In California, Another Kind of Chinatown

In Locke, Calif., a drum and bell corps celebrates the town's roots as a Chinese settlement.
In Locke, Calif., a drum and bell corps celebrates the town's roots as a Chinese settlement. (2002 Photo By Steve Yeater -- Associated Press)
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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Parents of new babies often get cabin fever after days of nonstop nurturing. Luckily, when that happened after the recent birth of our first grandchild, my son-in-law had just the fix: the historic Chinese settlement of Locke, Calif., about 30 miles south of Sacramento.

The drive to this tiny stick-built town was a revelation, winding as it does through waving rice fields along country roads dotted with abandoned farmhouses and plantations. Much of the time, the route was well above the fields.

Then it dawned on me: We were riding on top of levees. These man-made wonders were the genius of early Chinese laborers who built them in the 1880s as part of a complicated canal system that drained and reclaimed the once marshy Sacramento Delta and transformed it into some of California's most fertile farmland. Today the levees help channel water to fields, along with a growing number of vineyards.

Locke was founded in 1915 by an industrious group of Chinese who approached land baron George Locke about leasing some turf after their section of nearby Walnut Grove went up in flames. (Historical note: California law forbade Chinese from owning land at the time.)

From that small parcel sprang the first U.S. town built exclusively by and for the Chinese; in 1971 it won a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and is the only remaining rural town of its kind in California. Locke's founders emigrated from Guangdong province in southeastern China in response to California's 1861 Swamp and Overflow Act, which encouraged levee building for reclamation purposes. About 3,500 Chinese laborers made the journey and built hundreds of miles of delta levees.

Today, the tiny five-street town of Locke stands much as it did in the 1920s, when more than 600 Chinese called it home during the boom in the asparagus trade. Besides a movie theater called the Star that showed silent films, the town had six restaurants, nine grocery stores, a flour mill, opium dens, bakeries, gambling joints, a hotel and numerous boardinghouses. Prostitution thrived, and a Chinese herbalist dispensed medicine and advice.

Currently home to about 80 people -- of whom only 10 are Chinese -- the town looks more like a Western movie set with its two-story clapboard storefronts, wooden pillars and covered walkways.

Schoolchildren on field trips take guided walking tours, visit the one-room schoolhouse and learn how Chinese migrants laid track across the treacherous Sierras in the 1860s for the country's first transcontinental railroad and then slogged into the American and San Joaquin rivers to reclaim thousands of acres of delta farmland through their levees.

And adults? They can paw through the antiques and curiosities at Strange Cargo Art & Collectibles, which includes all manner of biker gear, nautical paraphernalia and hand-built wooden furniture, and eyeball the displays at the Locke Art Center and the Dai Loy Museum. The latter looks like the gambling lair it once was, with a box of Prince Albert tobacco open for roll-your-own cigarettes and tables set up for pai gow, a game played with dominoes.

There's a community park that honors the town's early settlers, as well as a newly installed bronze and granite monument sculpted by Elyse Marr, a Stanford University student whose father was born in Locke and whose uncle still runs a general store here. The monument depicts Chinese delta history in several bronze bas-relief panels with captions in Chinese and English.

On the day we visited, the most bustling spot in town was Al's Place, a lively eatery that's part saloon, part Italian deli and part classic family diner where steaks and burgers sizzle on the grill.

Until his death in 1961, Al Adami, who once owned the joint, was part of the restaurant's allure. Among his antics, he allegedly would cut off neckties (too dressy), throw money at the ceiling and stir ladies' drinks with his fingers. These days, bikers, who sometimes order up a steak with peanut butter to fuel their ride, and families mix easily here, and kids like sitting at the counter to watch the action. (A steak, with or without the peanut butter, and a beer cost less than $15.)

Clarence Chu, who runs the Locke Art Center, says guests will soon be able to view historic black-and-white photos of town elders and hear personal oral histories at the renovated Locke Boarding House, which will be dedicated as the town's visitors center early next year.

"We're interested in people coming away with a real grasp of the suffering and colorful history that went into conceiving and building this town," Chu said.

Of course, he hopes people take time to grab a bite, prowl through the town's art museums or browse at the import shops with traditional Chinese soaps, teapots, vases, bamboo dumpling steamers, pj's and slippers, but he says, "We want a visit to Locke to be more substantial than the typical quick tourist trip to San Francisco's Chinatown."

-- Joan McQueeney Mitric

From downtown Sacramento, take Interstate 5 south and exit at Twin Cities Road; turn right. Go south on River Road for about two miles; Locke is on the left. To learn more about Locke's history, read "Bitter Melon: Inside America's Last Rural Chinese Town" by Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow. Info:

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