Locke down

Can the Delta’s living history museum be saved?

For Connie King, a small, spry woman of 77 who looks 15 years younger, the town of Locke is filled with memories. This narrow stretch of ramshackle buildings hugging a Delta levee has been her home for more than 50 years, and she’s walked its narrow sidewalks so many times she knows where every crack is located. Each of its weathered clapboard buildings holds many stories for her.

But if Locke is filled with personal history for Connie King, it’s filled with just as much Western history for the rest of us. This little town along the Sacramento River just 35 miles from the state capital is a living artifact, the only original rural Chinese town still in existence in California.

There are only two streets in Locke. They run parallel to each other and are less than a quarter-mile long. Half the town’s structures, including all of its businesses, are on the main street, which is connected by alleys to the back street, where the homes are located. Most of the buildings on the main street are two stories high and have lodgings upstairs that are reached via wooden stairways in the back. Most also have balconies overlooking the street and shading the sidewalk below.

It’s not hard to imagine the town during its heyday, when the streets filled with people on summer evenings and folks sat on their balconies and porches and greeted their neighbors.

Today a number of the buildings are empty and boarded up, but many are still full of activity, serving as restaurants, gift shops or museums.

A visitor needs to watch his step while strolling through town. It would be easy to trip over the dogs sleeping in doorways and the many upheavals in the concrete where sidewalks have lost the fight with tree roots.

Cracking sidewalks, though, are the least of Locke’s problems. The town’s sewer system is failing. Unless it’s fixed, all residents may be forced to leave, and Locke could become a ghost town vulnerable to transients, decay and, especially, fire.

A rural Chinatown

Today, Connie King is one of only few people of Chinese heritage left in Locke, which has somewhere between 80 and 90 residents. At one time, however, the town boasted a population of 600, all of them Chinese, and Chinese immigrants dominated farming in the Delta area.

“At the turn of the century there was nothing but Chinese farmers up and down the Delta,” says Ping Lee, the son of the founder of Locke. Ping Lee grew up in Locke but now lives in Walnut Grove. A slender man with glasses, he’s about the same age as Connie King.

In 1915, Ping Lee’s father, Lee Bing, elected to build the town of Locke after an accidental fire burned both the Chungshan and the Sze Yap sections of the Chinatown in the city of Walnut Grove. The two groups did not always get along, so instead of rebuilding together the Chungshan group decided to erect a new town. Led by Lee Bing, a committee of merchants formed and approached George Locke, a local rancher, asking permission to build on his land.

Renting land was the only possible course for Lee and his committee, since by law California Chinese could not own land. Ironically, the California Alien Land Law, which voters had approved in 1913, had not been aimed at the Chinese, but rather at Japanese who began immigrating to California in increasing numbers at the turn of the century.

At the time, says Joseph Pitti, a professor of California history at California State University Sacramento, “The people of California had a sense that the only way white people could compete against the Japanese, who worked hard and long hours, was to take the land away from them.”

Although the Chinese also worked long hours and for low wages, as a group they never owned large amounts of land. The California Alien Land Law applied to them, however, simply because it forbade non-citizens from owning land, and Chinese could not become U.S. citizens. Original U.S. naturalization laws were still in place that allowed citizenship only to free white persons and, after the Civil War, African Americans. The California Alien Land Law was not declared unconstitutional until 1952.

Such restrictive laws did not deter the Chinese, or the Japanese for that matter, for long. The Locke residents got around the legislation by becoming sharecroppers and renting the land to build the town, which they started doing in 1915 by adding to the town’s existing three structures. By 1920, Locke’s construction was complete, with a total of 50 buildings (all of which stand today). The town’s floating population could exceed 1,000 people.

From its beginning, Locke became a center of Chinese activity, attracting laborers from around the Delta area to its many venues of entertainment. For example, in the 1940s the Star Theater showed Chinese plays and live operas.

A popular draw from the town’s beginning was Lee Bing’s Dai-Loy Gambling House, where Chinese farmers could play fan-tan or numerous other popular Chinese gambling games.

