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Locke: the last Chinese village in rural California

Less than 30 minutes from Sacramento California is a small authentic Chinese village lost in the mists of time. The sidewalks are wooden and the ancient ramshackle buildings remind the visitor that a century ago on a Saturday night over a thousand of Chinese socialized in the streets, bordellos, saloons and gambling parlors. Most of the Chinese who built this village have either died or moved away, but virtually all of the old buildings remain with so many tales to tell.

Locke is unique because it is the only rural Chinese village still remaining in North America. Chinatowns continue to thrive and grow in major American cities, but a century or more ago many Chinese lived in small towns across the West, but today these smaller Chinese communities have largely disappeared. Locke was rare in its heyday a century ago in that it was built exclusively as a Chinese village. Its survival today largely intact and little changed make it an anthropological and archaeological treasure house.

Old Star Theatre, Locke

During the 1920s and 1930s Locke served as a residence for single Chinese men as well as a few families. The men worked mainly as farm laborers for area ranches or as tenant farmers. They lived in small single rooms in boarding houses in and around Locke. During the week-end, however, the size of the town exploded as hundreds of Chinese workers from surrounding areas came to find respite from their hard work during the week in the fields. Locke was an unincorporated town without any regular constabulary, so there was nothing to stop the free-flow of liquor and gambling. Men wanting a few minutes of sexual pleasure could find it easily and cheaply in the many brothels that dotted the two major streets of the village.

The Origins of Locke: Chinese in the Sacramento River Delta

The Sacramento River Delta is one of the richest farming areas in the United States. The region’s growth as a major agricultural area began in the 1850s and expanded rapidly in the 1860s and 1870s. Usage of the region’s fertile land required the building of massive levees – and in those days much of the work was done manually. The decline in mining and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad meant that there were many thousands of young Chinese looking for work. White landowners desperately needed Chinese labor to build the levees and to help farm the land. It became very common for White land developers to work closely with an English-speaking Chinese with a plan for a levee and to have the Chinese foreman then hire a certain number of Chinese to do the actual building.

By the time much of the land had been reclaimed in the 1880s, many Chinese became farm laborers. White farmers owned hundreds and in some cases thousands of acres of land used to produce a wide range of agricultural goods ranging from tomatoes to asparagus, potatoes\, wheat and fruit. The farmers hired Chinese to work the land and soon became dependent on Chinese labor to make agriculture work. Some farmers leased significant stretches of their land to Chinese tenant farmers who began growing significant amounts of agricultural products and who in turn hired other Chinese and on rare occasions Whites as farm laborers. There soon developed a highly complex network of mutual dependence. Chinese needed jobs and were willing to work hard while the White farmers could not survive without Chinese labor.

Life for the Chinese farm laborers and tenant farmers was certainly not too easy, but it was not too harsh either. Chinese in the Delta had to work hard, but they could get by and except during the Depression, they could even save money if they didn’t gamble too much. Their style of living was reasonably healthy. Although most lacked families in the Delta, their fellow workers were usually congenial, and whites in the area maintained reasonably friendly relations. Finally, it was possible to advance from a farm laborer to become a tenant farmer or even small businessman or landowner.

Mechanization and assimilation, however, eventually brought an end to the huge Chinese presence in the Delta region. A century ago large-scale farming required the presence of myriads of farm workers and small scale tenant farming was feasible for farmers willing to live very simple lives. Large scale mechanization of agriculture in the 1940s and 1950s, however, lessened the need for many farm workers and made small-scale farming untenable. The result was a rapidly accelerating decline in the number of Chinese involved in agriculture in the Delta

When the levees were completed during the 1870s and 1880s, many of the levee builders stayed in the area to become farm laborers and tenant farmers. Since very few of them spoke much English and both Chinese and non-Chinese tended to stick to their own kind, the Chinese bonded together to form small Chinatowns throughout the Delta region. Some of the major Chinese settlements occurred in Rio Vista, Isleton, Walnut Grove, Locke and Courtland. Most of these towns had mixed populations with distinct Chinatowns. Only Locke was a distinctly Chinese settlement.

