Locke community works to keep its Chinese roots a part of California history

Local News

LOCKE, Calif. (KTXL) — California’s path from a territorial backwater to the country’s most prosperous state is forever tied to the contributions of Chinese immigrants to a fledgling economy.

The Delta community of Locke is one of the few parts of that chapter in history that remains standing. 

Segregated Chinatowns were common in dozens of California towns since the days of Chinese 49ers and railroad workers but 30 miles south of Sacramento on the Sacramento River lies the only community in the country built by Chinese for Chinese. 

“We call Locke Chinese Town, not Chinatown,” explained Douglas Hsia, the chair of Locke Management Association

A group of Chinese merchants leased the property in 1915 after a fire destroyed much of Walnut Grove’s Chinatown just down the road. 

Chinese laborers painstakingly built Delta levees in the late 1800s reclaiming thousands of acres of rich farmland. They stayed on to work the Pear Orchards and Asparagus fields. 

Locke once had a permanent population of around 600 residents. It had a post office, dozens of stores, restaurants a Chinese language school and church. 

The population doubled in size on the weekends attracting hundreds of bachelor Chinese workers from around the delta. 

The California State Parks-operated boarding house shows the spartan lifestyles of the bachelor workers in the Delta. Entertainment and social interaction were in high demand.

The star theater where Chinese opera was performed still stands as does one of the many gambling halls preserved by Locke’s historical foundation.

Buildings have been repurposed over the years.

“Every building in town has been used as a brothel, opium den or gambling parlor,” Hsia explained. 

The vices of the town somehow didn’t affect family life of the permanent residents. 

Corliss Lee spent her childhood in Locke.  She is the infant shown in this photo of the Chinese language school. Her grandparents and parents owned stores on the main street.   

“It was a very good place to grow up as a child,” Lee said. 

She says there was value in growing up in Locke.

“We didn’t have the racist problems. We didn’t experience that because was all Chinese” Lee explained. “We were able to grow up with a sense of self-confidence and self-worth, and was able to go college and graduate and have a career.”

But as generations of young moved on to better lives, Locke’s population dwindled. Few Chinese live there now, although it has a spattering of art galleries, restaurants and specialty shops.

While the town of Locke is steeped in history, there is an interest in keeping Locke a living working community, and its future may be tied to that effort.

The Locke Management Association is supporting the remaining businesses in town.

“When merchants prosper they will put money to outfit the buildings and people will come and learn about the heritage that the town carries,” Hsia said.

The historical foundation continues to seek grant money for badly needed repairs so it can remain a reminder of what Chinese laborers brought to the Delta.

“The Chinese don’t get enough credit for what they’ve done for the country and Locke is a symbol of that,” Lee said. 

While Locke is a national historic site, it is also a thriving, vibrant community that draws visitors year-round. 

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