The gambling house’s principal role wasn’t as a business, however. “One slot machine in Lake Tahoe would probably take in more money than [the gambling house] in a whole year,” explains Ping Lee. “You mustn’t think of it as a gambling house; think of it as a social hall, someplace to pass the time.”

Patrons who enjoyed “jam sessions” on various instruments in the back rooms often filled the gambling house with lively music, and all patrons appreciated the complimentary hot tea. Lonely immigrants also visited the gambling house hoping to find a letter from home in the makeshift post office box hung on one of the walls. And for those who needed a job, the gambling house was the place to find out about available work.

The Dai-Loy Gambling House remained in operation from 1916 to 1950, when the government closed the establishment.

Women and children weren’t allowed in the gambling house, however. And, by the mid 1920s, Locke had its fair share of women and an abundance of children. In 1949, when Connie King married her husband, a Locke native, and moved to the town, “There were a lot of people here. Most of the families had anywhere from four to 12 children, [and] they all went to Chinese school.”

"[Chinese parents] didn’t have [education]; that’s why they worked in the fields. They strongly believed that education was the main thing,” states Ping Lee. “As a result, we don’t have anybody out working in the fields today. They’re all doctors, dentists, senators, judges, you name it.”

After finishing regular school at a segregated American school, Locke’s children spent three hours, from 5-8 p.m., at the Joe Shoong Chinese School. They also attended on Saturday mornings. Chinese instructors versed the children in Chinese language and culture.

Playtime for Locke children was limited to Saturday afternoons, when the young boys would play basketball until dark. However, once children got older, they were needed for picking pears and helping with the harvest. “It was hard times, but still it was a part of growing up. It taught us a lot of character,” states Ping Lee.

The Chinese school closed in the 1970s, when the number of Chinese children in Locke became too small to support it.

Like all towns, Locke had its share of especially memorable characters and roles. One was the town crier, an elderly gentleman who patrolled the streets each night, checking for fire, always a threat in the all-wood town. Every half-hour, he would beat upon his bok-bok, which made a hollow sound letting residents know that all was well. Perhaps because of him, Locke is the only California Asian community that has survived without a major fire.

Another important character from Locke’s history is Al Adami, who bought Lee Bing’s Chinese restaurant in 1934. Adami had a reputation for surprising his patrons by cutting off neckties, throwing money to the ceiling and stirring ladies’ drinks with his fingers.

Today, visitors to Locke can spend time at Al’s Place, which is now a bar, in addition to a number of other historic main street buildings. Locke’s first building, a saloon built in 1912, is presently the Locke Garden Chinese Restaurant. The River Road Art Gallery, where Connie King works one day a week, originally was a dry goods store in 1916 and later a grocery store and ice cream parlor. It now sells fine arts, crafts and jewelry.

Clarence Chu, the general manager of Locke, bought and restored the Joe Shoong Chinese School and a number of other main street buildings so visitors can get a glimpse of what life was like when the town was full of Chinese activity. The Dai-Loy Gambling House is now a museum displaying the tables and games patrons used, in addition to Chinese artifacts and photographs from the local Delta area. In recent years the town has become a tourist destination for people from Sacramento and the Bay Area interested in seeing this authentic piece of California history.

The sewer solution

History is why the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency recognizes the importance of saving Locke. “We need to make critical improvements to Locke’s infrastructure before this wonderful community is lost,” says Anne Moore, the agency’s executive director.

Recently, the SHRA signed an agreement with Locke Property Development Inc., owners of the 10-acre parcel on which the town sits, giving the SHRA temporary custody of the land while the housing agency looks for new owners. In the meantime, the SHRA wants to fix the town’s failing sewer system, at an estimated cost of $1 million.

The SHRA is discussing a variety of options for future ownership of Locke, including ownership by a non-profit agency. The agency says its objective is to find a solution that preserves the historical and cultural integrity of the town.

Connie King had many opportunities to leave Locke, but the thought never crossed her mind. "If I didn’t care for this town, I wouldn’t have been here this long. After my husband passed away, my kids wanted me to move out, and I said ‘no.' I want to stay here as long as I can, as long as I am healthy. I have my work here. I keep myself busy here. I have my garden, and I help out in the gallery and I have friends."