Until passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Chinese immigrants were on their way to becoming one of the largest and most influential ethnic groups in the United States. Chinese settlements dotted America’s western landscape from Mexico to the Canadian border, with Chinese providing a workforce for the transcontinental railroad, the gold fields of California, and creation of some of the world’s most productive farm lands in the Great Central Valley. Those who remained in California after passage of the Exclusion Act and the anti-Chinese violence that followed found their horizons restricted by racial discrimination and intimidation. One place of refuge was the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which Chinese laborers helped create by building the levees that separated land from water with punishing, back-breaking labor. Afterwards they worked on the farms their labor had created and formed communities within the small river towns in the area.
In 1915, a group of immigrants from the Zhongshan area of southern China built their own town on rented land in the Delta, called Locke. The last town in America that was built and inhabited exclusively by Chinese, Locke provided all the services needed by a population of mostly male farm laborers. Main Street offered a wild vitality known far and wide, with five gambling halls and at least as many brothels, plus restaurants, markets, opium dens and boarding houses with rooms to rent for as little as $5 a month.
With vivid historical and contemporary photographs and poignant oral histories with the residents of Locke, BITTER MELON tells the largely forgotten story of the Chinese pioneers who came to California during the time of the Exclusion Act. In 2015 the town of Locke celebrates its 100th anniversary, a surprising testament to the stamina and perseverance of California’s Chinese pioneers.
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