Posted by: acooksca | 07/14/2009

Stories from the Last Rural Chinese Town in America

Along the Sacramento River Delta lies a unique and silent treasure. It appears to be a Hollywood set depicting the

Locke, Main Street

Locke, Main Street

Old West. Ramshackle wooden buildings in various states of disrepair lean toward a narrow Main Street. But the town of Locke is authentic, unvarnished and stands essentially as it did in 1920. Just 25 miles down River Road from Sacramento, it is a remnant of a rural Chinese culture that stretched the length of the West Coast. The National Register of Historic Places commemorates Locke’s survival as the last rural Chinese town, built by and for Chinese, in America.

Locke arose from the ashes of a fire that destroyed nearby Walnut Grove’s Chinatown in 1915. Fires were a frequent threat and a group of Chinese merchants felt they would be safer in a town of their own. Chinese were not allowed to own land (a 1913 California law that was declared unconstitutional in 1952). So they came to an agreement with an old Delta family named Locke to lease a parcel of land several miles up river from Walnut Grove.
During its heyday in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Locke claimed a permanent population of 600, and a seasonal farm labor pool of a thousand more. These were mostly men who immigrated from China in the 1920s and 1930s. They were recruited by sharecropping bosses to work fields, orchards and canneries from Alaska to Monterey.

By the 1930s Locke had four restaurants, half a dozen markets, dry goods stores, Chinese language school, post office, shipping wharves, flour mill, cannery, slaughterhouse and an opera. It was a wide-open town during Prohibition with speakeasies, five gambling houses and five whorehouses (run by whites and staffed by white women). White visitors also frequented the one Italian saloon and restaurant, Al’s Place (opened in 1934 and still open today as Al the Wops).

By the 1960s mechanization in the fields had made most farm laborers in the Delta obsolete. The young assimilated into cities and suburbs, leaving Locke to its elderly, many of whom were born in China. Life in Locke grew quiet, orderly and simple. The women worked gardens at the edge of town. The men worked the pear orchards where pruning was still needed or fished the dark river waters at the front and back of the town.

During the late 1970s Locke became the target of developers with ambitions of building condominiums, a yacht harbor and a Chinese theme park. One Hong Kong company purchased the land the town sits on and surrounding acreage but their plans were halted when the county passed new zoning laws. Locke would have ceased to be a Chinese community and become a museum of one instead. 

The uniqueness of Locke lies not only in the genuineness of its narrow streets but in the stories of its Chinese residents. By 1980 James Motlow, a young photographer from Sacramento, began collecting stories from residents who had spent most of their lives in Locke. Of the 80 people living in Locke the Chinese American population had dwindled to about 10.

Personal Histories

Wong Yow arrived in California from Southern China in 1921. Joining his father here, they shared a $5 a month boarding house room in Locke, when not in a work camp. Working 10 to 12 hours a day at $1 a day he was able to save enough money to return to China to get married in 1935. The 1922 Immigration Act, meant to discourage the raising of Chinese families in America, enabled only 60 Chinese women a year to enter the United States. His wife and their son joined him in Locke 1968.

Suen Hoon Sum was a gentle, educated man who expected to achieve more when he arrived in California in 1924 at the age of 28. Year after year passed as he followed the farm work – there was always plenty across Northern California. There were pear and cherry orchards in the Delta. Auburn had plums and nectarines. Locke had a packing house for asparagus in the spring and a cannery for tomatoes in the summer. San Jose, Santa Clara, Fresno… the Chinese, Filipino and Japanese laborers followed the crops.
They lived at the fields for 6 days a week and on Sunday the Chinese would return to Locke to a shared rented room. The town swelled by hundreds on the weekends with laborers and with visitors from San Francisco in for the gambling houses. Main Street was so packed you couldn’t move through the crowds.

Like so many, there was a dream of saving enough money to buy fields or a shop in China and to marry. But Suen Hoon Sum felt he lacked enough money to prevent a life of hardship for a wife. During the Japanese invasion of China his family was killed, and he never returned.
With a life low on frugality and high on living-for-today, Bing Fai Chow was a fun loving man who enjoyed catching a ferry boat for a weekend of carousing in San Francisco. In his later years in the 1970s, his blue mustang convertible was a local trademark, speeding along the levees of the Delta to deliver workers to their jobs. He arrived in California in 1921 at the age of 10. His father sent Bing Fai Chow to join his older brother and Uncle, already working as laborers.

He came here thinking he could attend school but segregation kept Chinese children out of schools. By the time the Chinese school opened in Locke in 1926 he was already locked into working the farms and sending money back to China to his family. Before World War II Chinese would not be served in restaurants, bakeries or shops in nearby Isleton or Rio Vista. But Locke was a haven from discrimination – a working Chinese town with its own newspaper, opera, movie house and bars. Bing Fai Chow never married. He didn’t want the responsibility of feeding another person and he wanted the freedom to just jump in his car and go.

In the years that Locke was thriving, inexpensive fresh food was always plentiful. The river and sloughs had catfish, sturgeon, black and striped bass. Produce flowed through the packing houses and canneries. The women tended small gardens growing garlic and bok choy on common land behind the town. Pork, chicken and beef parts were cheap from slaughterhouse on the edge of town. Jone Ho Leong recalls the meat that other Americans wouldn’t eat such as heart, intestine and tripe were always available. Her children thought the pig’s feet she bought for 3 cents a pound were a treat.

Jone Ho Leong remembers a house full of visitors arriving at meal time one night. Her husband went to one of the many restaurants in Locke and returned with huge bowls of pork, onion and bamboo shoot Chop Suey for 30 cents a bowl. The pay she made in the packing house and cannery was low, but so was the cost of living. As long as you never left Locke, you managed a simple, peaceful life.

If you visit Locke today the authenticity of the place will astound you. Main Street is a cluster of neglected store fronts

Locke Museum of Gambling

Locke Museum of Gambling

 and refurbished buildings that house an art collective, the fascinating Dai Loy Museum of an original gambling hall, a Chinese imports shop, the old school, Locke Garden Chinese restaurant and Al the Wop’s saloon and restaurant. The modest Locke Foundation seeks to preserve the town and runs a visitors center in the old Locke Boarding House. It was closed the day we were there, so call ahead. And do stop in for a drink and a burger on grilled Italian bread at Al’s, an old time Delta joint and the only surviving business from Locke’s heyday.


Locke Foundation: 916-776-1828.
Al the Wop’s, 13936 Main St., Locke, CA 916-776-1800  call Al’s to see if they are open that day:,_California

Bitter Melon: The last rural Chinese town in America: Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow, 1987, Univ. of Washington, Dept. of Printing



  1. Bob and I were in Locke a few years ago. What a fascinating little town! It’s kind of a cheesy, but “Ghost Adventures” just did a show here, looking for ghosts in the gambling den! 🙂 Enjoying catching up on a few Cook’s articles this morning Karen! Great writing and travel lust inspiring as always.

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