chop Suey” sign perched on the roof — a reminder the restaurant’s days as the Shanghai Low — the rectangular brick structures do not represent the district as it looked 100 years ago, they say.
Last week Councilwoman Jan Howell Marx tried to get a commitment from her colleagues to preserve the buildings housing the restaurant and antique store. She noted they are within the Chinatown Historic District created by the city in 1995, but couldn’t get a second to her motion.
Members of the local Asian community and their supporters are dumbfounded.
Symbol of poor treatment
Some feel the Palindromes/Shanghai Low building has become a symbol of the racist treatment Chinese residents have received from their government, not just in San Luis Obispo but across California.
It’s a history the city created but would like to forget, they say.
“We don’t need this stretch of Chinese history becoming a garage corridor, ” said Alice Loh, a landscape architecture professor at Cal Poly who sits on the city Planning Commission.
Steve Yung, who owns the two buildings the city wants to tear down, has written the City Council urging them to preserve the former home of the Shanghai Low, once owned by his father-in-law George Gin.
“As I walked up and down the Palm Street every day, I see how the rich Chinese heritage was replaced by rows and rows of parking stalls in a garage. A further decline in Chinatown’s precious heritage would result from tearing down the Shanghai Low building to build the Palm II structure, ” Yung wrote.
“It’s the building the city … forced the Gin family to retreat to, ” said historian Dan Krieger. “It’s what was left of Chinatown after the city moved to destroy Chinatown.”
Understanding their position requires a short history lesson.
History of the Shanghai Low
The original Shanghai Low dates back to at least the 1920s and was located where the Palm Street parking garage is today.
The business passed to George Gin in 1946. Gin moved to San Luis Obispo from San Francisco, where at one time he was a pastry chef at the Fairmont Hotel.
In 1950 Gin was told the city needed the land for a surface parking lot. The building he leased and many other original Chinatown structures were razed.
Gin moved the restaurant into two adjoining spaces across the street owned by David Muzio.
He purchased them 26 years later in 1976.
In 1982 the city wanted to bulldoze the new Shanghai Low to make way for its first parking garage.
This was the original incarnation of the Palm II garage now under discussion. Gin eventually reached an agreement with the city that would allow him to move the restaurant back to its original location.
But the need to do that became moot when voters soundly rejected the parking garage proposal in November 1983.
Eventually the garage was built where it stands today.
The restaurant passed to Gin’s daughter and son-in-law, Helen and Steve Yung, who own the Imperial China on Marsh Street.
They leased out the Shanghai Low space, first to Wild Billy Wong’s BBQ and later to Palindromes.
If the Palm II parking garage is built as currently envisioned, the restaurant and adjacent antique store will come out along with the city’s public works office on Morro Street and a small private office building at the corner of Palm and Morro. The Palm II garage would stretch across Morro Street from the Palm Theatre to the library parking lot.
The Palm Theatre would not be touched.
The irony of the proposal is not lost on Chris Cothard, the co-owner of Palindromes restaurant. When he and his mother opened their pizza parlor 4 1/2 years ago, they wanted to take down the distinctive “Chop Suey” sign that graces their building.
The sign was confusing customers, Cothard said.
They were told by the city the sign had historic significance and couldn’t come down without approval from a couple city commissions.
Cothard elected not to pursue it. He thought about covering the sign with a tarp but said he couldn’t afford the canvas.
Now the city’s talking about tearing down the entire building and no one at City Hall has said a word to him about it, he said. “They’ve certainly made no effort to include the business owners in the discussion.”
He said he’s not opposed to the garage but wishes the city would come up with a plan and stick to it.
“Chinatown was the big deal for a year and a half. Now we’re just going to tear it down and pave it over.”
There are many officials who claim to care about the city’s cultural heritage, but Cothard questions their commitment.
“What is this downtown all about? It doesn’t sound like it’s about anything ethnic or historical. It’s all about development.”
Theme could be preserved
City officials have suggested that the stores on the ground floor of the parking garage along Palm could be designed with a Chinatown motif that could provide a better sense of what the neighborhood looked like at the turn of the century than either of the brick buildings there now.
“I think that’s a much better way to preserve the Chinese flavor of that block, ” said City Councilman Dave Romero.
Krieger, a Cal Poly history professor, said he’s heard that sort of promise before.
When the first Palm Street garage was built, assurances were made to the Chinese community that a mural would be designed commemorating its history. Instead, the local arts council pushed a design featuring three palm trees.
Howard Louis, the owner of the Ah Louis Store, felt betrayed and blocked the project by refusing to grant the city access across his parking lot to install the palm trees.
The city was forced to reconsider and settled on the mural that exists today.
The current vision for the downtown’s future has forgotten about the importance of the past, Krieger said.
“I hate to see people in the name of good planning destroy culture.” Krieger said he participated in creating that vision, offering input on the Downtown Concept Plan now being used to shape the business district.
“I never dreamt that this would be the thing that would come out of it.”
Garage still a long way off
While the parking garage has begun to move through the city’s pipeline and has support on the council and in the business community, final approval is a long way off. The design has not been completed.
Loh said the Chinese community is still learning about the proposal but is growing increasingly concerned. But as with any group in the community, it does not speak with one voice.
Elsie Louis, one of only two surviving relatives of Ah Louis, has no problem with the city’s plan to tear down the old buildings and putting up another parking garage.
“There wasn’t much of a Chinatown, just one block, ” she said. “I don’t want to stand in the way of progress.”
Louis was born above the Ah Louis Store in 1914. She said Steve Yung is a friend and she expressed concern that her comments might hurt whatever chance he has of saving his buildings.
The sign has been preserved, read about the project details in Ann Marie Cornejo’s story.