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Year 4702: A Reunion Like No Other

April 1, 2010
by Jeff Gillenkirk

Locke, California was a town like no other. Nestled behind levees 25 miles south of Sacramento, in its heyday from 1915 to 1952 America’s last rural all-Chinese town had a wild vitality. It boasted four restaurants, half a dozen markets, five whorehouses (staffed by white women), a Chinese school, two slaughterhouses, a flourmill, shipping wharves, an opera house, and four gambling halls. The boarding rooms above Main Street housed hundreds of single men who composed part of California’s first migrant farm labor force, while Chinese families living in simple wooden houses along the single residential street scraped and saved in pursuit of the American Dream.

Locke’s first reunion this past fall, not surprisingly, was a reunion like no other. More than 200 men, women, and children from age 8 to 98 sat around plastic tables set up in the middle of Main Street on a warm autumn afternoon, listening to Cantonese opera singers and traditional Chinese music. On one side of the street was the Dai Loy Museum, the town’s former principal gambling hall preserved “as is,” with poker chips still scattered on the tables as if the raids ordered in 1951 by California Attorney General Pat Brown had taken place that morning. On the other side loomed the sagging façade of the Star Theater, where the Peking Opera once played. There were the descendants of grocer George Marr, whose oldest son, Dustin, still runs Locke’s Yuen Chong Market. There were also the Toms, the Chins, the Lais, the Owyangs, the Chans, Chus, Chuns, Kans, Lees, Lows, Jongs, Chees, and Kings—with four generations of families waiting to be served grilled steaks and chicken from the infamous Delta restaurant known as Al the Wop’s in this year 4702 of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Their little town had been in the news recently, after the Sacramento County Housing and Redevelopment Agency bought the land beneath Locke and transferred ownership to its residents for the first time in history. (California’s 1913 Alien Land Act forbade anyone not eligible for citizenship—i.e., Chinese people—from owning property.) While private ownership has revived interest in restoring the town and commemorating its Chinese history, the town’s current residents—only a fraction of whom are Chinese—are struggling with exactly how to do that.

It’s an issue of vital importance to the legacy of this unique place. Virtually the entire story of Chinese immigration in California can be told through the lives of people who moved through the two blocks of this tiny wooden town. The story begins with completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad in 1869. Landowners then hired Chinese laborers to build the levees that helped convert the Sacramento River delta into some of the richest farmland in the world. By 1880 a majority of farmers and farm laborers in California’s Central Valley were Chinese, part of a larger network of Chinese towns and settlements spread across the west.

But in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act—the first U.S. immigration law ever to exclude a specific nationality—and then began a chapter of American history as shameful and ignored as any—the “Driving Out.” Vigilantes torched Chinese homes and businesses throughout the west. Newspapers of the day across California—in Sacramento, Chico, Calistoga, Truckee, Modesto, and dozens of other locales—reported violent mob actions against Chinese people, who had no legal redress.

The Sacramento delta was one of the few places where the Chinese escaped violence. Here among the tule marshes and 700 miles of crisscrossing waterways, Chinese workers carved out a niche, hiring themselves for as little as 90 cents a day working the fields they’d formed from the swamps. By 1910 nearly 90 percent of the world’s asparagus was being shipped from the delta, then known as the “Asparagus Capital of the World.”

Chinese communities flourished in towns along the Sacramento River—Courtland, Walnut Grove, Isleton—populated mostly by a “bachelor society” of single men, as U.S. law for years specifically forbade immigration by Chinese women. They kept to themselves and sent the bulk of their meager pay back home, living two to a room in boarding houses and in field barracks during harvests. In 1914 the delta’s largest Chinatown, in Walnut Grove, burned to the ground. Half the Chinese population moved a mile upriver, where, on a handshake deal with local landowner George Locke, they leased nine acres of pear orchard and cleared it to build a town.

“They thought they were only going to be there five, six, ten years at the most, and then get the heck out,” recalled Ping Lee, one of the first children born in Locke, in 1917. Ping’s father, Lee Bing, was one of the town’s cofounders, a leader of the Jan Ying Association—the governing tong—and owner of the Dai Loy gambling hall. “They just wanted a roof over their head, make their money, and go back to where they were wanted—to China.”

Most never made it, their dreams of returning home thwarted by poverty and the revolutions, wars, and oppression that plagued China throughout the 20th century. Their lives in “Gold Mountain,” as they called the United States, were not what they’d imagined. The people whose oral histories I gathered for the book Bitter Melon told heartbreaking stories about grinding poverty, racial discrimination, numbing cycles of farm labor, and never-ending loneliness. One of the things that sustained them, as it would later generations, was their all-Chinese town.

