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A block party took over downtown San Luis Obispo on Saturday with hundreds of people packing Palm Street in front of the Ah Louis Store to celebrate not only the building’s 150th anniversary, but also Lunar New Year.
The party — a partnership between the city and Karson Butler Events — took over a block of Palm Street between Chorro and Morro streets throughout the day, starting at 11 a.m.
“We’re so excited that the city, in partnership with the Ah Louis Store and the team at Karson Butler Events, is able to have this brand new community event,” economic development and tourism manager Molly Cano told The Tribune in the week before the party. “I think something that we’re really excited about is being able to tell the story overall for the historic Chinatown district and be able to really kind of put a focus and an emphasis on this unique historic district that we have within the community.”
Cano said Karson Butler Events, which opened up a retail gift shop in the Ah Louis building in 2016, was instrumental in planning and executing the unique event.
Co-founder and CEO Amber Karson said she and her sister Emily Butler had long been looking for ways to honor the history of the building and the legacy of its original owner, Ah Louis.
“It’s been a dream of ours to reinvigorate what we’ve learned about the history,” Karson told The Tribune on Feb. 5. “That’s really important to Emily and me. When we are in that building, the whole point is to bring love and light back to the Ah Louis home. It was such a cornerstone of our community.”
Ah Louis Store building celebrates 150th anniversary
Beside being a prominent businessman, Ah Louis was also something of an honorary mayor of San Luis Obispo’s original Chinatown, which spanned a swath of Palm Street until much of it was bulldozed in the 1950s.
The brick Ah Louis Store that sits on the corner of Palm and Chorro streets today was built in 1885, replacing a wooden one that was built in 1874, and is one of the last remaining buildings original to that district.
Over the years, it at times served as a post office, general store, bank and an employment office, besides being a gathering point for the Chinese community in San Luis Obispo.
Karson noted that during its lengthy history, the building and the block were also the site of numerous parties and celebrations, including ones for the Lunar New Year.
Taking that into mind as the building’s 150th anniversary approached, Karson said she felt the time was right to connect with the city for a massive celebration focused around the store’s birthday and Lunar New Year.
The city and Butler reached out to local cultural groups, including the Central Coast Chinese Association and the Cal Poly Chinese Students’ Association, for input while planning the event.
They also have been working directly with the Louis family, especially Dr. William Watson, Louis’ grandson and the owner of the Ah Louis Store building, she said.
Beside the Ah Louis Store, other businesses in the Chinatown district — including Mee Heng Low, the Palm Theatre and Hotel San Luis Obispo — will also have special activities for the block party.
“It is really kind of this fantastic synergy between a lot of people that have been dreaming and planning this for a while,” Karson said.
San Luis Obispo diversity, equity and inclusion manager Nestor Veloz-Passalacqua said the celebration is a way for the city to highlight the important contributions of diverse populations to the region’s history — but also as a way to acknowledge its diversity today.
“Something that is very critical, that we want to be able to acknowledge, is we want to make sure people know the city is in fact, quite diverse,” he said. “We want people to know that they are critical today.”
What was on the lineup for Lunar New Year block party?
There was plenty of excitement on the block during the all-day party.
Families and residents wandered the booths set up in the parking lot adjacent to the Ah Louis Store, snacking on pork belly buns from Bings Bao Buns or the myriad other food options at the event.
Cal Poly’s Lion Dance Team put on crowd-pleasing performances throughout the late afternoon, wowing the assembled audience with their acrobatics and dancing.
Other events included an opening ceremony and celebration of the Ah Louis Store’s 150 years, followed by a performance from the Central Coast Chinese Association, a food panel on “SLO’s Rising Asian Food Scene, a dance performance by the Cal Poly KAJA KREW, a tea cermony demonstation by the Inari Tea Lounge and a parking lot dance party.
The Palm Theatre also held a special screening of the 2001 romantic drama “In the Mood for Love.”
To cap off the evening, the city’s first-ever drone light show lit up the sky above San Luis Obispo, wowing the assembled crowd who packed not only the parking lot adjacent to the Ah Louis Store, but were also stopped on corners throughout the city to see the spectacle.
Mimicking traditional fireworks, drones formed complex shapes in the sky, switching from a flying dragon to spelling out messages like “Happy Lunar New Year” and “2024.” At one point the drones morphed into a giant red envelope that opened, revealing coins inside.
As the drone light show continued, photos of Ah Louis and his family were displayed on the side of the store building. Soon after the light show concluded, the crowd began to disperse, content after welcoming a new year in style.
“The overwhelming outpouring of support from the San Luis Obispo community was truly heartwarming,” Karson told The Tribune after the event. “Palm Street radiated with joy, love and appreciation throughout the entire day. It was a profound honor for us to revive a Lunar New Year celebration in commemoration of the 150-year anniversary of The Ah Louis Store. This day will be eternally engraved in our hearts.”