Once described as the “Monte Carlo of the State,” the Delta town of Locke celebrates its 100th birthday Saturday as the oldest remaining Chinese village in North America.
The tiny town will host a daylong celebration that will include music, dancing and film.
Lacking, though, will be the activities that once made Locke a nighttime mecca. In the early 1900s, the town had five casinos and as many brothels, along with speakeasies and opium dens. Most ladies of the night were white, but the proprietors were Chinese, said town historian and museum curator Clarence Chu.
Now the only place you’ll find much evidence of Locke’s wide-open past is the Dai Loy Museum on Main Street, once owned by the town’s founder, Lee Bing. The former gambling house featured Keno, pai gow and fan tan, and attracted over 1,000 people each weekend, Chu said.
Today, Chu said, “It’s becoming a popular spot for Chinese tourists.”
By the 1940s, about 3,000 Chinese farmers and factory workers lived in and around Locke, which had its own church, a Chinese school originally financed by the Chinese Nationalist government of Sun Yat-sen, herb shops, fish markets, slaughterhouses and canneries. For entertainment, there was an opera house and the Star Theatre, which opened shortly after Locke’s founding and showed silent movies.
Locke was still home to 400 mostly Chinese residents in the 1950s. But as their American-born children left in search of better opportunities, the town seemed to to fade away, and was almost shut down in the 1980s when the sewer system began to collapse and the state ordered it vacated. It got a stay of execution in 1990 when it was declared a national historical landmark.
The town was down to five residents when Shanghai artist Ning Hou moved there from San Francisco in 1989. The self-described “Michael Jordan of painting” opened an art gallery on Main Street that anchored Locke’s cultural resurrection. Hou said he was enchanted by the brilliant light of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Locke’s rickety dwellings, funky Main Street and racy past.
“I thought it was a dump, but an interesting dump,” he said in 1999. “This is an unexplored, totally raw place, but then you find out it’s more beautiful than Paris.” His Delta-inspired paintings now sell for as much as $50,000, and several new businesses and galleries dot Main Street.
Locke has enjoyed a modest revival in recent years. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency paid to fix the sewers and restored the Bing Kong Tong building, a former school and gathering place. Locke’s multiethnic population has climbed back to 70 residents. They include longtime fixtures like Yin Kwan Chan, 91, whose father Soon Saer Choy, a day laborer from Zhongshan, was one of Locke’s original pioneers.
Chan lives on Key Street, connected to Main Street by a boardwalk, with her son Wayne and about eight cats. She still maintains a garden and grows her record-setting bitter melon. “They’re huge – one was 100 pounds!” she said.
Born in China in 1892, Chan’s father Soon came through Angel Island to Sacramento in search of Gan Shan – “Gold Mountain” – Chan said. “He came by big ship – there were no planes then – to find the gold,” Chan said. “When he realized there was no gold anymore, he went to work on a ranch in Courtland. He lived in a laborer’s shack in the migrant camp, and sent money back on a regular basis to take care of the family.”
Locke, then know as Lockeport, was established in 1915 by Chinese who had been uprooted when a fire ripped through the Chinatown downriver in Walnut Grove. Even though the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese laborers from immigrating, many used false papers to enter through Angel Island.
By 1919, The Sacramento Bee ran a front-page story under the headlines: “Gambling Running Free at Towns in the Delta Region” and “Lockeport Is Monte Carlo of the State, and Workingmen Daily Lose Their Savings to the Chinese.”
Chinese historian Alfred Lee said sheriffs, judges and politicians came “for girls and games – what happens in Locke stays in Locke.” Illicit activity persisted until Gov. Jerry Brown’s father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, was elected state attorney general in 1950 and set out to clean up California, Lee said.
Chan said her father was far more interested in books than making book. When she moved into her dad’s house on Locke’s Main Street, she said she was happy to find herself surrounded by dozens of families from her hometown. “I’ve stayed here ever since. I felt connected,” she said.
Chan said she worked in a cherry cannery in Lodi, a tomato cannery in Thornton and canned pears in the Delta, hitching pre-dawn rides. “We didn’t own a car until I was able to drive,” said her daughter Connie Chan Robison of Davis, who attended Chinese school and UC Davis before getting her master’s degree from the Public Health Institute in Oakland.
“I was one of the fortunate outcomes,” Robison said.
After giving a brief interview, Chan announced, “I’ve got some weeding to take care of,” and scurried outside to pick up her hoe.
Joyce Eng, who co-chairs Saturday’s 100th anniversary celebration, said Locke reflects the role that the Chinese played in California’s evolution. “Without us we wouldn’t have the railroad, the levees and the development of Delta farms,” Eng said.
Eng’s husband, longtime Sacramento Chinese activist Alex Eng, said that when he walks through the streets of Locke, “I feel the ghosts of the past. It’s like walking through a piece of history. You can almost hear the people greeting each other, the kids playing in the streets.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.
‘LEGACY LIVES ON’ CELEBRATION
WHEN: Noon to 4 p.m on Saturday
WHERE: Main Street, Locke
WHAT: Exhibits on Angel Island and the Flying Tiger pilots, including one from Locke. Classical Chinese music and dance. The “Chinese Builders of Gold Mountain,” a film.