“Before World War II, whites would attack you with stones when you walked through their towns,” laborer Bing Fai Chow, now deceased, told me in 1983. “We never dared to walk on the streets alone then, except in Locke. This was our place.”

After 1930 more families began appearing in Locke, as immigration laws were loosened and wives—and in some cases children—arrived from China. Though more familial, life was no easier. Already making next to nothing, Chinese workers were hit especially hard by the Depression. Families shared rice so that others could survive. Connie King, now 83 and an organizer of Locke’s reunion, told about caring for her younger siblings so her parents could work, and preparing sandwiches of sugar and bread for dinner.

When invitations to the reunion went out in Spring 2005, it was King’s generation that responded most eagerly. Sixty years and more after those trying times, it was all smiles and hugs on a warm delta day. “We were living in a ghetto and didn’t even know it,” laughed Gene Chan, 73, who graduated from California Polytechnic Institute and retired after working 34 years for Aerojet.

While staff from Al the Wop’s served dinner, former Locke resident Irvin Lai took the microphone. “I still have some of those candies they passed out at the mission at Christmas time,” Lai laughed. “That candy was so hard you couldn’t eat it!”

Born in 1926 on a ranch outside Walnut Grove, Lai moved with his family to Locke the following year when the rancher employing his father went bankrupt. Like other kids of his generation, Lai was forced to attend the segregated “Oriental” school in Walnut Grove, which closed, ironically, in 1942 after the area’s Japanese residents were sent to internment camps.

“The books were old, the athletic equipment was broken—that’s how we were treated,” he recalled. “The first day I went to school, I didn’t speak one word of English. I just sat there like a dumb duck, not understanding a thing. I had to go home for the rest of the year and learn English.”

Connie King, who moved to Locke in 1948, remembers that time all too well. “My husband and I tried to buy a house across the river in 1949, and they wouldn’t sell to us,” she said. “Why? I was born here, I’m a citizen. Why are we so different just because we’re Chinese?”

While some found it a refuge, others couldn’t wait to get out of Locke. The preferred exit was college, and no school carried more weight among the delta’s Chinese than Berkeley. “My father said, ‘You’ve got to go to Cal, it’s the best school, the number one school in the nation,'” recalled Ping Lee. He graduated from Cal in 1941, along with his brother On. Dozens of Locke residents attended the Berkeley campus; at least nine people at the reunion were Cal graduates. Others went to Cal Poly, Stanford, Sacramento State, and various technical schools.

“My grandmother, who couldn’t read or write, always told me, ‘Go for it.'” said Loretta Oh, a retired Oakland schoolteacher who left Locke in 1948. “And look at what we produced—doctors, engineers, teachers.”

Two events quickened the exodus of Locke’s Chinese. One was the crackdown in 1951 on illegal gambling by crusading state Attorney General Pat Brown, later governor of California and the father of former governor Jerry Brown. The shutdown of Locke’s gambling halls deprived the town of a major source of revenue. The other event, ironically, was the repeal of the 1913 Alien Land Act. With home-ownership possible after 1952, many Chinese abandoned Locke, where residents were still paying ground rent to the Locke Estate.

As official segregation vanished and Chinese-Americans moved into mainstream society, Locke’s later generations had an easier time. But the town was a key player in their lives as well. “I was raised by this entire town,” says Larranda Brown, daughter of Yuen Chong Market founder George Marr. “There wasn’t a person who didn’t know me, who would not hesitate to watch over me, take care of me, correct me.”

Darwin Kan, youngest son of Ping Lee, today lives just a mile from Locke, in a part of Walnut Grove where Chinese were once unwelcome. “Some [people] had some bitter memories about Locke—that they were trapped here and couldn’t get away, that they couldn’t integrate,” he explained. “My time here was more enjoyable. When we went to grammar school in Walnut Grove, there’d be all Chinese in the school bus,” he says. “The bus was full, and when they opened the door, it was all Chinese coming out. That was the last big bunch.”

America’s last rural all-Chinese town ceased being all-Chinese in the 1970s, shortly after it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1977 Hong Kong developer Ng Tor Tai bought the entire town and 490 surrounding acres for $700,000. But his proposal to restore Locke as a “cultural village” along with luxury homes and a yacht marina fell through, and Locke went into an extended period of decay. One of the biggest surprises for people at the reunion was that Locke still existed. “I thought it would just roll over and die,” laughed Willis Tom, 79. “Everybody figured it was a town with no future.”