Main Street, Locke

Locke became a settled Chinese community quite late. There were Chinese in nearby Walnut Grove from the late 1800s, but in 1907 the Southern Pacific Railway established a packing shed along the Sacramento River a short walk north of Walnut Grove which attracted many Chinese workers. A Chinese merchant, Chan Tin San, leased land across from the shed from the heirs of a deceased Anglo merchant, George Locke and built a store and saloon. Other enterprising Chinese, realizing the needs of a semi-migrant labor force, quickly built a boarding house, a gambling hall, and other stores and social centers. These businesses soon served as a Mecca for other Chinese and before long a thoroughly Chinese community. When the Chinatown in neighboring Walnut Grove was completely destroyed by fire in 1913, local Chinese decided to build a new village in what became Locke.

Locke was fairly unique because in addition to the many single Chinese men who either lived in or visited the village, there were also at any one time 30 to 40 families that resided there as well. Here Chinese children could go to an authentic Chinese school where they could speak their own language and be taught by Chinese teachers. They could shop in their own stores and buy goods grown or produced locally, but also from China. There was no interference from outside authority — they were not rich, but they could lead peaceful lives in a pleasant natural setting in a climate that was mild throughout the year.

The gambling houses often served as the centers for social life in Locke. They were meeting places where the men could read Chinese newspapers, play dominoes, fan-tan or chess, enjoy a cup of tea, or relax by playing Chinese musical instruments without being disturbed by outsiders and outside pressures. They went to the gambling dens to get their mail and share the latest news and gossip from home. And when local farmers came to find workers, the gambling houses served as labor hiring halls as well.

There was a lot of political activity in Locke as well. Locke was founded in the very early years of the Chinese Republic. Dr. Sun Yat-sen had visited the Delta region years before to raise money and support for his Nationalist (Guomindang) Party. Local Chinese built a Guomindang meeting hall at the edge of the village. The hall later became the village school and is today a museum where one can still see an old Nationalist flag as well as photographs of Dr. Sun and General Chiang Kai-shek.

Today the town of Locke sits astride the Sacramento River much as it did in decades past. The old buildings line the two main streets looking much as they did in old photographs. The only thing that is different is the declining number of Chinese. I met a Chinese-American gentleman who owns a bookstore and ate at a decent Chinese restaurant which also serves as a social gathering place for the town. Locke certainly is not a ghost town—other immigrants have moved in and most of the buildings seem occupied. The old Chinese school is now a locally-run museum and the State Park service has taken over an old boarding house which too will become a museum. Both the school and boarding house are open most days for the casual visitor. There is also a fully rebuilt gambling hall that visitors can inspect at their leisure.

Many tourists from nearby San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento come each week-end to walk the two main streets, shop in specialty boutiques, eat the local food and tour the town’s museums. But Locke too is a relic – a reminder of what once was a thriving center of Chinese culture in North America.

Time has really taken its toll. Many of the old buildings clearly need work and may fall down in the future if nothing is done to fix their sloping walls or leaking roofs. When the town was first built, Asians could not own land in California, so while they owned the buildings, they had to pay rent to the landowners. Later the land was bought by a land developer in Hong Kong who said he wanted to build a Chinese theme park nearby, but nothing came of that and later most of the land was purchased by the state of California. Sadly, however, except for the museum buildings, which are nicely restored, much of the town is in bad need of repair.

Locke’s mostly aged Chinese residents number less than two dozen, and they are slowly dying out. Locke’s newer generations went away to college and never returned except to visit the old folks. Today it is the curious tourist who keeps the town afloat, but there numbers are too small and if there is no massive infusion of money and effort to rebuild the town, this historic relic of Chinese America might itself disappear.

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