By Jessica Kwong @JessicaGKwong
Special to the S.F. Examiner
Western-style, wooden two-story buildings — some imprinted with Chinese characters — line both sides of the Main Street in Locke, a town 75 miles northeast of San Francisco in the thick of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
With one bar, one schoolhouse, and a handful of restaurants and general stores, Locke today looks much as it did in 1915, when agricultural laborers from China built the valley town as their home away from home.
Despite its relatively remote location, Locke — which turns 100 in October — represents an important page in state history books, particularly with regard to the contributions of Chinese immigrants during the early 20th century.
“It’s gone through lots of changes, lots of different people, but we’re trying to keep it as it is because it’s the last town built by the Chinese, that Chinese lived in,” said longtime resident David Garcia, sitting on his figurine-decorated porch. “That is the goal of most everyone living here.”
In its 1920s heyday, Lockeport, as it was called, had 600 permanent residents and 1,500 on weekends. Its citizens were mostly Chinese men who, according to Locke’s National Historic Landmark documentation form, originally came to the Delta region to construct levees and stayed to farm pears and asparagus. The town’s legacy hasn’t gone unnoticed locally. It’s a rich history the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco dedicated an exhibit to decades ago, and continues working on preserving as Locke’s centennial celebration approaches.
KEEPING HISTORY INTACT Merchants and laborers from the Zhongshan district of China founded Locke after nearby Walnut Grove’s Chinatown burned down. Located in southern Sacramento County, the unincorporated community also drew Chinese people who shared boarding houses and spent much of their spare time at gambling dens. Back then, Locke provided an alternative to the ethnic discrimination and violence that was prevalent in other Chinatowns, including San Francisco’s.
However, after World War II, the Chinese-American descendants of Locke’s first residents began moving to big cities and suburbs, seeking better educational and employment opportunities. Despite the passage of time, the town withstood the pressures of modern development and remains the country’s last standing rural Chinese town.
“The only way to get there is a two-lane road on top of a levee,” explained Jay Correia, state historian with the California Office of Historic Preservation. “And if you go off one side, you’re in the [Sacramento] River.”
One major transformation has befallen the town over the years: its population. Nowadays, only a few families descended from the Chinese immigrants remain. The 70 or so residents are mostly white, like Garcia, 54, who moved there from Canyon 38 years ago.
Preserving the town’s old, often-crumbling history is a task the Chinese Culture Center is taking up, along with residents and the Locke Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the town’s upkeep.
The city’s Chinese Culture Center, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has educated people about Locke’s history since holding an exhibit about the town years ago. The center conducts tours to the town at least once a year. During the latest tour, held this month, the center brought about 50 people, each contributing $5 to the Locke Foundation for a walking tour.
The town hasn’t escaped the eyes of developers. More than 35 years ago, Hong Kong developer Tor Tai Ng saw an exhibition about Locke during a visit to the Chinese Culture Center and took interest.
After visiting the town, Ng, his wife, Lien Fan Chu, and brother-in-law Clarence Chu in 1977 purchased the town and surrounding property under the name Asian City Development. The entire purchase from landowner George Locke totaled 500 acres, with lofty hopes of creating a Hong Kong-style cultural village — in other words, a theme park for tourists.
But the plan was largely unpopular among Sacramento County officials, and it was eventually abandoned for that reason.
“We figured, ‘Let’s be good neighbors, so we won’t do it,’” said Clarence Chu, 62, town resident and general manager of Locke Property Development Inc., a company that evolved from Asian City Development. In 1990, Locke was declared a National Historic Landmark, but that didn’t stop the town’s old buildings from deteriorating. The Chu family in 2001 sold the 10 acres encompassing the community to the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency to fund sewer and water line upgrades.
It wasn’t until 2005, when the agency subdivided the land into parcels for sale, that residents could own the ground beneath their homes. By then, most of the Chinese-American residents, who had been prohibited from owning land under the California Alien Land Law of 1913 until it was repealed in 1952, were gone.
As a result, Locke’s current state is “bittersweet,” said the culture center’s executive director, Mabel Teng. The town represents the resilience of the Chinese community, yet today’s residents don’t have the same emotional attachment to the land because they didn’t build the houses, Teng said.
The Chinese Culture Center hopes to have another tour later this year, although a date hasn’t been set.
“It’s helpful, especially when it’s a pretty sizable amount of people,” Clarence Chu said of the visitor funds from the tours. “One year, it was two busloads.”
AN AVERAGE DAY IN LOCKE
On a recent weekend afternoon, Main Street welcomed the usual crowd — residents relaxing on their second-story balconies atop retail spaces, bicyclists and motorcyclists breaking the silence of car-lined roads and a busload of tourists wandering through time portals like the Dai Loy Museum, a gambling house shuttered by the state in the early 1950s.
The lone bar and restaurant, Al the Wop’s, established by an Italian-American from San Francisco’s North Beach, teemed with visitors and locals alike, hungry for classic dishes like the New York steak served with peanut butter.
Jacquie Hanna, 56, of Galt enjoyed drinks with her friends at the counter, surrounded by old-fashioned decor and dollar bills hanging from the ceiling.
“The only thing I know is Al the Wop’s,” Hanna said. “I should probably check out the museum. We always just came here and never really walked around.”
But even underneath Locke’s quaint facade is a bubble of politics, with some residents hoping to preserve the town, while others still propose changes. The latest uproar is a plan by one resident to turn an antique shop on Main Street into an old-fashioned soda fountain and ice cream parlor, with a panini sandwich grill press.
Some residents have criticized the proposal, fearing noise, odors, garbage disposal issues and lack of sensitivity to the neighborhood.
Dustin Marr, 64, whose family ran the Yuen Chong Market on Main Street, is one of the few Chinese-American residents in Locke. Marr said he’s not against changes as long as they follow the proper process and don’t compromise the town’s historical integrity.
“We’re doing the policing ourselves and it’s very difficult because this town is 100 years old,” said Marr, a member of the Locke Management Association, which acts as a local town council.
In an effort to build on tourism, Clarence Chu has devised a plan that’s an offshoot of the still-fruitful pear trees just north of the town. A few months ago, he applied for permits with Sacramento County to grow organic fruits and vegetables, and start a winery on an adjacent 50 acres of open space. “Part of the attraction to visit Locke would be the Locke farm to purchase Delta produce and hopefully do some wine tasting,” he said. “That will expand the tours into another dimension.”
Although most of the descendants of the town’s first inhabitants have moved on, Teng said she’s optimistic about Locke’s future, and that people will continue to preserve it’s history.
“In a way, so many people own Locke,” she said. “And I think as long as Clarence is holding on to the land, it will evolve.”
LOCKE CENTENNIAL EVENTS
- “The Legacy Lives On” Locke 100th Anniversary Celebration May 9, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Traditional Asian cultural performances, 13916 Main St., Walnut Grove, CA 95690. Lecture by Lawrence Tom, author of “Locke and the Sacramento Delta Chinatowns” Life in the Delta photo exhibit at the Locke Boarding House Museum
- Angel Island Exhibit, April 25 to July 31, 13947 Main St., Walnut Grove, CA 95690. Gateway to Gold Mountain, an exhibit on loan from the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, features former residents of Locke who were detained on the island
- Locke Centennial Dinner, Oct. 24. A reunion dinner for Delta residents and the public. Location to be determined. Tickets $35 to $40.
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