That Locke still exists is due mainly to the unrelenting advocacy of Connie King and the intervention of the Sacramento County Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA). In 1999 state water officials warned Locke’s residents that its antiquated sewer system had to be fixed or the town vacated. Public funds were available to help, but they could not be spent to benefit Locke’s single landowner. The SHRA offered to purchase the 10 acres beneath the town and help secure a grant from the federal government to fix the sewers. Central to the plan was the subdivision of Locke’s property and the sale of land beneath the buildings to individual owners for the first time in history.

As the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors pondered the deal, proponents convinced publicity-shy Connie King to travel to Sacramento and tell them why it was the right thing to do. “I’m here to represent the men who have gone,” she began, referring to the thousands of laborers like Bing Fai Chow. “I want to see the town preserved in memory of the Chinese who built the railroads, who built the levees, who planted the pear trees up and down the delta, who built the town of Locke. I promised those men we would own the land under our homes one day. We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

Plans to preserve the town and commemorate its history, however, have not run smoothly. Locke is no longer a homogenous community. Just 12 of its 80 residents today are Chinese; the rest are an eclectic group of whites, Mexicans, and Filipinos, who are artists and retirees, carpenters, farmworkers, and jacks of-all-trades who were drawn to the unincorporated town’s cheap housing and “live-and-let-live” lifestyle under its absentee Hong Kong landlord. To the distress of many, meetings of the new Locke Management Association often descend into acrimony. Some residents favor establishing new businesses on Main Street to attract tourists. Proposals have included a historical museum, an ice cream parlor, and new restaurants. Others argue for improving the lives of residents: paving the town’s residential streets (they’re still gravel) and building a playground for the town’s children, now mostly Mexican.

Others don’t want the town to change at all. Some have shown their disdain for civic improvement by piling old refrigerators, couches, and mounds of garbage outside their homes and ignoring pleas by townspeople to remove them. “There are some constantly negative people who shoot down everything,” one local official confided. “When there’s only 60 or so people involved, [that negativity] is magnified.”

Those issues will be resolved—or not—through monthly meetings of the town’s management board, made up of representatives elected from the town and others appointed from state agencies and Asian-American nonprofits. But for one afternoon, at least, arguments were laid aside and Locke’s Chinese, once at best tolerated in the delta, were deservedly celebrated. Authentic Shaolin monks performed improbable stunts in the middle of Main Street. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends greeted each other enthusiastically, some after gaps as long as 50 years. Many brought family photos to be scanned for the town’s archives. Irvin Lai contributed a picture of his mother holding him as a one-year-old outside Locke’s poorhouse in 1927. Now president of Lai Construction Company and Lo-Temp Refrigeration in Los Angeles, Lai said, “Because we were segregated, that gave us determination.”

One thing most people at the reunion were certain about was that Locke never again would be predominantly Chinese. “I don’t know anybody who’s going back,” said Everett Leong, who recently sold his family’s home in Locke. “I’m one of the younger ones, and I’m 62. My cousins are 76, 78. For them to come back to live is out of the question.”

Sitting in the fading light on Main Street as the reunion guests departed, I thought of what Darwin Kan had told me earlier. “These stores, if they could talk,” he said, pointing from building to building. “That place—you could get those Chinese donuts, gin doi. They’re round, deep-fried donuts. Inside there’s either a salty filling or a sweet filling. The lady where the art gallery is now, she used to make them for Chinese New Year, and, ah, were they good! This place here, Fun Hop’s, you could get roast pork.”

Next to Fun Hop’s was the Dai Loy, where Darwin’s grandfather, Lee Bing, spun the lottery wheel three times a day. There was also the Jan Ying meeting hall, Happy’s Café, and the Joe Shoong School, where generations of kids studied Chinese. At the end of the street loomed the old boarding house, which the state plans to convert into a museum that will tell the story of Locke’s contribution to the culture and economy of California.

“This was our place,” Bing Fai Chow used to say. It was a place like no other.

Jeff Gillenkirk is coauthor, with James Motlow, of Bitter Melon: Inside America’s Last Rural Chinese Town, a collection of oral histories and photographs of residents of Locke (Heyday Books, 1993). For information about the town’s preservation, contact the Locke Foundation, P.O. Box 1085, Walnut Grove, California 95690, or

From the March April 2006 Can We Know Everything issue of California.

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