The Last Chinatown : Forty years ago, there were four booming Chinese settlements in the Sacramento River Delta; now there is just one----Locke.

Times Staff Writer

Sitting on a dresser in a cold, solitary room are a few aging photographs, the last mementos of Chang Bo, a 92-year-old retired farm worker and one of the few remaining Chinese residents in the historic town of Locke.

“This is me,” he said touching a photo of a young man, who like thousands of others left China around the turn of the century to work on the farms of the Sacramento River Delta.

Chang is the oldest resident of Locke, a ramshackle community that is the last of the delta’s once-booming Chinatowns.

“All the old ones have died and all the young ones have gone to Sacramento or San Francisco,” he said in a slow, hoarse voice. “No one is staying anymore.”


Locke is fading away and taking with it the last traces of the days when Chinese workers filled the delta.

But for a brief time on Nov. 12, memories of the town came flooding back as hundreds of people who once lived here gathered for a reunion--their first ever.

They came from throughout the state for a banquet and hours of talk about the days when Locke’s Main Street bustled with the sound of children playing kick-the-can or the sight of Chinese farm workers shouting in the gambling halls.

“It was just like going back 40 years,” said Harry Sen, who grew up in Locke during the 1930s and 1940s. “It was a real good feeling to see all these people again.”


Attended by 260

The reunion was organized by a group of former residents who sent invitations to all the friends and relatives they could find. Marie Fong, one of the organizers, said she thought maybe a hundred would show up; she was flabbergasted when 260 sent in their checks for $25.

The Locke they remember was a town of neat, whitewashed buildings, where every home was occupied and the only language spoken was the Chungsan dialect of Cantonese.

The town, about 30 miles south of Sacramento, has only 61 residents today and only 30 of those are Chinese, most of them elderly.

“You just can’t compare it with before,” said Chester King of Sacramento, 72, the first person born in Locke. “Everything was so nice and clean. Now it’s a slum, I hate to say that, but it’s true.”

Most of the people at the reunion grew up during the heyday of Locke in the years before World War II.

There were 300 residents then, although the population would swell to more than 1,000 on weekends when Chinese farm workers came to gamble or see friends.

Before Locke was built, there were four Chinatowns in the delta along the Sacramento River, starting with Courtland upstream and then Walnut Grove, Isleton and Rio Vista.


Built Levees

“From Freeport to the Rio Vista Bridge, it was all Chinese,” said Ping Lee, who was born in Locke in 1917 and still lives here. “They were the ones who put in all the pear orchards and built the levees.”

The biggest Chinatown was in Walnut Grove, which was packed with gambling halls, restaurants, rooming houses and speak-easies. But its Chinatown was destroyed by fire in 1915.

A group of Chinese followed three men--Lee Bing, Chan Tin-sen and Owyang Wing-chong--to a site three-quarters of a mile upstream and started their own town.

Because they were not U.S. citizens, they were forbidden to own land by state law, but a local rancher named George Locke allowed the group to rent property on the southwest corner of his ranch.

They named the town Lockeport, which was eventually shortened to Locke. The Chinese residents, who all came from Chungsan county in Canton Province, called it “lock gee,” or “happy abode.”

Like many old-timers, Ping Lee’s fondest memories are of the town’s early years. “Every store had a bench in front and they were always full. You couldn’t find a place to sit,” said Lee, who was the son of Lee Bing.

Behind the town, they built a basketball court and a baseball diamond for the children. Hundreds would turn out for basketball games between the Locke Chinese School and other Chinese schools in the area.


Former resident Effie Lai, 84, first visited the town with her parents soon after it was built and instantly fell in love with it. Although she was born in San Francisco and has lived in Los Angeles since 1942, she still calls it her hometown.

“We loved to go there because it was so different from San Francisco,” she said. “It was like a small village with trees and a river.”

At age 18 she married a man named Lai Foon who worked in the orchards for $1 a day. They moved to Locke in 1927.

‘Frontier Town’

“It was like a frontier town,” Lai said. “Everyone was Chinese and there was so much noise from the gambling places. You could hear them singing out the lottery numbers. They sang it so beautifully.”

At night, a watchman they called the “bok bok lo” would wander the streets banging on a wooden block to signal that all was well.

The town had five or six gambling halls, a few brothels and even an opium den, which curious children would tiptoe through to stare at the dazed customers sleeping in stacked beds.

Not all of the memories are warm, and many bear scars of the hard times.

Harry Sen, like everyone in his generation, went to a segregated school, the Walnut Grove Oriental School. Even as youngsters, they sensed that they were considered inferior to the whites who lived across the river, he said.

Many of their strongest memories are of the poverty that defined their childhoods. “It was such a poor, poor time,” said Luceen Wong, who left Locke in 1941. “We look back now with warm memories, but it was hard then.”

The saddest victims were the thousands of single men who came to this country hoping to work a few years and return to China as rich men. Many were stranded because of poverty or war in China during the 1930s and 1940s.

Chang Bo came to America at the age of 21 and worked all his life in the fields.

He never married, has few relatives and lives quietly, spending his days walking the streets or talking to the remaining old-timers.

“We made only 75 cents a day then. Where was I going to get the money?” Chang asked. “You have to have money to go back.”

For most of those who attended the reunion, their memories of the town stop at the end of World War II, when the returning servicemen took their families to San Francisco or Sacramento in search of jobs and education.

Gambling Halls Closed

In the 1950s, the gambling halls were closed by police. “When things were going down, it was the gambling that fed us,” Lee said. “Within a year, it was all gone.”

Lee, Chang and a few others stayed to run businesses, care for their parents or continue working in the orchards.

The generation that followed grew up in a dying town where few stayed if they could help it.

Many of those who left occasionally return to visit friends or relatives, but as more leave, there is less reason to return.

Some choose not to return.

Kai Wong, 31, came to Locke in 1969 to live with his father, who had left his family in Hong Kong while he worked in the United States.

Wong said his best friends are the ones he grew up with in Locke. But he has many bad memories of the poverty, the chilling winters and the gawking stares of tourists who would flood into town on weekends.

‘Lot of Abuse’

“The tourists would stare at you and say stupid things. We took a lot of abuse,” he said in an interview at his home in Sacramento. “I just didn’t like it that much.”

When his father died this year, he sold the family house. Since then, he has not gone back to visit, even though he lives 20 minutes away.

Despite the loss of people and the steady decay of the town’s 48 wood buildings, Locke has stubbornly refused to die.

Just last month, it survived the biggest fire in its history, a two-alarm blaze that destroyed about a third of the huge boat house that sits across River Road. The fire tossed orange embers over parts of town but there was no damage to homes.

The town has also survived the sale in 1977 of the 500-acre Locke Ranch to a Hong Kong developer named Ng Tor-tai. Some thought he would destroy the town by turning it into a Chinese Disneyland, but after 11 years, the county has approved the construction of just 72 homes on a parcel about half a mile north of Locke.

Locke’s greatest enemy has been time, and in the last year alone five old-timers have died.

But 14 months ago, Carol Hall, 33, who lives with her mother off Main Street, gave birth to Lanette Carol Hall--only the third child born to a Chinese family in Locke in the last 25 years.

Like others, Hall said she wants to leave, but she also wants her child to remember this fading town by the Sacramento River.

As Lanette scampered across the floor, Hall opened a wicker case and carefully took out a stack of newspaper clippings about Locke that she has saved over the years.

“This is for Lanette,” she said, as she placed the clippings in the case again and closed the lid.