Saving a Countryside Chinatown

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Ling Liu

Locke resident Connie King in front of her home. After 55 years in town, King finally gained ownership of the land under her home in 2004.

Connie King makes a point of walking at least 10,000 steps a day. That's about five miles — an impressive goal for the 84-year-old, especially in a town comprising only 10 acres. Eight years ago, Locke, California (population 80) had been on the brink of extinction. Bad plumbing and teetering, century-old shacks prompted the county to condemn the town, located 30 miles south of Sacramento.

But King wasn't about to let America's last rural Chinatown — a national historic landmark — fade into history. "You cannot condemn Locke," she told county supervisors. "This is the only Chinatown built by Chinese in America." While many other towns and cities had long hosted Chinese neighborhoods, Locke was unique for being the only town exclusively inhabited by Chinese.

In 1915, after a fire had wiped out a nearby Chinatown, 600 Chinese workers got permission from orchard owner George Locke to build and inhabit a new settlement. Some of these men were farm hands; others worked in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, building levees by hand for as little as a dollar a day.

Locke may have been exclusively Chinese, but the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — which blocked Chinese immigration for more than 60 years —meant that it shared the bachelor culture of other Chinatowns in the U.S. Still, although gambling dens and brothels flourished, residents ran an organized, tight-knit community. Because the wooden buildings were susceptible to fire, an elderly town crier patrolled the streets every night. At half-hour intervals, he rapped on a wooden block, assuring everyone that all was well. The Delta Chinese were also politically active in support of democracy back home, raising substantial funds to support the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen and the new Republic of China of which he became the first President in 1912.

King, the self-appointed "Locke Mom," moved to the town in 1949, and married a Locke native. She helped raise the couple's two children, worked as a midwife, and cared for elderly bachelors living out their final years in boarding houses. Although the California Supreme Court in 1952 struck down a law forbidding Asian immigrants from owning land, Locke had been built on private land, which was not for sale. As the town's elderly residents passed on, their children began to move to the cities and suburbs.

Starting in 2001, in response to King's tireless lobbying, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency spent four years and $1 million (from a Federal grant) on repairing the dilapidated sewers. The agency also mapped, surveyed, and purchased the 10-acre downtown area in order to subdivide the land and sell each lot to 51 individual owners. "I fought for 55 years to get land," says King, standing in front of her simple, well-manicured home.

Today, Locke's narrow, dirt paths, stray cats and precariously-leaning buildings conceal a secret: Locke's identity is changing. Today, only 12 of the 80 residents are Chinese, with whites and Latinos having gradually replaced the founding population. On weekends, most visitors are leather-clad bikers who stop in to grab a steak and beer at Al the Wop's, one of Locke's two restaurants.

Still, community leaders like Clarence Chu believe that the key to Locke's survival is the ability of its Chinese heritage to bring visitors and dollars to its Main Street — a narrow strip of historic buildings and art galleries. "I'm hoping that businesspeople will see the potential to make money," says Chu. At the Ning Hou gallery, a Shanghainese artist's abstract sculptures and impressionist paintings carry price tags as high as $50,000. Inside the Dai Loy gambling museum, exhibits show how punters used teacups and buttons for table games to disguise gambling paraphernalia from the police. Dealers also kept brass knuckles and lead pipes on hand in case of violence.

On October 13, Locke will erect an eight-foot-tall bronze monument to complete the Locke Community Park, a space dedicated to its Chinese pioneers. A new museum of local Chinese history will also open later this year. "I hope they will preserve the town," says King. "But nobody knows what will happen in the future."